Privilege at the Dinner Table

Thanks to the initiative of my colleague Elizabeth Miller, some of us in the Office of Community Engagement – and others across campus – are joining in a Food Stamp Challenge.  That means that we’ve committed to eating on a budget of $4.31 per person per day, which aligns with the budget we’d have if we were receiving SNAP benefits, commonly known as food stamps.

While I’ve done similar activities before, I’m particularly aware this year of some of my privileges that this exercise is exposing, and I want to share them with you.

Privilege #1: The choice

I should acknowledge that the first privilege I’m deeply aware of is that I’m choosing this activity.  Especially as I talk with people about it, I am aware that an exercise like this could be seen more as a weird form of poverty tourism – reality TV with food stamps! – rather than an act of solidarity.  And so I write this with awareness that my choice to undertake this challenge ultimately only has power and dignity if I can learn something, share something, and take action to build a better food system for all.

Privilege #2: Supporting local food systems

In my first day of the Challenge, I was composing a shopping list for potato soup: potatoes, milk, cheese and a few carrots.  Because of my interest in contributing to a thriving local food system, I typically would buy local versions of each of these things in my charming little locally-owned grocery store.  And I’d pay for it. Local stuff isn’t always more expensive, but at $3.49 for 10 pounds, mass-produced potatoes from Idaho on sale at the Kroger are probably less than what I would have found from a farm around the corner.  Kroger brand cheddar – also on sale – would also be cheaper than anything I’d find from an artisan Virginia cheese maker.  All of this made me realize that, to maximize my $4.31, I’d absolutely have to buy the mass-produced, non-organic food.

A large motivator for me in buying local and organic is that the workers on smaller scale farms are very likely treated much better than the migrant labor I presume is involved in the production of some of my cheaper foods for the week.  (Having met some of the workers on my local farm, and volunteered with the families of migrant laborers in California, I’ve felt comfortable drawing this conclusion.)  And so I realized that the privilege I have of spending more on food also allows me the privilege of opting out, if to a small extent, of a system that keeps other people down.  But people who receive SNAP benefits must participate in a food system that values profits more than effects on growers and the land.  So the choices that people who are struggling must make can end up causing others to struggle as well.

Privilege #3: Hospitality

I had invited a friend over for dinner on Monday night.  Even while I had planned to offer this simple potato cheese soup meal, I didn’t think I could get away with serving only soup without feeling like a bad host.  So I sautéed up some green beans I had gotten at the farmer’s market, and even sliced and toasted a day-old “Manager’s Special” whole grain boule (only $1.55 for the loaf!) from the Kroger.

I have realized how much cooking in bulk is helpful on a limited budget, so I could count my friend’s portion as a meal when doing my math for the per-portion cost in my calculations.  Still, if I were really on food stamps, I wouldn’t have been able to share that meal with her without skipping a meal myself.  When the hospitality of food is one of the most basic ways we can connect with each other, what are the societal effects when simple economics make this impossible for 47 million people who receive SNAP benefits every day?

So, back to Privilege #1 – I’m off to contact my representatives to share my experience with them, and advocate for legislation that promotes a heartier sustainable food system.