Hipster Hating: The Food Stamps Debate

Salon launched a real flame-war bomb today with a story entitled "Hipsters on Food Stamps." Here is the subhed: "They're young, they're broke, and they pay for organic salmon with government subsidies. Got a problem with that?"

The story discusses the rising number of young, (usually) single, urban people who are eligible and taking advantage of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. The writer details the buying habits of a few of these folks, many of them artists/writers/freelancers who have seen jobs dry up with the recent economic turmoil. 

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.

There is then a rundown of the outrage this is causing in some circles:

But there seems to be a special strain of ire reserved for those like the self-described "30-something, unemployed, ex-fashionista, EBT armed, post-hipster, downtown mom" from New York who, in January, drew nearly 500 comments on the Web site Urbanbaby.com, many seething with fury at her for trying to maintain the trappings of a materialistic, cosmopolitan life while using an Electronic Benefit Transfer card -- food stamps -- to feed her family.

This is an interesting issue, and one that's far from clear-cut. What defines a "luxury item"? Surely there is a difference between spending government money on Perrier and spending it on local, sustainably-grown produce—though both aren't considered "budget" buys.

Wouldn't you rather that federal food stamp dollar end up in the pocket of a local farmer or independent business owner than ConAgra or Wal-Mart? After all, in tough economic times, artisan producers are often hit the hardest.

Fortunately, Philadelphia has a great example of that model at work: Last year, The Reading Terminal Market was the largest redeemer of Supplemental Nutritional Aid Program vouchers in all of Pennsylvania. (The Fair Food Farmstand accepts food stamps.)

Here is another interesting point:

Controversy about how they use food stamps marks an interesting shift from the classic critique that the program subsidizes diets laden with soda pop and junk food. But from that perspective, food stamp-using foodies might be applauded for demonstrating that one can, indeed, eat healthy and make delicious home-cooked meals on a tight budget.

In the end, I think a lot of this comes back to irrational hipster hatred—a strange phenomenon that seems to be growing. Somehow a certain subset of people—of the young, urban, culturally-inquisitive, microbrew-drinking, bike-riding, glasses-wearing, skinny jeans-loving sort—have become a favored punching bag. Not that they can't handle it. Or care. Ya know, whatevs.