Food Stamps are Hip

Are you eligible for food stamps? Are you sure? Why not check here and find out? Unfortunately, the rules vary from state to state and are pretty complex within each one, so I can’t give much in the way of useful guidelines.

Whole Foods Crop - David Shankbone But I’m guessing the rules are a lot more permissive than you think. They probably grant food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance as it is now technically called, to folks you probably do not think should be eligible, possibly including you.

I know this from an article now reverberating around the blogosphere that was posted Monday at Salon, Hipsters on Food Stamps. (I am nowhere near hip enough to read Salon. I found it from thoughtful commentary the next day called Using Food Stamps at Whole Foods, on The Big Money, which I do read.)

The Salon article, brilliantly subtitled "They’re young, they’re broke, and they pay for organic salmon with government subsidies. Got a problem with that?" profiles a pair of significantly underemployed urban intelligentsia types who get $350 a month from the government to spend on food. Needless to say, they exercise their good taste by buying stuff of which I have never actually heard, but which I am willing to believe is expensive, hip, and a scandalously inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars. Salon even coaxed the sound bite "I’m eating better than I ever have before." from the female of the pair.

Don’t get me wrong. If I was eligible for food stamps I would sign up in a minute and happily use them at Whole Foods. (I’m not. I checked. They consider household rather than personal income and the wife is doing pretty well.) And I would, without hesitation, advise anybody who can get this bit of free money from the government to do so.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t think this is government policy gone awry. Using food stamps at Whole Foods is prima facie evidence you are getting too much in food stamps. And it is not even clear to me that the program is universally generous, it may just be arbitrary. A New York Times article from last November profiled a family of seven that gets $300 a month, $50 less than the hipster couple.

During the present Secretary of State’s attempt at health care reform, then-Senator Phil Gramm said something like "If we paid for food the way we pay for healthcare in this country, I know I’d eat better. And so would my dog." It’s one of my favorite quotes, and one that I think ought to have been repeated many times during our current go at reform.

Of course, Gramm meant (further) government involvement in food purchases to be a humorously bad idea. And to a point, the results of giving food stamps to those under a certain income level are pretty predictable when some of those people are starving artist types.

The Big Money piece points out that, in a way, this latest hullaballoo is a step forward. Up to now the recurring worry about food stamps was that they were being used for unhealthy junk food. (That worry being a part of a larger effort to treat the food Americans like to eat as a public health crisis. See, for example, the current vogue for taxing soda, cigarettes having been more or less wrung dry by now.)

So it seems inevitable to me that the government will need to set up panels of experts to review the purchases made with food stamps and disallow those that are either too tasty or too bad for you. In the meantime, we should all get food stamps if we can. Whole Foods awaits.

[Photo – David Shankbone]

No Comments

  • By Neil, March 17, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    The catch-22 of food stamps is that if you give two people in similar situations the same allowance, but one is an excellent cook and saavy shopper, and the other doesn’t have a functional stove and can only purchase items that can be heated in the microwave…person A is going to eat very well, while person B struggles to avoid malnourishment.

    I’m not sure of a good solution to that. Replacing food stamps with equally well-funded food parcels might make the difference. It would meet the public policy goal of avoiding starvation, while still providing a sufficiently bland and repetitive diet to provide an incentive to get off the subsidy program. You still have to address the issue of food preparation facilities, though, since there’s many people on food stamps who don’t have the kitchen facilities you might imagine are universally available in America.

    They can’t all be hipsters, can they?

  • By jim, March 17, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    One of the hipsters on food stamps has a “a meager part-time blogging job”. That must have some sort of deep meaning.

    I usually heartily endorse getting as much free money from the government as you can and doing whatever you want with it. But something just makes me want to slap someone who would use food stamps at Whole Foods.

    I found the food stamp estimator thingy for my state. I played with it to do a little trial and error. It looks like for a married couple with no kids and a $1000 mortgage that the borderline for food stamp eligibility is between $2000 & $2500 monthly income. The estimator looks at income and housing expenses.

    BTW, the reason the guy with 5 kids from the NYT article qualified for ‘only’ $300 in food stamps is that he was gainfully employed full time. From the sounds of it thew two hipsters are qualifying separately at $150 and $200 each and probably have very little income.

  • By downfall, March 17, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

    Neil, I’m going to go ahead and declare shenanigans on that. I speak from experience on getting through grad school on student loans.

    There might, somewhere, be somebody who has enough money to put a roof over their heads, and therefore don’t go to soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and the like, but doesn’t have enough money to pay $25 for a George Foreman grill. That’s the financial equivalent of flipping a coin and landing on edge, but you never know.

    For those who can afford the investment of the grill, it’s extremely easy to eat well without a lot of money. You can easily cook chicken ($2-$3 a pound), ground beef (also $2-$3 a pound), catfish ($5-$6 a pound), etc. and supplement with bread, fruits, and raw vegetables. It would be a repetitive diet, but extremely inexpensive. It requires no real kitchen skill, and can be done by anybody with a countertop and an electrical outlet.

    For those with an additional $30-$45 to spend, they can get a plug-in device that emulates an electric burner and a single frying pan– they now have access to eggs, hamsteak, and anything else you can fry.

    And that’s not getting into all the easy things that can be done without heat of any sort, such as tuna salad. Granted, you will soon get extremely tired of cleaning your grill and single frying pan.

  • By The Personal Finance Blog, March 17, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    The real issue here is how many mouths have to be fed on the food stamps that are given. Granted, you mentioned the apparent arbitrary nature of how much you get, but then again, even if the parents of that family of seven wanted to, they couldn’t shop for food the way the hipster couple does.

  • By Adam, March 17, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

    I bet one could write a similarly slanted article about seniors living it up on their social security checks and free healthcare.

  • By Kosmo @ The Casual Observer, March 17, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    I’ve heard of college students living in subsidized housing and getting food stamps. This never even occurred to me when I was in college, in spite of the fact that I was independent and had no money.

    A few years ago, the son of the football coach at the U in town was one of the football players who were living in subsidized housing. The kid was on scholarship and his dad ranks in the top half dozen NCAA coaches in salary (but the SON had very little “income”). Oops. Son quickly moved out of subsidized housing.

  • By Andrew Stevens, March 17, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

    Kosmo, you must be in my old backyard. I remember the story very well. That son is now a coaching assistant with the New England Patriots. Don’t know if he’s on food stamps.

  • By Abigail, March 17, 2010 @ 6:41 pm

    Having checked out a couple of states’ food stamp options, I can tell you the vast majority of people won’t qualify.

    In Seattle, it was RAISED from $1400 to $1700 for a couple. This happened over two different times and only in the wake of the recession. This is in a city where a 1BR costs $700 at the least. In most areas, it’s climbing higher.

    Here in Phoenix, where cost of living is lower, the max is something along the lines of $1100 for a couple.

    If you have even one spouse working, you’re not going to qualify for benefits.

  • By Kosmo @ The Casual Observer, March 18, 2010 @ 12:44 am

    @ Andrew – I live a couple miles from the stadium – but I’m a proud alum of State.

  • By Parker Bohn, March 18, 2010 @ 7:21 am

    I live in Georgia, and if you own any kind of assets at all, it is very hard to get food stamps. For instance, I have a friend who was laid-off a while back, and she only gets food stamps because her car is in her mother’s name (for insurance reasons).

  • By Holly, March 18, 2010 @ 9:49 am

    Makes me crazy when I go to the grocery store w/my three kids and have to buy all of the discounted, off-brand, day-old, and generic only to see a woman, no children, buying ‘Fancy Feast’ for her cat, gourmet cheeses, and name brand everything–all with food stamps.

    The food stamps should be restrictive…they should be used for basic essentials, i.e. large blocks of cheese, cheese, crackers, peanut butter, milk, waffle mix, veggies, etc. And not accepted at “Whole Foods”.

  • By steve, March 18, 2010 @ 11:35 am

    I agree Holly. If the WIC program can limit food choices for children and women, then why can’t the food stamp program do the same thing? I don’t want to see people using food stamps to buy steaks with tax payer money when I’m buying hamburger meat and chicken with my own cash.

    There’s nothing wrong with eating healthy, and I have no problem with the poor using food stamps to buy veggies, fruits and cheaper cuts of meat, but twinkies, steaks, some high priced organic foods, soda and many processed foods should be off the table. If you want variety, pay for it yourself.

  • By Adam, March 18, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    A large block of cheese is a basic essential? Where do you live?

  • By jim, March 18, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    “buying ‘Fancy Feast’ for her cat”

    You can not use food stamps to buy pet food.

  • By Investor Junkie, March 18, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

    You assume it was for her pet and not her.

    So now Food Stamps are Supplemental Nutrition Assistance? How PC have we become?

  • By Mike, March 19, 2010 @ 5:48 am

    The idea of criticizing people for shopping for high quality foods with food stamps is pretty ridiculous. Why criticize people for making smart, productive choices.

    That being said, there is a valid debate over who should should be getting food assistance and how much.

    But the idea condemning people for buying quality products with the money they are given is without any merit whatsoever.

  • By Adam, March 19, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

    “So now Food Stamps are Supplemental Nutrition Assistance? How PC have we become?”

    Well, if they come in debit card form, why would you call them ‘stamps’?

  • By Holly, March 19, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

    Jim:
    Maybe the woman paid cash for the pet food…and maybe for that stilton cheese, who knows? I only know that she handed over the “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance”.

    Adam:
    By blox of cheese, I’m talking about the hunk of unsliced american cheese from the deli that the cafeteria workers would use to make a sandwich for the kids’ lunches.

  • By Adam, March 19, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

    Yes, I know what you’re talking about. I’m more confused why you feel such “food” is a “basic essential.”

  • By Cartoon Games, March 19, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

    Hey Adam, technically it’s not, it’s been proven that you can survive off just water for a very long time, but honestly, the pain would be too much, and your body would start feeding off itself.

    Anyways, the problem with food stamps is that I KNOW there are people who abuse it, and for example, get a job, do something stupid on purpose, get kicked out, live off food stamps, but then buy $200 Nikes and wear Gucci, Prada, etc. I’ve seen it happen, and it DOES happen.

  • By Holly, March 21, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    Adam:
    Because life sucks without mac ‘n’ cheese :*)

  • By Ronnie J, March 23, 2010 @ 11:09 am

    @ Holly:

    Heaven forbid people be allergic to milk products on your plan!!! They wouldn’t be able to eat anything.

    The problem with making restrictions is that you can’t account for things like that. If you can’t have gluten-based products, bread is out of the option. Does that mean you no longer qualify? I can’t have most nuts, which are a cheap and filling way to get protein. A friend is deathly allergic to eggs, also cheap and filling. Unless you want to spend the extra funds to make those determinations, you aren’t going to be able to make the program perfect.

    And sadly, many processed foods provide the most bang for your buck. Banquet frozen meals are 10/$10; most Hamburger/Chicken/Tuna helpers are 2/$5 or 3/$6. That’s just not a terrible use of funds. Sure, I think some excuses people give for not eating healthy are baloney, but having known enough people on food stamps myself, I just don’t think we here are in a position to judge.

  • By Holly, March 24, 2010 @ 7:33 pm

    I understand your point and it is certainly valid. Processed/junk foods are a major part of our nation’s diet, and I personally feel that more should be done to educate the masses in the areas of nutrition and general well-being.

  • By Joe Jabroni, April 9, 2010 @ 2:29 am

    I am on Food Stamps (FS)and I can give more insight + my opinions on this hot topic.

    How ironic and sad that HEALTHY supplements & protein bars DON’T work w/ FS yet JUNK like oreos, ice cream, soda & candy bars DO! FS should ONLY be good for produce, meat, dairy & grains.

    A few people here mentioned some people are too poor to cook etc. Well, research shows the BEST foods for us to eat anyways are all natural raw foods anyways. So I’m not going to shed a tear for anybody who can’t microwave hot pockets & chicken pot pies!

    Some people (including me) honestly get TOO MUCH FS. It’s called Nutrition Assistance yet we were getting $474 a month (family of 4…all U.S. citizens btw) and NOW thanks to Obama we’re getting $555 a month. That isn’t assistance….it covers ALL the food we need.

    If FS were limited to no more than $200-$300 per family no matter the size it would force FS users to use coupons, only buy staple foods, look for sales…basically WORK to make the money last.

    Getting all you can eat free food is only going to encourage some people to make more kids & only work part-time or only earn up to their limit. People on FS also are more likely to buy “impulse” foods like Doritos, soda etc. There’s also the flip side, people on FS are buying expensive deli cheeses & organic items they NEVER would buy with their own coin!

    A lot of people assume tons of Illegal aliens are abusing FS but I doubt….er hope that’s not the case. For one the process is a REAL headache. It’s time consuming & there’s a ton of forms & follow ups etc. but it’s worth it. You also need to bring in authentic documentation in person as well. I think all these facts will weed out a lot of unmotivated people who qualify perhaps but aren’t desperate enough for the hassle + only a small % of illegals would have the balls to even apply after reading the qualifications. Even so, you have to put 1/2 the blame on our government for allowing it to happen.

    We get so much because again, we have two children + I only have two part-time jobs right now until my main employer is ready to put me on full time. I could honestly work a full time AND my part time job but there’s the catch 22. Once I make over $2300 a month I lose the $555 in FS so there’s no motivation for me to make more money UNLESS I’m going to make significantly more than $2800 a month.

    I hope I was able to give some of you insight into the many flaws of the FS program.

  • By John Bon, December 29, 2010 @ 2:35 am

    It’s stupid that the majority of you think that being poor means that you don’t deserve to eat wholesome food purchased from organic grocery stores. Even if it is being paid for by taxpayers. It’s the logic that is stupid. Especially when most Americans are unhealthy. I mean, come on. Most people who shop organic do so because of their social conscious. And someone wants to stop them from shopping at Whole Foods. Get a life. Grow a conscience. Get over yourself. The truth is everyone in the country should be eating food that is the same quality as Whole Foods, but people would rather spend money on new cars and new houses that they can’t afford. Things that make them appear wealthy. But God forbid if two hipsters use their food stamps to buy expensive food that will benefit them in the future and lead them to live healthy lives. It’s just stupid to say “hey, you’re poor so have some food stamps, but you can only buy food that is poisoned with pesticides and meat from cloned cattle that have hormones that aren’t even legal in Europe, enjoy.” That is inhumane and disgusting. It’s good to know that despite not having money they are still able to make smart choices that most of you morons who probably grocery shop at wal-mart, but drive $20,000 vehicles. You’re scum and not smart with money. Taking care of yourself should take priority. Never have I been proud to be a hipster, but it seems like we are better at taking care of ourselves and this proves it.

  • By gwen, May 13, 2011 @ 10:10 pm

    I don’t get what the big commotion is about these “hipsters” shopping at whole foods. What’s wrong with having good taste and wanting to eat healthy instead of buying a bunch of junk made with starch that won’t even fill you up in the first place! If these “hipsters” need help to buy food I’m pretty sure they can’t afford health care and we’d have to foot the bill if they had health problems (I.e high cholesterol, diabetes, or whatever) caused by a poor diet. At least they’re health conscious about what they eat!

  • By Elisa, July 11, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    I think that people on food stamps should be able to buy what they want on food stamps. If you get unhealthy food, you are wrong, if you buy whole foods, you are wrong. What do you want them to do? Do you want them to eat bologna every day? The underlying issue is this: no one likes helping people in America who are poor. They stereo type them in the role of lazy and think they should not get quality food because of it. I think it is a control issue. “If they make us spend our hard earned tax dollars on welfare, then we should be able to tell them what to do with it!” That is the generalized view. Yet, have a earthquake in another country and you go all out to help. How many of those people are you willing to help who were not working? Do you want to find out their finacial class before giving? No. This country has poor people. Everyone can’t be rich. Everyone can’t be middle class. Everyone has financial difficulty from time to time and need help. Yes there are those that abuse the system. But don’t judge the program on those few people. We need to have compassion for our own people. If we can save the whales why not save the american people?

  • By Sam, October 12, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

    What amazes me are the number of people who seem to assume that ONLY people who are lazy, ignorant or con-artists receive food stamps. It’s great to talk about forcing people off the system. It’s lovely to come up with the concept of “bland” “food packages” which would make those on FS want to get right off them. What about the small percentage of recipients who,like myself, are combat wounded veterans with severe physical limitations? The VA pension I receive is less than $500.00 per month. Before I was wounded my wife and I had three children. Two of them are still living at home and under 16 years of age. My wife was already unable to work when I met her. I married her in spite of her having a very bad disability which prevents her being able to walk and limits her range of motion. Like everyone else in our nation I have to pay rent, electricity and other utilities. I only have internet access due to the generosity (or perhaps you would prefer to call it charity in your view points) of a close friend of the family who realizes that the internet is nearly as needed as a phone or car.

    But by the standards most of you set, my children should starve to death or be forced to eat bland meals with little nutritional value. Perhaps by your standard I should kill my wife and children and end YOUR suffering. Then I can follow it up with a bullet for myself? I defended your country, your freedom, and your RIGHT to bitch. I thoroughly enjoy reading about how I shouldn’t be able to survive now. Thank you all.

  • By Mera, July 3, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

    I’ve found the best way to stretch food stamps is to go to the Asian and Indian marts. You do have to be a bit ballsy and creative to make it work. If you can go to many small shops instead of one big grocer you’ll save quite a bit of money. I suggest curiously wandering in when you see one.
    I spend maybe $20 bucks on ‘junk food’ (which would be considered gross by many people- anchovie sesame crunchies?)

    That being said, I do a know a family that will only buy organic or natural foods because they do not consider chemically preserved or pesticide engrossed produce healthy for them or their child. I have to agree and would also like to eat this way but I end up spending too much money I don’t have on groceries outside of foodstamps.

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