This is my response to a letter to the editor we ran in last week's paper. My goal in writing this response is not necessarily to change any particular person's mind about the project. However, it is very important to me that folks understand my intentions, whether or not they agree with my approach. Passages in bold are from the letter.
"Suzanne Podhaizer's experiment in buying organic/local/natural foods with the money allotted to food-stamp recipients seems patronizing, disingenuous and naive..."
Naive I can understand. At the end of the week, I found I'd been unable to meet my caloric needs on the diet I came up with. I was also exhausted and hungry. This would have been doubly true if I had a teenage son who eats like my teenage brother, and so on. People who get food assistance are in such varied situations that no project could ever capture all of the complexities. I tried to do my best to raise some questions. This is the reason I framed it as a project and not a prescription.
Disingenuous, no. There was nothing insincere or hypocritical about my intentions. I blithely recommend local and organic foods as solutions to numerous social ills (petroleum usage, illnesses caused by the spraying of pesticides, cruelty to animals on factory farms), but I've never tried to purchase said foods on such a small budget. The natural/local/organic "food stamp diet" was conceived of as an experiment -- to see if I could make the choices I deem so important if my circumstances were different. There are folks on food stamps that attempt to keep kosher, buy halal foods or practice vegetarianism or veganism. Can they meet their caloric needs while still meeting their moral obligations? If not, what needs to change? Also, the prices of many processed foods don't reflect their true cost (to human health, to the environment) in part because of government subsidies and economies of scale. If those are the calorie-dense foods that prevent people from being hungry on the budget provided to them by the government, we have massive systemic problems. Should folks on food stamps have the option of buying fresh, pesticide-free produce and animals that weren't raised in squalid conditions? If so, what needs to happen to make that possible? Getting an EBT card reader at Farmers' Market might be a good start, more subsidized CSA shares throughout the state would be another, a greater number of free cooking classes would be a third.
Patronizing. I didn't intend it that way. If I'd tried to purchase duck or truffle oil, I believe that would have been patronizing. This wasn't about choosing fancy food, it was about choosing food that is nutritious and doesn't have such a high cost to other humans or the environment. I was eating couscous, beans and brown rice, foods that are staples in much of the world. Since I can't accurately emulate anybody else's situation, I lived as I would try to if my financial situation changed. I certainly found a bunch of ways in which I would need to compromise.
"Moreover, City Market, where she shopped, is exclusively and prohibitively pricey for many in Burlington."
As I mentioned in a response to another blog comment, I lived in Burlington for many years without a vehicle, so I know what it's like to only be able to shop at City Market or coordinate taking a bus to another grocery store. I generally walked home carrying my groceries, which necessitated almost daily trips to the store. As I also mentioned in that previous comment, for at least two and maybe three of those years, I would have qualified for Food Stamps, but I didn't know it at the time. I'm not sure if we're running it this week, but City Market sent us a chart that provides the prices of staple foods at City Market versus other grocery stores. Many are comparable. Not all are. If it doesn't end up in the paper, I'll put it up on the blog.
"She omits spices from her total cost, which is absurd. Pound for pound, they are among the most expensive grocery items..."
Throughout the week, I used approximately 10-20 cents worth of spices. The only ones I used were cinnamon, nutmeg, and pepper. Although spices are expensive per pound, a very small amount is needed to have an impact. I ate a pound of cabbage in one week. It would likely take me a decade to use a pound of spices. Had I done this project for a month, I would have been able to save on a few items, such as cheese, potatoes and carrots, by buying larger packages for less money. The leftover amount would have been enough to buy a month's worth of spices. Doing this for a week created additional limitations, but because of professional obligations, I knew I couldn't participate for a month without dining at restaurants.
"Many poor people also lack the leisure and culinary expertise of Podhaizer. The expectation that people under economic duress will adapt recipes from the Joy of Cooking is improbable, if not ludicrous."
The letter's author has no information about how much I work or what my financial obligations are like. Thus, commenting on my leisure level seems inappropriate. I do agree that I know a lot about cooking. That was one reason I limited myself primarily to recipes found in a book that hundreds of thousands of American families own (it has been in print continuously since 1936, and more than 18 million copies have been sold, says Wikipedia), that is in almost every public library, and which has simple, easy to follow recipes for staples and casseroles. Over the course of the week, adapting recipes meant things like making oatmeal with water instead of milk, so I wouldn't run out of milk. I didn't do anything fancy. I didn't use any fancy equipment. There are also programs in our area such as Healthy City and Cooking for Life, which are geared towards providing education and resources to folks who would like to learn about cooking and nutrition. The more programs like this our community can foster, the better.
"When I think of my working mother coming home exhausted, dealing with kids, the house, bills, etc., and then presumably whipping up a loaf of oatmeal bread...I don't know whether to laugh or cry."
Without getting too deeply into my family situation, I will say that I have two siblings, and my mom consistently works more hours than anybody else I've ever met, seven days a week. She has also prepared dinners from scratch ever since I can remember. She bakes bread, makes pizza dough, soaks and picks through dried beans, etc. There were times in my life when she earned the sole income for our family and still did this. That doesn't mean everybody can, but it's what I grew up with and how I learned to do things. I confirmed with her that during certain periods, she was feeding us on less than the "food stamp diet" allocated amount for a family of our size. Sometimes people bake and forage because they have the leisure to do so and they find it fun. Sometimes they do it out of necessity. My mom is lucky in that she happens to find baking pleasurable, too.
I wanted this project to be a learning experience for me and a thought-provoking read for others.