To recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting.
It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less.
Patronizing the Poor but Fetishizing Peasant Foods
One common response to the anger elicited by last month’s Salon article about hipsters on food stamps is: *yawn* nothing new, seen it before, everyone loves to hate people on welfare, tell me something I don’t know. And that may be partially justified—I gestured to some of the historical precedents in the first entry, both in the title, which was a reference to the myth of the welfare queen famously promoted by Ronald Reagan, and in my discussion about the home economics movement. Progressive Era social reformers were really concerned about what new immigrants to America were eating and made (completely unfounded, obviously) connections between foods associated with immigrants, like pickles, and all the other stereotypes they had about them—their stunted growth, laziness, excessive attachments to their mothers, lack of self-control over their unruly sexual urges.
Those kinds of myths—the idea that pickles make you horny or that poor, black women have kids out of wedlock in order to game the system—gain traction in part because they appeal to existing prejudices about the poor and in part because they enable dominant social groups to project the things they are most afraid of being onto the poor, so they can distance themselves from them. It’s reassuring to a lot of people if laziness and sexual excess look like a black single mother on welfare instead of a white-collar worker who comes home and watches hours of television every night and might be unfaithful to his or her spouse (or desire to be). It’s much more convenient if “gaming the system” looks like a Black woman or Latina who lives in subsidized housing and uses 50 different social security numbers to collect thousands of dollars a month in welfare and drives a Cadillac, instead of like a corporate lobbyist who pushes for roll-backs of labor and environmental protections or like an executive who does all he can to cut workers’ salaries and benefits in order to maximize profits and shareholder dividends…and drives a Cadillac.
The history of stigmatizing the food of the poor is probably as old as social classes themselves, or least as old as capitalism and the emergence of the middle class(es) in the 18th C. The expansion of the middle class in that period is one reason a lot of scholars give for the proliferation of silly “grammar”** rules like not splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions at about that time. The middle classes have always had a lot to gain by making very clear distinctions between their way of speaking, dressing, and eating—which is always the "right” way—and the culture of the poor—which is not just different, but “wrong.”
However, there’s also a long history of romanticizing the poor and glorifying how frugal, resourceful, or admirably un-fettered by material needs they are. This seems especially true in terms of food—as suspicious and critical as many home economists were of immigrant foodways, they also looked to them for inspiration in developing cost-efficient and palatable meals and idealized their thrift. Bertha Wood, in the same book that criticized the “overstimulation” caused by Eastern Europeans’ taste for pickles, had far kinder things to say about Mexican food:
When not too highly seasoned, Mexican dishes are very tasty…. Only lack of variety and the use of hot flavors keep their food from being superior to that of most Americans.
In the 1980s, romanticization of the poor took the form of a widespread fetishization of “peasant” foods, especially in the growing world of California-inspired haute cuisine. The peasant food craze seems to have roots in the 1960s/1970s countercuisine and the hippie rebellion against the food industry. But the food of the international proletariat didn’t appeal to the Patrick Batemans of the world because they were a way to eat in solidarity with the oppressed classes in the global south. Instead, for the yuppies who adopted them, I think they were a way to mitigate the stain of elitism or food snobbery. “Peasant” foods are authentic, not pretentious. Their presence on the menu implies that that the gourmet aesthetic is based on some sort of objective standards of deliciousness, not subjective and arbitrary ideas about sophistication.
Peasant foods helped create the illusion of a culinary meritocracy—any kind of food can be “gourmet” if it tastes good enough. Of course, it’s not a meritocracy. The foods associated with the American poor, like Velveeta and Doritos, are totally ineligible, even though both would be probably be considered works of culinary genius if they were created by Wylie Dufresne or Grant Achatz. But the appearance of culinary democracy belies the arbitrariness of food aesthetics and the cultural hierarchies they reflect and reinforce.
To get back to the probably-apocryphal trend of “hipsters” living large on food stamps, I think that the differences in the way stigmas and stereotypes about the poor manifest in different historical periods matter as much or more than the commonalities. What strikes me most about the responses to the Salon article is not so much the occasional virulence—although that is often startling—but rather the division between the first two of the four camps I described in the second entry:
1. Outraged sheeple—a lot of people were completely sold on the veracity of the trend and responded exactly the way the article primes them to, i.e. how dare people who receive food stamps shop at Whole Foods, purchase gourmet or exotic ingredients, or ever buy anything more expensive or pleasurable than the bare minimum required to ensure their survival. This camp is split between people who object only to food stamps being spent on non-“essential” foods and people who apparently believe that people receiving public assistance should not be able to purchase anything that might be construed as a “luxury,” even with their own money.
2. Better than Doritos—another group of people who believed the story thought it was a good thing, at least as long the food they’re eating is healthier. This was frequently accompanied by the suggestion that eating “better” food would prevent them from getting fat and becoming a drain on the health care system. Virtually no one defended the purchase of “premium” foods on the grounds that they might be more pleasurable than whatever kind of gruel or cabbage soup might be the cheapest way to fulfill your nutritional needs.
I think these warring camps represent two of the most pressing middle-class anxieties about food right now: the obvious one is the fear of fatness and all the guilt and shame attached to eating or desiring anything seen as “fattening,” like “junk” food, but the less obvious one that the first camp seems to reveal is an anxiety about food snobbery or perhaps overconsumption more broadly. In other words, perhaps part of the reason so many commenters were so quick to try to dictate thrift and asceticism to the poor is because they feel guilty about their own “splurges” and aren’t sure that spending more money on organic or gourmet food is wholly justifiable. That may even be one of the reasons many readers bought Salon’s paper-thin story, assumed it was a real phenomenon, and even made their own unfounded assumptions about what kinds of things foodies on food stamps might buy. Just like the specter of obese poor people buying frozen pizzas and soda with their food stamps is a useful whipping boy for fat shame, the “hipsters” on food stamps with their heaping bowls of curried squash drew attention because they’re the ideal target for foodie shame.
My issue comes with shopping at Whole Foods which is much more expensive then Safeway or buying wild salmon which is $26.00/pound. Sardines have just as many health benefits as salmon at a fraction of the cost. Fresh herbs are $1.99 – $2.99 a pack but can be grown in a kitchen garden for next to nothing. Mint chutney is expensive, especially at ethnic stores.If a single person qualifies and can shop in this fashion every day then 1) he or she is receiving too much money or 2) they run out of money mid-month and are getting money from somewhere else (mommy and daddy) and should not qualify to begin with.—pjamma
First, a brief reminder that the “hipsters” in the story merely sauntered in proximity to chutney—none of them bought any of it, as far as we know. But even if they had—sure, it’s more expensive per oz than ketchup or salad dressing but it’s comparable to flavored cream cheese and probably used more sparingly and moreover, who is anyone else to dictate what condiments food stamp recipients buy? It is beyond ridiculous to presume that every single purchase someone makes on food stamps should be optimally cost-efficient. Sardines are, indeed, cheap and by most measures, healthy. They’re probably even sustainable. But does that mean people on food stamps should have to eat them to the exclusion of the occasional piece of wild salmon (again, not that there’s any evidence of a mass trend of salmon-buying on food stamps in the first place)?
Yes, according to many of the people who commented on the article:
This makes me sick. I have no problem with people who need help, but spending tax payers money on food like wild caught salmon is ridicules.—michele32
I can not justify buying organic/high end food with food stamps!I love sushi, but I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if it was bought with food stamps. If you feel the need to do so, buy it on your own dime. And while you’re at it, instead of asking the government to assist your educated palate, maybe you should be asking Mom & Dad. Obviously they gave you the taste of the good life to begin with, which you feel you are entitled to. So this is where my husband’s tax dollars are going, so you can enjoy organic vegetables??? I find this appalling.—KathyI
We live on ramen noodles, and spagetti, and things that are inexpensive. It makes me sick that hipsters would brag about buying gormet foods while living on assistance. If we cut off people who abuse the programs or cheat the programs, or spend their assistance on things not related to living expenses then maybe they honest people who really need the help can get it.—samjean
It must be nice for the government to feed these people steak,or chicken and rice. When I make less than 20,000 a year and turned down for food stamp’s more that 5 times in the last 3 year’s "I make too much to get food stamp’s" ,but these people are living high on the hog so to speak on food stamp’s this makes me mad—splweapons
Food stamps are supposed to help needy families provide basic nutrition for their families. Why should our hard earn tax dollars be paying for someone to live high on the hog? How often do we walk into a grocery store, it’s snowing and 30 degrees, and see a woman walking around in nice clothes, big jacket with a cart full of stuff, very little food, and children wearing inappropriate clothes, or shoes? I see it more often than I’d like to. Then we get to the check out and they’re standing at the register paying for the food items with food stamps and then pulling out a wad of cash to buy their “stuff”. Kids are crying, "Mommy, I want this, I want that!" And she tells them, "Shut up, we don’t have the money." Then out in the parking lot, I see her put her children into an Escalade.–crebrew
The Cadillac reappears! But the best example was the one I quoted in the first article:
ONLY BASIC foods should be OK for food stamps.
No chips, no cakes, no artisinal breads, nothing fancy.
It’s not fair for those of us who are not on food stamps have to to pay for the largess of those who are.
There are millions of non food stamp people buying beans and rice to save money while food stamp folks can buy fun food?
No, that isn’t right.
If I could wave a magic wand…I would say ONLY basic vegetables, fruits, beans and grains are OK for foods stamps. Not much else. –Soliel
Sorry to be repetitive with the quotes, but I’m afraid I sort of let this speak for itself. In light of at least one of the comments I got on the first post, I realized that maybe it doesn’t. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough about the fact that there are already pretty strict guidelines about who can receive foodstamps, what kinds of foods they can purchase, and how much assistance they receive. The amount is based on the “Thrifty Food Plan,” a low-cost but nutritionally adequate diet established by USDA. No one gets more benefits in order to purchase wild salmon or the rabbit that one of the article’s subjects remembers fondly—which was probably a “splurge” meal that stands out from all the meatless vegetable, bean and rice concoctions they usually get by on. Food stamps don’t pay for “largess” or “living high on the hog.”
I suspect that these people, so eager to add further restrictions to how food-stamp-qualified people allocate their relatively-meager benefits, are basically projecting anxieties about their own excesses.
Better Than Doritos
On the other side, there are plenty of people willing to endorse even wild salmon, as long as it means this group of poverty-stricken people might not get fat.
With rising obesity epidemics and other diet-related health issues so prevalent in our culture, why would we want these folks to spend their meager allotment on highly processed foods laden with fats and high fructose corn syrup instead of organic carrots, salmon, and other healthy items?—terribletink
I have absolutely no problem with this. Its about time that food stamps were used for real food. Its about time that people really learn how to cook how to cook food as opposed to buying canned food and chips. Its the best way to stretch a buck. It also take’s away from the profits of the like’s of Nabisco, Nestle and all of those other corporations who don’t care and produce corn and other products. I’m totally fine with this.—tweeders1
Oh no! Not corn! I think we have Michael Pollan to thank for that. But wait, there’s more:
I am, as a 58 year-old public school teacher (living on teacher retirement–boo!), more offended to see people, especially parents of young children, use their "food stamps" to buy high-carb, high fat, cheaper foods for the kids and spending their cash on cartons of cigarettes and six-packs of beer. Cheers to someone who can make a good diet from the money for which the government says they are "qualified"!—gkcook
They are buying in the store rather than McDonalds and they are getting something healthy and cooking it well. So exactly why are they being potrayed here as a source of anger? Should people suffer and eat junk food that makes them diebetic (which those working for would have to pay for) instead of buying something healthy at the store and cooking it?—aburkett
One commenter even suggested that the “hipsters” be allowed to continue their extravagant ways, but only as long as they teach other “traditional food stamp recipients” how to cook:
Perhaps a solution that could make more people happy would be requiring them to take more traditional recipients shopping, and to teach them to use ingredients with which they may not be familiar to cook simple, flavorful, nutritious meals. They might even see teh benefit of public service. –SalliganeG
What a convenient solution–reform both of them at once! Make the abominable hipsters useful by forcing them to teach real poor people how to eat, and at the same time, rescue the poor from the dreaded Velveeta cocoon*** by teaching them about how accessible and virtuous rice and beans are. SalliganeG conveniently encapsulates everything I find objectionable about both camps—they’re equally patronizing to people who buy "real” food on food stamps and people who buy Velveeta and seek to prescribe one “correct” way of eating for everyone.
Even if the commenters follow their own prescriptions (which I doubt), who are they to tell anyone else how to eat? And no, “taxpayers” doesn’t cut it. The taxpayers’ representatives have already codified restrictions that correspond with contemporary cultural norms—as noted, the benefit cap is based on a food plan that couldn’t possibly include many or frequent excesses, and there’s a firm ban on things like alcohol, tobacco, and hot foods. You could probably add caviar and fois gras to the list of banned foods without affecting 99.9% of food stamp recipients, but if the remaining .1% wants to eat cabbage soup for most of the month to save up for one luxurious meal, does anyone really benefit from stopping them?
The Slate Big Money article that was critical of the Salon article also lays out the narrow middle ground that food stamp recipients are expected to walk:
Whether they are unemployed single mothers or young singles with pink Chuck Taylors and experimental facial hair, the best thing food-stamp recipients can do to both avoid criticism and live more healthfully is to avoid both the gourmet mint chutney and the Funyuns. And it helps to wait until you’re back on your feet before you shop at Whole Foods. You can get plenty of inexpensive, healthful foods at your Safeway (SWY) or Kroger (KR).
This also neatly encapsulates both the guilt about “junk” foods people know they “ought” to avoid and the conflicted relationship to costly premium foods that people tell themselves are nutritionally or culinarily superior to justify the expense, but probably purchase largely because of the aesthetic and ethical hierarchy that has way more to do with social class than nutrition or taste. Mint chutney and wild salmon are today’s un-split infinitives. Funyuns are the terminal prepositions. And the warring camps reflect the central contradiction of cultural capital: style and taste only work to reinforce class distinctions if the markers of the middle-class are confined to the middle class; however, the hierarchy must be ideologically justified. It’s a problem for class distinction if poor people can afford salmon; it’s a problem for the taste ideology if they don’t want it.
And perhaps what’s even more distressing is that all the concern about how the poor eat, or should eat, or who should determine how or if they get to eat ultimately distracts from the issues that cause people to apply for food stamps in the first place. And no, I don’t mean majoring in the humanities. As can only be expected in a nearly-500 comment thread, someone else has already said it better:
The real problem is that even people who have jobs often make so little money that they qualify for supplemental nutritional assistance. Working at places like Walmart does not pay enough to rent a place and pay utilities. Many of the Walmart employees are on foodstamps as a result. You are paying into the welfare system to help walmart continue to pay and treat employees badly. Instead Walmart should be required to pay a living wage. Instead of complaining about people on foodstamps….ask why you are being required to rescue and subsidize greedy corporations.—Francisco369
Amen, Francisco369. That concludes my ranting on the Salon article, meaning maybe I can get back to ranting about Food, Inc. sometime next week.
*I know, it’s terrible. I was compelled by forces greater than my shame.
**Not what linguists would call “grammar.” However, that’s what the people who codified some of the new prescriptive usage rules in the 18th C. called it—e.g., Robert Lowth’s 1762 book A Short Introduction to English Grammar. That lives on in the way teachers refer to usage and style lessons and how many people think about prevailing usage conventions. Some of my facebook friends have recently joined a group called “THEY’RE going THERE with THEIR friends. It’s called grammar, use it.” And I’m just waiting for someone else to start a group called something like “Its not a grammatical mistake; its a usage error. Learn the difference, you hypocrite.” [Okay, just because if anyone points out the “error,” I may actually cry, yes, I know that it should be “it’s” in both instances instead of “its"…that’s the joke, folks.]
***Gael Greene’s phrase, not mine