Vermont’s expansion of the food stamp program is an important story, one that demonstrates an increasing shift in our society’s relationship to its food. Vermont’s policy change on food stamps is likely to be mirrored by other states, and this represents both a fundamental shift in the reality of American need and also, I think, the final stake in the heart of the industrial food system.

From the Times Argus:

The well-known Food Stamp program got a new updated name Friday, and Vermont Gov. James Douglas was on hand for the launch, standing in front of three tables of food at Shaw’s Supermarket Friday afternoon. The state’s expanded nutrition program was symbolized by the display of foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner, underscoring the new name and “3Squares” focus on healthy eating.

Enrollment in the program currently stands at 31,000, or more than 12 percent, of Vermont’s approximately 250,000 households. Those households represent more than 61,000 individuals in the state.

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The program has expanded by about 57 percent since 2001, when it served 39,000 individuals, said Steve Dale, the commissioner of the Department for Children and Families.

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Douglas said he anticipates that “tens of thousands of additional Vermont families will be eligible” for 3Squares VT. “What better time to make that important change than now, when so many Vermonters are struggling to pay their bills in these challenging economic times,” he said.

During the summer, anti-hunger advocates and members of the Vermont Food and Fuel Partnership looked for the most effective way to confront an expected winter crisis caused by spiking fuel bills that could force Vermonters to cut back on food. The consensus was to raise the eligibility ceiling for the supplemental nutrition assistance program and eliminate the asset test, which Douglas called “a burden to participation.” Those changes, agreed to last summer, went into effect Jan. 1.

Now people with gross incomes of 185 percent of the federal poverty level, up from 130 percent, are eligible for the program. That’s $3,269 a month for a family of four. And people will no longer have to spend down their savings for their children’s college education or their retirement to qualify.

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I have to say, it was a bit of a shock to realize that if we lived in Vermont, my family would qualify for food stamps. But, of course, that goes along with what has been a massive national shift away from food stamps as a method of helping the most vulnerable and toward food stamps as a food subsidy that essentially makes food affordable for a large percentage of the population. In the last few years, we’ve seen food stamp enrollment (and let’s be honest, they’ve changed the name before; they will still be calling it food stamps, no matter what marketing Vermont does) move up to 1 in 9 Americans, and 1 in 6 people in Michigan and Washington, D.C. Given the scale of the expected economic crisis in 2009 and 2010, it would not be surprising to see those numbers hit 1 in 5 Americans.

Now I want to be clear: I am in favor of food stamps and any strategy that helps keep people from going hungry and that ensures adequate nutrition. I’m also strongly in favor of any new program that reduces or even attempts to reduce the stigma of accepting aid when it is needed. That said, however, the question needs to be asked, are food stamps the best possible way to address the issues of food security and access that we’ve created in our society?

First of all, let’s talk about what’s driving the vast increase in food stamp enrollment in the U.S. The first factor is state enthusiasm: that is, there has been a laudable push to bring more hungry people into the food stamp program. There has also been a push by the states to expand their food stamp enrollment because food stamps are federally funded and effectively transfer federal dollars into the state: That is, the food that food stamp recipients purchase in Vermont gets spent in Vermont.

Food stamps are, in fact, an extremely effective way of subsidizing state economies, because virtually every dollar gets spent directly. That is, unlike, say, tax returns that often get saved or put into markets that benefit others, low-income families don’t have a lot of reserve, so the money they get circulates around. It gets spent and used in the economy, upping the velocity of money. In this sense, food stamps are a much better investment than, say, bank bailouts: Money given to Citibank, for example, goes into the bank’s coffers to offset its existing debts, and is mostly never seen again. Food stamps given to low-income families get spent at the supermarket or the farmers market and get money circulating in the community. In a comparatively poor state like Vermont, this is absolutely urgent.

But, of course, there’s another, not-so-helpful reason why food stamp enrollments are rising — people are struggling. The price of basic foods rose vastly in 2007, and while some foods have declined in cost somewhat (milk, for example), agricultural prices are always based in large part on the last season’s production, and so consumers can expect to pay high prices for a long time.

Moreover, as more industrial food producers are forced to stop absorbing higher commodity prices and make up for shifts in their bottom lines that occurred last year, prices are likely to remain high while companies attempt to remain in business. With one major industrial producer, Pilgrim Foods, already in bankruptcy, we can expect to see some measure of consolidation in the system, probably leading to higher prices overall. Combine that with dramatic month-over-month job losses and pay cuts, and more and more people to struggle to put food on the table. Indeed, food pantries and food stamp application handlers are all reporting more people who never thought they would be in their present situation needing help.

I think it is important that those of us who think about food begin thinking about food stamps not as an emergency support program, but as a normative food subsidy for Americans. The move to include middle-class citizens in food stamp programs is likely to grow, and the fact that the middle class now needs food stamps to get by is not just a bad sign for the temporary economy, but a serious structural shift in our food system.

The expansion of food stamps is already having a substantial impact on the food system as a whole. Remember, states are being flooded with dollars that can only be spent on food. This means that the food marketplace is being shifted as a whole, for as spending drops, we are shifting dollars in a particular direction. Again, I have no difficulty with this to the extent it mitigates hunger, but we do need ask who these subsidies are actually supporting and keeping in business. They should be working toward a food system that operates in the national interest, one that minimizes external costs to be borne by citizens at large, one that minimizes contributions to global warming, and one that provides maximum investment in food systems likely to handle economic and ecological upheaval.

In this sense, food stamps are not an unmitigated good. At this point, food stamps disproportionally benefit the industrial food economy: Many farmers markets and CSA programs cannot or are not set up to accept food stamps, and low-income families often struggle to get transport to farmers markets and farm stands that do accept them. CSAs usually require upfront payments that food stamp recipients cannot make, and while many CSA owners attempt to accommodate low-income shares, their personal profit margins are sufficiently low that this doesn’t always work.

Not only does this prioritization of the industrial do considerable ecological harm and also reduce the access of lower-inc
ome families to healthy foods, but it works against the interests of the states, which lose most of the dollars spent there as they go back to industrial producers. A rational system would be something like Michael Pollan’s proposition that food stamp values are doubled when spent directly at farmers markets or through CSA payment programs. So too would using some federal subsidy and education money to teach people how to cook and eat seasonally, so that they could get the most from their food stamp dollars, buying high-quality, whole foods.

But more importantly, the rise in food stamp use should make us look seriously at our industrial food system and our food system in relationship to the world at large. For a long time, the one thing that you could say about American industrial food was that it was cheap. But if food is no longer inexpensive, not just for the poor, but for the American middle class, then the single virtue of the industrial food system begins to collapse. That is, even with a system of externalized costs, one that defers paying the full price of pollution, industrial food is no longer affordable. So why were we keeping the industrial food system around again? Certainly not because there are no better choices. If we are going to subsidize expensive food, why not good, nutritious food that will lower national health costs, enrich small farmers and local economies, and improve overall local food security?

If we are to accept that something as basic as food has now moved out of the realm of ordinary affordability, this should make clear to us precisely how vulnerable we are to hunger even in the U.S. The fact that we have acknowledged a need for a subsidy that extends well into the middle class (and it actually extends further than implied, because food stamps automatically make you eligible for things like subsidized school lunches) means that the industrial food system no longer is managing to do the one thing that you could say in its defense — provide affordable food. And if this is no longer the case, there really is no defense left for industrial agriculture.

Originally published at Casaubon’s Book.