05/30/2013 01:30 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2013

Classy Food

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As Congressional Republicans advocate for drastic cuts in the food stamp program, a wide variety of farmers markets are now open for business, touting fresh and nutritious food. The ill-informed congressional debate continues, even though a report from the International Human Rights Clinic of New York University Law School (NYULS) claims that the current food stamp program no longer prevents hunger in more than 50 million low-income American households. Despite that sobering statistic on food insecurity, you can still go to your favorite farmers market and find an abundance of "really good classy food."

In America, we seem to live in hermetically sealed zones of mutual incomprehension. What would someone living on food stamps think of a classy farmers market? How would I fare on a food stamp allowance?

In my life zone of relative prosperity, I don't usually think about food stamps or poor people. Instead, I worry about the freshness and nutritional value of the food I consume, which means that I periodically shop at farmers markets.

Last weekend I greeted the unofficial beginning of summer with a visit to a farmers market in Historic Lewes, Delaware,, the First Town in the First State. At the Historic Lewes Farmers Market (HLFM), I inspected heirloom vegetables, organic meats, exotic mushrooms, artisan cheeses and breads, baked goods and lavender oils and soaps. Situated on the grounds of the Lewes Historic Society HLFM is a place "where," according to its website: "being fresh is socially acceptable." Here is how the organizers of HLFM market define themselves:

The HLFM provides a family-friendly, community gathering place where consumers may purchase the freshest local foods available. It also provides alternative educational and marketing opportunities for emerging farmers and others to help create local and sustainable food systems that are environmentally sound, economically viable and socially responsible and which improve the variety, freshness, nutritional value and distribution of fresh farmland foods to the community.

Put another way, the HLFM promotes the vision that if you buy "fresh food" produced though sustainable, environmentally sound methods, your purchase is not only good for you but good for the community, the region -- and maybe even the world!

I like the HLFM. It helps to keep small, environmentally conscious farmers in business. Who can argue with a "eat well, feel good" rhetoric?

But what does such rhetoric mean to a woman whose medical condition makes it impossible for her to work? In these hard times, how can she feed her family? In a May 29 Think Progress article on food insecurity Aviva Shen cited the aforementioned NYULS report in which this woman's plight is discussed.

My food stamps are depleted after maybe two and a half weeks. That's when our cupboards become bare and there isn't anything left in the deep freezer. I start to worry about where our next meal is coming from. The first thing my daughters do when they come home from school is look in the refrigerator and say, 'Well, Mom, we don't have this, we don't have that.' I hear those words and I feel like I'm not providing for my children. Where I live, we are only allowed to go to the food pantries every three months. I get vegetables and bread there, but not meat. Not having meat is difficult for my girls. I make sure they always have something to eat -- many times it's canned goods. [bold in the original]

Like most middle class people, I have a difficult time thinking about such a scenario, especially when I can go to a place like the HLFM where I don't think twice about buying a small bag of freshly picked organic greens for $5.00. I delight in my reasonable purchase of salad turnips. My visit to the chicken vendor, though, made me think more deeply about the social dimensions of places like the HLFM. That vendor was selling organically fed and sustainably produced chickens for $7.00 a pound, which meant that the classy chicken I looked at had a price tag of $35.00!

There are, of course, many farmers markets that provide wholesome food for low-income communities. Indeed, food activists who run those markets attempt to educate their patrons about good nutritional practices. But the presence of these "less classy" markets has little impact on the symbolic power of social class, a phenomenon that we don't like to think or talk about in America. The powerful distinction of social class, which gives stratified shape to a society based upon the principle of social inequality, disconnects people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. The power of social class closes our eyes to the unimaginable plight of badly nourished poor people who live in our communities, people who probably don't have the social or economic wherewithal to frequent places like HLFM.

Recent work anthropology and sociology suggests that increasing social inequality is deepening divisions of social class. In America class division is evident in our rhetoric about food, in the debates about cutting food stamps, in how we dress, talk, eat, and entertain ourselves. Class division is creating unthinkable third world social realities in the world's "richest" nation. Class division is beginning to shred the American social fabric -- 50 million people are hungry. In the absence of a social contract, how can our society prosper?

If you think you are immune from an inconceivable life in poverty, just remember that many of us are just one pink slip or one devastating diagnosis away from hunger and/or homelessness, conditions that make it difficult to consume classy food.