I recently read this article in Salon about the strange recessionary phenomenon of hipsters who are on food stamps and eating well, never missing a beat with their Whole Foods-quality standards of foodie existence. They’re young, they’re broke, and they pay for organic salmon with government subsidies.
Here’s an excerpt from the article (which you should take the time to read):
Magida, a 30-year-old art school graduate, had been installing museum exhibits for a living until the recession caused arts funding — and her usual gigs — to dry up. She applied for food stamps last summer, and since then she’s used her $150 in monthly benefits for things like fresh produce, raw honey and fresh-squeezed juices from markets near her house in the neighborhood of Hampden, and soy meat alternatives and gourmet ice cream from a Whole Foods a few miles away.
“I’m eating better than I ever have before,” she told me. “Even with food stamps, it’s not like I’m living large, but it helps.” …
Think of it as the effect of a grinding recession crossed with the epicurean tastes of young people as obsessed with food as previous generations were with music and sex. 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 and discovering that government benefits can indeed be used for just about anything edible, including wild-caught fish, organic asparagus and triple-crème cheese.
This curious phenomenon–paradoxical though it may seem–is thoroughly unsurprising and immediately familiar to anyone who has monitored the long hipster narrative of fascination with urban struggle and the fetishizing of working class subsistence. Always on the lookout for new ways to coopt the tropes of the proletariat–whether it be in dress (vagrant chic), residence (gentrification), or behavior (riding buses)–hipsters are now gladly jumping into a another everyday activity that has long been the terrain (and still is) of the working poor, the elderly and single parents on welfare: Food stamps.
Of course, these hipsters ARE poor. In this economy, a graduate degree in rhetoric from Columbia doesn’t promise a job. These food stamps hipsters are financially struggling, and so I don’t doubt that they qualify for food stamps. And if the government is going to be subsidizing food, I’d rather it be Michael Pollan-sanctioned free range chicken and kale rather than Hot Pockets and Mr. Pibb. At least the former will make our impoverished youngsters healthier.
But I can’t help but wonder: If hipsters are using food stamps to purchase organic quinoa, lobster ravioli and sparkling hibiscus lime juice, they had to have learned their expensive tastes somewhere, and most likely in the upper middle class comforts of their well-heeled upbringing. Don’t they have wealthy parents, a trust fund, or some sort of other bailout… must they really resort to food stamps? Must they really turn so quickly to the desperately overspent government for support? Or is food stamps just another way to “be in solidarity” with the downtrodden, while conveniently tricking Uncle Sam into supporting one’s addiction to Piedmont truffles?
I guess you could call me skeptical about the whole thing. I’m skeptical about hipsters romanticizing poverty; I’m skeptical about whether the recent explosion in food stamps among unemployed, educated 20-somethings is a systemic outgrowth of economic conditions as much as it is an outgrowth of a spoiled generation that wants to have it’s vegan cake and eat it too; I’m even dubious about the whole enterprise of food stamps and wonder if some sort of reform is in order.
Mostly I just find it all a bit distasteful. Like it or not: food means. It symbolizes, connotes, describes… frequently along the lines of class and culture. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with foie gras or duck confit; just that we shouldn’t ignore the fact that these foods have blatant associations with privilege. Imagine if you were standing in line to sleep at a homeless shelter and, once you were granted a bed, you reached into your bag and pulled out 1200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets and a goose-down pillow, proceeding to make your bed in front of all the other homeless people sleeping with a burlap blanket and clumpy feather pillows. Even if you legitimately had not a penny to your name, your extravagant bedding in a homeless shelter–like your sage-encrusted Kobe filet in a world where Ramen can barely cover it for a family’s sustenance–would understandably raise eyebrows and questions about, if nothing else, your tact.