“Are you currently using food stamps, or have you or your family used them in the past?” This is the first question I ask participants at the Willy Street Co-op staff training on SNAP/EBT benefits. It feels important to begin by personally orienting ourselves. Many of us have used or are currently using EBT to supplement or provide for our food needs.
SNAP (also known as food stamps, EBT, Quest, or FoodShare) is often seen as one of the simplest, most direct, and most successful government programs. People who are hungry are given means to purchase food. Yet SNAP benefits repeatedly have been called into question. From state to state, numerous limitations to food stamp purchases have been introduced in the past few years, beginning with proposed soda bans in the state of New York. This past May, organic, gluten-free, and locally-produced products came under fire with the passing of ACT 110 (FoodShare limiting bill) in the Wisconsin State Assembly. Thankfully, the Wisconsin State Senate has not furthered the bill at this point in time.
I spend a great deal of energy studying and researching issues of food accessibility and food security. At times, it is quite challenging to wrap my mind around the disparities, commonalities, and nuances of food decision-making. There are three major concurrent perspectives I often see playing out: the eater/consumer’s desires and needs; the businesses that create, sell, and market food; and the views of one eater/consumer towards another’s choices. All of these intersect and relate, giving us a complex landscape that shapes our approach to food in general. How we construct our own desires, how we recognize or judge the decisions of others, and how we engage in localized and large-scale food justice efforts are all aspects of this landscape.
THE EATER COMES FIRST
When I moved to Madison in 2009, I was pretty excited to buy food at my local grocery co-op. However, I had also recently lost my farmworker job and was entirely dependent on food stamps to eat. During my first or second (small) shopping trip at Willy Street Co-op, the cashier told me about the Access* discount program, and I immediately signed up. For me, it was the difference between shopping at the Co-op once every couple weeks for select items, and being able to purchase half of my groceries here. In retrospect, I realized other keys to the equation: I prioritized eating organic food, I felt welcomed at the Co-op and, since I was unemployed, I had more time than usual to think about and prepare meals.
What constitutes our commonalities as eaters, anyway? Beyond our basic preferences for food-that-tastes-good, I propose a trifecta of desire: food that is simultaneously affordable, healthy, and convenient. With a few exceptions, it appears that most consumers do not want to pay more for food, nor do folks want to spend lots of time everyday preparing each meal. I doubt that we want to eat food that makes us sick (in the short or long term). Yet still so many of us choose food that is expensive, unhealthy, and cumbersome to prepare.
The magical equation of “affordable+healthy+convenient” does not add up to describe most food items on grocery store shelves, nor does it describe those served in fast or slow food restaurants and eateries. Usually one aspect of this desire takes precedent over the other. Fast and affordable food may sacrifice health. Healthy and convenient will likely be expensive. Affordable and healthy will generally take more time and effort to prepare.
Furthermore, these commonalities are relative. A healthy choice for one person means whole wheat bread in place of white bread. For another eater, a healthy choice could mean no bread, all raw food. Affordable and convenient notions follow this trajectory as well.
When we consider this trifecta of desire, we also have to take into account our wide variety of lifestyles. Some of us are incredibly busy, and eating can be a highly inconvenient activity to regularly put ourselves through. Many of us are financially struggling, and food is a relatively more flexible part of our budget when juxtaposed against fixed monthly rent and credit card payments. Some of us have health conditions or food allergies that demand more devoted effort to sourcing specific foods. Many of us have families to feed and must take into account what younger eaters will or will not eat. As consumers, we find our habits and preferences shaped by how stressed or relaxed we feel, what food is familiar to us, how accessible it is.
Many eaters are also motivated by an internal compass that some consider a type of food politics. This could be anything from buying local in-season produce to choosing products with fair trade or non-GMO labels. For these consumers, food can become a lifestyle focus. It can take the form of an identity (“foodie”), a social gathering (“fermentation festival”), and/or a sense of community (“CSA member”). When something becomes a lifestyle focus, other resources—time, money, relationships—follow suit.
SPEAKING OF MONEY
What could be considered the common interests of businesses who create, sell, and market food? Unfortunately, profit has to come first. (Before I receive handfuls of Customer Comments in defense of “ethical” vendors and business owners, please continue reading.)
From the smallest vendor to the largest multinational corporation, money has to be a main factor in the sustainability of that entity. Granted, the variations between such businesses can be numerous and multifaceted. For example, in the process of interviewing local small vendors and producers, I have been impressed by the non-income-generating practices and aspirations of many of these business owners. Just Coffee and Equal Exchange are two of my favorites—and of course, they’re both worker cooperatives! Willy Street Co-op also must be considered in this light; we must maintain a financially sound business in order to keep our doors open. Maximizing profit is not at all in the Co-op’s best interest, so the circulation of money in a consumer co-op does looks significantly different than other grocery stores. However, money is still a crucial part of day-to-day operations. Two of our major aims are to ensure that Co-op employees are paid fairly and local farmers and producers are receiving fair prices for the foods they put on the shelves and in the coolers.
However, small farmers, cooperatives, and local businesses are not the ones dominating the food industry at the moment. Corporate control of the U.S. food system is not big news…it’s common knowledge. The implications of such a system still remain confusing to many people. The “best interests” of large corporate food producers share little in common with the best interests of consumers. At most, the things eaters want from food (affordable, healthy, convenient) drive the development of targeted marketing campaigns. This is not an attempt to ignore the power that consumers have as a collective entity. Demand for organic and Fair Trade foods has grown exponentially in a very short period of time. However, the flipside of this trend begs to be questioned. Why are organic and Fair Trade products considered a niche market and not “normal” (typical, easily available) foods?
With the rising demand for such foods, greenwashing in the industry has also reached a new high. Misleading labels and deceptive advertisements skew notions of healthy foods, leaving many eaters uncertain about what to choose. In Cornucopia Institute’s 2011 report “Cereal Crimes,” multiple consumer polls show respondents placing more value on the (non-regulated) term “natural” than they do on (USDA-regulated) “organic.” The researchers also cite a 2010 poll where a majority of participants “erroneously believed the term ‘natural’ implied ‘absence of pesticides,’ ‘absence of herbicides,’ and ‘absence of genetically-modified foods.’”
It is not a coincidence that consumers have mistaken or conflated such terms and labels. The Cornucopia report also cites a paper published by the Canadian Organic Trade Organization (COTA), which stated that “companies shifted toward cheaper ‘natural’ options during the recession, allowing them to market their products to the same concerned consumer target audience, while using cheaper conventional ingredients that they could source at conventional prices.” Furthermore, “the growth rate of ‘natural’ products began to exceed the growth rate of organics in December 2008.” In order to navigate our collective food landscape, it seems important to understand how food supply chains and corporate profit margins contribute to an intentional or coincidental confusion.
SO I LOOKED IN HER GROCERY CART...
“How do we think about labor and consumer-related subjectivities in the same moment, since, in my view, one cannot talk about scandals of the appetite—along with food, there’s sex, smoking, shopping and drinking as sites of moral disapprobation, social policy, and self-medication—without talking about the temporality of the workday, the debt cycle, and consumer practice and fantasy?” -Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism
As we traverse our food landscapes—one by one, foodie by foodie, family by family—the obvious is bound to happen. We wind up for the pitch, ready to let our (very informed) judgments loose. They come fast with shade thrown sideways, half-turned-whispers, or blurted belligerent slams. “You’re eating that?!” he says, with a question mark’s inflection and an exclamation point’s tone. The judgments also come slow, like food saviors and savorers. We can show our savoir-vivre by simply teaching others how to live, how to eat. Right?
Or wrong? Are these matters of appetite or class? Or matters of availability or education? Are these appetites informed by taste or cost or stubbornness? Most importantly, why do they eat like that? I am eager to pick apart that last loaded question.
Let’s start with the spectacle of food. In “What Food Says About Class in America,” Lisa Miller illustrates this quite well: “In the mail, I find the Christmas catalog from the luxury retail store Barneys. HAVE A FOODIE HOLIDAY, its cover reads. Inside, models are covered—literally—with food. A woman in a red $2,000 Lanvin trench has an enormous cabbage on her head. Another, holding a green Proenza Schouler clutch, wears a boiled crab in her bouffant. Most disconcerting is the Munnu diamond pendant ($80,500) worn by a model who seems to have traded her hair for an octopus. Its tentacles dangle past her shoulders, and the girl herself wears the expression of someone who’s stayed too long at the party. Food is no longer trendy or fashionable. It is fashion.”
If healthy food is expensive food, and expensive food is a privilege, who has the right to eat it? Who is entitled to eat it? Who is obligated to eat it? (These questions are going to continue becoming stickier....)
“Food is one of the few spaces of controllable, reliable pleasure people have,” writes Lauren Berlant. “At the same time, the numbers of poor Americans reporting going without meals, requiring emergency food assistance, or experiencing fairly constant hunger has also increased dramatically, especially since the shrinkage of food programs for the poor in the late 1990s.” In “The Real Hunger Games,” Trudy Lieberman reports on the growing inaccessibility of food among seniors. “In 2005, some 5 million people over age 60—about 11 percent of America’s senior population—faced the threat of hunger, according to a study by the Meals on Wheels Association, the nation’s largest trade group for meal providers. In 2012, that number was almost 15 percent.” But hunger is quite a loaded word, and some have questioned its usage in highly industrialized nations like the U.S.
Is hunger an excuse for “poor” decisions? I am hungry right now. If cheap food is unhealthy food, and unhealthy food tastes familiar, who has the right to stop me from eating it? I go to the freezer, I pull out some ice cream. Now I’m typing and eating, together forever. What’s the difference between being momentarily hungry and living with hunger? I’ve never actually been hungry.
GAZE INTO THE ABYSS
“If hunger is no longer an analytical category, how does one talk about it or advocate for its elimination? How does one make policy claims about something for which there is no data and which, therefore, does not exist in policy science terms?” -Patricia Allen, “The Disappearance of Hunger in America”
The USDA decided to eliminate the use of the word “hunger” from their official assessments of U.S. food security in 2007. Patricia Allen argues that the framing of the issue defines and delimits the response to it. When we take away the “sharp edge of the word hunger,” does this compound the violence of hunger by “the violence of a science that claims hunger does not exist”?
Allen brings up an important insight: “The disappearance of hunger may simply be an unfortunate product of the distant gaze of experts who are far removed from the situation they study.” The gaze of experts is an all-too-familiar concept for many. Lauren Berlant suggests that “expertise has so often been used shamingly to confirm the social negativity of dominated populations.” Yet—who isn’t an expert these days?
In “Food Police,” Julie Guthman describes another type of shaming: “Many thin people can indulge in all manner of unhealthy behaviors without being called to account for their body size. In other words, fat people are imbued with little subjectivity no matter what they do, while thin people are imbued with heightened subjectivity no matter what they do.” The linking of shame with the gaze of others brings another perspective to the increasingly complicated food landscape.
I find Patricia Allen’s suggestions valuable: “The statisticians should meet with food-insecure parents and their children to explain to them why they are not hungry. In the meantime, the rest of us can do our part to make food justice issues visible, audible, and palpable.” Pausing to consider the implications of judgments and frameworks can go a long way, particularly when attempting to apply them to the lives of others.
CAN’T GO LEFT, CAN’T DO RIGHT
“I have a memory, from long ago, where I am sitting in the parking lot of a McDonalds, with my mom, trying to count out 63 pennies from the floor around the car, the change jar, and the pavement around the car in order to purchase two hamburgers from McDonalds for our evening meal. Cheap food exists for a reason. 63 cents doesn’t go far in the grocery store if you want a hot meal, and have nowhere for food prep. (Something that people also conveniently forget about—a lot of eating well on a budget requires prep with at least a hot plate, running water, and basic utensils. If you don’t have these things, you have to eat ready made food. Needless to say, living out of a car doesn’t provide you with consistent access to these things.) But a whole hamburger meant a lot to a seven-year-old stomach that was going to go hungry. What kind of day is that? These are broke people choices. I’m sure that if I shared this story on the NYT Health blog, there would be people berating my mother for buying me a hamburger and not, say, an apple or something. Or maybe some dried lentils we could have soaked overnight on the carburetor using a car fluid funnel and woken up to a wonderfully healthy and cheap pinch of beans.” -LaToya Peterson, “If You Haven’t Been On Food Stamps, Stop Trying to Influence Government Policy”
In November 2013, the looming cuts to SNAP benefits went into effect. In the state of Wisconsin, 15% of residents use food stamps, which means that these cuts affect 861,000 people in this state alone. Using the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan calculations, this will be the equivalent of 21 meals per month for a family of four. Framed in another way, for those who use EBT, each meal must cost $1.40 or less per person.
“Many U.S. alternative food advocates see lack of knowledge as the most proximate obstacle to a transformed food system,” writes Julie Guthman in “‘If They Only Knew.’” At Willy Street Co-op, my daily work is focused on education and community outreach. However, the line of thinking that begins or ends with “if they only knew” seems full of loaded assumptions. (Who are they, anyway? And who am I?) Of course, sharing information with and educating one another can surely be helpful and help build community. [For example, if you have practical ideas on how to eat on $1.40 or less per meal, please send them to me at email@example.com.] My concern here is that the universalizing of certain experiences (with distant gaze and subsequent judgments about the choices of others) does not further food justice. In fact, it seems to contribute significantly to furthering the racial and economic divides already present in the food system.
As we continue to navigate the collective, complicated landscape of food in the U.S., it feels critical to examine what purpose it serves to police other people’s food choices. This is particularly relevant when considering the shame that many people have experienced around food. Social pressures relating to class, size, race, age, gender, ability, and/or ethnicity tend to reinforce attitudes of unattainable normativity which create further barriers to accessibility. In the meantime, people are hungry. Whether it is acceptable food, good-tasting food, healthy food, or enough food, we have the most basic thing in common: we all simply need to eat.
MANY THANKS TO
- Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism
- Patricia Allen, “The Disappearance of Hunger in America”
- Cornucopia Institute, “Cereal Crimes: How ‘Natural’ Claims Deceive Consumers and Undermine the Organic Label—A Look Down the Cereal and Granola Aisle”
- Stacy Dean and Dottie Rosenbaum, “SNAP Benefits Will Be Cut for All Participants in November 2013”
- Julie Guthman, “Bringing Good Food to Others: Investigating the Subjects of Alternative Food Practice”
- Julie Guthman, “Food Police: Why Michael Pollan Makes Me Want to Eat Cheetos”
- Julie Guthman, “‘If They Only Knew:’ Color Blindness and Universalism in California Alternative Food Institutions”
- Trudy Lieberman, “The Real Hunger Games”
- Lisa Miller, “What Food Says About Class in America”
- NPR Staff, “Why So Many Ph.D.s Are On Food Stamps”
- LaToya Peterson, “If You Haven’t Been On Food Stamps, Stop Trying to Influence Government Policy”
- Ellyn Satter, “Hierarchy of Food Needs”
A COUPLE PRACTICAL READER RESOURCES FOR EATING ON A BUDGET:
*The Access program is a 10% discount for purchases made at Willy Street Co-op. For more information about the program, stop in to Customer Service at either location or call Tamara Urich-Rintz, Owner Records Administrator, at 608-251-0884 ext. 734. To qualify for this discount, Owners must be participating in one of the following programs:
- SNAP/Food Stamp Program
- Medicaid (BadgerCare or SeniorCare)
- Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants & Children (WIC)
- Section 8 Housing Assistance/Community Development Authority (HUD)
- School Breakfast or Lunch Program (for free and reduced-price meals only)
- Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (WIC)
- Child and Adult Care Food Program (for free and reduced-price meals only)
- Social Security Disability Insurance/Social Security Disability/Supplemental Security Income