Is it wrong to believe there should be a local,
free-range chicken in every Le Creuset pot?
-Jennifer Bleyer, “Hipsters on Food Stamps”
Last Monday, Salon published an article titled "Hipsters on Food Stamps" that claims:
Faced with lingering unemployment, 20- and 30-somethings with college degrees and foodie standards are shaking off old taboos about who should get government assistance and discovering that government benefits can indeed be used for just about anything edible, including wild-caught fish, organic asparagus and triple-crème cheese.
The author, Jennifer Bleyer, withholds explicit moral judgment. She doesn’t personally endorse the “special strain of ire” of the sort directed at a "self-described "30-something, unemployed, ex-fashionista, EBT armed, post-hipster,* downtown mom" from New York who advertised her now-password-protected blog about “trying to maintain the trappings of a materialistic, cosmopolitan life while using an Electronic Benefit Transfer card -- food stamps -- to feed her family” on Urbanbaby.com. However, Bleyer also doesn’t make any effort to distinguish between that supremely unflattering characterization (an unemployed mom on food stamps engaging in materialistic posturing) and any of the other “young people in their 20s purchasing organic food with food stamp cards” described in her article. She doesn’t even correct—actually, as the quote above demonstrates, she does much to reinforce—the common misconception that you have to be unemployed to get food stamps.
In fact, until an emergency extension went into effect last year as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) were only eligible for 3 months of food stamps per 36 month period if they weren’t employed. Federal employment requirements have been waived until September 2010, but many states still require ABAWDs to work a minimum of 20 hours per week or enroll in qualified work-training programs to qualify for food stamps. Even food stamp recipients with dependents, like the Urbanbaby.com poster, are more likely to be working than unemployed. Of course, you’d never know that from the article, especially in light of quotes like this one from Tufts University food economist Parke Wilde:
There are many 20-somethings from educated families who go through a period of unemployment and live very frugally, maybe even technically in poverty, who now qualify.
“Educated” here is almost certainly code for “wealthy” (who refers to families as educated?) and the “technically” suggests that their poverty is equivocal at best, and likely to be temporary. So the article implies that although they may not be making any money right now, these 20-somethings are clearly not the deserving downtrodden who ought to be the recipients of public assistance.
By framing this supposed trend as something belonging to “hipsters,” a demographic that has been subject to derision since it was first invented/identified (much like the equally-fuzzy "foodie” and “yuppie”), reinforcing popular stereotypes about them (their parents are rich, they live in trendy neighborhoods, they studied useless things like art in college, they’re into ethnic food, their friends are all fellow starving artists), and failing to offer any specifics about their employment situations, the cost of their average meals, or their total monthly expenditures on food, Bleyer invites exactly the same kind of sneering contempt that was elicited by the ex-fashionista mommy blogger. The entire thrust of the article is that this new group of food stamp recipients is made up of privileged, spoiled layabouts who think they’re too good for “government cheese” but will happily take government handouts they don’t really need to support a decadent, elitist lifestyle.
Bleyer does offer a theoretical defense:
Food stamp-using foodies might be applauded for demonstrating that one can, indeed, eat healthy and make delicious home-cooked meals on a tight budget.
And while they might be questioned for viewing premium ingredients as a necessity, it could also be argued that they're eating the best and most conscious way they know how. They are often cooking at home. They are using fresh ingredients. This is, after all, a generation steeped in Michael Pollan books, bountiful farmer's markets and a fetish for all things sustainable and handcrafted. Is it wrong to believe there should be a local, free-range chicken in every Le Creuset pot?
This starts off plausibly enough. Indeed, the people who left comments on the article defending “food stamp-using foodies” do applaud them for forgoing the junk food so often associated with the poor, a decision many of them suggest will help prevent them from becoming a drain on the health care system. But Bleyer sets up a bit of a straw man when she says they view “premium ingredients as a necessity.” The hipsters she interviews say they’re unwilling to subsist on ramen and government cheese, but none of them claim to see any of the “premium ingredients” she mentions as necessities. And her next claim, “it could also be argued that they're eating the best and most conscious way they know how,” is a considerably weaker defense than the first one. That’s basically the same as saying you shouldn’t criticize people who spend their food stamp allowance on hot dogs and Funyuns because that’s just what they like and maybe they don’t know any better.
By the time she asks, “Is it wrong to believe there should be a local, free-range chicken in every Le Creuset pot?” her theoretical defense is in full retreat. Her clever little play on the political slogan promising a minimum standard of prosperity for every American (often mis-attributed to Herbert Hoover) suggests that the “best and most conscious way they know how” is absurdly profligate. Even if you believe that the “local, free-range chicken” is healthier and/or more ethical than the factory-farmed alternative, the Le Creuset is indefensible. The quip implies that these hipsters aren’t really poor—the list price for even a small pot starts around $200—and are exploiting public welfare programs to pay for foods that, healthier or not, are priced out of reach for many, if not most, Americans.
Furthermore, like most of the “premium” foods she mentions in the article, including the wild-caught fish, organic asparagus, and triple-creme cheese that start off the story, local, free-range chicken isn’t something any of the three “hipsters” she interviews claim to have used food stamps to purchase. Most of the article’s damning evidence concerns their mere proximity to foods that sound exotic and/or expensive (separate ideas often unfairly conflated).
In the first paragraph, she describes the two Baltimore hipsters she talked to as they “sauntered through a small ethnic market stocked with Japanese eggplant, mint chutney and fresh turmeric.” Note that they don’t just shop; they saunter. And they saunter in the presence of Japanese eggplant! It turns out that food stamp recipients sauntering in the presence of expensive foods has become a nationwide scourge. According to cashiers in Minneapolis, Portland, and San Francisco, food stamp recipients have been sauntering through specialty and “natural foods” markets in increasing numbers:
In cities that are magnets for 20- and 30-something creatives and young professionals, the kinds of food markets that specialize in delectables like artisanal bread, heirloom tomatoes and grass-fed beef have seen significant upticks in food stamp payments among their typical shoppers.
The Baltimore hipsters do provide some limited anecdotal evidence of food stamp recipients actually buying things that at least sound expensive and/or delicious. Sarah Magida, the 30-year-old art school graduate she interviews who used to install museum exhibits until arts funding began to dry up, has used the food stamps she now qualifies for to purchase “fresh produce, raw honey and fresh-squeezed juices from markets near her house in the neighborhood of Hampden, and soy meat alternatives and gourmet ice cream from a Whole Foods a few miles away.” And Gerry Mak, a University of Chicago graduate with a part-time blogging job “fondly remember[s] a recent meal he'd prepared of roasted rabbit with butter, tarragon and sweet potatoes.” At the end of the article, her description of the dinner Magida and Mak prepare seems designed specifically to undermine Magida’s insistence that, “It feels like a necessity right now”:
Savory aromas wafted through the kitchen as a table was set with a heaping plate of Thai yellow curry with coconut milk and lemongrass, Chinese gourd sautéed in hot chile sauce and sweet clementine juice, all of it courtesy of government assistance.
Bleyer admits there are no statistics available to substantiate the increase in food stamp use by this demographic (and still doesn’t clarify who counts) and that according to food policy experts, the vast majority of the 38 million Americans who receive food stamps are the “traditional recipients: the working poor, the elderly, and single parents on welfare.” She also notes the dramatic increase in unemployment for people between the ages of 20-to-34—between 2006 and 2009, the rate increased 100% for the entire age group and 176% for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher—leading her to somewhat grudgingly admit that “young urbanites with a taste for ciabatta may legitimately be among the new poor,” but the article as a whole invites the reader to conclude that no one, least of all any damned “hipsters” should be entitled to satisfy their taste for ciabatta or enjoy “heaping plates” of Thai curry on the taxpayer’s dime.
Of course, criticism of how the poor eat is nothing new. In Sweetness and Power, historical anthropologist Sidney Mintz quotes the eighteenth-century British writer Arthur Young, who observed disapprovingly that the poor at an almshouse he visited spent any money they had on tea and sugar when “it would be better expended in something else” (p. 172). At the turn of the 20th Century, the leaders of the emerging home economics movement in the U.S. expressed great concern about the exotic (and, they thought unhealthy) foodways of un-assimilated immigrants. They were especially critical of immigrants' “excessive” consumption of coffee, alcohol, spicy, pungent and pickled foods, which they claimed would cause indigestion, stunted growth, excessive sexual appetites, impropriety, and disorderly behavior.
I know the pickles thing sounds especially crazy, but it’s for real. For example, Foods of the Foreign Born in Relation to Health, a 1922 book by dietician Bertha Wood of the Boston Dispensary and Food Clinic (where immigrant mothers were taught how to poach eggs and make frugal, nourishing porridges) has this to say about the excess use of pickles by American Jews:
The Jewish children suffer from too many pickles, too few vegetables, and too little milk.
In the Jewish sections of our large cities there are storekeepers whose only goods are pickles. They have cabbages pickled whole, shredded, or chopped and rolled in leaves; peppers pickled; also string beans, cucumbers, sour, half-sour, and salted; beets; and many kinds of meat and fish. This excessive use of pickled foods destroys the taste for milder flavors, causes irritation, and renders assimilation more difficult….
And according to Donna Gabaccia, the socialist writer John Spargo “compared children’s craving for “stimulants” (mainly pickles) to the craving for alcohol in adults who did not eat properly.”
Instead, the home economists advocated “simpler foods,” like creamed cod fish, baked beans, corn chowders, Indian corn pudding, and oatmeal porridge—or what Harvey Levenstein describes as “resolutely New England,” which, at the turn of the century, were increasingly being defined as authentically “American” in contrast to foreigners’ foods. This deliberately bland and frugal cuisine was promoted in public school cooking classes, women's colleges, instructional kitchens, home visits by charitable organizations, and the growing array of practical texts as a prescription for health, moral restraint, and social welfare.
It’s ironic, but revealing, that at the same time as home economists were using corn to Americanize immigrants, the food rations provided by the federal Indian Bureau specifically did not include corn. As Gabaccia says:
Even the peoples who had first cultivated corn in the Americas found themselves subject to campaigns for culinary Americanization….To prevent starvation, the federal Indian Bureau provided reservation food rations—and these typically did not include corn. Iron Teeth, and elderly Northern Cheyenne Woman, complained in 1916 that “I am given very little food. Each month our Indian policeman brings me one quart of green coffee, one quart of sugar, a few pounds of flour and a small quantity of baking powder.” While domestic scientists saw corn-eating as a way to Americanize new immigrants, they seemed eager to wean Native Americans off cornmeal, and onto white wheat flour and baking powder breads.
The heart of the problem seems to be the idea that the poor might get any pleasure from their food, which is bad enough when they’re paying for it themselves because clearly they ought to be spending it on longer, sturdier bootstraps with which to lift themselves out of poverty. But when it’s subsidized by the government, tasty food is cause for outrage. One of the people who commented on the article specifically argues that what she objects to is people using food stamps for “fun food”:
...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
Is it naive of me to wonder whether Soliel would think the Chinese gourd in the curry would count as “fun” or a vegetable? Perhaps, like corn, it would be context-dependent. In heaping bowls of Thai curry, it’s an exotic luxury. For the obese, uneducated, junk food-buying poor, the Chinese gourd is no fun—it’s the kind of nutritious vegetable they ought to be eating.
This is already longer than anticipated, so Part II will discuss some of the other responses to this article and a similar one on “gourmet” meals at soup kitchens and what this newest episode in the long history of criticizing the diets of the poor says about contemporary anxieties about food, pleasure, and social class.
*I’m fascinated by this self-description, because it implies that the “post” in “post-hipster” is different than the “ex-” in “ex-fashionista,” which may suggest that it’s something like the post- in “post-colonial” or “post-modern,” and less a chronological distinction than something that both acknowledges the influence of and marks a departure from the post-ed term. What would that even look like? What does she think she means by it?