Many years ago we were on food stamps.
My husband was finishing grad school and we had a small baby. I worked a few hours a week at home for an agency for the blind, tutoring a legally blind Cuban woman in English. I would put the baby in the swing, wind it up, and teach uninterrupted for a good 20 minutes while she slept (the baby, not the woman).
When that job ended, we found ourselves unable to cover our meager expenses, so we swallowed our pride, hauled ourselves down to Social Services, waded through the paperwork, and came away with grocery money in the form of food stamps. Our lives were much improved. That spring and summer we were able to get most of the things we needed for the baby and for ourselves if we ate frugally. I don’t remember if we bought soda. Probably.
At the end of the summer my husband graduated and found a job. We still had a couple weeks’ food stamps left, so we decided to put aside our guilt and celebrate. We bought 5 pounds of frozen shrimp and invited our neighbors over for dinner. Since it was clearly an upscale party, they thoughtfully brought Mateus.
I was reminded of this experience when I read New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal that people on food stamps in New York should not be allowed to use them to purchase sugared soft drinks. The Mayor points to the correlation between increased soft drink consumption and increased obesity.
The mayor’s proposal has provoked the righteous on both sides. The city’s health commissioner says the measure would save lives. Others note the underlying politics of targeting the poor, suggesting they are incapable of making good choices. After all, not only do they buy soft drinks with food stamps, but they may also buy pop tarts, pork rinds, white bread, candy, sausage, whole milk, and Fritos. Maybe even shrimp. Sort of like people not on food stamps do.
Meanwhile, at the federal level, the politics of food continues. Hopping on board with the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative, the Senate is working to improve school nutrition. The new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act would be paid for by … (wait for it) $2.2 billion saved by cutting food stamp allocations. Happily, no action has yet been taken as Congress breaks for midterm elections.
The opportunity to weigh in on the politics of food wasn’t lost on Newt Gingrich, of all people. “Which future do I want?” he asks (rhetorically, as usual). “More food stamps? Or more paychecks?”
Who knew you could just choose?
But in a New York Times Opinion piece (“Running Against Food Stamps”), Francis X. Clines points out, “Unlike the upper-income tax cuts Republicans furiously protect, food stamps, minimalist as they are, are antirecession sparks that generate $9 in economic activity for every $5 spent, according to federal statistics. Everybody wants a paycheck, but people have to eat.”
Caught in the middle of all the politicians’ posturing and bloviating are the kids. Anybody worried about them?