Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rant: What Food Says About Class in America

(Yes, two Rants this week. There is a lot peeving me this week.)

"As more of us indulge our passion for local, organic delicacies, a growing number of Americans don’t have enough nutritious food to eat. How we can bridge the gap."

Many of us celebrated Thanksgiving recently, probably enjoying a bounty of food, possibly including some local and/or organic foods. Some of us might have turned up our nose at boxed stuffing, boxed potatoes, canned vegetables or similar such items. For others though, such foods played a central place in their dinners, if they could even afford that much. It is very disturbing that in our plentiful country, there are still so many people who cannot afford adequate food.   

You should read a new article in Newsweek magazine, "Divided We Eat," by Lisa Miller It is a disturbing look at how: "Food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say--social class." It also offers some suggestions for changing this situation. 

About 17% of Americans are "food insecure," meaning that they sometimes run out of money to purchase food or they run out of food before they can obtain more money.  That is almost 1 out of 5 people, a significant problem.  Food insecurity is higher in the South, in big cities, and families headed by a single mother. This has led to a 58.5% increase in food stamp use over the last three years. But that also seems to go with increased obesity, and a recent study has shown that women and children on food stamps are more likely to be overweight. 

It is not a matter of nutritional education. "Lower-income families choose sugary, fat, and processed foods because they're cheaper--and because they taste good."  Even though some low-income neighborhoods are "food deserts," lacking a significant supermarket for fresh produce and such, others are not, and there is little difference in the buying patterns of these low-income people. Michael Pollan stated: "Essentially we have a system where wealthy farmers feed the poor crap and poor farmers feed the wealthy high-quality food."

I have mentioned it a number of times before, that local, sustainable, organic products need to be much less expensive before they can spread to the wider community, before they stop being elitist.  That is not easy to accomplish and will require a united effort on many fronts. Some efforts are being taken on the local level, such as efforts to allow food stamps to gain extra credit at farmers' markets.  But much more needs to be done, starting with a greater awareness of the issue.  If local is so important to us, then helping local people who are food insecure should be important as well.

If you are working on this issue, please add a comment and tell us what you are doing.  Let us know about some of the local efforts to help in this regard. 


Rebel With a Fork said...

You know, I always see all this stuff about how its too expensive to eat healthy.

I raised my daughter as a single mom. For me, it was too expensive to not eat healthy. Sick days, meds, doctor visits...

If a bag of chips costs like $4 now, and you can get a bag of carrots on sale for 99 cents...

Granted, you may not be able to buy the highest quality organics and grass fed beef, but the dollar menu is going to cost you at least $3 per person - a sandwich, fries and a drink - right?

For $3 per person, I can put out a great dinner.

And on your point about the boxed potatoes, I don't know how much the box goes for these days, but you could get a bag of potatoes for 89 cents last week.

I have a ton of pumpkin puree in the freezer, made from pumpkins people gave me for free. I'll be making pumpkin bread and banana bread all winter.

During the warm months I have my own salad garden. I just finished up the last of the tomatoes :(

You can do it if you want to.

That's having some class.

Richard Auffrey said...

The statistics are clear that organic foods are generally 50% more expensive than regular foods, and 100% more for milk and meat.

Not sure what chips you are referring to, but you can find a large size of chips for $2 or less. Especially if on sale.

For $3 per person, can you put out an organic meal with beef? And would it be as large a portion as the dollar menu? I don't think that you could it. You might be able to do so with factory farm beef, and non-organic foods.But that does not resolve the problems. It is much more than just a matter of health.

And doing so is much more time consuming, to plan, shop and prepare. And that is extra time many overworked families don't have.

The issue is not just health related. It also touches on matters of local, organic, sustainability and more.


Hector said...

Richard, one common misconception is that you have to buy organic foods to eat healthy. I disagree with that. For instance, I can go to the Spanish market on Washington, Tropical Foods, and get greens and fruits for a fraction of the cost that Whole Foods or even Star Market sells them for. Also, I can buy dry or canned beans and rice for less than $1/serving. It might not be glamorous, but it is complete and healthy.

I was raised on food stamps and government food programs, but my mother always made sure we had home cooked food, again, it was traditionally done that way (a long time ago :-) ) and it saved money.

Unfortunately, we have been brainwashed by big agriculture and fast food chains to think that it is cheaper to go there and buy lunch or dinner. One thing to remember is that children from disadvantaged backgrounds usually are home by themselves more often and they have not been exposed to home cooking as much either.

All these things combine to create an atmosphere where people are hurried and harried by issues that they face in their lives, and choosing where and how to eat is one of those things that is made easier by the options fast food establishments provide.

Couves said...

Good points Rebel… it bears remembering that immigrants are some of our most indigent neighbors but manage to eat well. Sure, cooking whole food often requires time, money and expertise that the poor just don’t have. But the dirty little secret is that many native-born Americans simply lack the will to eat better. As Pollan says, human beings thrive on every traditional food culture but the American one -- our culture is sick. If you want to eat well, cook and eat like your poor immigrant grandmother.

Our culture is definitely changing, from the top (Phd’s growing swiss chard and chickens in their backyards) and the bottom (My immigrant neighbors who secretly brought their native wine grape cuttings and kale seeds into this country).

In terms of policy, I’d say we should end the farm subsidies. Most of it goes to the production of corn, soy and livestock fed these products. These are the components of the prepared foods that we know are unhealthy, so why subsidize them?

Peter Biro said...

The solution I am trying is making fast food part of the solution, not part of the problem. We are bringing Robert Kraft-backed NAKEDPizza to Boston and beyond - short version is that it's take-out delivery pizza that is kid-friendly, delicious and pretty affordable, but much healthier, all-natural and not loaded with freaky chemicals. Anyway, check out what we are doing at thirdslice.com, or NAKEDPizza at nakedpizza.biz.

BTW, agree on not organic necessarily -- the most important thing is to create a business that scales quickly and while organic is a great goal (esp. when buying certain products like strawberries), it is difficult to scale quickly in a quick-service restaurant setting to match the scale of the problem. Scale is everything.

Anonymous said...

Rice and beans. Cheap and healthy. Feeds a lot of the world.

Tatiana said...

Great info here. Have an enjoyable holiday shopping season.