Purging after Fox News' 'Food Stamp Binge'

Dylan Lightfoot Staff Writer

August 15, 2013

What's wrong with “mountain pride,” Appalachia's celebrated cultural imperative of rock-ribbed self-reliance? Not a thing.

What's wrong with Fox News' Aug. 9 segment “The Great Food Stamp Binge,” covering the USDA plot to “overcome mountain pride” in Ashe County, and fill out the food stamp rolls with reluctant beneficiaries? Just about everything.

First, the title is in poor taste — enough to put even the most undeserving food stamp mooch off his “gumment cheese.” With Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits — it's not called “food stamps” anymore — averaging $121.37 per recipient per month in N.C., the stock image of the entitled freeloader binging on hand-outs is a hard sell.

But this straw man is not the star of the show: the ruggedly independent mountaineer is.

Narrated by Bret Baier, the story leads with a “food stamp bust” in Columbus, Ohio, where police cite a convenience store for selling alcohol to an undercover agent, who makes the purchase with food stamps.

Yes, people will game the system. Is this news?

It is then revealed the clerk thought she was selling an energy drink, which the canned alcoholic beverage much resembled.

The non-news of this “bust” fails completely to dovetail with the mountain pride story, as Baier inserts a graceless segue: “It's another reason why some people are so puzzled that the USDA is trying so hard to get even more people to sign up for food stamps, whether they say they want them or not.”

We have a moment to ponder, “Why is the Department of Agriculture so keen on feeding people?” Then…cue the banjo music.

Cut to Ashe County, final frontier for the fiercely independent.

True enough. Whether you were born here in the days when the train ran, or came later via the “witness protection program,” these mountains dare you to stay, on their terms.

The Fox News piece takes a History Channel-style flashback to the “old days,” when people facing hard times simply did without as a matter of pride. What assistance there was came through church and community, not the government.

But community charity is not a thing of the past. Food pantries are struggling to meet the same increase in demand that has seen the county's Food and Nutrition Services caseload double since 2007. Perhaps Fox News can explain how this parallel trend developed without a government plot, and despite an influx of food stamps?

Local old-timers are interviewed (some of whom I know). It's always been hard to make it here, they say, and given they grew old here, they oughta know.

But why didn't Fox News seek out residents who work full-time, but still qualify for food stamps? Or any of the county's 250 jobless who recently lost 26 weeks of Federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation in the blowback of the General Assembly's hot-and-bothered unemployment reform?

How are these people feeding their families?

Why didn't they talk to recently laid off United Chemi-con workers or soon-to-be laid off Gates employees, and find out if they're going on the dole or sucking it up mountain style?

Ashe County, we are told, is a place where many qualify for but do not receive food stamps. These people are targets of “a network of social services types” in a campaign to overcome their pride.

Just what the administration gets out of this scheme is not examined. Presumably, once the High Country's poor taste the sweet milk of the food stamp sugar teat, they will forswear their bitter cup of pride and start voting Democrat.

Social worker Brandi Leggs is named as the campaign's visionary. Leggs received a Hunger Champions award for breaking the pride barrier by getting Ashe Countians to use food stamps to buy seeds and plants for gardening, increasing program participation 10 percent in one year.

One interviewee says there should instead be an award for getting people off of food stamps and finding them jobs, as if helping people produce their own food and creating jobs for them were at cross-purposes to their regaining the pride of self-sufficiency.

Baier claims the campaign accounts, at least in part, for the doubling in county food stamp enrollment over the last 10 years, and it may be true. But broad swaths of relevant context are left out of the story.

Not a word is said about the recession or Ashe's lingering double-digit jobless rate, now in it's 56th month. There's no mention of the increase in low-income elderly and disabled residents or children living in poverty, which is now up to 30 percent, according to

Kids can't eat pride.

And why was Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions the brain to pick on Ashe County food assistance? We have our very own Congresswoman Virginia Foxx who takes a dim view of expanding food stamp participation.

The “old days” may indeed have been a better time, when self-reliant people produced much of their own food, clothing and other goods, rather than competing in a scanty labor market for diminishing wages to buy everything from multinational retailers who get their merchandise from overseas, where the jobs went.

And they didn't have to listen to cable news hacks romanticize their unmet needs as a matter of pride.