American Hunger and Health At Issue
Statistics on poverty-related hunger in the United States are always shocking. Food Stamped is a documentary that focuses on the issue of American hunger and health by introducing an eclectic selection of American citizens who, because of economic hardships caused by a variety of factors, must rely on food stamps to supply them with their entire supply of comestibles. Filmmakers Shiva Potash and Yoav Potash follow their subjects through the business of shopping for a month's supply of food, using their limited budgets -- that allotted to them by the food stamps program -- to try to provide balanced, nutritious meals for their families. It's a task that is extremely difficult to accomplish, even for super savvy shoppers who plan their purchases for the entire month, and ration their consumption to make their supplies last until the next allotment of food stamps comes through.
Of their various subjects, one stands out in particular. He is an out of work teacher who suffers diabetes, and must stretch his $109 per month in food stamps -- and that is on the high end of the food stamp spectrum in his residential district -- to cover all of the dietary requirements imposed by his health condition. He borrows a neighbors car and travels 40 miles to the cheapest grocery story in the area, clips coupons for further savings, and keeps strictly to the shopping list he's written by hand in advance of his shopping trip. With all of his careful preparations, discipline and savvy, he still winds up buying a bunch of packages of instant ramen -- which has next to no nutritional value but is cheap, filling, easy to prepare and will not get stale or spoil before the next allotment of food stamps arrives and he goes shopping again. He knows that ramen doesn't serve his health needs, but it works in the budget -- and, when you're on food stamps, budget is really what counts.
Is It Possible To Eat Healthy on Food Stamps?
Determined to find out whether it is even possible for food stamp users to provide basic healthy diets for their families, team Potash -- who are husband and wife -- use themselves as test subjects in the film. They have a personal stake in this adventure. Shira teaches nutrition-based cooking classes to elementary school students in low-income neighborhoods. Most of her students come from homes that qualify for food stamps. Shira and her documentary filmmaker husband, Yoav, take their food stamp challenge see what it's like to eat on roughly one dollar per meal -- equivalent to what the kids in Shira's classes have to spend.
Armed with an allotment of food stamps, they set out to sustain their own healthy diets for a month. They film themselves shopping, preparing food, discussing what to eat and what to save, and, even, dumpster diving for loaves of bread. They bicker gently about whether they're able to afford to have eggs with their beans for breakfast. They calculate whether they can have seconds on the salad, or whether they must save some for the next day. To them, the food stamp challenge is interesting and fun, but they acknowledge that if they had to exist on a food stamps budget month in and month out, calculating every penny and every bite, they'd quickly tire of it. They are well aware that some of the people they've interviewed for the film cannot simply switch off the food stamps rationing.
At the end of the month, according to plan, team Potash invites a friend over for dinner, and they serve her things that they've been saving for the occasion -- including the free samples of cheese that go into the making the quiche and their last carrot, which is used to spike the special occasion salad. At the end of the meal, they tell their friend that she has played a part in their food stamp challenge, and ask her whether the meal had seemed different in any way. She perceived it as a regular, delicious and nutritious meal, noting nothing special about it. Good for team Potash.
The filmmakers concluded their test month by consulting with a nutritionist, who confirms that they've managed to follow the guidelines of good nutrition, but says that their calorie intake -- around 1700 calories per day -- is on the low side and warns that if they sustained that diet for a long period of time, they would lose weight. They are both thin, and weight loss would not be recommended.
Why Are Many People Who Rely On Food Stamps Obese?
The problem is that the more nutritious fresh, non-processed, not pre-packaged foods that will satisfy hunger and keep weight down are quite a bit more expensive than processed foods that contain a lot of empty calories and have a lot of additives.
Although they were shopping daily, team Potash's biggest challenge was maintaining their supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. They found they could afford broccoli some days and not others, depending on the day's prices.
The fresh fruit and vegetable problem is even greater for food stamp recipients who shop once a month. Fresh produce doesn't keep well. For the most part, they just don't buy it. But, even if they do reserve a portion of their buying power for fresh produce, the items that are most affordable are not necessarily the most nutritious. For example, mass-produced, genetically engineered corn is cheaper than organically grown broccoli. Corn is higher in calories than broccoli, and broccoli has essential nutrients not present in corn. Yet, food stamps will buy quite a lot of corn, and very little broccoli.
Conducting interviews with experts, the filmmakers learn that the prices for corn and some other crops are low because farmers receive government subsidies for growing them. Broccoli farmers are not subsidized. So prices are higher.
The discrepancy suggests that the Farm Act, which became law during the depression, might need revision. There isn't any discussion in the film about how difficult the politics of changing the Farm Act might be.
Food Stamps and Kids
There's widespread concern about the statistics on obesity in American children, and the rise in diabetes among the young. It comes as no surprise that kids whose families are on food stamps are more likely to be obese, but the situation is apparently exacerbated by school lunch programs that should be a nutritious supplement to what the kids eat at home. That's often not the case. According to one school nutritionist interviewed in the film, the budget for school lunch programs suffers from the same deficiencies as food stamp payouts. Too little money is available to feed the kids fresh, unprocessed foods. The nutritionist explains, too, that kids will only eat what they're used to, and they're used to pre-packaged foods -- the kind of things they eat at home. Serve anything else, and they won't eat it. She says she's doing the best she can with her limited resources.
Other school nutritionists are finding alternative solutions. One school has arranged to have special nutrition classes and cooking sessions for kids and their parents. Apparently when kids become more active in preparing their food and their curiosity about nutrition is awakened, their attitude towards consumption changes for the better.
There are no easy solutions, and the film doesn't advocate any specific action. But it certainly puts the issues on the table for some healthy debate.
Some Surprising Statistics
There's a fairly constant stream of discussion about obesity and diabetes in the news, and steady supply of tips about how to stretch your budget. Food Stamped does a very good job of connecting the dots, of putting statistics into a context where you can see their impact on people's lives.
There are also some interesting surprises. For example, did you know that the overwhelming majority of food stamp recipients are white men and women who are business professionals? That's not because other segments of the population don't need food stamps. A huge sector of the population apparently don't know food stamps are available to them. According to the film, California returns hundreds of thousands of dollars designated for food stamps to the federal government because they are not distributed to qualifying citizens who do not apply for subsidy. That's amazing.
Seeking Food Justice
Food Stamped won't resolve any of the issues it raises, but it will give people who are struggling to make ends meet -- whether they rely on food stamps or not -- a good understanding of how to begin to cope with providing proper nutrition for themselves and their families using the limited resources at their disposal. It should also be seen by policy makers and legislators who are actively engaged in devising and funding programs that should keep our populous well fed and healthy. Along the way, they consult with food justice activists, nutrition experts, politicians, and ordinary people living on food stamps, all in order to take a deep look at the struggles low-income Americans face every day while trying to put three-square meals on the table.
If You Like This Film, You May Also Like:
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- King Corn
- Food, Inc
- Food Beware: The French Organic Revolution
- Pressure Cooker
- America The Beautiful
- The End Of America
- FLOW: For Love Of Water
- The Garden
- Title: Food Stamped
- Director: Shira Potash and Yoav Potash
- Running Time: 60 mins.
- US Premiere Date: October 9, 2010 at Mill Valley Film Festival
- Distributor: Summit Pictures
- Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
- Location: Oakland, California and various other locations in the United States
- Language: English
- Production Country: USA