The Healthy and Basic Challenge

Casu Marzu, a type of cheese. This image was m...

I read an interesting article in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal about repulsive foods. The author described some items that would make weight loss easy, including hákarl, which is decomposed, dried shark; and casu marzu or maggot cheese. Apparently, this cheese is made by adding fly larvae to overly fermented sheep cheese and letting the worms’ digestive enzymes transform the final product. Unfortunately, the worms become a live, wriggling part of the result.

This got me thinking about a survey I ran back in December that asked readers if food benefits should be spent on healthy, basic foods or if recipients should be left to make their own decisions. By about a three-to-one margin, respondents voted for further restrictions. Currently, the guidelines only rule out hot, prepared foods (i.e. deli or restaurant food), alcohol and tobacco, medicines and non-food items.

But clearly, people’s opinions about individual foods vary. Otherwise, I too, might find casu marzu a gourmet treat or be out on Puget Sound trying to catch a shark to rot in the sand. To illustrate my point, I spent some time on Safeway.com virtually touring the grocery aisles to determine what might be considered healthy and basic.

I started in the cereal aisle. Most nutritionists say that beginning the day with cereal and milk and a glass of orange juice is reasonably healthy.

Probably everyone can agree on plain Cheerios as a basic option. After all, mothers everywhere feed them to their toddlers. But if we allow Cheerios, do we also allow Chocolate Cheerios? Or Fruity Cheerios? Or Cinnamon Burst Cheerios? Do they still count as healthy? And what about General Mills Cookie Crisp cereal or my favorite, Count Chocula? Each box still contains the same added vitamins and minerals. (Check out this fun experiment for separating out the added iron. My kids loved it.)

On the flip side, how would you categorize a cereal like Annie’s Homegrown Totally Natural Cocoa & Vanilla Bunnies cereal? It’s organic. Totally natural. Would it count as healthy? It is expensive. Safeway.com sells it for $3.50 for 9 ounces ($6.22/pound). Or how about some other choices that are marketed for their health benefits: Kellogg’s Special K with Red Berries, a 12-ounce box for $6.65 per pound; and General Mills’ Fiber One Original Bran cereal, $5.82 a pound for the 16.2-ounce box. Do we consider these too expensive when other cereals cost less?

How do we sort these choices? If we want healthy, do we limit the grams of sugar? Dictate a certain amount of fiber? Say no one can buy cereal with an animal or a monster on the box? And if we want basic, what does that mean? Nothing organic or containing nuts or berries or marshmallows? No spin-off products like Chocolate Cheerios?

So let’s try to decide by price instead. Generic Raisin Bran is fairly reasonable. But I could buy Fruity Dyno Bites in a bag as cheaply, and I’m guessing I’d get a few frowns in the check-out line.

If the cereal aisle is difficult, the snack aisle is worse. Everyone seems to agree that people on welfare shouldn’t buy chips. But what if they buy baked sweet potato chips? Or Good Health Veggie Stix? Or Quaker Plain Salted Rice Cakes? Are these still too unhealthy? Too unnecessary? Okay, so then maybe we say no one should buy anything they don’t need in order to live. But then what about nuts? Most nuts are a great source of protein and heart-healthy oils and make a good alternative to meat. They’re also expensive. Wouldn’t you wonder if you saw someone buying a big can of Planter’s Peanuts with their food stamps?

And so it goes from aisle to aisle. Maybe we can rule out frozen burritos and pizza. But how do we decide about Lean Cuisine Chicken Stir Fry with Ginger Garlic? Or Healthy Choice All Natural Tortellini Primavera Parmesan? Or Boca Vegetarian Organic Burgers? They’re not unhealthy. But they’re not cheap either.

Even in the one aisle where you’d think you wouldn’t have a dilemma, the drinks aisle, you run into questions. Soda’s a no-brainer. But what about sparkling water or juices? Too unhealthy? Not basic enough? And what about other juices? Orange juice is healthy. It’s approved by WIC. But what about pomegranate juice? Or orange-carrot-mango juice? Or blended vegetable juice? You can’t say these aren’t healthy (fattening maybe). You can’t say prune juice or apple juice isn’t basic. But would you allow people to spend their benefits on them?

In the end, I think a lot of our unhappiness when we see these items in the carts of EBT shoppers comes not from how unhealthy the foods are, or how processed, but from our discomfort with knowing these people are buying food with our dollars. We automatically assume they’re not making the best choices. Otherwise, why would they need our money? We worry they’re buying things we ourselves can’t afford. How many people can purchase steak or pomegranate juice every week? What it comes down to is that no matter what people on food stamps buy, they are getting for free what others have worked long hours to earn. And no healthy or basic guidelines will make that easier to swallow.

In reality, the system we have may be the best one. Give people the lowest amount of assistance possible, and that number will ensure reasonable buying decisions.

Our own experience has been that the amount is overly generous. Every month, by buying generic brands, no processed foods, no expensive meats and no junk foods, we’ve had money left in the account. From October to January, the unused amount now stands around $1,100, or $275 each month. It helps that the garden provides most of our vegetables, and I realize these numbers vary from area to area and from family to family. We’re blessed to live in an area where groceries are plentiful and reasonably priced. The formula isn’t always as generous for everyone as it has been for us.

But I don’t think costly decisions on each food or food category will improve the system. Such micro-management would be difficult and expensive to maintain. The current guidelines are reasonable. Instead, reformers should re-examine the benefit amounts and the qualification guidelines.

And I challenge everyone to go to their grocery stores and try to choose which items to include and which to exclude. See how far you make it down the aisles, and let me know if you come up with a workable plan. And remember, one person’s necessity is another person’s casu marzu.

February 15, 2012–Recently the Florida legislature has been debating a bill (SB 1658) that would restrict food purchases under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The bill, proposed by Florida Sen. Ronda Storms, would ban the purchase of all “non-staple, unhealthy foods.”  According to the bill, these would include “foods containing trans fats; sweetened beverages, including sodas; sweets, such as jello, candy, ice cream, pudding, popsicles, muffins, sweet rolls, cakes, cupcakes, pies, cobblers, pastries, and doughnuts; and salty snack foods, such as corn-based salty snacks, pretzels, party mix, popcorn, and potato chips.”

Here are a few articles that discuss the bill:

http://blisstree.com/eat/food-stamps-junk-food-poll-864/

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/02/06/146481752/taxes-and-food-stamp-restrictions-proposed-to-tame-americas-sweet-tooth

http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/02/09/2633531/to-sen-storms-let-them-eat-cake.html#storylink=misearch

 

Then and Now

Fitting in becomes harder once you change economic zip codes.  You still live on the same street with neighbors who work at Boeing or Microsoft.  They still tell you about their cruises to Mazatlán or their ski trips to Whistler.  Or they ask if you’ve seen the latest movie or recommend a new restaurant.  But it’s hard to relate when the last movie you saw in a theater featured Harry Potter as a kid, and the only restaurant you’ve ventured inside of is McDonald’s during its two-for-one Quarter Pounder promotion.

Nowhere is this gap more evident than at Costco.  We still own a membership, because many basics for a family of four cost less there.  But Costco is the land of the well-off.  It’s where you can find sun-dried tomatoes in huge jars and chocolate truffles from France and giant crabs laid out on ice.

The clothes carry designer labels: Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Gloria Vanderbilt.  Leather covers the couches, and the TVs are so big they make you want to grab a bucket of popcorn.  Costco sells basics.  But it makes its money enticing buyers into upscale bargains.

Going to Costco when you’re below the poverty line is like entering a foreign country.  Costco doesn’t advertise that it accepts food stamps.  Maybe welfare doesn’t fit its image, or perhaps the company figures its customers don’t need assistance.  After all, if you can’t afford food, why would you pay the $55 membership fee?  Perhaps because food costs less there if you shop carefully and know your prices—even after taking the annual fee into account.

If you ask, you find out the company does accept EBT cards in some states.  In Washington, they’ll allow it at the cashier’s checkstands, but not the self-checkout.  So one day, I tried it.  As I waited anxiously with my food card ready in hand for the cashier to ring up the total, a sales manager approached and examined my membership card.  She tapped in a number on her handheld tablet.

“Did you know based on your past purchases you could save $700 a year by upgrading your membership?” she asked brightly.

“Uh, no,” I answered.

She proceeded to tell me about their Executive Membership as I swiped the EBT. The upgrade carries a higher fee of $100 per year, but offers 2% back on purchases.  I tried not to laugh or point out that doubling my fee would be insane now.  I got the PIN wrong and tried again as the manager droned on about benefits and savings.  In front of me, the cashier glanced at her readout and began to look like she was having an epileptic seizure as she signaled the manager to abort.

I debated whether to explain that the person who belonged to their stats no longer exists, but in the end I simply thanked the manager and took her pamphlet.  Then I asked if Costco has any job openings.