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On Hipsters, Food Stamps and the Permeability of the Poverty Line

On Hipsters, Food Stamps and the Permeability of the Poverty Line

There was an article in Salon the other day that I almost blogged about, but it seemed like such as setup: Hipsters on Food Stamps. The article was a profile of out-of-work “hipsters” in the Bay Area, New York, Baltimore and other urban areas who were, thanks to the ongoing recession and the stimulus package, eligible for and using food stamps. Of course, the twist was that they weren’t eating “government cheese” but were using their food stamp money to buy fruits and vegetables at small stores and farmers markets, and were gasp, cooking fairly delicious meals from them. One of those meals was described, rather snarkily, as “Thai yellow curry with coconut milk and lemongrass, Chinese gourd sautéed in hot chile sauce and sweet clementine juice, all of it courtesy of government assistance.” Hmm. Sounds like a healthy cheap vegetarian meal to me.

So anyway, I wasn’t going to write about this because it just seemed so dumb. But today I was cruising past Salon, and found Gerry Mak’s response to the story. He’s one of the so-called “hipsters” profiled in the piece, and while he defended his decisions about food with eloquence, he correctly pointed out that the original article was a smokescreen for a larger and more important issue:

… the core of this discussion is an ideological debate between those that believe private entrepreneurship and simple hard work are the cures for poverty, and those that believe that the the poverty line is permeable in both directions. Among the latter, there is yet a deeper debate about whether we can, in a deep recession with record unemployment rates, make the same old assumptions about class based on race, occupation and education, particularly when increasingly, only poorly paid, unprotected, insecure jobs are available even to people with master’s degrees.

As someone who grew up with many many advantages, especially those of class privilege, but with parents who were usually broke, I have never been unclear on the permeability of the poverty line. I’ve been broke most of my life, with the exception of the ten years I spent at the Big Corporation. I have almost always worked at least two jobs; I have advanced degrees; and yet, in every other job I’ve ever had but that one, I’ve been underpaid, and have worked in environments where benefits weren’t even offered. Until the Big Corp. job, I’d never worked anyplace where I qualified for unemployment benefits when the job ended, and it continues to make me crazy that the majority of the jobs I’ve had in my life don’t even qualify as “real” jobs to the government. So if, for once, unemployed, educated, white-collar information workers are eligible for a little bit of government assistance, and they’re being creative about using it, who are we to mock them?

This is a deep and terrifying recession, and although I’ve been weathering it pretty well so far, let’s face it, there are real dangers out there. People are losing their houses. Kids are getting out of school and looking at the worst employment prospects in decades, but unlike those of us who graduated in the mid-1980s with similar recessionary stats, these kids are carrying tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. And it’s not just kids who are in trouble. There are a lot of people, like the author of this article in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, “Off The Job, Slouching Toward Social Services” who have good educations, and creative professions they’ve sustained with the sorts of underemployment jobs that those of us who want to write or paint or dance or create theatre have always had — secretarial and translation and waiting tables — and even those jobs are gone now. I’ve been lucky so far — I’ve had enough freelance work to keep my head above water, and it looks like I’ll be able to swing a part-time contracting gig back at the Big Corporation. I’m thrilled that I can survive on a part-time gig as I have some creative projects I really feel it’s time to commit to and I’ve spent the past eight years since I’ve moved here paying things off and trying to get my financial house to the place where I can live on a lot less. However, even though I can do this, and I’m deeply grateful for the job opportunity, I’m still going back to a world of self-employment — no health insurance, no stock options, and should this gig end, no unemployment benefits. I’m going back into that ever-increasing sector of the economy where there is no safety net, and where bankruptcy and ruin are one broken leg or appendicitis or cancer diagnosis away. And that’s NOT the change I voted for, it’s not the United States in which I want to live, and it’s not the nation where I want our kids to grow up. We have the ability to take care of one another better than this. And one way we can start the process is perhaps by rethinking some of the stories we’ve been told about class and race and education and opportunity.

School Food

School Food

Hi folks — working on a really exciting redesign, so expect to see the maintenance mode page again over the next week or so.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking a lot about school food. The Billings Gazette had a piece about an elementary school that was about to start offering breakfast to all students. Which sounds like a great idea, except that I read about it right on the heels of Ed Bruske’s series, Tales from a DC School Kitchen in which he spent a week in his daughter’s school, and discovered fun facts like the breakfast offered contained as much as 13 teaspoons of sugar. Hmm. Breakfast is good, but is that breakfast good?

The Bozeman Chronicle reports that the Farm-to-School movement is getting some additional support, but it doesn’t yet sound like they’re seeing much local food in the local schools (and no, selling “local” huckleberry jam as a fundraiser doesn’t count.) Personally I think a great use of stimulus money would be to rebuild actual kitchens in the schools, and, as Tom Philpott has suggested, run a debt-exchange with culinary school graduates to run them. They could learn budgeting and cooking for picky eaters, and the kids would get real food. Or just hire lunch ladies again. I’m a huge fan of lunch ladies.

The way we pretend to use agricultural surplus to feed our schoolchildren should be a national shame. There’s nothing “agricultural” about the sorts of highly-processed heat-and-eat crap we’re serving them. Here’s an eye-opening blog post by a mother from Houston who gave in to her daughter’s wish to buy lunch (which was social in nature, the kid ate food she knew would make her sick three days running). She told her kid she could try school lunch for a week, if she’d take a picture of each lunch. Take a look here at what the kid was eating.

To top off this little school-food roundup, here’s Jamie Oliver’s terrific Ted Talk. He can be a little annoying, but you have to give the guy credit for fighting the good fight for cooking and real food. It shouldn’t be so hard.

Hutterite Turkeys …

Hutterite Turkeys …

Interesting piece in this morning’s Billings Gazette about Hutterite Turkeys. The “Hoots” as they’re colloquially known, cut back on turkey production this year fearing that their premium birds wouldn’t sell in the recession, but they’re finding the opposite is true, and now there’s a run on Hutterite birds:

“Foodies have driven up the demand for the fresh birds, which can cost more — $1.70 a pound versus $1.29 a pound for a pre-sale frozen turkey. It doesn’t hurt that the birds have a back story, raised in rural Montana by pacifists observing 16th-century Anabaptist principles while operating some of the most efficient, modern farms in the state.”

Gourmet Bites the Dust

Gourmet Bites the Dust

Wow. This was a surprise to me somehow — Gourmet Magazine is closing. My first job out of college was repackaging Gourmet Magazine content into the first few volumes of Best of Gourmet and Gourmet’s Best Desserts (we also did other titles for Conde Nast). I’ll never forget going through the bound volumes of Gourmet Magazines — my task was to xerox every dessert recipe that had ever appeared, cut it out, and tape it onto a sheet of paper. These were the old days, when we did things on paper, and when type came back from teh typesetter and was glued to mechanical boards with wax. That was my other primary task, running big black portfolios of mechanical boards from our office on East 21st Street up to the Conde Nast building, then over to the Gourmet offices so they could be signed off on.

The Gourmet Magazine offices were like another world. This was 1985-87 and there were grown women wearing kilts and knee socks and those weird scarfy things women wore tied around their necks as some sort of business tie substitute. It was like a prep school or sorority gone slightly elderly, and slightly odd.

But I learned a lot, not only about food and cooking, but about how a recipe should look on the page, how it should work, and the importance of testing to make sure it worked.

It just seems a shame. Gourmet has a long history, and if nothing else, it’s a record of the remarkable changes in American attitudes toward food and travel over the past 70 years. And they published some wonderful writers. I’ll never forget bursting into tears over Christmas break one year when I read that before she’d died, Laurie Colwin had finished a year’s worth of columns, and the magazine planned to run them all. I’m so sad I’ll never have the chance to pitch them now …

School Lunch, Opportunity for Change?

School Lunch, Opportunity for Change?

There’s a vigorous and healthy debate going on in the blogosphere about school lunch. Congress is gearing up to revise the Child Nutrition and WIC act, which includes the school lunch program, and the forces of Hope and Change have ideas. (Click through to the actual essays linked, my summaries necessarily oversimplify.)

Alice Waters started the debate on the NY Times Op-Ed page, advocating that we double the lunch subsidy from $2.17 to $5.00. She also, no surprise, wants a program that works with farmers to get organic local produce into schools, and advocates rebuilding school kitchens.

This suggestion, particularly the price tag, has set off something of a storm. There’s a new-ish blog called the Internet Food Association, which seems to be a bunch of policy wonks who are also interested in food, and who are cross-pollinating the argument by bringing economics and policy experience into the debate. Tom Lee takes on Alice’s argument, and in particular, her price point, here in a piece entitled The Pretentious is the Enemy of the Good. Ezra Klein, writing on the same blog, has a slightly different take, one that I think includes my favorite quote:

Cooking is more useful than dodgeball proficiency — particularly as you get older. But schools have dodgeball courts. I cook more often than I play the clarinet. But my school had a music room. We have to decide whether it’s worth the expenditure, but integrating kitchens into schools is not crazy on its face.

Tom Philpott, over at Grist, does a good summation of the argument. He’s curious, as am I, about why the mere suggestion that we spend five bucks on lunch for kids gets people so riled up. And it’s Philpott who keeps floating my favorite suggestion — a program for endebted cooking school grads based on Teach for America — trade the enthusiasm and skill of newly trained chefs for some debt relief and the opportunity to demonstrate that they can run a good kitchen on a budget.

What’s my take? I live in a small town. We have two elementary schools (one that shares a building with the middle school) and a high school. We have a population of people who could easily work in school lunchrooms, competantly making lunch every day. We still have a pretty low unemployment rate, but a lot of people are in extremely low-wage jobs and would be happy to trade up for a nice safe school district job, especially if we could find a way to provide insurance. I also live in an area where there is an easy supply of local meat (including game in the fall) and where agricultural education is already part of the curriculum. It would not be a big stretch to get kids throughout our entire district involved in the production end of the food system, many of them already are (or have extended family who are ranchers).

If we had real kitchens in schools again, and gardens, and some vibrant connection to the ranching community in which we live, we could build a curriculum around food that would teach all sorts of useful skills. Cooking for one, which as anyone who has read this blog for more than five minutes realizes is a big cause for me. Cooking with kids is a proven way to get them to expand their food preferences, and you learn a lot of school skills when you cook. Math and measurement and ratios and temperatures –what is cooking but one big science experiment? Get kids in the kitchen, let them help figure out budgets and decide what to cook for their schoolmates. Have them write recipes and menus and “advertise” their lunch day in the school paper. Get high school kids in the kitchen as interns — we’re not a district where it’s assumed everyone is going to college — give a kid a chance to learn a useful skill.

I don’t know, I don’t see any downside except that this means being more involved. I cannot see any upside to feeding our kids the crap we’re currently feeding them. And frankly, if we’re going to stimulate some areas of the economy, why not stimulate farmers and cooks and teachers and people who want to be passionately involved rather than stimulating the big food processors and delivery companies who think that battered chicken shards formed in patties are an actual food product?