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Healthy Food is a Luxury for Some Budgets

Today's post is from Mark Winne, the author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. For 25 years, Winne was the Executive Director of the Hartford Food System, a private non-profit agency that works on food and hunger issues in the Hartford, Connecticut area. Winne now writes, speaks, and consults extensively on community food system topics including hunger and food insecurity, local and regional agriculture, community assessment, and food policy. For more information, go to

Book cover for Closing the Food Gap, links to Beacon Press page for bookLet 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 the Stone Barns Restaurant 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 US Department of Agriculture 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, a thirteen percent increase over last year.

Food banks and food pantries have been overrun as well. More than 25 million Americans use emergency food assistance annually. While 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 column, Waters scoffed at the quality of the nation's school lunch program, pronouncing that its federal subsidy should be doubled to $5.

When it comes to the cost of good food for our children as well as those who have hit a rough patch of economic highway, the arguments about food elitism -- enough OK food for most of us versus really great food for some of us -- seem a bit spurious. 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 elitists who were among the party of 12 at Spaggia'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 that is as unconscionable as it is unsustainable.

While Congress and many state legislatures should be congratulated for their support of school breakfast and lunch programs and for increasing aid to food stamp programs in the stimulus package, the answers are not all about government spending. They are also about common sense and compassion.

Take the new Fresh from the Pantry program being devised by the Freeport, Maine, Food Pantry and two area farms that practice community-supported agriculture, where farm members pay to support the farmers in the winter off-season, and get a share of the harvest during the growing season. Those farms, Laughing Stock and Tir na NOg, will combine the pantry's ability to help people, the production skill of the farmers and the generosity of their CSA members to bring the best food to people who need it the most. With support from their members, the two farms will donate a share of their organically produced fruits and vegetables to the food pantry which, in turn, will make it available to their clients.

The answers are not always about outside assistance. We know that people sometimes make unhealthy food choices. When money is tight they should forgo those Nike purchases and shop for the healthiest food available. The Freeport Food Pantry knows this and will provide their clients with nutrition classes and food processing information so that they can make the most from the great local farm produce that will be provided to them.

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!