People got pretty upset with Fox News political analyst Andrea Tantaros a few weeks back. They had been discussing the "Food Stamp Challenge," which asks people to live off of $130 a month for food. When asked if she could do it, Tantaros answered, "I should try it because, do you know how fabulous I'd look? I'd be so skinny. I mean, the camera adds 10 pounds." She was an easy target. We even poked fun of her on the latest episode of my web series, The Food Feeder on Tasted.com (which you can watch below!).
I've been fortunate enough to never have to worry about being provided enough food and to grow up in two homes (yay, divorce!) where dinner was cooked just about every night. But what about the people who are struggling to feed their families on a miniscule budget? The easiest solution -- which flies in the face of Tantaros's sound bite -- is to eat cheap, processed, fatty foods. But what is a low-income family supposed to do if they want a balanced, healthy lifestyle?
I began with the USDA website, looking first at the "Thrifty Food Plan." It reads like a convoluted dissertation, despite its stated goal being to serve as, "...a national standard for a nutritious diet at a minimal cost..." This 64-page document goes on to explain the various forms of grains, vegetables, fruits, milk products, meats, fish, beans and "other foods." The poultry section includes Cornish game hens.
The "Thrifty Food Plan Optimization Model" is a mathematical programming model, which tells you precisely what percentage of food cost you'll need to devote to, say, orange vegetables for a four- to five-year-old child (4.6 percent). But if you're especially mathematically savvy (I am not), you can follow along on your own with their page-long complicated mathematical algorithm.
Okay. So that wasn't terribly helpful, and to be honest, I'm not sure whom exactly it's intended for. But what about the USDA's "Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals?" This 76-page document even has a drawing of an apple, a glass of milk, a drumstick and some vegetables, so it's user friendly! This one is actually more informative, offering tips on saving money, with suggestions like nonfat dry milk, dried beans and seasoning meat with dried herbs rather than heavy sauces.
They go on to offer full menu plans, with recipes, for a healthy four-person family. The most depressing recipe I came across was for Baked Cod with Cheese. It contains just two ingredients (cod and shredded cheddar cheese), directing you to thaw and cook the cod according to the package directions. Then, once fully cooked, you are to sprinkle it with cheese, and return it to the oven for three to five minutes.
Okay. I'm certainly looking at these from the position of a food elitist. But are there really a lot of undernourished families that are actually reading this tome of healthful food scheduling, and then changing the entirety of their food heritage along the way? I'm inclined to think not.
So we sit here with a serious food problem in this country, and an abundance of social commentary (my own included) and little else. The USDA website does not appear especially helpful in this endeavor, and reads more like a way of covering our tracks as a country -- a means of showing proof of effort. I turned to an old text by the great, late food writer, MFK Fisher. Her book, How to Cook a Wolf was published in 1942, and is about trying to eat well and survive on very little during the miseries of World War II. It concludes not so much with a solution, but at least something to strive for:
I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war's fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy, and ever-increasing enjoyment. And with our gastronomical growth will come, inevitably, knowledge and perception of a hundred other things, but mainly of ourselves. Then Fate, even tangled as it is with cold wars as well as hot, cannot harm us.
I certainly hope that's true. Have you tried The Food Stamp Challenge? Do you think it's feasible to eat healthfully on $130 per month? Tell me in the comments below. Then, to lighten the mood a bit, check out the latest episode of The Food Feeder where we taste test two godforsaken holiday-flavored vodkas.