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March 18, 2010

Foodies on food stamps

cheeseFrom Whole Paycheck to Whole Food Stamp.

There's provocative story in Salon headlined, "Hipsters on food stamps." Subhed: "They're young, they're broke, and they pay for organic salmon with government subsidies. Got a problem with that?"

The story happens to open with two, young, underemployed Baltimoreans who use their food stamps at the farmers' market and Whole Foods. She, an art-school grad whose museum-installation work has dried up, gets $150 a month in nutrition assistance. He, a University of Chicago alum and part-time blogger, gets $200 a month.

A snippet:

"'I'm sort of a foodie, and I'm not going to do the 'living off ramen' thing,' he [blogger Gerry Mak] said, fondly remembering a recent meal he'd prepared of roasted rabbit with butter, tarragon and sweet potatoes. 'I used to think that you could only get processed food and government cheese on food stamps, but it's great that you can get anything.'

"Think of it as the effect of a grinding recession crossed with the epicurean tastes of young people as obsessed with food as previous generations were with music and sex. Faced with lingering unemployment, 20- and 30-somethings with college degrees and foodie standards are shaking off old taboos about who should get government assistance and discovering that government benefits can indeed be used for just about anything edible, including wild-caught fish, organic asparagus and triple-crème cheese."

I wouldn't wish a Ramen-noodle diet on anyone, but triple-crème? Not my idea of government cheese.

Sun photo by Doug Kapustin 

Posted by Laura Vozzella at 2:42 PM | | Comments (68)


Gerry wrote a follow-up in this morning's Salon. Perhaps you should have been a little more balanced and included that, as well. It's HERE.

It comes off so horrible in these times. I used to get assistance and I thought I was living it up with "crunchy" peanut butter!

They're getting too much money. I got like, $11 a week.

Hum. Wrong on so many levels. I wonder if his Chateau Mouton goes with rabbit. Unless he trapped it in the woods himself.

It is this kind of bs that gives the responsible, mature, and contributing to society people of my generation a bad name. In my opinion these people are complete morons.

I'm having a really hard time understanding the problem here. So they're buying healthful food rather than processed crap? They may be buying expensive cheese, but they don't get MORE money to do so... the are just getting less quantity for their money, but a better product. Why is this wrong? It's the quantity over quality problem that hurts us in the first place.

The concept of "government cheese" is from farm subsidies anyway. Why not use your food stamps at farmers markets and pay the farmer directly?

I don't think anyone has an issue with these individuals eating healthy, but this is extravagent and especially at the taxpsayers expense!

So it's not irresponsible to buy Little Debbies, Pepsi and Doritos, people are a joke. Eating healthy is not ELITIST!

Babs -

It's extravagant to eat healthily?

Would you rather they spent the money on processed foods? Or is your issue that they qualify in the first place?

Hey, how 'bout eating a locally made cheddar cheese rather than French triple brie? I admit that the rabbit sounds fancier than it is, price wise.

These folks are going WAY WAY WAY beyond healthy basics. Yeah, they get "less", but it seems like they could make do on a lot less. I do! Taxpayers should not carry the burden for these slogs. It doesn't sound like they put much into the system EVER and they are taking out way more than what would just be compassionate assistance. BOO!

Hey... do you think they'd invite us all to a dinner party soon? Because it seems like they have upscale cuisine to spare. In that case, I take it all back. I want the special foodie food when I come over!

@Summer - I am not saying that these individuals cannot eat healthy. However, they are living off the government...on WELFARE! They need to cut back!

Baltimore Hipsters = AIG = the Devil

They're saving us on health care cost by eating well. Chances are if they are screwed enough to get food stamps, they most likely do not have health insurance.
I've personally witnessed someone with the food stamp card purchase all sorts of unholy things, candy, microwave pizza, lobster, heavy marbled steaks, cheap baby formula, etc. 350 a month doesn't get you very far. My household tab for groceries per month for two people is closer to 500, and that's not at whole foods.
Besides, I'd rather someone drown their sorrows with a bit of fine cheese then several bags of tater chips. Things being the way they are in this economy, a little leeway to needful things is the kindest approach.

While it seems a bit odd to buy higher-priced organic/free range/holistic foods with food stamps, the basic fact is that they are free to spend them on any legal foods they choose. So it doesn't last the month out; that's their choice. Is it fiscally irresponsible to buy more expensive foods and then have to cut elsewhere? Sure, but that's their life and their choice.

Now, if they spend their foodstamps and then stand in line at a soup kitchen the last week of the month, then shame on them. Wasting their resources is one thing. Being wasteful and taking away from needier people is criminal.

Funny that the same online journal created an uproar with this column only last year:

It describes a couples one-month attempt to live on their state's SNAP allotment and eat "ethically" - meaning organic, Fair Trade, etc. There was an outcry about how elitist the experiment was, when the author was trying to see if it was possible.

Guess what: it was possible.

Silly rabbit! Tricks are for Baltimore Hipster kids!

Don - It is irresponsible to spend government subsidies on Little Debbies, Pepsi and Doritos. Just like it is irresponsible to spend g.s. on gourmet foodstuff.

There's a huge array of foods between ramen noodles and gourmet delights from "elite" stores.

Even regular grocery stores won't let you spend stamps on prepared foods (this may be mandated by the govt.) and that should also hold true for sodas, chips, snack cakes, etc.

Even though the food a farmers markets is home grown, in some cases is organic and is healthy, it is much more expensive then that at a "conventional" grocery store.

Eating healthy is not only for the elite, put using good commonsense also isn't just for the elite.

I can see this two examples (artist and UofChi grad) laughing all the way to the store. Both probably wouldn't want to be seen on the streets with Mars bags in their hands.

BaltBabs - I think you should read the response that was posted today that pigtown posted above. Then you would understand that eating healthy and locally is *not * extravagant.

But the larger point is this: If someone is unemployed or underemployed, and they qualify for food stamps, they can buy whatever they want within the government guidelines. Do you want them to buy garbage like soda and junk food? How does that make any sense at all?

There are people of all walks of life, all generations, all classes and all races who are feeling the effects of the bad economy. and are justly using public assistance to make it through. How in the world is this giving your generation a bad name? Because they know how to cook? Because they are creative with their assistance? Because they are being responsible and eating healthy?

I also want to know how $150 or $200 a month for food is extravagant?

And who says that buying $150 of junk vs. $150 of healthy food is going to last longer?

I just really, really don't understand where all the negative criticism is coming from.

Even though the food a farmers markets is home grown, in some cases is organic and is healthy, it is much more expensive then that at a "conventional" grocery store.

This is SO not true. I started shopping at farmer's markets simply BECAUSE so much produce there is cheaper. It's less expensive for me, and the food didn't have to travel halfway around the world.

Hey, how 'bout sun tea, rice, beans, fresh vegetables, some tuna? You should NOT need $200 a month for a person. It's nice, but not necessary.

I guess artists don't starve anymore.

Former food stamp recipient - Maybe your farmers market is more reasonable but I stopped going to the Towson market just because it was so much more expensive.

$150 a month is $5 a day.
$200 a month is about $6.60 a day.

I also really don't have a problem with this. If they qualify for food stamps, I'm glad they're spending the money on good stuff. And getting away with doing this on $150 - 200 per month or less is pretty impressive - that shows me that they're are being (relatively) frugal.

And hey, if it's good enough for ODB, it's good enough for Baltimore hipsters.

Don't any of you people have jobs?
And have you ever eaten rabbit? Nasty little black eyed things.

We save tons of money by buying produce from the JFX market instead of at Safeway, and it lasts a lot longer too because it's fresher. If the gov't gives you x number of dollars for food, you can spend x number of dollars. How should they "cut back", Babs? By not spending the full allotment?

In defense of Ramen, it's a best kept secret that America actually survives on it. There are many kids who actually prefer it to other foods. I know, there's the sodium issue, but many people oversalt other foods anyway. To date, I've never witnessed anyone salting Ramen.

This is sorta how government help is supposed to work right? They can qualify for the program, they are currently under-employed for a variety of reasons, mostly due to the economy downturn. I imagine when their skills are somewhat marketable again, they'll want to not deal with the hassle of food stamps, or get a job that will get them out of that bracket. Their tastes seem to dictate that. This is part time help for part time need.

The massive issue for government subsidy help falls on the shoulders of those folks and families that have continued to use government help as a generational birthright. There are plenty of folk in Hampden who have been on food stamps for several years longer than these two, and will no doubt be on them even after the economy clears up. Therein lies the real problem.

I enjoy chasing rabbits, but I've never actually caught one yet to see what it tastes like.

Mr. Tiddles, my uncle told me that the trick to catching a rabbit is to put salt on its tail. Good luck with that!

Hi, thank you very much. good job.

I can get $200 a month as a part-time blogger!!!??? What the! That's 200 clams more than Vozella's paying me! Grrrrr!
And organic salmon!!!???
Maybe I should start a food stamp blog. DiningOnTheDole.

Consider yourself lucky, Jl. I have to give LV a $25 gift card to PF Changs and a two liter bottle of Mountain Dew each week in exchange for publishing my Free Market Fridays.

Let's see...a big bag of Utz Potato Chips can cost $3.99, a nice piece of salmon can cost $3.99. Which is better for you?

Consider yourself lucky, RoCK. I gave Elizabeth Large twenty large to stop publishing my Owl Meat Thursday column. I still write it every week but just scream it to onlookers on High Street.

Consider yourself lucky, RoCK. I gave Elizabeth Large twenty large to stop publishing my Owl Meat Thursday column. I still write it every week but just scream it to onlookers on High Street.

A nice piece of salmon costs $3.99? Are you a moron? Salmon at Whole Foods is like $20 / lb. So a nice piece of salmon is like three ounces. you sir are an idiot

OMG, I once paid a server $20 not to sing "Happy Birthday".

Hello. I'm one of the people in the original article. I am not living large. I am not living in a castle. I am struggling like everyone else. I go hungry some days. I eat cans of sardines other days. A can of Alaskan salmon is $2.49 at my local store. I eat that sometimes. I eat vegetables and chicken. Please understand that the original article was written with controversy in mind. I am just a guy who is having some trouble right now. I don't take assistance lightly, and if you could only see how I actually eat, you would see that it's really not that extravagant at all. I'm just trying not to eat processed food. I pay taxes too, and I just found myself unemployed after 8 years working in the publishing industry. I'm doing the best I can, just like all of you.

Well, Mr. Mak, are you saying that the article was written inaccurately? Because what you say here and what's in the article are, well, apples and oranges.


The reporter contacted me telling me she was writing a story about artists and people who care about food who happen to be on food stamps. That's me. I care about food. I think it's incredibly important, and I love to cook. I don't have health care, so I think healthy food is paramount.

Just because I am going through hard times now (no harder than anyone else's, just hard enough to qualify legally for food stamps), I don't think this precludes me from caring about what I eat and enjoying food. I cook the best meals I can from limited means. Even the meal I cooked for the reporter cost me literally $2. Sarah, the other person mentioned in the article, contributed about $5 worth of ingredients. Because the ingredients were bought at an "ethnic market" people assume it was fancy. But it's just a small halal market across the street from me.

I'm really just a guy. I work (even though I am under-employed and trying to find more work), I pay taxes, and I am using a benefit that I legally qualify for. I use it smartly as I can, buying the healthiest ingredients at the most reasonable prices. I cook everything myself. I never eat out. I don't buy anything ever. I pay my own rent. I don't have a car, I don't have a bike, and I walk everywhere I go.

I am not truly poor. I just have lost work, my parents can't support me, I have no savings, and I'm living as minimally as I can while I search for a job -any job - that will hire me. Unfortunately, I've worked for 8 years in a dying industry, and I don't even qualify for retail and coffee shop jobs. I'm really open to anything, but every opening these days is highly competitive, even the seemingly menial jobs.

Do you have a private way to contact you?

Hey, this is not a dating service! LV

Good luck to you, Gerry Mak. I hope better days are right around the corner for you and many others who find themselves in the same boat.

Where I work we were lucky enough to have a job opening, and it was stunning to see how many people applied (many ostensibly over-qualified for the position). That was a real wake-up call.

Link spam at 7:54 PM! (A shill for something in Turkish.)

Link spam at 9:36 PM! (Another shill for Chinese goods of dubious provenance.)

Because what you say here and what's in the article are, well, apples and oranges.

The reporter presented her observations to support a particular theme, but I see no discrepancy between anything in the article and Gerry Mak's statements.

I keep hearing everyone talk about " healthy" whats so healthy about rabbit in butter and taragon.I don't like to see someone loading up on ben and jerry's and ding dongs on the tax payer nor do I want to see someone foie gras and sea bass either.

I started to get ticked at this for a second, but then I really though about it - should someone choose to pick highly -processed, high-sodium, high-fat & low-nutrition items because they are inexpensive? Chances are that person is going to cost us all a boatload of money in the future when they are obese with a heart condition.

I came from a home that needed government assistance at one time, to get back on our feet. We didn't get food stamps, but I've certainly eaten share of goverment-issued block cheese sandwiches. The $150 is going to get spent by him either way, so why shouldn't he spend it on something that is nutritious? When I'm driving through the city it's not unusual for me to see kids on the bus stops eating cheese curls and soda for breakfast, wouldn't it be better if these kids have been reinforced to make better choices?

"And hey, if it's good enough for ODB, it's good enough for Baltimore hipsters."

Sean, I'm neither. But thank you.

But, food stamps can be used for a variety of things. I'd rather see someone getting more natural food and living better than loading up on ho-hos and junk crammed full of artificial preservatives and additives.

Meek hit the nail on the head - if you are on food stamps, chances are you are not paying for health insurance and you may not yet reach the threshold of medicaid.

Art School = Food Stamps

Did you know that in the middle ages it was illegal for poor people to consume Marzipan.

@Mark Morgan

Rabbit is lower in fat and calories than beef. The cooking method sounds reasonable.

puhleeze >A nice piece of salmon costs $3.99? Are you a moron? Salmon at Whole Foods is like $20 / lb. So a nice piece of salmon is like three ounces. you sir are an idiot

My wife has mumbled that at times also. :-( However my local supermarket - ShopRite - I live in the Pocono's - had Atlantic Salmon advertised last week at $7.99 a pd. You do the math.

Jack Z., was that Atlantic farm raised salmon? Not the same thing as wild-caught at all, IMHO.

I don't understand. Why are people on food assistance supposed to eat crap? Are they supposed to eat ramen noodles all the time?
Why does it bother people that someone chooses healthy food while on food stamps?
Is it so scary that many more people currently receiving assistance could get the idea that they too, could start purchasing healthier food?

It's not the healthy part... it's the high-end gourmet on my dime that pisses me off.

Actually the article is about how being on food stamps is no longer a stigma for "hipsters".

It really doesn't have as much to do with eating healthy as it does with the fact that "non-traditional" poor people are using assistance--and they are able to square it with themselves because they can still maintain their tastes/lifestyle while doing it.

As it turns out, their tastes run to what many people think you really shouldn't talk up if you aren't actually paying for it. But that's neither here nor there.

I agree with "skut" about the article's main focus. And, you know, if we're in a situation where we're going to condemn the "hipsters" for eating at least decent, whole-grain stuff, how about casting much louder and harsher condemnation over some of the following I've witnessed purchased with "Independence Cards" (which are actually "dependence cards," if you think hard about it) over the past month: A whole sheet birthday cake, coated with thick frosting/icing, for a kid's birthday party, along with lots of ice cream; a shopping cart full of soda; a whole load of highly-sugared breakfast cereals; and untold quantities of snack cakes, potato chips, and other "junk" food....... And by the way, "hipsters"? The H&S bakery outlet store is just down the street from the downtown Whole Foods, with lots of bargain whole-grain breads.....

If you are going to have a government food program, which shouldn't be a given, it should be administered in one of two ways.

The first is the current system of allowing people to buy food from local stores. These transactions can have limited restrictions, such as no beer, smokes or prepared foods, but it should not be about micromanaging what people are allowed to eat. Not only is it paternalistic; it is also more expensive to administer. The transaction costs are increased by all of the additional monitoring that is needed.

The second option is to have government run or sponsored food pantries. If you want to control what people eat, you can control what is on the shelves of the pantry. Of course, something like this has drawbacks as well, particularly in rural areas where economies of scale can not be taken advantage of.

RoCK, while government-sponsored food pantries can control what is available, other priorities can get in the way. Years ago, surplus cheese and butter showed up in food pantries. The USDA's system of price supports for the dairy industry evidently trumped any health concerns at that time.

Surely you're not saying we have the resources to save the poor from their lot? There will be poor always, pathetically struggling, look at the good things you've got!

J.C., I'm just sayin' - that's a mighty fine ointment, all new and expensive and whatnot. I figure it must have cost at least 300 silver pieces, right? I mean, don't the poor and hungry matter more than you feet and hair?

captcha - iscariot leader...

No, I'm not making that up. Someone's watching...

Someone's watching...

Who's watching -- Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice?

Happy Birthday, Andrew Lloyd Webber--and Steven Sondheim.

Oh my! I feel compelled to 'weigh-in'. IF the hipsters are non-white folks, and used food stamps issued in most cases to care for children, elderly and handicapped citizens, then the are considered to be lazy people who drain government support. However, if the hipsters are able, capable young white people who abuse food stamps by purchasing upscale foodstuffs at upscale grocery chains, then they are "glorified". Is it the opinion of the clueless posted here, that food stamps are acceptable if utilized to purchase 'good' foods, thus contributing to better health? These hipsters 'qualified' for food stamps, they are not needy, simply 'hip' and 'slick' enough to rob from those who are needy and then rationalize their abuse. This article and its treatment of "modern-day hipsters using food stamps to eat gourmet foods", is a prime example of white superiority, and how white folks change the rules to make them not apply, and to make themselves good while assigning 'bad' qualities to non-whites. The truth is welfare recipients are mostly white females, 60 percent, at least! So I guess the new termololgy is "white elitist welfare partakers", not 'poor whites' ~ right? I will stake a claim that none of the shite hipsters have ever volunteered at a food bank or soup kitchen ~ they're too good for that, right? At this juncture, It wouldn't surprise me if they've avoided paying taxes. Welfare abuse by any other name is WELFARE ABUSE!!! These hipsters don;t deserve assistance ~


Actually, if I'm not mistaken, the article is about someone with an Asian surname.

So, uh, yeah.

My point was, why the emphasis on race. I mean, what's the difference if they are white or non white?

There's a big difference between eating healthy and extravagant eating. And this is extravagant. There are plenty of inexpensive healthy foods.

I think you all who have a problem with this are jealous. Everyone has to pay taxes at some point in their lives (sooner or later). Therefore, if you need food stamps you have either already contributed to the tax fund or will later. I am a single mom who decided to go back to school. I have been on FS all through my masters and phd programs. When I graduate I will make a salary starting at around 50 grand or more. I will pay my damned taxes and then someone else will use that money for their food stamps. What's the big deal??? By the way I only shop at natural food markets and I am an avid juicer. Ohhhhhh...the boogie man is really gonna get me! Get over it guys!

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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