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To Have and To Have Not

December 24, 2013

It’s Christmas Eve Day. I don’t know if that’s a thing or not. Usually though, I would spend this time reminding those of you who are having a Christmas ham from HoneyBaked to not let that sucker anywhere near the oven. Ever. Perhaps I would be ambitious and write about nog or give some ideas for last minute gifts.

But this year, I’m concerned that the Christmas spirit is in trouble. I’m comforted by the messages coming from Pope Francis in support of the poor and calling for the richest nations in the world to ensure their citizens don’t go hungry.

Yet still, there are letters like this one published in Albany’s local paper:

Deanna Fox’s column “Hunger Pains,” Dec. 19., is the latest in a string of articles that are pity parties for people receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Ms. Fox moans about not being able to have her fair-trade coffee, buys eggs at twice the standard price in Albany supermarkets, and can’t seem to imagine buying a store brand of cereal instead of the equivalent name brand. She seems to think only maniacal coupon-cutters can live on a budget.

Her article reveals, more than anything, her inability to comparison shop and the fact that she has never budgeted for food before. This whole exercise has only served to convince me that people who get SNAP (paid for by people like me) are getting a generous subsidy.

William R. Thomas

Sure, I know Deanna Fox and if you are a regular reader of the FLB you probably know her better as Silly Goose Farm. So no, I’m not entirely a neutral third party observer here. But I still have a few words for Mr. Thomas and a bit more about the “generous subsidy” provided by S.N.A.P.

You can read Deanna’s piece here in full if you like. Personally, I thought it was great and really captured some of the struggles that a single mom would face trying to live on S.N.A.P. benefits. I also am sure that with practice Deanna would be able to come up with better meals, more efficient grocery picks and find additional ways of extending those limited resources.

Not too long ago, fellow Chefs Consortium member Ellie Markovitch ate pretty well for five days on the S.N.A.P. diet. But as a trained chef she had an unfair advantage. Still, I would highly recommend anyone looking to eat on the cheap check out her posts from that week.

Yes, Deanna cares about quality ingredients and making sure that farmers are getting a fair shake. However, she did put these concerns aside when confronted with the reality of her budget for the week. The cheap bread she bought was likely filled with HFCS and preservatives, the discount chicken and stew beef were undoubtedly factory farmed, and her cart was full of conventionally produced dairy and produce.

There are some who would call cleaner foods luxuries. I disagree. But Deanna’s experiment with the S.N.A.P. budget wasn’t about trying to make it work with clean foods. It was simply about being able to make it work at all. For what it’s worth, I too would bemoan a week without coffee. Ellie was able to find a way to sneak a little caffeine into her budget, but she could only afford instant granules.

Maybe Mr. Thomas could have done better within the confines of the budget. But to suggest $1.50 per meal, per person, per day is a “generous subsidy” seems disingenuous at best.

The Internet is a marvelous thing. Years ago, a letter to the editor like the one above would have left me scratching my head about the objectives of the writer. But today, I can use Google to find out exactly who he is and where he’s coming from in a matter of moments.

Meet the Director of Programs at The Atlas Society. Never heard of them? Here’s a blurb from their website:

By making the moral case for individual rights, limited government, and capitalism, The Atlas Society plays a vital role in the freedom movement, providing a much-needed foundation for the work of other organizations that focus on economic and policy issues.

So, while Mr. Thomas wrote, “This whole exercise has only served to convince me that people who get SNAP (paid for by people like me) are getting a generous subsidy.” I’m pretty sure he was convinced on that stance already. He also reports to be a lecturer in Economics at the University at Albany. Although as he clearly demonstrates in this video, Mr. Thomas doesn’t hold his students in very high regard.

But how seriously can you take a libertarian who takes money from the state to lecture at a public university? 

Anyhow, I feel very very lucky not to be in the situation where I have to decide between food that’s ethically produced or sufficient quantities of food to feed my family. And there are far too many in this wealthy nation who cannot afford an adequate amount of any food at all.

While it may take a while for the Pope’s gospel to have a meaningful impact on our shores, I’m hopeful to hear this voice rise from Rome as inequality here in the US and around the world continues to advance in all the wrong ways.

Thank you again to Deanna, Ellie and all of the others who are working to draw attention to this issue. You’re doing good work, despite your critics.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 24, 2013 11:47 am

    Agreed. Shake it off, Deanna. People who criticize before they walk the mile will always exist.

  2. December 24, 2013 12:00 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this. I also read Mr. Thomas’s op-ed yesterday and was left pretty frustrated and angry. He just doesn’t get it.

  3. Doug permalink
    December 24, 2013 1:51 pm

    It was a good piece, but it would have been stronger had she acknowledged, as you did, that she would have become a better shopper over time. That would have helped undercut Mr. Thomas and the two TU commenters who saw Deanna as “playing at poor” and could have emphasized the need for change in lifestyle, not just doing without. Absent such a caveat, she was wide open to sniping about what she paid for eggs and her other choices. The critics of social programs seize any opening to rant about handouts and free rides — take the opening away, and hopefully all they can do is sputter.

  4. December 24, 2013 6:50 pm

    I am amused by people who lash out against programs to help needy families with SNAP assistance to buy groceries. Wow – $4 per day. That’s what breaking the federal budget! Invariably they are the same people who will argue FOR subsidies for the agribusinesses that don’t deserve any help. However – I would love to see more effort in our school systems showing people how to prepare the foods they should be eating. So many consumers have no clue that shopping for fresh vegetables and other healthier alternatives to the center aisle crap would be more nutritious, taste better, and save money. If only they knew how to prepare it! That is where we should be focusing.

  5. January 21, 2014 6:53 pm

    Thanks for such a nice shout-out, DB! The hardest part about writing this was space restrictions. 800 words (roughly) makes it hard to paint an encompassing picture that highlights every nuance. I would have loved to talk more about what I actually made and my purchasing choices, but I also had to consider the following:

    – Time restrictions: I’m a working single parent. Unfortunately I don’t have endless time to plan out meals and account for every cent spent. I wish I did. I did the best I could with resources and otherwise.

    – Staple items: I was spending only what would have been allocated for a week based on SNAP guidelines. This meant I couldn’t justify buying pantry staples, like flour and basic cooking ingredients to stretch out my weekly purchases. I think I’ll try doing the SNAP challenge for a month some time this spring and see how far it gets me.

    – One-stop buying: Many people who are on SNAP will go to the closest store available to them to avoid incurring travel expenses or inconveniences, or hauling heavy groceries long distances.

    – The basic demography/psychography of SNAP beneficiaries: I tried to adhere as closely as possible to general trends presented by the research I found.

    Sure, it’s easy to say how we would do it different if we were in the situation, but those resolutions go out the window fast when we’re actually tasked with the challenge.

    Based on my research, I’d have to agree with @NorthCountry Rambler. There is a sad disconnect between SNAP beneficiaries and basic cooking skills. I think if that were to change, people would be able to make their SNAP benefits stretch much farther.

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