“Do you think we can add the rum to the fish?” my friend asked only half-jokingly as she tossed pasta in olive oil and cumin from across the table.
I frowned through the maze of mismatched ingredients on the table at the bowties sliding around in their unconventional spices. Olive oil and cumin pasta wouldn’t win Michelin stars, but island prices were too high for anything fancy, and we had to settle for scrapping around a bit in the kitchen. I turned to the cold bottle of sickeningly sweet Ole Nassau Coconut Rum that our group bought because it was the cheaper local option when compared with Malibu or Bacardi. After we optimistically took a sip of the rum, it quickly became one of our more regrettable purchases, second only to the unopened package of beans. Still, while eating on our tight budget, everything we bought had to be consumed.
In a buildup of culinary frustration I poured a quarter of the bottle of rum into a bowl with generous dashes of curry powder, salt, and pepper. I could call it ‘Bahamian grouper sautéed in a coconut rum marinade’, I thought. I could also call it a sad moment of risking taste for pragmatism.
As I lay the filets on the pan the oil spit at me, and for the first time in my life I seriously reflected on the daunting process of buying groceries. Growing up in a middle class family with a former chef for a mother meant healthy ingredients on the daily. Our food rules were simple: avoid eating out and make everything you can from scratch. College was a shift in my eating habits, but on a dining hall meal plan I still had the luxury of simply receiving prepared food.
In complete contrast to my interactions with food, more than one-sixth of Americans in September 2013 qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as Food Stamps. Under SNAP, individuals are given approximately $4.75 per day to buy food. Consider for a moment that it costs almost that entire amount for a jar of Tico’s juice at the Princeton University Store – one can only imagine the difficulties involved in surviving entirely on this budget.
Back in my makeshift kitchen I flipped the fish, scraping the skin that stuck to the cheap pan with our cracked plastic spatula. Trying to find nutritious groceries for nine people on a budget on a trip to the Bahamas is a testament to my privilege. We never went hungry, we had the time to cook, and we allotted a bit of extra money for luxury items (namely rum and Nutella). However, despite the luxury we experienced, when I wandered through aisles of food extremely conscious of what was impossible to buy I refocused my attention from the delicious, experimental recipes I could cook to the simple, healthy dishes that would be too pricy to make – my mindset moved from having food to not having food, a topic too often forgotten by many college students with backgrounds similar to my own.
I started the week off with high expectations. For our first dinner I bought ingredients for a nectarine jalapeño salsa, but quickly realized that any such fruit-and-vegetable-heavy recipes could never get us through the week. The ingredients for half a mixing bowl of salsa cost more than two loaves of bread and a large bag of rice put together. We could only afford to put fish in our budget because we got a special deal from a local fishmonger; the cheapest way for us to shop the supermarket would be to minimize pricy protein and vegetables and maximize starches.
In the US it is also an unfortunate truth that inexpensive food is typically unhealthy, and that choosing quantity over quality also means choosing enough food over nutritious food. Government programs structured like SNAP do extremely little to help with this issue. I sat down with Dr. Janet Currie, a Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School who studies US nutrition and poverty programs, to discuss what resources the government provides for nutrition.
“The Food Stamp program is not nutrition-focused at all. You can go and use them for Coke, chips, and cookies and that’s just fine,” she explained. “It’s almost like giving people cash.”
The one prominent government program that does encourage and fund only nutritional food is Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Established a few years after the original Food Stamps program, WIC provides nutritious foods like milk, fruit, vegetables, peanut butter, cheese, and legumes for pregnant women and their young children. Nutrition education is also given with the food support: rather than just receiving coupons in the mail, recipients are required to come to a WIC center and get health information.
This kind of health focus in government programs is not widely accepted as positive, however. Currie describes the system as controversial: “A lot of people think the government shouldn’t be in the business of telling you what you can eat. WIC is up for reauthorization this fall and there might be a fight about it even though research has shown it to be an effective program.”
Currie’s own research does indicate that, for low-income families, the health of newborn children is directly related to whether their mother participates in WIC. Without the support, eating healthy food is incredibly difficult. Beyond the reality that healthy food is expensive, it’s also difficult to find. Many rural areas and city neighborhoods around the country are food deserts: areas with no local access to even the most basic healthy food. When a fully prepared unhealthy meal at McDonald’s is cheap and nearby, it’s unreasonable to expect people to travel to distant, expensive, healthy options.
I prodded the now-steaming fish and felt the meat start to flake off the bone. The grouper was fresh and protein-heavy. Too many Americans get monetary support without the possibility of eating any such foods – WIC’s positive impacts are encouraging but affect only a small group of Americans. I flipped my rum fish off the pan. I paused, acknowledging that qualifying SNAP support to look more like WIC’s options would be virtually impossible: too many voters feel strongly that such government restrictions conflict with the public’s right to choose what to eat. With each bite of sweet, spicy, rummy fish I hoped that there could be a feasible change for American nutrition, like adding more nutrition education for adults or working to eliminate food deserts with subsidies for healthy foods. These were optimistic hopes, but then so was the idea to pour in the rum.