(First appeared in the Kennebec (Maine) Journal)
By Mark Winne
Let me say from the outset that I eat well. Not well in a maternal, “please finish your broccoli, dear” sense. I mean very well. I cultivate a large organic garden, buy grass-fed beef from a local rancher, and when I’m feeling particularly flush with cash, frequent my local Whole Foods.
I’ll even eat at one of those bastions of gastronomic elitism like Stone Barns in New York or that citadel of all things “foodie”, Chez Panisse in Berkeley. On one such occasion I celebrated my son’s college graduation with a dinner at Stone Barns where the tab for the two of us came to a cool $325. It dawned on me as I was staggering out of the restaurant that I could have paid for 126 low-income children to eat school lunch that day at the current USDA reimbursement rate of $2.57 per meal. Better yet, 283 food stamp recipients might have had dinner on me that night at the average meal allotment of $1.15.
Such disparities in the way that different classes of Americans eat are disconcerting. With our nation teetering on the brink of economic meltdown, a record 31.8 million of us are receiving help from the food stamp program. Nearly 190,000 Mainers currently receive food stamp benefits, 15 percent more than last year.
Food banks and food pantries have been overrun as well. Over 25 million Americans are using emergency food assistance annually. Maine’s Freeport Community Services’ Food Pantry alone received 20,000 visits from people seeking food last year, but estimate that will grow to 28,000 this year.
In light of the fact that demand for “free” food is reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression, at a cost to the taxpayer of $73 billion a year and climbing, it might seem odd that there is also an infatuation with higher-priced local and organic food.
Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters, regarded by many as the nation’s premiere food elitist, appeared recently on 60 Minutes to proclaim the virtues of local and organic. She snootily dismissed its high cost by saying, “some people buy Nike shoes, two pairs, and other people want to nourish themselves.” And in a recent New York Times op-ed, Waters slashed the quality of the nation’s school lunch program, pronouncing that its federal subsidy should be doubled to $5.00.
But when it comes to the cost of good food for our children as well as for those who have hit a rough patch on the economic highway, I find the arguments over food elitism a bit spurious. Why can’t our society ensure that all our well fed? After all, aren’t we a nation that just bailed out the financial industry to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, including bonuses for those who put our economy in the toilet?
Perhaps it was this group of financial elitists who were among the party of 12 at Spaggio’s, Chicago’s premier eatery, (yes, the Obamas’ “special occasion” restaurant) who spent $18,000 on one meal this past November. Not only would that feed 15,652 food stamp recipients, it makes my dinner at Stone Barns look like a Happy Meal.
The fact of the matter is it will take money to make sure that everyone eats well. And I place the emphasis on well because we must ensure that everyone has regular access to healthy food. If we don’t, we run the very real risk of sustaining one food system for the poor and near poor, and one for everyone else – a divide, my friends, which is as unconscionable as it is unsustainable.
While the Maine state legislature should be congratulated for its support of school breakfast and lunch programs, the answers are not all about government spending. They are also about commonsense and compassion, qualities that I have found Mainers have in uncommon abundance. Take the new Fresh from the Pantry program currently being devised by the Freeport Food Pantry and two area CSAs farms – Laughing Stock and Tir na NOg. Together they will use the pantry’s ability to help people, the growing skills of the farmers, and the generosity of their CSA members to bring the best food to people who need it the most.
Ideas like Fresh from the Pantry combined with a citizenry willing to support the simple notion that all should be well fed will lift both the economic and personal health of the nation. And in the end, we all may become little food elitists. Wouldn’t that be grand!