A butcher shared with me the advice his dairy-farmer father fed him:
Stay in the food business and you will always eat.
I've worked in the food business for a good chunk of my life — first in my parents' restaurants, then as a food writer and restaurant critic, followed by post-culinary-school stints as a baker and food-marketing consultant, then again as a restaurant critic, and, until this past fall, as publisher of my own website that promoted restaurants and culinary events.
Today, I eat on the fringe of the food business, hungry for work and living on the dole, one of 6 million Americans whose sole source of income is food stamps.
When I was the restaurant critic at the Tacoma News Tribune, from 2004 to 2008, I enjoyed a $1,300 monthly expense account, on top of the middle-class salary that financed a house overlooking Puget Sound. I gave that up to start my own business, and when my entrepreneurial dream fizzled along with the economy, my food budget — my total income — plunged to $200 a month.
As I search for work without success (I've applied for restaurant-critic jobs at alt weeklies in Seattle, San Francisco, Denver; communications jobs with state and city agencies; and jobs as butcher, baker, line cook and carpet cleaner) I find neither shame nor deprivation in food stamps.
"We're all on food stamps here, hon," a pierced-lipped barista at a college coffeehouse told me.
From the florist I met on Facebook to the laid-off Teamster I met on the bus to the university students who work at the coffeehouse where I get free Wi-Fi, the number of people in the United States feeding themselves with food stamps is a whopping 39 million. Twelve percent of Washington's population — about 855,000 people — receives food stamps.
As a professional assignment, writing about a thing such as shopping and eating on a budget is abstract. As a gut-punching, ego-bruising, bank-busting predicament, eating on the food lines is real. After six months of it, I still feel the occasional memory pang of expense-account indulgences gone by, but I don't cry in my cabernet.
By shopping wisely and scrimping compulsively, by cooking and savoring each meal as a blessing, I am sustained. Even that mysterious can from the food bank generically stamped "Pork with Juices" promised culinary communion.
The Electronic Benefits Transfer (food-stamp) card I receive each month as a single person with no dependents buys plenty of groceries — butter, eggs, milk, orange juice, tortillas, cheese, fruit, vegetables, coffee, bread, rib-eyes, spices, olive oil, beans, rice, doughnuts and dog bones. Food stamps can also buy soda pop, potato chips and junk food galore, but not the deli sandwiches and supermarket fried chicken that used to be my regular midday snacks. Even supermarket rotisserie chicken — which I could stretch into three, maybe four nutritious meals — is among the hot prepared foods that can't be bought with food stamps. The logic of the system goes: If you can eat it at the point of purchase, hot prepared food is verboten to buy. ...