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Let Them Eat Kale

The contrast between two USA Today front page stories tells a story about the state of our nation.  Political pundits talk about the shrinking U.S. middle class.  In food, that means we have millions of folks struggling to afford food for their families while the upper class enjoy exclusive steel gift cards for coffee worth more than some families’ monthly food budget.  We’ve lost the food middle class. 

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USA Today’s front page recently covered two different stories somehow related to food.  Above the fold is coverage of the slow economic recovery in Troy, Ohio.  The article profiles a former stay-at-home mom working minimum wage and living out of her truck and a 26 year old trained pharmacy technician who has applied for over 100 jobs since 2010 and is still unemployed.  Her boyfriend works as a nanny despite being just 2 credits shy of a master’s degree in information technology.

Immediately below the story about the struggling poor was coverage of Starbucks’ new limited edition $450 steel gift cards.  Only 5,000 will be made and sold exclusively on Gilt.com.  Card owners will enjoy perks like free refills on brewed coffee and tea and gifts. It’s basically the ultimate holiday present for coffee connoisseurs.

What does this tell us?  It tells us that food can be just another status symbol.  We expect some folks to drive BMWs and drink $7 coffees.  But on the flip side of that gold plated coin, we also expect some folks to take the bus, shop at discount food stores with food stamps, live off Top Ramen, and get their caffeine in the form of off-brand soda. 

And we can get upset when reality doesn’t match our expectations.  For the front page article, USA Today chose to use a photo of a black woman dressing her child as their image of the struggling poor.   This is the image most readers would accept to represent Americans receiving assistance while living in poverty.  Google “hipsters on food stamps” and you find a long list of opinions on the subject of white, educated young adults receiving federal assistance.  The image of educated, white 20-somethings using EBT cards to buy organic food from Whole Foods incites fits of indignation leading to public comment typically reserved for the obnoxious smoker. 

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a luxury car or a $450 coffee gift card made of steel.  There is something wrong with determining who should buy what kind of food based on whether they are using a Visa card or an EBT card.  Access to healthy and affordable food should not be classed as a luxury but should be available to everyone. 

Author profile: Marian Dickinson is a student at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the author of For the Love of Food at marianhd.com

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