I’ve worked in the public interest field my entire career, and I’ve always accepted the belief that living in poverty was an insurmountable barrier to good nutrition. The issue has received more attention, now that over 45 million Americans receive food stamps.
Food deserts, food stamps, food insecurity, food banks — there is a lot of debate about how to improve the health of the poor by addressing nutrition and eating habits. Food stamp recipients should be allowed to buy kale but not krispy kremes, wheat bread not wonder bread. Fresh produce should be more widely available. Community gardens are the answer. Ketchup is a vegetable. It’s an issue of personal choice.
There are no simple answers (except that ketchup is certainly not a vegetable). But I have an idea.
I remember years ago when my church shifted the way they put together the Christmas boxes for needy families. It used to be that we provided potatoes, dried beans, flour, cornmeal, sugar, carrots and other vegetables, cranberries, and a turkey. But in the 1990’s, we realized that many of the recipients were single and elderly, or were young families where the parents didn’t always know what to do with all these ingredients. So, we shifted to cans and boxes of food instead — easy to prepare but also highly processed, high sugar, high sodium, and not so healthy. For us, it was more important that the recipients have food they could use than for them to have the food we thought they should eat. (And, to be honest, I think what we gave away was a closer reflection of what we were eating ourselves.)
Julie Guthman, an expert on issues of food and politics, has written that “poor people get the dregs.” But I wonder if the issue isn’t that poor people don’t have the information and skills to make the most of the food they have. Creating healthy meals on a budget is hard enough — imagine doing it on food stamps!
Periodically, politicians and activists vow to eat for a month of what food stamps provide. In Alaska, the good intentioned folks pined for their lattes and complained that they couldn’t afford organic strawberries in February. To me, that’s not a reasonable exercise in proving that poverty prevents healthy eating. It sells papers, but it doesn’t help anyone.
So — here’s my plan: I’m going to create healthy meals within the food stamp allowance of $371/month for a household of 1 in (rural) Alaska. That works out to $86.00/week. That sounds like a lot, but remember how expensive our food stuffs are here. (If I were to do this in my home state, the allowance would be $46.50.)
If I can’t do it, eat healthy on $86/week, then I’ll have reinforced my own belief that poverty compromises nutrition in a way that is not easily overcome with coupons and creative cooking. If I can do it, then I’ll have a host of recipes to share with folks who are trying to raise healthy families without the luxury of a reasonable grocery budget.
If you’ve followed my kitchen meanderings for a while, you’ll remember my last bout of activism around food insecurity — fasting. That was a dismal experience, for me and my friends, and was unsustainable. I have much higher hopes this time around.