Thursday, December 15, 2011

Living on a Food Stamp (Part 1) - Don't Tell Poor People "You Can't"

I recently heard about a congresswoman taking the “Food Stamps Challenge,” trying to live off the amount that an average person gets for food stamps [1]. The person described how miserable she was, drinking instant coffee instead of going to Starbucks, being hungry pretty much the whole time. Basically, she made the point that, as hard as she tried, she could not live on food stamps, despite being intelligent and capable. This is done occasionally by Congress to raise awareness about underfunding of Food Stamps. This is from the San Jose Mercury News in a 2007 version of this:
Oakland Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee's diet consisted primarily of crackers, a loaf of whole-wheat bread, tortillas, and brown rice. Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, filled up on 19-cent banana-and-peanut butter sandwiches. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., said he would've killed for a candy bar or a cup of coffee.
Feeling full … is one challenge; eating nutritionally is virtually impossible. Illinois Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky's week's worth of fruits and vegetables consisted of one tomato, one potato, a head of lettuce, and five bananas.” [2]
When I heard about this, it frustrated me. My philosophical spider sense went off. Why was I frustrated by someone arguing to increase funding for food stamps? I care deeply about the poor; why was I frustrated? After reflecting on my anger for a while, I realized: they’re telling poor people they can’t do it. In an attempt to prove that being poor sucks, they accidentally discouraged healthy eating in the poor. And that pissed me off. “You can’t” is pretty much the worst thing you can tell a poor person because, if you do, they won’t. Like Henry Ford said, “If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right.” If a congressperson can’t do it, what chance does a poor person have?

It all depends on the truth of the claim, “[On food stamps,] eating nutritionally is virtually impossible.” And that is an empirical question. The Congresspeople had agendas; they wanted to be miserable because it would help increase funding for food stamps and help poor people (a noble end in itself). But I have no such agenda. Nobody cares if I go hungry. But if I could figure out how to eat healthy with little money, then maybe I could make poor people’s miserable state a little bit less miserable.

And so I took the challenge.

[1] Food Stamps has bad PR, so they renamed it “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program” (SNAP) and, because California wants people thinking about vegetables, they called the state program CalFresh. I don’t care about PR, and I don’t think anyone would understand me if I said I took the SNAP challenge, so until everyone knows these new terms, I’m calling it by its real name (i.e. the name that people use).
[2] As an aside, note what foods were chosen: no vegetables and mostly fast carbs: crackers [GI 74], a loaf of whole-wheat bread [GI 70], tortillas [GI 40], and brown rice [GI 75]. This is pretty much a fast-track to hunger and misery, or as one of my nutrition professors likes to say “pain and defeat.” These choices both betray the general American bias towards eating these foods and the misery you feel when you eat them.

1 comment:

  1. This is quite a challenge! Remember to buy brown rice and beans (cheap and has all essential AAs). You can even boil lentils and rice together for a meal. Also, a large bag of almonds would serve you well for a cheap source of good fats. Mix in some frozen vegetables, a multi vit and a some fruit from time to time and you are there. Good luck!