About this Blog

Welcome! Thanks for checking out On Food Stamps.

I created this blog in 2009 when I began working at the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank. My work at this organization opened my eyes to food justice issues in America, and I had a strong desire to better understand the difficulties many people face when trying to access healthy food on a limited budget. So, I embarked on my own Food Stamp Challenge, living on $31/week as a vegan. I used this blog to chronicle my experience.

While my Food Stamp Challenge project has come to an end, you can see what I learned from it by reading the Greatest Hits posts linked to the right side of the page. Please excuse any out-of-date links, as I am no longer updating this blog on a regular basis.

Stay Hungry,


Monday, June 29, 2009

“Eat Green” Messaging: What do we swallow?

I am now back in L.A...

During the long periods that I am away from home in Connecticut, my mom saves articles in newspapers and magazines that she thinks will be of interest to me. Whenever I return home I find a nice little stack of reading material beside the bed I slept in growing up. As usual, mom got it right despite my long absence.

She left me, among other things, a February 2009 issue of Bon Appétit magazine. There is a huge steak on the cover. At the top is printed, in green: Special Feature/ 50 Easy Ways to Eat Green P. 68 To drive the point home, the Bon Appétit magazine title below has the “o” and that neat little accent above the last “e” also printed in green.

I immediately flipped to page 68.

On the left side of the spread is the title of this Special Feature, nice and big. On the right side is a close up shot of a huge juicy burger and a sneak peak at Tip #5: MAKE A BISON BURGER.


First, lets talk about audience for a second. Bon Appétit magazine boasts a total average circulation of 1,426,992 . The readers are mostly female (73%) and have a median age of 49. The median household income of Bon Apetite readers is $83,563. Who is reading this article? Late middle aged women with a comfortable disposable income.

I admire the encouraging, upbeat tone of this article. I think it aims to make sustainable eating accessible and downright fun to this wealthy, middle aged female audience. The opening paragraph tells us a bit about the audience here: “If only eating green were as simple as going to a farmers’ market, buying organic, and reusing that shopping tote at the grocery store.” (Record screech sound effect, here.) Ok, sorry, Bon Appétit. Even when I am back to my normal, $50 a week shopping budget for 1 person (plenty generous, I think) shopping organic and going to farmers’ markets is not easy by any stretch. And, when I was shopping on less than $35/week, accomplishing both of those things was very difficult.

No matter what my budget, eating local and sustainable is still, unfortunately, inconvenient in America. It requires a lot of commitment to plan your weekend around a Farmers’ Market that is open only 3 hours on a Saturday morning and to accept that while you get your food at that market you’ll have to run another set of errands to buy the non-food items you need.

I am glad that Bon Appétit seems to know that to its readers buying organic and shopping at Farmers’ Markets is now a given. In one sense, I find that pretty encouraging. On the other hand, I think it is likely a little bit out of touch with the shopping habits of a lot of Americans, and I think it skips over some of the deeper issues of sustainable eating.

I am afraid that the tone of this article goes back to a theme I have discussed in the past. That is, I do not think that we are ever going to be able to improve the way we eat on any type of mass or egalitarian scale unless we acknowledge how difficult it is to do so. Changing the way we eat is just not as simple as “50 Tips to Eat Green,” and I’m not convinced that cutesy list-articles that suggest food reform is a matter of buying Bison instead of beef are even a good thing.

I found the tips in this feature were very light hearted. Some were good (“Ask Your Farmer…”) and some were ridiculous: “Buy More Chocolate” (follow a plug for a specific fair trade chocolate company). I suppose it is good that the article is recommending sardines instead of over-fished tuna and recommending that readers choose grass-fed beef from local farmers, but it barely addresses the larger issue that eating meat in general, no matter how “local” or “cage free”, is significantly less “green” than eating a vegetarian diet.

There were several instances where this article seemed a great example of the type of “consumerist explosion” I referred to in the previous post. The article has a very upbeat “try this new thing!” tone, rather than a tone that urges readers to make any food choices that require sacrifice or real change in behavior.

I don’t doubt this is because no one wants to sacrifice or change, and that an article that lectures people about changing their diet is certainly not going to sell magazines. People like nice little lists of “Tips” that are short and cute.

Bon Appetite’s 50 Easy Ways to Eat Green reveals something pretty essential about where our collective head is at in the quest to move towards more sustainable, local, and healthful foods:

Eating better is on our mind. We’re talking about it and writing about it in various media outlets. It is trendy. Buzz words like “Eat Green” are selling magazines. Restaurants that serve local, sustainable fare are getting positive press. But we still want it to be easy. We still want it to be fast. We don’t want to cook, and we don’t want to make any big changes like, say, cutting down on our meat consumption in any significant way. It is pretty ingrained in our American culture that food and eating are associated with quick and easy.

So, either we make sustainable food quicker, cheaper, and easier, or we need to talk a bit more about the fact that maybe we need to reframe the way we think about food and eating. And, that neither that conversation nor that change is going to be easy or quick.

As with all things, I think the answer to the American food crisis is a balance of the two. I’d like to see us start with actually talking about the issues though, and maybe investing in things like educational campaigns about sustainable nutrition and incentives for people living healthier, more sustainable lifestyles.

P. S. In the meantime, Hellman’s Mayonnaise is launching an ad campaign to convince us that eating Hellman’s is synonymous with “eating local.” This is a prime example of the fact that “green” and “local” have become major, hot-sell buzzwords. I am quite sad that I have been unable to find you a You Tube version of a commercial for this campaign. Has anyone else seen these ads? For now, the website will have to suffice: www.eatrealeatlocal.ca/ Note: the website is geared towards Canada, but commercials for "Eat Real. Eat Local." are running in America as well. I saw one. And I scremed. (Really, I did. Ask my dad.)

Is it a bad thing that audiences clearly have positive associations with the words “green” and “local”? Of course not. Does it trouble me that the information most Americans are getting about reforming their diets to make more sustainable food choices comes from a Hellman’s Mayonnaise commercial? Yes.


  1. Nice Post, Julie. My mom is usually right but my grandpa gets it wrong, sending me vague short articles about how "this generation of children are smart" or people who succeeded by opening a business.

    I know that in any PR campaign I do, I operate from the strategy that it will be more effective to get a lot of people to make little changes than to try and revolutionize the world in an article. But like you say, in the end that is tantamount to lying to your reader and babying them. Why can't the article have different levels of commitment and a small plug for REALLY eating sustainably.

    On another note, I'd love to hear your wisdom on all these silly labels like "organic." Are there ways to know what they mean, brands we can trust, etc. for fair treatment of animals and clean, healthy food?

  2. Mike - thanks for writing. I will certainly do a post on the label of Organic. This is something I have been wanting to do some more research on myself anyway, so keep an eye out for a post on that.

  3. Thanks for posting this blog. It brings up some really good points. When I was doing well financially I found it a lot easier to "eat green." I have personally found it very difficult to eat sustainable on my very limited budget. I wish it wasn't the case. However, I do try to live green in other areas of my life.
    Thanks again for the thought provoking post.