Monday, May 20, 2013
Shocking news: One in five Mainers gets food stamps. That’s about 260,000 people, up from 110,000 in 2003. In New Hampshire, the neighbor we love to hate, the number is one in 10.
Mississippi, which always ranks just about 50th in most categories, is neck and neck with us — one in five residents also are eligible for food stamps. We’re not on the bottom, though, because the highest percentage of food stamp use is our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., with 21.5 percent. That’s pretty shocking, too.
We like food stamps at Long Meadow Farm. They are an important cushion for those who have lost their jobs or who are in low-wage jobs, and the money is generally spent wisely and locally.
Our Gardiner Farmers’ Market has been geared up to handle food stamps for the last two years. By “geared up” I mean it can handle the debit card that has replaced the old book of actual “food stamps” in use since the 1960s. Now the program is known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.
During market days, Manager “Boo” Hubbard uses a state-provided EBT (electronic benefits transfer) machine to process food stamp amounts, and gives the customer a certain amount of $1 and $5 tokens to spend at the market that day.
These transactions, while a little cumbersome and requiring some bookkeeping, have worked well for the market. This year’s food stamp income for market vendors is over $1,800, double the first year.
Skowhegan is the only other farmer’s market in the state that has an organized way to accept food stamps. Most markets have volunteer managers and almost no ability to invest the extra time and expense to process the SNAP cards, even though there is no transaction expense as there is with standard debit/credit card machines that handle both food stamps and debit/credit cards.
That means that food stamp recipients — one fifth of the population — largely miss out on fresh, local food available through more than 50 farmers markets and one of the 150 CSA farms (community supported agriculture) such as our farm.
That is going to change in 2011.
Thanks to a grant from the Wholesome Wave Foundation, we and two other farms (Small Wonder in Bowdoinham, and Hatchet Cove Farm in Warren) are going to enlist a number of low-income families to provide them with healthy food.
The grant will subsidize nearly half the cost of a small share at our farm for six families who are eligible for SNAP or WIC (Women and Infant Care). Those families will receive 20 weeks of vegetables grown here from the first week of June to the middle of October. This a promising, small start.
A little more problematic is neither SNAP nor WIC has a very good idea about what is food, although WIC does a much better job.
Contrary to popular belief, food is not just what you put in your mouth. Our dictionary at home defines food as “material, usually of plant or animal origin that is taken in by an organism to maintain life and growth.”
SNAP funds can’t be used to buy alcoholic beverages, tobacco, non-food items, vitamins, medicines and hot foods. Good so far, although some hot foods might be OK, it seems to me.
After that, just about anything goes: soda, chips, snack cakes, ice cream and thousands of sugar- and sodium-laden processed foods any supermarket offers. These are not food — most laboratory rats get fat and die when fed any of these things exclusively.
Any attempt to do away with soda or snacks from the list is met by howls from the soft drink and processed food industry. These for-profit populists’ chant is that low-income families should have the same freedom of choice we all have, and they shouldn’t be forced to buy hard-to-prepare whole foods, or even worse, high-priced organic foods.
Whole foods are the best food available, and they aren’t hard to prepare. All you need is an oven or stovetop, some cooking oil or butter, seasonings and a sharp knife.
Organic food direct from the farm is not more expensive than supermarket food. We sell our onions at $1 per pound, fresh spinach at $4 for eight ounces and tomatoes at $2.50 to 3 per pound. (Last time I checked, a name-brand bag of potato chips, which I don’t consider to be food, cost $3.99 for an 11-ounce bag. That’s $5.75 per pound.)
WIC, which is designed to help pregnant women and new mothers, has a much shorter list of allowed foods, including cereal, formula, baby food, milk, cheese (not imported), fruits and vegetables, canned fish, whole grain breads, juice and eggs.
Prohibited are ketchup (the late Ronald Reagan’s favorite vegetable), meat and fresh fish and white potatoes.
It’s fairly mysterious why canned tuna and breakfast cereals can beat out potatoes and fresh fish for a place at a young mother and child’s table.
It’s going to take some work to get good, healthy food to low-income Mainers, but now is as good a time as any to get started.
Denis Thoet, with his partner Michele Roy, own and manage Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner, firstname.lastname@example.org