Sunday, September 25, 2011

Food Stamp Encore Showing Next Month

On October 27, at the Angelika Theater, CitySquare's Public Policy Department will have an encore screening of the documentary 'Food Stamped'. This is Shyra and Yoav Potash's delightful but highly enlightening and thought provoking film about the difficulties of maintaining a healthy diet when relying on food stamps (or SNAP - Supplemental Nutrion Assistance Program).

I say its an 'encore' screening, but in fact, it seems as if we haven't stopped showing it. By invitation, we've taken the film to Austin, to show to state officials, their staffs and anti-hunger activists, Watermark Church in Dallas (where it was viewed by more than 1000 people) and this week, we'll be taking it to Baylor University and to San Antonio!

A sub-premise of the film is that it is cheaper to eat unhealthy foods in low income neighborhoods than it is to eat a healthy diet. A recent article in the New York Times seems to challenge that assertion.

"This is just plain wrong. In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. (Judicious ordering of “Happy Meals” can reduce that to about $23 — and you get a few apple slices in addition to the fries!)"
"In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)"
"Another argument runs that junk food is cheaper when measured by the calorie, and that this makes fast food essential for the poor because they need cheap calories. But given that half of the people in this country (and a higher percentage of poor people) consume too many calories rather than too few, measuring food’s value by the calorie makes as much sense as measuring a drink’s value by its alcohol content. (Why not drink 95 percent neutral grain spirit, the cheapest way to get drunk?)"
"Besides, that argument, even if we all needed to gain weight, is not always true. A meal of real food cooked at home can easily contain more calories, most of them of the “healthy” variety. (Olive oil accounts for many of the calories in the roast chicken meal, for example.)In comparing prices of real food and junk food, I used supermarket ingredients, not the pricier organic or local food that many people would consider ideal. But food choices are not black and white; the alternative to fast food is not necessarily organic food, any more than the alternative to soda is Bordeaux."
"The alternative to soda is water, and the alternative to junk food is not grass-fed beef and greens from a trendy farmers’ market, but anything other than junk food: rice, grains, pasta, beans, fresh vegetables, canned vegetables, frozen vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, bread, peanut butter, a thousand other things cooked at home — in almost every case a far superior alternative."
After reading the article, I'm probably going to have to admit a sense in which the 'it's expensive to eat healthy' argument is overblown - or at least over sold. So let me put it another way...
We have developed a society (and so allowed our low and working neighborhoods to develop), that the choices between healthy and non-healthy eating difficult not being made on an even playing field of reason or economics. It is indeed cheaper to cook at home than it to eat fast food. It's cheaper to cook at home than it is to eat out period! 
But cloud that reasoning with the prevalence of fast food restraunts, partincularly in low income communities; along with the fact that the small, 'Mom and Pop' grocers (more accessible than any large grocery store) in low communities charge more than twice as much for canned vegetables; and the 'demand' created by marketing and you have among those who can least afford it, a perfect storm of societal circumstances that make fast food the viable alternative to a meal that takes time to prepare. 
And it goes back to something that is interesting about our attitudes toward people who are considered poor; interestingly, we expect them to be 'more' than the rest of us!
With regard to fast food for instance, parents who are middle class, certainly claim to be less likely to cook because of busy schedules, fatigue from the day, or even the demands of their children. Yet when it comes to low income parents, they should be more willing to cook, more often, with less than their more affluent counterparts. Many, if not most poor people work. They travel longer distances, work longer hours and are employed at more physical labor. Yet when they get home, they are expected to cook the meal their middle class counterparts are 'too tired' to cook!
Low income parents and their families should be more impervious to marketing and advertisement because they have less money (a limiter to be sure). But McDonald's or Pizza Hut, should be less a treat - or incentive - for their children than their more well to do citizens. 
In the end, it is true, if you are on food stamps or not,  the cost of a home cooked hamburger will trump the cost of a hamburger bought anywhere else. But most of us who have the money to make such choices constantly don't make such clear minded, strategic choices. It's interesting that we insist that those who have less should...especially when more than money influences such choices for all of us...

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