Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Politics of Food

(Cross-posted at A Year In The Kitchen.)

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.


Candy said...

Well said.

I'm a middle-class mother of two, and I can attest -

It is expensive to eat the way the food gods say we should eat. Sometimes, pizza is cheaper than fruits and vegetables. And at least I know they'll eat that.

It's like every time I go on a diet, I have to take out a second mortgage to afford it.

Anonymous said...

"the worst, stupidest, most ass-backward form of knee-jerk liberalism anywhere"

I don't think its the liberals who are indifferent to the problem of eating well when you're poor? Remember the experiment a few representatives (or were they senators? and this in a sentence beginning "Remember" -- alas) to live on a budget equivalent to what food stamps provide? It wasn't Republicans doing that. One Republican, maybe? But the rest were Democrats.

This is not a problem the free market and individual responsibility (the beloveds of conservatism) can solve. There's now what, one grocery store in SE? Didn't a new Giant just open? It's a drop in the bucket.

Molly said...

Anonymous: I'm not accusing liberals of being indifferent to the difficulties of eating well when you're poor. I'm accusing them of holding people in totally different circumstances to the same standard as they live by, and when they can't meet that standard, treating them as if they're stupid.

And in no way am I suggesting that the free market or individual responsibility can address, let alone solve, this problem. What I'm suggesting is that the average person concerned with what poor people in America eat on a daily basis may not have a realistic grasp on what life is like in some of America's cities.

A new Giant DID recently open in SE. Surprisingly, City Council member Marion Barry (yes, that Marion Barry) put a lot of work into seeing that happen. You're right--it is a drop in the bucket, and it's a welcome one. I am fervantly hoping to see more drops soon.

The Yummy Mummy Cooks Gourmet said...

Molly -

You're an excellent writer and I think you have very thoughtful and provocative ideas about this subject.

I, too, feel a bit "icky" when I read lots of middle and upper class foodies waxing philosophical about what the poor folks should do to lead a better life, eat better, etc. And I do believe that the lot of current food writers have started clustering in their ivory towers with their beautiful lush prose and talk of sustainable agriculture, raw milk and cows fed only on grass. They sometimes seem antiquated and out of touch to me. Pretty but antiquated.

All this gorgeous pontificating is fine and the standard being set is enviable, but you really have to be single, under-employed and have a lot of time on your hands to make this kind of lifestyle manageable.

As an example, I'm a white upper-middle class food writer with 2 young kids, a husband and a job as a ghostwriter and although I prefer to buy from farmers markets and organic or local purveyors when I can, I can honestly say that I often fall short of my own ideal because...I HAVE A LIFE. And I'd rather play with my girls than travel an extra 15 blocks to buy an organic pepper.

So sue me. Call the food police.

Ironically, this subject has been with me of late - We live in Harlem (NYC), in a neighborhood that is home to middle class and rich whites hoping the neighborhood will gentrify and poor blacks. There is a Pathmark right across the street with aisles so wide you can drive a tractor down them and a large organic section, fresh fish and a butcher who will cut meat to order if you ask him, but we have white middle class friends in our building who refuse to shop there because "the food isn't good enough" and so they drive their car around town, polluting the air and shopping at more "green" supermarkets. Whenever they come to dinner, they are stupified that our great dinner "came from Pathmark".

I am appalled because I know deep inside they don't want to shop in a market that is good enough for the poor neighbors. They see themselves as better, more informed and more deserving of good food.

I'd be happy to hear more of your thoughts on this and about how we as food writers can be more relevant and community-minded. Thanks for your loud and vocal stance on the issues. I enjoy reading you.


Anonymous said...

Well, if you're not accusing liberals of something, then maybe don't refer to "liberalism" as the problem.

Molly said...

Anonymous, I am accusing liberals of something: I'm accusing them of not having a full understanding of a problem before they suggest a solution to it that's insensitive, biased, and inappropriate.

And for the record I don't generally tick off "liberalism" as a problem. I've been accused of lots of things, but unless you're calling me very skinny or accusing me of liking fish a lot, everything people say about me is probably true, including that I am hopelessly liberal myself.

Kerry said...


I heard this on WTOP this past week. Apparently it's a new program in NYC. They're giving out 1,000 new street vendor permits. The only catch is the vendors have to sell fresh fruits and vegetables and be placed in areas of the city without access to a grocery store.

I wonder if that's feasible here in DC...

Anonymous said...

Your preachy rantings are insufferable. Please spare everyone the self-righteous rhetoric.

Li said...

This is brilliant. This is the reason I want to kick Michael Pollan's ass. I read an interview with him where he said he wanted to make food more expensive so that it would force poor obese people to lose weight. The ignorance and elitism in that statement took my breath away. I wish all of the food prigs would read this blog post--they really need to get this message.

Paul Riddell said...

Yeah, I love that "We need to teach people to eat healthy food and grow their own gardens." That royal "We" really means "You," because I sure as hell don't see the hipsters espousing that healthy lifestyle bothering to assist with it.

I've become really familiar with that royal "We", because I've tried some of that gardening myself. I was lucky in that I had family willing to help out when I was desperately broke five years ago, and I came out of the experience more convinced than ever that the hipsters need to shut the hell up. Growing your own food is great, if you've got enough property to convert it into a self-sustaining garden bed, but it requires one thing desperately lacking in most people working minimum-wage jobs: energy and time.

Let's assume, for instance, that the typical apartment dweller has permission to convert a corner of the land surrounding the building or complex into a garden space. Most apartment managers and landlords won't give that permission, partly out of spite and/or momentum, and partly because they don't want to be stuck with cleanup if the tenant gets bored and lets a garden space turn into a weedy mess. If you think it's a pain in the butt going to the grocery store when you live in a bad neighborhood, just try getting to the nearest garden center or Home Depot to buy seeds. The pictures on the front of the seed packets sure look tasty, but will anyone at that garden center explain that tomatoes or peppers grown north of Texas can't be grown from seed with any expectation of getting a harvest before the first frost kicks in? What about the stores that sell seed for plants like spinach, that can't handle hot weather, in the middle of June? Fertilizer? Organic or chemical, you have a choice between paying $10 to $20 for a bag with the promise of getting a payout on food in 90 days versus having that $20 right now. Oh, and what about the plants such as asparagus that need two to three years of cultivation to produce an initial crop? That's presupposing that you're going to be living there that long.

And then there's the preparation. If you think dragging groceries on the bus are bad, just try to drag bags of topsoil or cow manure, one 50-pound bag at a time, on the bus. That is, if the bus driver will let you on with a 50-pound bag of cow manure on a hot day. (Yes, it's composted, but it still has a distinctive smell.) You're going to need shovels, and rakes, and hoes, and other cultivating tools, all of which cost money and take storage space in your tiny apartment. Even if you're given tools by friends or neighbors, or find a set at a yard sale, you can't leave them by the garden without some dolt either stealing them or breaking them when you're not watching. And raised beds? Forget about it, even if you could haul the lumber out to the space on the bus. Look at the eventuality that you won't have a water spigot outdoors where any moron can turn it on and leave it on, so be prepared to carry buckets of water, five gallons at a time, down two flights of stairs or more to water the garden in the summer. And don't even get me going on the idiocy of advocating composting when there's no space or equipment for a hot-composting bin. (I know of several ways to compost my own kitchen trimmings in a space suitable for apartment dwellers, but I'm also not dumb enough to expect a full batch of compost from them in a year. Most of the time, what's left is a good fiber that adds water retention to the soil, but it has all of the nutritive value of a Twinkie by the time the worms and bugs are done, and everything goes to hell the moment one of your neighbors decides to dump a week's worth of KFC bones and fat in your bin.)

Paul Riddell said...

And here's part two...

Oh, and I almost forgot your neighbors. Unless you're lucky enough to have a fenced-in area, or a landlord who will shoot and kill anybody who messes with your garden, it's one big target for vandalism and general stupidity. There's the crew that uses your apartment lot as a shortcut to somewhere else, who's too lazy or arrogant to go around your tomato seedlings. All summer long, the garden is going to be a magnet for all of the kids in the neighborhood, whether they're preteens who want a place to play or the teenage boys tomcatting in the middle of the night for the girls living right above your garden space. And because I'm relating from experience, don't forget the hipsters who talk about garden responsibility but who don't think anything of dumping used motor oil or used cat litter or a good ten-pound crap right in the middle of your garden because they think it's funny.

And then there's harvest time. I think I speak for most individuals who attempt apartment gardening who love the neighbors whose interest in the garden begins and ends when everything's ready to eat. Naturally, they'll stomp on the Swiss chard or any other vegetable that requires any effort to eat, but rest assured that your cantaloupes and tomatoes will disappear in the middle of the night, only to have the rinds and tops appear in the garbage dumpster about a day later. If it doesn't taste what they think it should, expect to find what's left smashed all over your front door, or have those neighbors come up to you and tell you what you should be growing instead of "that crap". This is, of course, assuming that you got a good crop in your first year, and that there's more to eat than one or two items that are the only byproduct of what's really a hobby. Still sure that it's easy for people in poor neighborhoods to support themselves by gardening?

Sorry if I've taken over this site, but as you can tell, this is a personal sore spot for me. It's hard enough to expect someone with a crappy 50-hour-per-week job to come home and cheerfully go to town on his fire escape food repository for another four or five hours, but expecting them to keep at it after the neighbors descend like locusts and not decide "You know, Doritos are a better deal" is ignorant verging on cruel.

Anne said...

I live in a low income neighborhood and I don't have a car. It's a mile to the nearest supermarket and a mile in the other direction to the farmer's market (open May-December). I see people in both places using food stamps and carefully counting their pennies. the simple truth is that some people, even when they have access to quality food, won't pick the good food over the bad. Frankly, this is true no matter where your food budget comes from or how large it is.

It's just not as simple as saying "if we got "them" green grocers they'd be buying vegetables". Yes, part of the work is in getting access but access without education isn't enough.