Food Stamped, The Documentary

by Janet Chrzan

A few days ago I provided a shout-out about Food Stamped to several listserves (including SAFN). In that email I wrote:

“I’d like to provide a big shout-out for the recent documentary “Food Stamped.”

It’s a movie made by a couple in Berkeley about trying to live on a food stamp budget. She teaches food education and healthy eating in elementary schools. In the movie they interview quite a lot of folks about food stamp use, from people reliant upon them to members of congress. It’s 1 hour long, which makes it do-able for many classrooms.

I particularly liked their relatively non-judgmental attitude about food choice, especially since they live in Berkeley (epicenter of foodie-ism) and were shopping at the Berkeley Bowl and Adronico’s, my old stomping grounds. In other words, they come from an area that in my experience is very, very judgmental about food choice, yet much of that is left out or reflected upon in a meaningful manner by the filmmakers. They discussed the issues of ‘healthy choice’ within the context of budget constraints in a way that was very accessible and allows for a great deal of classroom discussion, especially since they lay out their own biases verbally so that the viewer can understand how they are thinking through the issues.

A particularly strong scene involved trying to feed a Shabbat guest on a budget, since they made the comment that all people like to have guests and be social, and so it’s important to think about how food poverty affects social opportunities.”

The responses to my post have been interesting, from emails from people who have seen the film (and like it) to a spirited discussion initiated by a fellow who, having seen the short trailer (and only the short trailer), wrote a couple of long emails about how the filmmakers had essentially gotten it all wrong, although bully for the effort. This prompted a civil response from the filmmakers (delivered by an intermediary) to which our fellow responded yet again, with the same basic message. He did mean well, but his response demonstrated just how contentious food issues can be, even for people who more-or-less agree with each other.

The bottom line? This film uses the idea of a low budget (in this case, one derived from food stamp benefits) to explore eating healthy on a small and fixed income. The filmmakers use themselves as guinea pigs and rely on realistic cinema techniques to demonstrate to the viewer how they think through and act upon trying to eat on a restricted budget. They discuss the process with people from the community, lawmakers, and those reliant on food stamps.  Of particular interest to them is how people can eat a healthy diet and remain healthy on such a restricted budget, and they focus on the ugly fact that cheap food is often unhealthy, yet within the budgets of the poor. With this frame they examine school food and the decisions made by school administrators about how to feed children. They are refreshingly free of anger, judgmental attitudes, and smugness throughout the film which is yet another reason that I think it’s an effective teaching tool.

A few of the discussion points that I intend to raise in class after showing this film include:

  • What is a healthy diet? Is their ‘healthy diet’ your ‘healthy diet’?
  • How much do we each spend on food weekly/monthly?
  • How and why is healthy food more expensive than unhealthy food, according to the movie?
  • Do you find that to be the case when you shop?
  • What are the aims of the Food Stamp program?
  • Are families meant to survive on a Food Stamp budget, or are there assumptions built into the calculations that posit other food income as well?
  • Do we as a society, acting through our government, have an ethical responsibility to make sure people can eat? Why or why not?
  • If you were a nutritionist and were advising a diabetic client on Food Stamps what would you suggest he/she eat and why? How would you work out a budget with that client?
  • Do you have the skills to shop and cook as wisely and carefully as Shira and Yoav did?
  • Do you know enough about food and cooking to live on a diet of beans and rice?
  • What kind of knowledge do you need to acquire in order to feel comfortable about planning meals on a small budget?

Obviously, these are just my first thoughts and jottings about how to use the film in teaching. But part of the reason that I think it’s such a valuable film is that I realized that I have NO IDEA what I spend on a weekly or monthly basis for food for my husband and myself. I have a big freezer and tend to plan and buy so that my larder (protein and grains/beans) can feed us for several weeks without shopping; only vegetables and dairy are purchased on a weekly basis (and at a pretty reasonable farmers’ market). My meat is all pastured, as are eggs and dairy, so I know I spend more per pound than most Americans. However, we also eat less meat/dairy than most carnivores so I figure it evens out. And I like rice and beans, and eat that way by preference, while I know that most Americans prefer meat to beans and prepared carbs to simple grains. I do know how to budget, I do know how to cook and I never waste food (because I am really, really cheap), but I am quite sure that eating on a food stamp budget would be difficult indeed.

The other discussion point – and I’m not yet sure how to frame these questions – is tied to the assumptions and contentions about food choice, knowledge and capacities. I am often gobsmacked by the tendency of food people to insist that their way – and only their way – is the good way to eat. Obviously, I like this movie because the filmmakers don’t do that… but the Listserve response has had a wee tinge of that sentiment. Food is so personal and intimate, and choice so tied to identity (especially in our capitalistic society) that people are naturally heavily invested in justifying their choices as ‘good better BEST!’ to themselves and others. But seriously, the vehemence that many bring to this issue baffles me. Somehow, I suspect that this film – and the student response to it – will allow us to discuss this difficult issue in the classroom. And I hope by doing so the students are able to begin to glimpse how their biases channel their beliefs about food and nutriture.

2 Comments

Filed under anthropology, economics, film, food policy, food security, Food Studies, nutrition, reviews

2 responses to “Food Stamped, The Documentary

  1. Thanks for shouting this movie out. I think your question about whether or not families are supposed to be able to survive on food stamps alone is a really good one. It opens up a lot of bigger issues about the welfare state in the US. Its been a long standing American tradition to ensure that welfare benefits come with a certain degree of hardship. Food programs are as much about nutrition as they are about enforcing work norms, which is why a food stamp budget without supplemental purchasing power from wages is a challenge to survive on – as the movie shows so well. Just a thought to deepen the discussion about whether or not society in general or the state in particular has an obligation to make sure people can eat and where the conflicting values that prevent us from realizing food security for all might be coming from.

  2. Squiggles

    How long until another FoodAnth post?

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