Mario Batali Tries to Live on Food Stamps

Doesn’t turn out so well.

The famous chef and his family tried living on $1.48 per meal for a week to draw attention to the need for food stamps in a hard-hit economy. How did that go, Mario?

“I’m (expletive deleted) starving,” said Batali, who’s on the board of the food relief agency Food Bank for New York City, which issued the challenge to celeb pals like Batali and anybody else who wants to know what it’s like.

Batali said his first reaction when asked to join was a big “gulp,” then he realized while shopping for Friday’s start of the challenge that with a little forethought it wouldn’t be all that brutal.

One lesson: forget organic and anything pesticide- or hormone-free. “The organic word slides out and saves you about 50 percent.”

So what’s on the Batali menu through Thursday? Lentil chili with onion, water and cumin was one dinner that came with a complaint from his wife when he bought two bags of lentils instead of one, until he convinced her the extra cost would mean cheap eats for the next day.

“Rice and beans is in my lunch every day,” Batali said. “We got a bag of mini gala apples for $3. We bought a pork shoulder roast for $8 and got two and a half meals out of it. I got a whole chicken for $5, but it was spoiled so I had to return it and got a $7 chicken instead. They were out of $5 chickens.”

Convenience also has been sacrificed, like the afternoon his boys, 14 and 15, were running late and the family really wanted to grab hot dogs before a basketball game but couldn’t.

His kids are doing well and didn’t have to be dragged into what Batali described as less of a publicity stunt and more of a conversation starter about what it means to be hungry in America today.

“They’re having more peanut butter and jelly than they’ve had in the last 10 years because bread is inexpensive and peanut butter and jelly, if you buy it at the right place at the right time, is cheap,” Batali said.

Also, the boys are eating school lunch, as those in low-income families do for free.

“Eating while poor” is not good for your health. People don’t eat at Micky-Ds because it’s good. Have you ever tasted that crap? You might as well eat the box. They eat there because it’s cheap, close, and easy, and when you don’t have a lot of money, sometimes that’s all you get. Same goes for a lot of cheap prepared foods that people buy with food stamps. Eating well on $1.48 a meal isn’t easy. As Batali observes, you can survive, but you can’t thrive.

Food stamps as part of the safety net are not a problem. (What is a problem is the 12 years of reckless fiscal policy that has driven our economy into the ditch and put so many people on food stamps who never would have been, but that’s another subject.) And while I appreciate Batali’s efforts here, many people on assistance supplement their EBT with food from other sources, such as churches, soup kitchens, and food banks.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society in particular does superb work at collecting and distributing food. Our SVDP pantry at church is always stocked and always giving out food. My father, 90 years old this year, volunteers at one church soup kitchen that feeds a couple hundred people every Thursday, with other churches and synagogues serving on the other days. (Yeah, I know: they’re just those wicked old god-botherers that so many of my brave combox commandos like to mock, yet oddly enough the local chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation aren’t part of the program.)

My point is this: federal foodstamp money is not the only solution to the hunger problem. We’re the solution. Matthew 25:35 and all that…

UPDATE: I’m not sure how I forgot this, but just last month my father’s soup kitchen (and all the others in New Jersey, as far as I know) were told they could no longer deliver meals to shut-ins because of health regulations. I’m reminded of all those stories of churches and other groups prohibited from serving the needy because they failed to meet some arcane regulations set by bureaucrats who have little contact with the needs and resources of real people.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Gary Chapin

    Thanks for writing this. I wish you would have gone into a bit of depth about the points in your last graph. “This is what happens with big government!” Does that add value to the piece without more information? Also, I get dinging big government, but school lunches are a Godsend for many many kids. These are one of the great things done by government. Finally, a piece like this should inspire a pretty intense call to local charity. Get out to your local food kitchen folks! Bring a few cans of something, why don’t ya?

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    You’re summarizing me again! I said the combination of big government and big business is bad for the food supply. The government has long favored big aggro, rewarding corporate farming and punishing small farmers. This hasn’t helped.

    I have no problem at all with school lunches and food stamps based on need. And our St. Vincent de Paul pantry at Church is always stocked. This is what we’re here for.

  • Gary Chapin

    “That’s what we’re here for.” Perfect. Couldn’t agree more.

  • Marcel

    “the combination of big government and big business is bad for the food supply”

    I don’t like either big government or big business. But in 1931 both were smaller, and there were far more small family farms. From what my grandparents told me, I’d rather be destitute now than then. If I’d told my grandfather that global corporatism and an out-of-control federal government was going to cause endemic obesity, he’d have thought I was a crazy optimist.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Yeah, I’m mixing up my hobby horses again, so I cut that line and revised the whole post. I get nutty about food issues.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    To quote Auden: “We are all here on earth to help others. What on earth the others are here for, I don’t know”

  • clarice

    It’s supposed to be supplemental, not the whole shebbang and even then doesn’t take into consideration free school meals and other govt food programs. You will do better and eat more nutritionally on a budget by making Asian food and shopping in Asian grocery stores.

    Oh, and no one should spend more on organic –it adds nothing to taste or nutrition.

  • clarice

    Exactly so, marcel. The incredible productivity of American farmers and the spectacular storage and transportation advances have made it possible for more people here and abroad to eat better for less.

  • enness

    I respect your opinion about McDonalds’ food. However, I have tasted it, and I think the problem is not necessarily that it isn’t good. Not like quality good, obviously, but like “flavor saturation on crack” good. No, I don’t want it most of the time, but occasionally nothing else will do.

    Clarice, I think the appeal is not just flavor or nutrition: it’s the reassurance that you’re not getting a hit of some industrial-strength pesticide with every bite. Or at least not as big of a hit. The most reasonable position I’ve seen is that there are some foods where this makes sense, but not everything, in particular not ones with tough, impermeable skins.