Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Politics of Food

Let me just say that I'm a political person. I follow politics. I am interested in politics. I pay attention to politics. I think politics are important and interesting.

A British chef and cookbook author who I mostly think is full of shit, however, thinks that cooks (and celebrity chefs in particular) should stay out of politics.

Delia Brown, I'll keep food out of politics when politics stay out of my food.

There was a great deal of discussion at Mark Bittman's blog Bitten yesterday about how poor people eat poorly (nutrition-wise, that is) due mostly to ignorance. I would just like to say that while this may not be the medium to get political, I am offended on the behalf of poor people living in cities everywhere.

The comments on the blog ranged from "These poor people should plant a garden and grow their own vegetables, eat less meat and poultry, and stop eating so much processed junk! We should educate poor people everywhere as to why their health is bad, their children are failing in school, and their communities are in ruins!" to "The cultural bias of poor people is to eat large amounts of bad-quality, badly prepared, unhealthy food. There's nothing that can be done for people who don't know any different."

I am horrified by the ignorant, elitist, stereotyping nature of these comments, as I feel quite certain that none of the commenters have any idea what it's like to be poor in the inner city.

Poor people don't eat junk food because they love to eat junk food. Poor people eat junk food because junk food is what's available to them and they don't get a lot of say in what is ultimately on their table at the end of the day.

If you don't think that there's any conceivable way that could be true, let me give you a snapshot of what it's like to be poor in Washington D.C.

You probably are the single head of a household in a family of three or four, and you're probably female. You probably work at least two jobs, one at $9-10 an hour, the other at $7. You probably live in Southeast, an area of the city that is frequently compared to certain parts of Atlanta, Detroit, and South-Central Los Angeles for its rates of poverty and crime, in a one-bedroom apartment. Chances are, you rely on Section 8 vouchers to help you pay your rent, and chances are, that is not the only form of public assistance that you recieve. You might be helping to support one of your parents, or a sibling. You're probably paying at least something for daycare, but you get some assistance from vouchers as well. Maybe you have a sister who watches your kids at night, or a parent.

You probably rely on public transportation, because you've never owned a car or learned to drive. In your neighborhood, there are probably a dozen carryout restaurants and at least that many convenience and liquor stores. There are check-cashing services, and maybe payday advance outlets. There might be a bank. There is no grocery store.

Let me say that again. There is no grocery store in your neighborhood. There isn't one within walking distance. You have to take two buses to get to the nearest grocery store, and walk 3/4 of a mile. On a Saturday, your only day to shop, it might take you an hour to get there if the buses run on schedule. An hour there, an hour to shop, and an hour home.

Remember, you are poor, so you're probably not in the best of health. Hypertension? Probably. Type II diabetes? Possibly. That mile and a half you walk round-trip to get to and from the grocery store is a major effort for you, especially in the winter, when it might be icy, or in the summer, when it's most definitely hot and humid.

But you have two or three kids to feed, and most of your food budget comes from WIC or other public assistance. The convenience stores in your neighborhood don't accept food stamps or Bridge cards, and even if they did, that pound of bananas that cost $.49 at Save-A-Lot? They're $1.89 in your neighborhood. A gallon of milk costs $2.99 at Shoppers; Joe's Convenience Store has that same gallon of milk priced at $4.19. A small can of vegetables is $1.49, but in your neighborhood, there isn't anyplace to buy fresh vegetables. And you have to pay cash.

So you might shop once a week at one of the bigger discount grocery chains, making that walk with your kids and your folding grocery cart, then taking the two buses. Say you've got two kids to feed for a week, plus yourself. Your kids qualify for free breakfasts and lunches at school (and don't even get me started on the quality and nutrition available in school lunches), and you carry your lunch and eat dinner at work (your second job is probably in food service somewhere), that's two breakfasts times three people (6), five lunches times one (5) and two lunches times three (6), five dinners times two people (10) and two dinners times three (6). That's 33 meals and no snacks. Count on ten bags of groceries.

So are you buying organic carrots for $3.99 a pound? Local produce at three times the cost of commercially-farmed? Of course you're not! Produce is expensive, and heavy, and doesn't stretch very far, even if there's anything like that available in the grocery store where you shop. This isn't Trader Joe's. Plus, your kids might not eat it, and that's a waste. So you're buying potatoes and rice and pasta and dried beans, maybe some canned veggies, fruit, peanut butter and jelly, cheaper cuts of chicken and meat. You might have an hour or two at home in the evenings to feed your kids before you go off to your second job, so things like TV dinners and frozen pizzas and lasagnas are quick and your kids like them. The WIC nurse says that your kids need dairy products for calcium, so it's milk and cheese and eggs and maybe yogurt. White bread, because it's cheaper. Individual bags of chips for snacks, maybe Fruit Rollups, maybe Kool-Aid or off-brand sodas. Sugar, flour, and other staples.

You've got a grocery cart which carries three or four bags of your heaviest groceries. Some grocery stores have riders out front--unauthorized taxi services that will take home shoppers and their groceries for money, usually in the $10 range. You need your $10 though, so you're taking the bus. Your oldest kid carries a couple bags, your youngest might carry a bag for you too. That leaves you pushing or pulling your cart and carrying the last three bags as well.

The bus is late. Hope it's not summer, because if it is, you're sitting in the sun with all that food--chicken, meat, milk, cheese, eggs, frozen food. It's all going bad while you wait.

Could you bake your own bread? Sure, maybe you'll get time for that someday, but not this week. Could you grow your own vegetables? Where? The fire escape? You don't have a yard.

I'm not making this stuff up or exaggerating; this is modern hunting and gathering for poor urban families where I live. Of course poor people eat junk food! Of course they're not in good health. Of course their kids don't do well in school. Of course this lifestyle contributes to a cycle of poverty that is hurting millions of people every day in very profound ways.

Food isn't like driving a nice car or having high-speed internet access. Think about how you would feel about your kids going to bed hungry at night, or being contacted by their teacher because they're falling asleep in class. Just think about how helpless you would feel at having to choose between keeping a roof over their heads or giving them the basic nutrition that they need to break this impossibly ugly cycle of poverty and dispair.

I shop at a comfortable suburban grocery store and I seldom worry about the cost of my food. I know what to give my husband and my son and myself and how to prepare it to keep all of us healthy and functioning at optimal, and I don't have to make impossible choices like keeping the lights on or keeping my kid from being too hungry to concentrate. I have the opportunity to shop for locally-produced, sustainably grown goods and organic vegetables, fruit, and meat, and as often as I can, I take advantage of it.

But this stupid goddamn elitist attitude of bragging about where our food comes from and then looking down our noses at people who genuinely don't have the luxury of making the choices that I make is absolutely the worst, stupidest, most ass-backward form of knee-jerk liberalism anywhere. It's bad, and not in a good way. It's unproductive. It's biased and sad. And I see so much of it in reading about food. The nerve of chastizing people who struggle every month to feed their kids and keep the lights on and the roof over their heads for not owning a bread machine with which to bake their own bread or a yard in which to grow their own vegetables is staggering to me. Practically demanding that poor people cease eating meat left me speechless.

I think we should have a real discussion about the politics of food in America's poorest communities, but I think that when the focus of this discussion is about why America's poorest communities aren't growing their own microgreens or baking their own bread, we are missing the point so massively that it makes me sick. I want to talk about why there aren't incentives for major grocery stores to move into neighborhoods where accessability to fresh, affordable food is a major roadblock. I want to talk about the correlation between food and education, especially early childhood education. I want to talk about why people whose food budget exceeds $1200 a month think it's okay to tell someone who doesn't own a car that they shouldn't eat junk food and only does so because that person is stupid. I want people to understand something about modern poverty: the solutions to this problem aren't fixed by organics. They're fixed by understanding what the problem really is.

So far, the people who are doing virtually all of the talking don't seem to be able to wrap their heads around it.


Kimberly said...

Exactly! Very well said. Shouldn't this discussion be about why we live in a society that allows substandard food and housing? Shouldn't it be about why we continue to allow the corporatization of food and healthcare to contribute and compound our social problems? Healthy eating takes a great deal of time and money, which are luxuries that most people do not have. Myself, I try to eat healthy and eat organic, but I realize that I can do that because I am one of the fortunate ones. The elitist jerks you referenced really need to understand that living a healthy lifestyle is indeed about choices, but choice is a benefit of time and money. Choice too is a luxury.

merseydotes said...

Calories are cheap and accessible in this country. Whole foods are expensive and harder to find. Policy needs to reverse that. I think you're spot on about the problems.