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Eat Me

Confessions of a Food Stamp Foodie

When eating organic, local food turns out to be economically impossible

Photo: Michelle Gienow, License: N/A

Michelle Gienow

Just about three years ago, I found myself sitting in a local county social services office. I had just moved out of the house I shared with my then-husband, who immediately cut me off financially. Having been a stay-at-home mother with two small children for the previous six years, I was looking at what aid might be available until I got back on my feet. The caseworker recommended applying for emergency food stamps, or SNAP (the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). While filling out the paperwork I asked, almost conversationally, if she knew which farmer’s markets accepted the Independence Card. I explained that, for a variety of reasons—including feeding my boys the most nutritious food available, supporting local farmers, and reducing the carbon miles our food inflicted on the environment—I tried to buy our food locally and organically. She looked at me as if I’d just told her I believed in Santa Claus and, with a poorly disguised smirk, said, “Honey, those days are over.”

I took my paperwork and left, vowing never to return. As it turned out, mostly thanks to the generosity of friends and family, I didn’t have to go on food stamps. But that smirk inspired a project: I decided to see whether it was possible for a family of three to eat SOLE (sustainable, organic, local, and ethically produced) food for a month on the $426 worth of food stamp assistance we would have been eligible for at the time. It wasn’t easy and it was hugely time-consuming, but I did it and wrote about the experience for this paper (“SOLE Food,” Feature, Oct. 7, 2009).

Flash forward to 2012. After a failed attempt at rescuing my marriage, I’m once again that single mother, trying to feed my two boys. What’s different is that while I do receive child support (a whopping $217 per month), I no longer have the luxury of refusing food stamps. With print journalism circling the drain, it’s tougher than ever for freelance photographers and writers like me. This time, I handed in the paperwork. We’re on food stamps, for real, now.

There’s another difference, one that initially gave me hope. The local foods movement has gathered momentum and influence to the point that I can use my SNAP benefits at an increasing number of farmer’s markets (the program just expanded to include the Baltimore Farmers Market under the JFX), including one very near the house I rent. The problem is that, there, a quart-size box of organic summer squash (four small ones) costs $4, but my food stamp allotment works out to just $5.06 per meal for my three-person family. And with the meager cash I earn going to luxuries like rent, insurance, clothing, and shoes for two boys that never seem to stop growing, there is no leeway; $5.06 is what I’ve got to work with. If I can’t afford it with food stamps, we don’t eat it.

Four bucks is not an unreasonable amount of money for that box of zucchini. Raising righteous vegetables requires not just grueling labor but also a lot of money, invested months before any possible sales of actual produce, all of which can be lost due to weather, or deer damage, or local rednecks stealing your irrigation pump right out of the field just when you’ve put in the spring seedlings. I’m friends with many of the people farming sustainably and conscientiously around Baltimore, and they’re not rich by any stretch of the imagination. Most can only dream of farming land they own. They do this kind of farming because they believe in it, and I absolutely understand that the food they produce costs what it does for some very solid reasons.

Those reasons, however, simply don’t factor into my distressingly limited budget these days. My ideals are by necessity on hold while I work my way back to financial solid ground. So instead of the organic, grass-fed milk I used to buy from a farm within walking distance from my house, these days I’m pulling the generic gallon—from cows kept God-knows-where and fed God-knows-what while amped up on tons of antibiotics, but selling for less than half the price—from the Walmart dairy case. We’ll be OK drinking the generic milk, which is at least hormone-free. And so it goes: I buy the best ingredients I can afford, given the circumstances, and work from there.

But there are definitely items I can’t bring myself to buy, and those we do without. For example, I know a little too much about factory-farmed meat production, so when I can’t afford the pasture-raised chicken, we eat beans instead. Or falafel, or grilled cheese, or any number of other affordable alternatives, and the guys don’t seem to mind.

There are times, however, that I mind. My son Jack adores peaches, which are just coming into season around here, and this week I found luscious, fantastically fragrant local peaches at a farm market. The box price worked out to almost $1 each. I’d already checked the supermarket, which was offering pale, mealy peaches from California, on sale for 99 cents per pound, picked before fully ripened so as to withstand transport. The fiscal legerdemain of agricultural subsidies makes it possible for industrial-scale producers to truck crappy fruit all the way across the U.S. and sell it—profitably, one assumes—for less than local producers can afford to sell the glorious, in-season fruit they grow right damned here.

The hard lesson I have learned and still hate to acknowledge is that eating locally and organically on a low income is a seriously difficult proposition. One way or another, you’ve got to pay, and if it’s not with disposable income, then it’s going to be with time invested. I could, for example, meet or even beat the grocery store price on peaches by driving to an orchard and buying a whole bushel of seconds—I’d have my delicious local peaches at an affordable price. I’d also be out the better part of both a day and a tank of gas. Back when I spent that month eating sustainably and locally on a food-stamp budget, provisioning us was a nearly full-time job. These days I simply can’t do it; like so many of us, I’m scrambling every minute to keep body and soul together, and SOLE is no longer a prime directive.

Thus, I’m creative where I can afford to be—for example, I’m bartering blog-writing for a share in a local organic CSA. The rest of the time I grit my teeth and shop wherever I can make a meal for $5.06, picking best as I can from the factory-farmed offerings.

But every now and then, I skip lunch and buy my kid those farmers market peaches anyway.

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