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Super Mario: The Food Stamp Edition

Mario Batali’s attempt to eat on a food stamp budget leaves me with some distaste. It’s a gimmick by a very rich man to pretend to attempt to know what it’s like to live like a very poor one.  

The week-long social experiment (now over) came about after the GOP led House gave a collective thumbs up in support of deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and other social services and programs by more than $200 billion.  

“It causes us to think about what hunger is,” said Batali on his tv show “The Chew.” 

Here’s a thought about hunger -- it sucks!

The number of folks collecting food stamps has risen like sea levels – a rise due in large part to the recession. More people are unemployed, so more people can’t afford to make ends meet. According to a recent survey by the Agriculture Department, the food stamp program has served as a life preserver, actually reducing the country’s poverty rate while making sure that most everyone can eat.

Batali went on to inquire, in a quasi-rhetorical manner, “whether the state is responsible for feeding people.”

The answer is yes. It’s part of this country’s social safety net. It helps prevent families with next to nothing from deciding between food on the table and heat in the radiator -- the Sophiesque choices that lead to gloomy outcomes all around. It serves as the slightest of indications that the world’s richest country cares for those within her borders.

From traveling the world, to getting the best seats in the house, to setting up that philanthropic foundation to give back, I imagine being rich is pretty awesome. It also allows you the freedom and luxury to eat on a food stamp budget for one week and lobster salad alla catalana with tomato and celery the next.

A few years ago, a tv news producer friend of mine in Los Angeles was laid off, a victim of his company’s desire to do more with less, which eventually led to him doing less with less. His bills didn’t disappear, just the means in which he was able to pay them.

“Remember that time I was on food stamps,” he recently said to me. “Yeah, that was awesome.”  

The word awesome was wrapped in sarcasm, pancake batter thick.

Last week, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell took great exception to Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld asking whether Batali’s stunt wanted to make you “slap him around.”  O’Donnell praised Batali for trying to help the country understand what it’s like to try and feed a family on food stamps. (Of course 1 and 7 Americans don't need a reminder.) And before going on to sprinkle Batali with more plaudits for his foundation’s work with the poor, O’Donnell quoted an Associated Press article about Batali’s “challenge,” in which the chef was asked how it was going after four days.

“I’m (expletive deleted) starving,” was his response.

I imagine similar bellyaching from Batali about his food stamp stunt within the next few weeks, as he sits down with friends in similar tax brackets to share rosemary-infused Hendricks Gin and Lamb Rack alla Romana with Lemon Yogurt and Swiss Chard.

Still, I suppose my chief complaint with regard to Batali's project, is that it's bigger than just him. It has to do with modern pathos that poverty elicits from the advantaged.

My eyes rolled when I first read about former Chicago mayor Jane Byrne’s brief move into the Cabrini Green housing project to raise awareness about the city’s gang problems. I uttered the word “really” with a deep sigh when CBS premiered Undercover Boss, a reality show in which a company’s CEO or other top boss goes undercover as just another worker bee, to discover, wait for it... wait for it... that worker bee life can be pretty tough.

There is, however, a saving grace to Undercover Boss. The CEOs are in a position to actually redress some of the problems of working conditions within their company. Kind of like the way Batali is in a position to rectify the concerns of his own restaurant employees, except of course when the problem is tip skimming and the accused beneficiary is Batali.

I get it, I really do. Batali wants to raise awareness. He’s sympathetic to remedying the nation’s worst suffering. It’s a nice gesture.

Except the whole thing reminds me of a segment from the Onion News Network, called: How Can We Raise Awareness in Darfur of How Much We’re Doing for Them? 


Todd Cole is a segment producer on Up w/Chris Hayes