Local political writer Ari Armstrong, author of FreeColorado.com and columnist for the Grand Junction Free Press, likes nothing better than to fire up his lowercase libertarian indignation against what he sees as the meddling of big government, abuses of personal liberty and the suppression of free-market ideals. And with President Barack Obama's multibillion-dollar stimulus plan grabbing headlines, Armstrong should have lots to fume about. So what's the latest target of his cerebral ire? Food stamps.
That's right: food stamps, those little things that apparently help struggling families eat. Sick of complaints -- such as this one on CNN -- that people on food subsidies can only afford unhealthy meals, Armstrong recently announced that he would spend a week chowing down on nothing but $33.07 worth of super-healthy, low-carb groceries. That came out to $4.72 a day -- considerably less than the $5.68 per person that food stamps allow for -- and Armstrong said he was confident he'd be eating great and possibly not even die in the process.
To see if he's resorted to eating plaster gouged out of his walls five days into the experiment, I stop by for lunch at Armstrong's place, a cozy metro-area home on a quiet street named Independence Circle.
My first question is, of course, whether freedom-loving Armstrong had chosen to live here solely because he'd be on Independence Circle.
No, he replies, but it was a nice bonus.
Then we get down to business. While Armstrong whips himself up a large lettuce-and-tomato salad topped off with roasted turkey, I tuck into the provisions I'd brought along. Since Armstrong's shoestring budget hadn't accounted for dinner guests, he'd informed me I would have to fend for myself food-wise. No problem, I'd said, before innocently wondering what food he missed most. "A nice big piece of freshly-baked whole-wheat bread," he'd responded in an e-mail. So naturally, I've brought along a golden-hued loaf fresh from the oven at the Panera Bread bakery down the street and wave it around Armstrong's kitchen to spread the aroma before digging in.
He doesn't mind. "Honestly, the one thing I have not been in this diet is hungry," he says. Turns out the olive oil, dairy products and whole turkey he'd purchased at Target, the fruits and veggies he'd gotten at Sprouts Farmers Market, and the tea, spices and whipped cream he'd procured at King Soopers are more than enough to keep him fit and full. Scrambled eggs for breakfasts, salads for lunch and bowls of dismally green turkey-stock soup he'd cooked up for dinner: He's hardly ever eaten better. Sure, he dined on banana and cold turkey for breakfast this morning, but that's because he was in a rush.
Of course, that's his whole point: that we don't need to increase food-stamp funding for health reasons. "If the claim is you can only buy starchy and sugary and bad-fat foods on a food-stamp budget, I am going to show the exact opposite of that," he says. "If you eat like this, you will live longer, you will have less health problems, you will have less risk of heart attack and obesity." He's done it before, having, along with his wife, survived for a month on less than $3 a day in 2007 to protest Mayor John Hickenlooper's claim that he'd struggled to survive on his much-publicized week-long food-stamp diet. This time, he could have made it cheaper, he points out, if only he'd known to shop at Sprouts on Wednesday, double-coupon day.
Maybe he's even hit on the next diet fad. Move over, Dr. Atkins: Here comes Dr. Armstrong and his surefire food-stamp weight-loss program.
Though if Armstrong has his way, no one would be on food stamps, since he thinks the whole program's ridiculous. "If you want to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, drink a six pack of Coors, eat a pizza from Domino's and top it off with a bag of potato chips and eat sugar by the spoonful, that's your business," he says. "But don't tell me I need to spend my money to support that lifestyle. I don't want to have to subsidize your cigarette smoking, your alcoholism, your carb addiction." A better model, he says, would be voluntarily stocked community food-share programs, sort of like the Mormon food-distribution centers. "If you are Mormon, you will not go hungry in Utah," he says.
"Unfortunately," I counter, "you're also Mormon."
Furthermore, I posit delicately, aren't there more pressing examples of government excess to be rallying against in the middle of a recession than food stamps? Do struggling families really have the time and energy to prepare all these healthy, home-cooked meals? Hasn't the robust food-industrial complex championed by free-market enthusiasts like Armstrong stacked the deck against working-class folks hoping to buy corn syrup- and trans-fat-free products at the supermarket? All in all, doesn't Armstrong risk coming off as, well, an asshole?
"I oppose the welfare state across the board. With a position like that, people are going to call me an asshole in general. This will give them one more excuse to do that," he replies. "But what I think being an asshole is, is locking someone in a cage if they don't want to give to the charity you think is acceptable. That is the root of the welfare state."
"Is the food stamp budget the most important issue facing the country today? Certainly not," he concedes. From his perspective, it's just one small piece of a larger injustice -- the government's policy of lopping off a huge percentage of working-class paychecks to pay for unreasonable programs, many of which only benefit the wealthy. There are lots of slightly less controversial topics he'd rather extol, like the insanity of the bailout bill and the lunacy of corporate welfare, not to mention the Ayn Randian tendencies of Harry Potter. But as someone whose biggest story of 2008 was all about the word "bitch-slapped," Armstrong knows the value of a good hook. After all, he asks with a smile as I jot down his every word, "Why are you here?"
Touché, I say as I finish my lunch. As Armstrong dines on his food-stamp dessert -- bananas covered in whipped cream and chocolate sauce made from Nestlé chocolate powder -- I can't help but ask one final question: What's the first thing he's gonna eat at the end of his diet?
"I might have pizza or something," he says. "Pizza or whole-wheat bread."
So for that post-food stamp celebration, I hand over a hunk of my loaf. As Armstrong would say, it's all about food sharing. Just like the Mormons do.