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 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. 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:


Snow in Seattle

Snowmageddon has arrived!

For Seattle, this means a few inches of snow. Some areas have considerably more and some less, but all are in a state of paralysis that makes the rest of the country laugh. I come from the Midwest near the Canadian border, and the reaction amuses me–until I have to leave my house. Then I’m quickly reminded of the differences between here and there:

  1. Midwesterners plow their streets. And they believe in salt—lots of salt. It amazed me when I moved here that 20-year-old cars can exist with no rust. The cars of my youth only remained shiny for a couple years before they broke out in scaly, brownish-red patches. Here only the main roads get plowed—and that after a day or so. Various environmentally friendly de-icers are applied, but they don’t seem effective.  Ask the last mayor, who was run out of town after failing to clear the city streets.
  2. There are fewer hills in the Midwest. You don’t realize how slanted the ground is here until you try to drive a stick shift or go out in the snow. Even the gentle slope of my driveway and the slight rise out to the main road seem as steep as Mount Rainier after a couple inches of ice.
  3. Seattle drivers don’t know how to get up hills in the snow. They timidly creep up at about five miles an hour, figuring they won’t slide if they go slow. Of course, this means they lose traction by the time they’re halfway up, and then they slip back down. They try an opposite tactic on level roads, speeding along without considering that they might need to stop or turn at some point. To go down hills, they creep along until they start to slide, at which point they slam on the brakes and twist the wheel in the opposite direction from the way they were traveling. This has the predictable result of sending them sideways down the hill.
  4. People in Seattle are eternally optimistic. Every time it snows they figure the roads won’t be that bad. Then they get stuck in the resulting gridlock on the freeways or on a hill or a side street and decide to abandon their cars. This of course means the plows can’t do their work.
  5. Snow in Seattle tends to be wet and heavy. It turns into slush during the day, then re-freezes into an icy mess at night. All this makes for beautiful snow-covered trees and great snowmen but difficult driving. And the weight tends to take out branches over the power lines, like now. I’m sitting here in my living room next to the glow of the wood stove as I write—at least until my laptop battery dies.

Because of all this, the citizens of Seattle freak out when snow is forecast. As I tell my kids, I used to walk five miles (it might have been closer to two, but don’t tell them that) in several feet of snow to get to school, which never closed in even the most raging blizzards. Here, the schools have been closed three days because of a couple inches of snow.

My point to all this is that you can’t judge Seattle for its lack of snow savvy. Even though I make fun of the news anchors breathlessly racing in their news vans to catch sight of a snowflake, it’s still true that I’m trapped in my house by two inches of snow. The hills and lack of snow removal equipment and inexperienced drivers make this a far different experience than winter in the Midwest.

I think this same principle applies to judgments about welfare. It’s easy to wonder why people can’t get a job or why they can’t stretch their food benefits to the end of the month. It’s easy to think they should be able to plan for crises like broken-down water heaters or getting the flu or a lack of day-care. But unless you’ve been in that situation you don’t know the truth of it. Perhaps they don’t have the same education or experiences that would enable them to cope. Perhaps some underlying problems keep them from reacting differently. Maybe they have their own hills or a lack of infrastructure or maybe they’re in a new situation. Maybe they’ve never been in a place where the people know how to manage.

They may be facing snow in Seattle.

The Weekly Welfare Survey

The results are in! Last week we asked: “Should we further limit the types of food that welfare recipients can buy?” The majority of voters think so. Just under half thought the government should limit purchases to only healthy and basic foods, an answer we’ll explore in a future post. Another 20 percent or so chose “If they don’t work, they shouldn’t eat.” I’d like to ask those voters if they support food stamps for the working poor. And just over 10% said food choices should be limited because “Yes, I can’t eat steak, so why should they.” So in all, about three-fourths of respondents thought we should place further limits on how food benefits are spent.

And here is this week’s Christmas poll with an issue I’ve been wrestling with this month. Please add a comment to explain your answer if you have time:



Comments That Hurt: Welfare on the Web

Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words about welfare hurt.

Once in a while, the topic of welfare breaks out somewhere on the Internet or at the corner market. A case in point is the recent post “My Time at Wal-Mart: Why We Need Serious Welfare Reform,” that recounts the usual horror stories about welfare abusers. Thousands of comments followed–everything from heart-wrenching stories of people who need help to vitriolic comments that welfare assistance should consist only of bread and water and “low-cost” meats. I’m grateful the authors added in that last, but what does it mean? Cat food perhaps?

These comments are discouraging. This morning, the headlines stated that 146.4 million Americans now fall into the low-income category, defined by the Census Bureau as earning $44,405 annually for a family of four. Another 49.1 million are below the poverty level of $22,314 annually. Are we to believe all these people are lazy and uneducated? The average Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit (formerly known as Food Stamps) in 2011 is estimated to be $133.84 per month. In 2010, the amount was $133.79. I doubt most people are living large on that.

Here are some of the comments that irritate me the most:

I saw a women (or man) in line and she (or he) had a cart full of steak and lobster (or expensive cakes or shrimp or pick your favorite costly food.)

I get that we want people to wisely spend the money we provide. We don’t want them to receive luxuries we can’t afford ourselves. But you can’t know someone’s situation by looking at their cart. I’ve bought soda with my EBT card when my children were required to donate to a school party or the Boy Scout potluck. This situation comes up frequently, and I’m not willing to make my children explain to the organizers why they can’t participate. I’ve also bought steak with my card–our first beef in three years. And I bought not only one turkey; I bought two, because at Thanksgiving they are a cheap source of protein worth many meals. For that matter, steak can be cost-effective if stretched as an ingredient in a stir-fry or casserole.

I’d also like to point out the situation many poor people are in. Often those food benefits represent their only available luxury. If you can never go out or buy anything new, food takes on greater importance. That cake might be someone’s only birthday present. That coffee might be brewed for a gathering that is someone’s only social life. That candy bar might be a treat to look forward to after a long day of getting turned down for job after job. That steak might be a special dinner for a family that can no longer afford movies or cable or vacations.

Lastly, I’d like the commenters to consider the remedies for what they see as an abuse. We could allow only “nutritious” foods. But who gets to decide what qualifies? Who will police it? Some of the current guidelines are already arbitrary and ridiculous. For example, I could buy an uncooked pizza at Papa Murphy’s with my benefits, but not a cooked one from Pizza Hut. In reality, restricting the amount of the benefit curtails much of the junk food abuse. On $133 per month, if I’m buying steak and lobster and potato chips, I’m going to go hungry most days after one great meal.

I saw a lady pay with food stamps while talking on her iPhone.  She then went out to the parking lot and got into her new Cadillac (BMW, Prius, etc.)

Okay, again you don’t know the person’s situation. In my case, I drive a fairly new Prius. I paid for it when times were better with cash, like all the vehicles I’ve owned. I suppose I could sell the Prius and buy a used car, but then I’d pay twice as much for gas and up my repair bills. That cell phone might have come with a locked-in two-year plan that someone acquired before losing a job. Those new clothes could be a gift or a lucky find from Goodwill. The point is you can’t tell by looking.

I saw a guy who had thousands of dollars in EBT benefits on his grocery receipt.

Be grateful if a large EBT amount shows on the grocery receipt. (The balance in the account is printed on each receipt.) Unused benefits roll over from month-to-month. So if you see a large balance, that person is trying not to spend your money.

 ” . . . ask yourself if you’re a drain on the system. If you are, then shut up and go find a job. Any job. Get off your butt and actually do something.”

Many, many people who receive food assistance work, often long hours for low pay. Or they might be in our situation, with a struggling business in an industry that’s gone belly-up. We’ve spent our savings so that our employees (that’s you bragging about your iPad and phone and other luxuries) could get a paycheck. Other recipients are unemployed and seeking work. Jobs are difficult to find as evidenced by the national unemployment rate of 8.6%–a number that does not include the 8.5 million people working part-time because they couldn’t find anything better. Which leads to the next comment.

Why don’t you move to North Dakota and snag one of the plentiful jobs in the oil fields?

First, I know nothing about drilling. Second, I own a house that I would need to sell or rent in a dead real estate market. Third, we would have to abandon our remaining employees and business. Fourth, I guess I could take our tent and live in it, but otherwise moving would mean new costs for housing. Not a practical solution.

If you don’t work, don’t eat.

This suggestion has some obvious downsides. I’m assuming the gentleman who made the comment doesn’t want to pay added health costs or funeral expenses. Even if you are judgemental enough to want to punish people who aren’t making it, do you want to punish their children also? Oh wait, that leads to the last comment.

“’CAN’T FEED ‘EM, DON’T BREED ‘EM!’ Such a great motto! I just wish more Americans would adopt this same type of thinking.”

All I can say to this one is “ow.” Should you have children if you can’t provide for them? No. But should parents who need welfare feel guilty because they have children? Trust me, if your child is asking you why you can’t turn the heat up when they’re cold, you feel guilty enough.

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.