Hipsters turn to food stamps to eat healthily

Is the recent upsurge in college-educated individuals applying for food stamps a social trend, the way the recently popular Salon.com article, "Hipsters on Food Stamps" supposes? Or is it a reflection of economic distress and the depressing job market? And how easy is it to actually qualify for food stamps?

The Salon piece addresses two main issues. Lately, more college-educated individuals are qualifying for assistance, and they seem to buy nutritious--albeit more costly--food with their subsidies. The hipster recipe, in a nutshell? Go on government assistance, then shop at Whole Foods for cilantro and shittake mushrooms.

"Faced with lingering unemployment, 20- and 30-somethings with college degrees and foodie standards are shaking off old taboos about who should get government assistance," the Salon piece states.

I never thought of it that way before. But I decided to give the food stamp program a go for this story, given that I make less than $20,000 a year. Currently, I work up to three part-time jobs, and don't feel that I make enough to save for my future: My earnings amount to little more than $1,300 a month.

That may sound meager, but as it turns out, that's too much to qualify for the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as the federal food stamp program. Perhaps it would be different if I had to provide for children or pay a mortgage. Even if I'd only included one of my part-time jobs on the application, my below-average income is still above the relaxed eligibility regulations.

I wondered if others in my situation were perhaps bending the rules. Take "James Marters," who two years ago was in a stable job, pulling in $40,000 a year and receiving health benefits. Today the spec-sporting, 27-year-old college-grad works temp jobs to pay the bills and leans on the government to put food on the table.

Marters, who chose to use a pseudonym over a fear of losing his food stamp benefits, is enrolled in SNAP. But does he really need it?

"If I paid for my food now, I'd be on my own in the gutter," Marters said during our interview at Two Prudential Plaza in downtown Chicago, where he currently temps. "This is survival. I'm going to do what it takes to not let my life deteriorate, even if it means not playing by the system's rules."

Marters says five of his friends currently receive food stamp benefits, and he believes that the $200 a month in supplementary funds allow him and his friends to have healthy diets. And the fact that more college-educated people qualify does make sense, given the economy, job market, and rising housing costs. (Housing is considered affordable when a household pays no more than 30% of its annual income, according to the U.S. Department of Housing).

Although these young and educated participants aren't part of the historical demographic of food stamp recipients, that doesn't mean they're outsmarting the system. Eating healthy on a food stamp budget is possible and should be encouraged--and isn't that what we want? Since one of the main objectives of the SNAP program is to make healthy food more readily available to participants in the program, why do we discourage food stamp recipients from buying nutritious food with their subsidies? Perhaps we've picked the wrong villains here--college students who dress funky and have a taste for chai and lemongrass chicken may be easier to lampoon than, say, button-down bank CEOs who give themselves fat bonuses courtesy of American taxpayers. But who's the real welfare king here?

And no matter where a person comes from, if the only meals they can afford come off the dollar menu at McDonald's or from the freezer section at 7-11, it may be hard for them progress to getting a full-time job, or impossible for them to stay healthy. Then the system could end up paying more for the repercussions.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, nearly 1 in 8 (or 38 million) Americans use food stamps, and the number grows every day. Recent relaxed eligibility laws have allowed more people to qualify for food stamps. This may be a temporary fix for a complex problem, and perhaps the concern over the increasing use of food stamps in America extends beyond the narrow scope of college-educated individuals qualifying for assistance.

However, when someone is leaning on food stamps, just because a part-time blogging gig or bike messenger job isn't supporting his or her lifestyle, it may be time to find a second or third job. One AmeriCorps worker responds to the increasing amount of young adults receiving food stamps because their jobs aren't paying the bills this way:

"If the economy is bad and you need money, sometimes [you] have to do jobs [you] don't want to do," says Courtney Chambers, a health educator in Chicago who qualifies for food stamps through AmeriCorps. "It just sounds really bad when [college grads] are signing up for food stamps because their visual art career isn't taking off. That is totally different from the young mother who lives in a neighborhood where there are no restaurants to even work at."

The flip-side is that it is impossible to assume that every college-educated person on food stamps is able to get a second or third job in this economy.

Or as Marters put it: "No one I know wants to be on food stamps. We'd rather be self-sufficient, giving to charities, saving for the future."
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