Everyone’s quick to criticize people on food stamps. Whether it’s hurtling classist slurs like “welfare queen” or “parasite” or forwarding chain emails about the alleged extravagance of people living on OUR tax dollars (!!!), people on food stamps bear the brunt of blame when it comes to “what’s wrong with Amurrica today.”
When world-renowned chef Karl Wilder met with the San Francisco Food Bank to plan a canned goods drive, he was shocked to learn that the average person on food stamps in California has to make do with roughly $4 of food per day, or $1.33 per meal. He decided to spend two months living on the equivalent of a food stamp budget. Wilder has a top-of-the-line kitchen, years of culinary experience, professional knowledge of how to put a healthy meal together, and a garden in his backyard. He calculated the cost of every meal, compared prices, bought things on sale, and came to an unsurprising conclusion: eating well — and living well — on food stamps is practically impossible.
Before embarking on his challenge, he looked into the process for applying for food stamps in California. He said the process was so intensive and convoluted that many eligible people give up and rely on food banks like the San Francisco Food Bank. Sadly, donations to food banks tend to go down in the summer before perking up around the holidays. Wilder told SF Weekly that “we tend to forget about hungry people in August.”
Almost immediately after beginning his experiment, he realized three things:
- Food is expensive,
- Hunger and budget stress give you serious fatigue,
- People hate people on food stamps.
He said he regularly received hate mail from readers who alleged that they saw a woman driving up to the grocery store in an expensive car, wearing fashionable clothing, and then pulling food stamps out of her high-end designer bag to buy lobster and steak. In case Chef Wilder hadn’t heard, someone somewhere is abusing the system and therefore the system is broken! Never mind that Wilder was actively documenting how he was skipping creamer in his coffee just to make ends meet.
On his first day, he overspent at breakfast: a small homemade pot of coffee, half a pomegranate, two slices of bread and a slice of cheese put him at $1.83, or 50 cents over budget. The Huffington Post published a few entries from his food diary. A sample:
8:30am, Aug 15: My breakfast is ready. I made dirty rice with chicken and fermented black beans with double fermented soy sauce. The cost was $0.92 but I only ate half the pot so with my small pot of coffee my cost was $0.76 for breakfast. I overspent a couple of days ago so I am making up a deficit now.
2:00pm, Aug 18: I made a toothsome and soul-satisfying spaghetti carbonara. Three slices of bacon (American bacon), 2 eggs, 1/2 cup frozen peas, two ounces of pasta. I feel so much better. I listened to Chef Anne Burrell when she said that this pasta loves black pepper. She is right, that girl can cook. $1.87.
9:00am, Aug 20: I slept a solid 10 hours. Woke up hungry. While making coffee I ate more tortilla chips. Salty and addictive. I mushed some of the rice and beans into a bowl and put cheese on top and set it in the oven to warm. I ate and had my coffee and went back to bed, just to lie down and quickly fell back asleep. Leftovers – so cost is cheese at $0.31.
During his two-month foray into false poverty, he had a lot of advantages that *actual* poor people never get. A fan recognized him at Trader Joe’s and bought him a thing of creamer for his coffee. Neighbors gave him extra bread. Friends invited him over for lavish dinners and pricey wine. Even with these advantages, Wilder was often hungry, tired, and stressed about his food budget.
Some people have criticized his experiment, pointing out that it must be a lot easier to live on food stamps when you have the space to grow vegetables, a kitchen full of gadgets, and professional cooking knowledge (not to mention the fans and friends who donated things). But that almost makes the experiment more poignant. With every possible advantage you can imagine, he barely scraped by on $4 per day. He accounted for oil and seasonings, and “charged” himself 10 cents for everything he took from his garden.
Chef Wilder did everything the Glenn Becks of the world encourage poor people to do: comparison shop! Grow your own food! Have potlucks with friends! Instead of criticizing him for not “really” living on food stamps, it seems like a good springboard for addressing food stamp benefits. “Look at this guy. If he can’t eat nutritious, filling meals on food stamps, who can?”
Wilder visited the doctor at the beginning and end of his experiment. Unsurprisingly, while he’d lost weight, his triglycerides, sugars, cholesterol and blood count were higher. His body fat percentage had increased 3%. And he was VERY happy to be done with the penny-pinching:
“I admit to being bored by it. I am sick of many of the foods that work in this budget. I am ready for it to be over,” Wilder wrote on Month 2, Day 2. “For many who live this way it may never be over. We have few jobs in the U.S. and the jobs we have often pay so little food is a luxury.”
So what can you do? Donate to your local food bank. It’s another couple of months until the holidays, so their shelves are close to empty. At the polls, vote for politicians who support increasing food stamp benefits.
And for god’s sake, stop letting the people around you blame our poorest citizens for being poor. Yes, some people abuse the system. But many, many more people rely on food stamps to make it from one day to the next. Prejudice is a huge issue facing poor people in our country, and it needs to end.
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