I have to thank Tom Colicchio for this post. If he hadn’t called me on a nasty comment on Twitter (once again, mea culpa Sr. Colicchio!) I wouldn’t be writing this right now. And that is definitely a GOOD thing.
What was the beef about? Childhood hunger. To sum up, Tom Colicchio, Ming Tsai, Maria Hines, and Holly Smith got together to do a SNAP challenge – A delicious, healthy multicourse meal for 4 under 10 bucks. And I have to admit, they did a great job. Team Colicchio & Hines menu consisted of a carrot, apple & raisin salad with buttermilk dressing; a vegetable and beef stir fry stir-fry with brown rice; and for dessert, a panna cotta with oranges. Team Tsai & Smith weren’t too shabby either with frisee and avocado salad; chicken thighs with vegetable quinoa, and a yogurt-apple parfait for dessert.
While I am happy to eat anything any of these chefs would serve me, a particular six-year old on the tasting panel was none too kind. Giving a serious thumb down to Team Tsai’s frisee salad and an upside-down smiley face to Team Colicchio’s carrot salad, the little critic had his work cut out for him.
But this is not to suggest that it is the chefs’ fault. If anything, this failure in good taste (sorry kid) is a testament to the problems with childhood eating, poverty and nutrition in this nation – not the creative cooking skills of America’s finest chefs.
Just in case you haven’t paid attention to the statistics, the only thing that seemed to go up in this year’s economy is food stamp usage. Since the beginning of the 2008 recession, food stamp usage has gone up by 66%, to 15% of the US population receiving some kind of SNAP benefit. In order to qualify for SNAP benefits, a person has to be making less than 130% of the poverty rate in gross income, e.g. for a household of four, the total income must be less than $29,064 in gross income (or net income of $22,356) a year.
What do you get for your benefits? The maximum benefit for a family of four would be around $668 per month or $5.67 per person per day. That’s basically $1.85 cents per meal per person. No one is getting eating foie gras on food stamps – that’s for sure.
But in terms of poverty and food, not all calories are equal and part of the challenge with feeding people on food stamps is not just the paltry sum one gets for feeding oneself, but also with the nutritional quality of the food available to those who receive food stamp benefits. Spend three dollars on an 8.5 oz. bag of Cheetos, and you get 1,000 calories for two bucks. Spend 1.50 on 1 pd of apples (about 4 medium) and you will get a 1,000 calories for $3.94. Which is the better bargain? The Cheetos, if you are counting in terms of caloric weight. But in terms of nutritional quality, the Cheetos are a big fat negative.
A recent study by the University of Washington bears this anecdotal evidence out. Scientists compared the price of junk food versus that of a healthier meal on a calorie-density basis. And guess what? Energy-dense foods, such as candy, pastries and chips, cost $1.76 per 1,000 calories versus $18.16 per low-density but nutritious foods, such as fresh vegetables, fruits and fish.
Furthermore, the study showed that low-calorie foods were more likely to increase in price, 19.5% during the 2-year study versus a 1.8% in the price of high-calorie foods.
Given the cost constraints that most SNAP recipients have, is it any wonder that SNAP usage, poverty and obesity go together? It’s far cheaper to eat a box of Twinkies than to eat a well-balanced healthy meal if you are trying to cut costs. Considering the high price of produce (we’re not talking Whole Paycheck here), the costs of a nutritious meal become not only out of reach for those in poverty – the working poor also suffer. In short – healthy and fresh fruit are becoming the property of the 1%.
Furthermore, as many of those in poverty or low-income live in “food deserts”, the access to healthy food is even more difficult to come by. While food deserts may have convenience & liquor stores, since when did the local 7-11 stock enough healthy and affordable food for a meal? According to the US Census, 2.2% (or 2.3 million) of US households lived more than a mile from a supermarket and did not own a car. As cities and states everywhere are cutting public transportation funding, the seemingly mundane task of grocery shopping has become a costly & timely nightmare for those with little economic resources.
What’s the solution? Well, beyond the usual, “It’s the economy, stupid” generalisms, there are some concrete policy suggestions for helping out families:
1. Change the incentive structure, change the behavior. Changing the incentive structure for SNAP benefits would encourage the buying habits of non-processed foods. This mean could be in the form of a 50% rebate on fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and whole grains. This could also mean a restriction on soda, candy and junk foods. And USDA – I know what you’re thinking. It’s too cumbersome. That’s BS. You can’t buy cigarettes and booze with SNAP – it’s would easy enough to do the same with junk food.
2. If you build it, they will come. Get fresh vegetables into food deserts via farmers’ markets. This is really a win-win for everyone. Farmers receive a larger profit margin by selling in farmers’ markets. People pay usually less than supermarket prices for fresh food. Everyone benefits. Already, some farmers’ markets have experimented with accepting SNAP benefits. New York City has not only accepted benefits, but also added a bonus to amplify the purchasing power of foods bought at local greenmarkets via the USDA’s Healthy Bucks program (you get an extra $2 for every $5 you spend at farmers’ markets). Even in Harlem! And farmers’ markets, unlike supermarkets, can cater to a wide range of ethnic and regional favorites, such as mustard greens and specialty chili peppers. Currently, only .1% of SNAP benefits are redeemed at greenmarkets. Imagine the possibilities….
3. If you can’t buy it, grow it. Urban farming has been usually associated with Brooklyn hipsters, but those hipsters are onto something. Cities such as Detroit are using abandoned land as sites for urban farms. Other communities are using odd spaces, such as the roof of a bowling alley, to build greenhouses. And that picky kid who didn’t like Tom’s salad? I bet he’d eat it if he grew it himself.
4. Bring back home economics. Yeah, home-ec gets a bad rap for burnt French toast, but without those skills, many do not even the knowledge of how to cook nutritious meals or quick meals. If you can’t cook, no amount of economic or structural changes will make a difference. Get everyone back in the kitchen – mom, dad, kids – basically anyone you can find.
So thanks Tom for chewing me out. Couldn’t have written this without your help. And I promise to stay on your good side….
** Team Colicchio and Team Tsai's recipes are below the footnotes. Courtesy of Partnership for A Healthy America.
 To those who don’t know Tom Colicchio, he is the man behind the highly reviewed Craft empire of restaurants (Craft, CraftSteak, Colicchio & Sons, riverpark and Craftwich) in New York City. And when he’s not running the restaurants, he’s busy being a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef. Yes, he’s famous (and I’m not).
 USDA provides figures for food stamp usage. In 2008, 27.8 million people were using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP” a.k.a. food stamps). By 2011, that number reached 46 million.
 The full set of benefits and income thresholds for SNAP can be found at the USDA’s web site: http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/applicant_recipients/eligibility.htm
 All the nutritional information for a bag of regular Cheetos (not the Flaming Hot kind, Puffs, or the Baked varieties) comes from the Frito Lay website.
 Nutritional information for a medium apple (190g) was taken from the USDA nutritional labels. Prices for apples vary across the nation, but they generally go from a buck to 3 bucks per pound.
 Monsivais et al. Lower-Energy-Density Diets Are Associated with Higher Monetary Costs per Kilocalorie and Are Consumed by Women of Higher Socioeconomic Status. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2009; 109 (5): 814
 Food deserts are locations that are lack access to fresh, affordable and nutritious food. While definitions vary, most geographers define food deserts as places that do not have supermarkets or grocery stores within a one mile radius of their given household. The USDA has an excellent graphic of how low-income areas intersect with food desserts: http://www.ers.usda.gov/amberwaves/march10/features/FoodDeserts.htm - box1
 Harlem’s Farmers Market just opened in 2010 and it’s been a rousing success. http://marcussamuelsson.com/news/have-you-been-to-harlem’s-farmers-market
Partnership for a Healthier America Recipes
Tom Colicchio and Maria Hines
Main Dish: Beef & Vegetable Stir Fry with Brown Rice
Side Dish: Shredded Carrot, Apple & Raisin Salad with Buttermilk Dressing
Dessert: Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Orange Segments
Shredded Carrot, Apple & Raisin Salad with Buttermilk Dressing
1 bag whole carrots, peeled and shredded
½ cup raisins, soaked in hot water
2 apples, peeled and shredded
½ cup buttermilk
2 tbsp cider vinegar Salt and pepper
Peel carrots and apples and shred with a box grater. Soak raisins in a small amount of hot water and set aside. Slowly whisk the buttermilk into the cider vinegar to emulsify and season with salt and pepper. Right before serving, remove the raisins from the water and add to the shredded carrots and apples. Toss with the vinaigrette, season with salt and pepper and serve.
Beef Stir Fry
Yields: 6 people
1.5 pound beef round, slice thin
1 c. broccoli florets, blanched
1 c. snow peas
1 c. button mushrooms. sliced thin
hot sesame oil
regular sesame oil
¼ c. soy sauce
1 TB. oyster sauce
1 TB. fresh lime
½ c. green onion, sliced thin
1/2 c. peanuts
1 c. onion, sliced thin
1 TB garlic, minced
1/2 c. cilantro, chopped
3 c. brown rice
Heat hot sesame oil and regular sesame oil in a pan, then sauté all ingredients
together (except for rice). Cook rice in water. 3 c. rice and 3 1/4 c. water. Serve beef stir fry over rice.
Panna Cotta with Orange Segments
1 packet of sugar free orange Jello
½ cup water
1 ½ cups buttermilk Orange segments
Boil water, pour into bowl with Jello packet, whisk for 2 minutes or until completely dissolved. Add buttermilk and stir until combined. Pour into desired container and let set uncovered in refrigerator for 30-‐45 minutes until set. Serve with orange segments.
PHA’s Building a Healthier Future Summit
Holly Smith & Ming Tsai
Main Dish: Braised Chicken Thighs with Herb and
Frisée and Avocado Salad
Dessert: Non-Fat Greek Yogurt Parfait with Warm
Cinnamon Apples and Cashews
Chicken Thighs with Herb and Vegetable Quinoa
8 -10 servings
6 chicken thighs -boneless skinless
3-4 cloves garlic
4 sprigs thyme or 1T dried
1 T extra virgin olive oil
½ cup sherry vinegar
¼ cup crushed tomato
2 cups chicken stock - no salt added * as needed
Kosher salt –to taste
Black Pepper-to taste
1T butter (*optional)
2 teaspoons flour (*optional)
Heat a large pan over medium high heat. Chop
garlic and onions and set aside. Cut chicken into
small pieces. Season with Kosher salt and black
pepper, lightly dust with flour. Add oil to heated
pan then carefully add chicken. As pieces brown,
make room in pan for onions and garlic. Stir often
to prevent burning 2 minutes. Deglaze with wine.
Add stock, ½ of sherry vinegar and tomato. Bring to
a simmer and cover. After 10 minutes uncover and
add butter, reduce until a nicely bound sauce
adding additional vinegar as needed/desired.
Serve on top of quinoa.
1 1/2 cups quinoa raw
2 bulbs fennel – chop small
3 cloves garlic-chopped fine
6 leaves mint - chopped
2 zucchini- diced small
1 carrot-diced small
3T extra virgin olive oil
Follow instructions for quinoa – while it is cooking,
chop vegetables and garlic. In Saute pan heat
olive oil, add fennel. Toss and Season with kosher
salt. Once lightly colored and softening- 3 minutes
add garlic, and carrot to pan and sauté another
minute to just wilt the carrot. Remove to a bowl
and add herbs, zucchini and pinch of cayenne
pepper. When quinoa is ready (12-14 minutes
typically) toss with the seasoned vegetables. Taste
and adjust seasoning as desired.
Frisée and Avocado Salad
1 large shallot, minced
1 Tablespoon Dijon or hot mustard
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 cup rice vinegar or fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup EVOO
2 heads frisée, washed, cored and torn into pieces
1 avocado, peeled and diced
Combine shallot, mustard, soy sauce and vinegar in
large bowl. Gradually pour olive oil in a steady
stream while whisking constantly to emulsify. Place
frisée and avocado in large mixing bowl and add
enough dressing to coat. Toss well. Season with salt
& pepper, to taste.
Non-Fat Greek Yogurt Parfait with Warm Cinnamon
Apples and Cashews
3 large apples, granny or Fiji, cored and diced
(leave skin on)
1/2 cup Craisins (R)
1/2 cup apple juice
4 cups non-fat Greek yogurt
1/2 cup toasted cashews
In pan melt butter, sauté apples until golden, 3 - 5
minutes. Add cinnamon and Craisins (R). Continue
to cook until apples are caramelized. Add apple
juice to deglaze and cook until liquid reduced by
1/4. Serve with yogurt and sprinkle with toasted