Mario Batali Food Stamp Challenge and HBO’s ‘Weight of the Nation’

Some raw ingredients from a recent trip to a local market: tomatoes, chard, eggplant, lemons, escarole, red onions, apples, bread, grapes, sardines, turkey breast, etc.

Two news items caught our attention this week and we can’t help but offer our “two cents” on the following food related media events: Mario Batali’s food stamp challenge and HBO’s ‘Weight of the Nation’

Molto Forgets La Cucina Povera

First, Mario Batali issued himself (and his family of four) a pragmatic food challenge; namely, “getting by” or feeding his family for a week on the equivalent of a food stamp budget (about $31 per person or about $1.48 per meal each).   Batali’s move is motivated by potential cuts pending in Congress to the benefit program used by close to 50 million Americans.  Mario’s first reaction to the challenge was, as the Huffington Posts writes, a big “gulp!” and to forget about luxuries such as organic vegetables and fruits and hormone free meat.   Our reaction to Batali’s challenge is a bit more cynical and makes us rethink his knowledge and familiarity of la cucina povera and while $124 per week for food may not yield a shopping cart full of wild fish, locally raised, and grass feed, beef, organic fruits and vegetables, and a nice bottle of Barolo, common sense dictates most Americans could eat fairly well on $120.  Here’s what we would purchase for our family of three:

  • Conventional broccoli, red onions, yams or potatoes, escarole, swiss chard, parsley, zucchini,
  • 1-2 organic romaine lettuce hearts
  • Conventional whole pineapple and cantaloupe.
  • Organic or local grapes, pears, strawberries, and kiwi
  • 2 packages of pasta
  • 1 package of brown rice or farro
  • 2-3 bags of dry beans (kidney, garbanzo, lentil)
  • 1 pound each of: wild flounder and whole sardines
  • 1 3-4 pound whole chicken
  • 2 cans of tuna cured in olive oil
  • Carton of eggs
  • 1/4 pound of Grana Padano or similar cheese used for grating
  • Cured olives
  • 1 package of whole wheat sliced bread and one large local bread
  • 2-3 large containers of Greek yogurt
  • 1 jar of organic peanut butter
  • 1 carton of bran flakes
Roughly speaking the above shopping trip (a combination trip to our local market and nearby Trader Joe’s) would come in under, or close, to the $120 mark.  We’d prepare 3 varieties of soup, a few pasta dishes, chicken cacciatore and chicken cutlets, a few frittatas, a few meals centered on the idea of “appetizer dining” (i.e., many small plates of olives, cured tuna, bread, a salad, chickpea spread or hummus, etc.), two fish dishes, sandwhiches centered on leftover chicken cutlets, peanut butter and tuna (separate, of course), many side dishes of vegetables, and plenty of fresh fruit.
Eating well on a budget necessitates one has a decent background in food preparation and we’re not suggesting one needs to be a trained chef, but maybe someone who comes from a viable food tradition.  I learned to cook, for example, by watching and emulating my mother, grandmother, and all of the very good Italian cooks in our family.  Moreover, I also learned the art of improvising with food preparation and not letting the price of food prevent our family from eating well.  So, in our humble view, eating well is more about being prepared to cook and treat food with respect versus being given large amounts of money to purchase the very best ingredients.
One Nation Under Obesity 
The second big bit of news this week is the launch of HBO’s new documentary series Weight of a Nation which provides a deep dive into the obesity epidemic in America.     Some of the statistics coming out of the four part series are staggering and summed up via a recent LA Times review:
“More than two-thirds of adults age 20 and older and nearly one-third of children are overweight or obese; 26 million Americans have Type 2 diabetes and more than 79 million are pre-diabetic. According to Dr. Anthony Iton, senior vice president of the California Endowment, a child born in 2000 has a 1 in 3 chance of developing diabetes unless that child is African American or Latino, in which case, it’s 1 in 2”
We think the series is worth watching and wonder what the correct solution is to the obesity problem in America.  As we often proclaim, you can’t have a society that eats (and by extension feels) well without having a proper food culture.  So, in our view it’s more a matter of establishing the importance of food in each and every American home (much like in Europe or maybe in the Europe of yesteryear) so mom (or dad) buys the right raw ingredients, takes time to cook from scratch meals at home, and derives much of her or his quality of life via eating well every day.  When the aforementioned way of living (and by extension cooking and eating) gets passed down to new generations we can begin to change the food culture in America.


  1. Both of these are great items for commentary, and I agree with your statements.  However, just to take issue on one matter, when you say “common sense dictates most Americans could eat fairly well on $120,” it’s a very big “could.”  About a third of the items listed above require that one have a basic knowledge of cooking and a desire to do so.  While you and I, and I assume most readers, are already there, many Americans are not.  That’s where the need for cultural change arises.  And while “Molto Mario” is making a reasonable effort to put his cooking chops to use with lentils, rice, etc., an unfortunately large amount of food stamp dollars are spent on packaged, processed foods, sugary foods, junk food, soda, etc.  These require no cooking but also are severely nutritionally lacking.  And they are overpriced, so they wouldn’t feed a family half as much as your shopping list would.  The irony is with the same dollar amount of subsidies for the program, with some limited restrictions on the types of food that it could and could not be used to purchase (e.g., yes lettuce, no Pringles), those participating in the program would eat a whole lot better for the same amount of money… but you have to cook and change your relationship with food.

    • Agreed! Cooking is the variable that needs to be addressed, though it’s interesting how we throw money at families to purchase food but give them no training on how to shop for raw ingredients, cook, and generally think about food. I’m sure if the government started intervening along these lines critics would argue the gov is overstepping and telling people, “how to lead their lives”

      In any case, I think it would take just a few generations to overcome the gap between raw ingredients and making good food at home in the United States.

  2. If you don’t have a desire to learn how to cook, you aren’t hungry enough. 

    • Hi Cindy,

      Thanks for the note. I think you’re right (partly). I also think there’s very little emphasis put on the importance of food in the United States (in relation to family life). And I don’t mean that the US doesn’t have food traditions or particular dishes that are worth cooking, it’s just that (from my perspective) I don’t see the same overall importance put on food (from a large scale perspective) that is in place in countries like Greece, Italy, France, Spain, etc.

  3. Vince,

    I love the list, and as a student on a very limited budget who refuses to eat bad food, I can relate to this sort of budget (granted, my girlfriend and I only have to feed ourselves, no kids). However, a few things seem to be missing from your list. The list omits things like extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and dried parsley, which are not 100% necessary, but are needed for making decent tasting meals. This raises the only critique of your article: to eat well and be happy with your meals, there are several other things folks have to buy. Coffee is an example. No, we don’t need it to survive. But, like olive oil, it’s a simple thing which goes a long way to raise the standard of daily living. I think it’s a problem that the USA is supposed to be the most prosperous nation, but we have folks that cannot afford the simple pleasures of life (don’t even get me started on wine…) if they wish to maintain a healthy diet. It also has a lot to do with our general food infrastructure. We need more access to bulk and non-packaged food, which is cheaper and of better quality.

    Anyway, reading your list made me realize I don’t cook enough dry beans. I’m on it!



  4. You don’t have teenagers that eat constantly, do you?

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