In the movie, Food Stamped, nutritionist Shira Potash and her filmmaker husband, Yoav, embark on a weeklong goal to shop, prepare and subsist on approximately $50, their federal allotment which averages to $1.19 a meal.
Their strategies are not difficult: grow their own herbs and salad greens, visit a food bank to maximize their money, dumpster-dive near some local bakeries and pilfer freebies at local markets.
In addition, the couple also includes protein, whole grains and veggies with every meal, buys organic if possible, eats little processed food and consults with a dietician at the end of the week. To watch how these extra principles get translated into a food-stamp budget is compelling. It is not impossible.
The movie, part of the Good Foods Board Film Series, will be shown at the downtown Lexington Public Library Tuesday, 6:00-9:00 p.m. Admission is free, but please bring nonperishables since this showing doubles as a food drive for Grace Now, a pantry in Richmond, supported by local churches and run by volunteers.
Many of my generation grew up associating food stamps with being poor. Some of this stigma has dissipated with the Electronic Benefits Transfer, a credit-card system that replaces stamps.
But a disconnect between those services and local pantries and farm markets remains. While the Lexington Farmers Market and Good Foods Market & Café accept EBT cards; other pantries and markets do not.
I am struck by the genuine goodwill that carries Shira and Yoav through their week of budgeting, planning and preparing their meals. Their food-stamp allotment may be meager, but love is not in short supply.
However, this movie is not just about how to live on food stamps. It is an indictment about how the United States Department of Agriculture subsidizes unhealthful diet patterns, when such meager allotments end up being used to buy a lot of cheap, empty calories.
Five industries — corn, wheat, soy, cotton and rice —receive billions of federal tax dollars. Fruits and vegetable growers (and beekeepers) receive no subsidies. The costs of that imbalance are shown in this movie.
A clear message is that skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes and poor dental health can be linked to the increased use of food stamps to buy products made with high fructose corn syrup, transfats and starches.
Adding to the misinformation regarding federal food programs is the fact that many people do not know how to qualify for food stamps. California walked away from $2 billion in potential food subsidies for its citizens.
The Potash couple does not go on this journey alone. Several members of Congress have made it their goal to live on $1 a meal: Reps. Chris Van Hollen, Barbara Lee and Jim McGovern are interviewed in the film. McGovern vociferously declares that he never wants to eat another lentil again. It is he who declares that "hunger is a political condition" and that it is necessary to change the conditions.
For instance, Mark Bittman of the New York Times points out that "lawns are the biggest crop. Lawns are three times as big as the corn crops." If a person were to only garden "100 square foot area, you produce 50 pounds of food," he said.
That could be a lot of food to be shared with area pantries and neighbors. A local example is Faith Feeds, which gleans from local farmer's markets, orchards and farms and donates the food to God's Pantry and other agencies that feed the hungry.
Chef Demetrio Recachinas at Martha's Table, a Washington, D.C. food bank that routinely serves 1,000 people, adequately sums up the exhaustion that comes with trying to provide a healthful, diverse diet at a time when donations are low and the need is great.
"Sometimes I feel stretched thin, but that's just the nature of nonprofits. Everyone's stretched thin," he says. "Besides, the amount of work and stress is more warranted here than in a restaurant kitchen. Here, if I screw up, someone doesn't eat."
Please consider coming to watch Food Stamped, bring nonperishable foods to donate and learn more about how farmers markets and food pantries in Kentucky are working to fill our state's nutrition needs for the vulnerable.