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]

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