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When We Half Understand Poverty

This week is full of commitments and deadlines. Rather than try to meet all my blogging commitments with new work and failing, I’m pulling out some old posts. Given how my audience has grown, most of you won’t have read them at the time. This post was originally published here.

Yesterday’s New York Times carried an article on the relative cost of fast food and fresh, home-prepared food. The article challenges the notion that junk food is cheaper than fresh, using fast food as its comparison.

This is just plain wrong. In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. (Judicious ordering of “Happy Meals” can reduce that to about $23 — and you get a few apple slices in addition to the fries!)

In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)

This is cheating a little bit, given that the actual poor don’t really go out that often, even to McDonald’s. A better comparison would have been prepared and unprepared grocery food. The numbers would have been closer as well, though I’m not sure which food would have come out ahead on average.

When Jennifer Ouellette linked to the article, someone (with time to comment but not to read, apparently) asked whether the article addressed time poverty. Another person noted that she can make healthy food for her kids in 20 minutes. She also keeps fresh fruit around for snacking and pushes the most perishable fruit on the kids first so it doesn’t go bad.

I’ll get to the problem with applying that perspective to poverty shortly, but I’d also like to point out that the Times made a similar mistake in the article.

It’s cooking that’s the real challenge. (The real challenge is not “I’m too busy to cook.” In 2010 the average American, regardless of weekly earnings, watched no less than an hour and a half of television per day. The time is there.)

The core problem is that cooking is defined as work, and fast food is both a pleasure and a crutch. “People really are stressed out with all that they have to do, and they don’t want to cook,” says Julie Guthman, associate professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of the forthcoming “Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice and the Limits of Capitalism.” “Their reaction is, ‘Let me enjoy what I want to eat, and stop telling me what to do.’ And it’s one of the few things that less well-off people have: they don’t have to cook.”

Yes, fast food is defined as a treat, but as I noted above, focusing on that as a major replacement for cooking from scratch is missing the mark. Fast food just is much more a lower middle class phenomenon than it is a phenomenon of poverty. If you want to understand food and poverty in the U.S., you need to pay more attention to what is cooked at home, and by whom.

Let’s start with that hour and a half of television. Sure, if you’re a reporter with a college degree, you probably watch your television sitting down with your feet up. That’s fine, but assuming the same applies in poor households is poor journalism. I know it’s hard to understand poverty if you haven’t lived in it, but getting it right in a country where the wealth divide has been growing for decades is incredibly important. If you want to understand adult television use and poverty, ask someone who’s spent time in poverty, like me.

Sitting down to watch television when you’re a poor adult with maybe multiple jobs but definitely all the hours you can manage to work, with a long commute often at the hands of public transportation, with all the other time-intensive, money-saving tasks to be done, is every bit as much a luxury as cooking from scratch. Televisions run in the background of life most of the time, while laundry is being done and/or children are being put to bed or watched over as they do homework and/or mail is being opened and winced over and/or food is being heated up. Television use is not a measure of luxury time.

In fact, poor parents frequently aren’t the people doing the cooking at all. That would require that they manage to make it home with time to spare before dinner is due on the table. Dinner is cooked by people taking care of the children from multiple families or, where some children are older, by the children themselves. Food preparation can’t outstrip the attention the adults are able to spare or the skills of the children involved. Snacks are what the children will grab on their own.

If you want to create food policy for the poor, you have to understand these facts and accommodate them. Luckily, although the Times reporter doesn’t fully grasp cooking in poverty, some of the programs on which he reports do, and they’re taking the right steps.

The People’s Grocery in Oakland secures affordable groceries for low-income people. Zoning laws in Los Angeles restrict the number of fast-food restaurants in high-obesity neighborhoods. There’s the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a successful Pennsylvania program to build fresh food outlets in underserved areas, now being expanded nationally. FoodCorps and Cooking Matters teach young people how to farm and cook.

The reporter thinks that a cultural shift away from fast food will have to be driven by parents, but as long as we fix access to fresh foods, it’s those last couple of programs that will make the bigger difference among poor families. Unfortunately, plenty of people are going to read this article and simply decide, once again, that the problem is poor, lazy parents who just don’t want to cook. And that’s going to make more bad policy.

Further Reading
Poverty isn’t just a game: “Jenny Nicholson is tired of hearing how the poor are poor because they make poor choices. Let’s see what kind of choices you make when it’s your turn to be flattened by the economy.”

Being Poor: “Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.”

A Year of Writing About Poverty: “For a variety of reasons, today’s column will be my last for 3QuarksDaily, and I thought I’d use it to sum up what I’ve learned over the past year.”

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve spent several years volunteering at a food pantry and I have learned an important lesson about why poor people tend to obesity (something people always ask me) and why they aren’t eating nutritiously. It’s because of what is mostly available to them: pasta, rice, beans, instant potatoes, boxes of mac & cheese, canned meat and fish, canned fruits and vegetables, canned soups. High in starch, high in sodium, heavy with preservatives. And this is why:

    1) dried beans, pasta, rice and instant potatoes are nonperishable, quickly and easily prepared in one pan even by a child, and very cheap.
    2) boxed mac & cheese for all of the reasons above in addition to being something kids will consistently eat.
    3) dried beans, pasta, rice, boxed mac & cheese and instant potatoes are the foodstuffs provided by government food programs, along with dried milk (which most of our pantry’s clients avoid, although I’ve never asked them why).
    4) canned fruits and vegetables are also cheap and nonperishable and can be prepared in one pan easily, including by a child.
    5) canned meats, fruits and vegetables and soups are the most frequently donated foodstuffs.

    Note that this list is largely inapplicable to homeless people, because they don’t have can openers or cooking facilities. But canned meats and fish tend to have pull-tab lids and some soups and canned pastas do. They can also be eaten directly from the can with a spoon.

  2. onion girl, OM; social workers do it with paperwork says

    Speaking as someone with a chronic illness, hell fuck yeah cooking is work! Even the food chopper thingy is difficult for me to use when I’m having a bad pain day. There are days where even a PB&J sandwich is difficult because you still have to spread the PB&J which uses muscles in the hand and sometimes my hands just hurt too much.

    I just got home from work and picked up pizza hut to go. I had planned on making NoOodle Zero-Calorie, Gluten-Free Noodles with Quorn ground beef and fresh tomatoes, but even the 20 minute cooking time that meal would require is too much right now (not to mention the energy of standing at the stove, cutting the tomatoes, hand-rinsing the noodles, etc).

    I had to make a choice between saving my very finite energy for doing my laundry tonight or having a healthy meal tonight. And since I may have to pop into court tomorrow, laundry wins, because my one good suit needs to be clean.

    Having a chronic illness is a debilitating condition that affects all aspects of your life–and so is poverty. It’s just not as simple as good food vs. bad food.

  3. says

    Yes, of course, I could spend the 90 minutes in front of the TV between 10pm and 11:30pm in the kitchen preparing a meal for the next day AND cleaning up afterwards*.
    Because really woman, what did you think, having a bit of free time!

    I’m not poor, I like cooking, I have a kitchen with modern applicances including a dishwasher.
    Still, cooking healthy meals is a time-consuming activity. Uhm, yes, I can cook a healthy meal in 20 min time. Actually, I can cook about ONE healthy meal in 20 min. The existence of this meal doesn’t mean you can cook a healthy meal in 20 min every day.

    Something many middle-class people don’t understand is that it’s actually their middle-class status that allows them to save money poor people have to spend.
    I own a freezer, which means I can stock up on things when they’re cheap, I can prepare large quanities of something and freeze them. I own applicances that allow me to prepare food more quickly and with less money for energy.
    I can buy bulk and save a lot on the pound, I can afford to buy clothes off-season and then save the next season. Poor people can’t make that starting investment.
    So, if you’re ever going to suggest “Why don’t you…” to a poor person, think about whether they can actually afford to do X.

    *The people who claim to prepare a healthy meal in 20 min seem to have self-cleaning kitchens. Or maids.

  4. left0ver1under says

    Giliell, Approved Straight Chorus says:

    So, if you’re ever going to suggest “Why don’t you…” to a poor person, think about whether they can actually afford to do X.

    “Suggestions” made from ignorance are most definitely insulting, as is the “one size fits all” mentality you’ll find in many places (e.g. “customer service”, “help” files, anti-bullying groups). Some people arrogantly assume that they’ve thought of every possible scenario that could happen in real life, and that those who don’t fit into their list of possibility are at fault or somehow not trying.

    Sharing ideas and suggestions that could be helpful. Perhaps a community brainstorm could and should be tried, a collective of ideas and solutions. People explain their situations and offer suggestions to other. I’m sure that those without time to eat better would welcome suggestions if they didn’t come in a condescending way from people who don’t have to deal with poverty, if they came from others like themselves in similar circumstances.

    One thing I did when I was working full time and attending college at the same time was to make three meals worth of food at once, eating it over several days, reheating instead of cooking to save time. Granted, that suggestion was only good for me, and likely few other people. But that and other ideas could be publicized by those in need, who might come up with their own solutions to their own problems. When you have others’ ideas as well as your own, you’re going to have multiply more possibilities than just thinking by yourself.

  5. says

    left0ver1under
    Yes, there’s a difference between those things.
    Sometimes and outside perspective can be very helpful, because you’re so stuck in a situation that you don’t even think about some possibilityor other. And others might have just more experience with eating while being poor, preparing meals while having a 12+ hours day and so on.
    But if you don’t have experience with that kind of situation it might come off as a “why don’t they eat cake?”.
    It’s condescending and hurtful to suggest that those people haven’t thought about this before or are too stupid to do so.
    So, yeah, let’s just be careful what we say. For example, when talking on a German board saying “Why don’t you get your ass to the doctors instead of whining on the internet” is something valid. Saying this here might be a massive asshole-move because that person might have no access to healthcare.

  6. carlie says

    Having a chronic illness is a debilitating condition that affects all aspects of your life–and so is poverty. It’s just not as simple as good food vs. bad food.

    And that can be expanded to job type, too. It’s easy to tell someone who sits at a desk all day that surely they can spare a half hour when they get home to do all the prep work to cook a nice dinner. It’s another thing to tell that to someone who’s just gotten off of a 12 hour hotel cleaning shift. Or restaurant shift. Or assembly line shift. Etc, and etc. There are a lot of jobs you come home from so exhausted that you can barely move, much less cook dinner for a family, even if you are in perfect health.

  7. Mag says

    In the town I live we have a “north town” and a “south town”. South town is where the lower-income folk live. In north town 10 square mile area) we have about 7 grocery stores with 2 of those being Trader Joe’s and Market of Choice (org/fresh/alt foods). South town (3 sq mil area) has 1 gas station, 2 bar, one bakery, 2 restaurants, 2 convenience stores, and one food co-op (higher priced food). South town is often cut off from north town when it floods.

    Not sure the point, but one more anecdote to add to the “lower income people have less access to healthy food, and food in general”

  8. Brownian says

    Not sure the point, but one more anecdote to add to the “lower income people have less access to healthy food, and food in general”

    While that can be the case, there was some research into food access and security here in Edmonton, Alberta. It was hypothesized that there was greater access to supermarkets in the suburbs, while residents of downtown and the inner city, especially those who didn’t have vehicle access, had to contend with more fast food outlets and convenience stores. AFAIR, it turned out that that wasn’t the case, so there are obviously other factors at play here.

    Nonetheless, for those interested from a public health perspective, here is a local (well, province-wide) initiative aimed at understanding the relationships between geography and health outcomes, of which food access and security is an important one.

  9. sambarge says

    Giliell @ #3

    Something many middle-class people don’t understand is that it’s actually their middle-class status that allows them to save money poor people have to spend.

    An excellent point, that was made clearly by Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickled and Dimed, a book about living working-poor in the US. Ehrenreich, with the benefit of a middle-class up-bringing and all that includes, was surprised at first to discover that she didn’t earn enough to rent a residence that included full-size appliances. Her plans of making ‘lentil soup’ and freezing it (to save money on food while still eating healthy) were too ambitious for her to meet because, even if she had a stove and a soup pot (not a given) she definitely didn’t have a freezer.

    Being poor isn’t like being rich only with less money.

  10. Ysanne says

    Big YES to #3 Giliell, and I might add:
    How the sensible concept of “a diet of deep fried processed food will make you fat and ill in the long run” was turned into the now popular “if only people made food from scratch they’d live healthy and stay thin” bullshit is not helping either.
    In “cheap” food, one gets more calories for your buck, usually in the form of carbohydrates and maybe a bit of fat, and only very little else. Which is great against starving outright but not exactly a balanced diet that delivers anything besides energy to burn, such as essential amino acids etc.
    Crappy cheap processed food is crappy because of skimping on the ingredients whereever possible. Cooking the same kind of stuff at home doesn’t make it all that much better.

  11. cactuswren says

    That’s a great point, sambarge. Ehrenreich also mentions the time she got some “emergency food aid”: a carton containing two boxes of cereal, a bottle of barbecue sauce, a package of cookies, hamburger buns, some “juice coolers”, a loaf of cinnamon bread, a jar of peanut butter, a small canned ham (“which, without a refrigerator, I would have to eat in one sitting”, she points out), a small can of chicken, Ritz crackers, Rice Krispies bars, and quite a lot of candy. Everything, of course, was the easy-to-store packaged food people are encouraged to donate to food banks — and everything was heavily processed, preservative-laden, and highly caloric.

  12. says

    How the sensible concept of “a diet of deep fried processed food will make you fat and ill in the long run” was turned into the now popular “if only people made food from scratch they’d live healthy and stay thin” bullshit is not helping either.

    We discussed it some time ago in the Lounge how the social standard of cooking has changed.
    Before, poor people cooked themselves, pickled stuff and made preserves. My grandparents grew their own veggies and my childhood is filled with happy memories of home-fermented sour beans and “canned” pears. They did it because that was the only way for them to feed themselves, so my grandma was a fantastic cook.
    People who were well off could buy jams and preserves and vegetables. To have a microwave and to have a microwave dinner was a sign of status.
    Today the whole “Country kitchen” movement is another symbol of status: I have the time, money and space to buy the necessary stuff, make it and store it, look who I am!
    So, cooking from scratch has become a sign of the upper class (oh, and lets not get started on “ethnic cooking because, duh, I took classes” (cue in snobbish accent)

  13. Brownian says

    Giliell, I’d written a response to this:

    *The people who claim to prepare a healthy meal in 20 min seem to have self-cleaning kitchens. Or maids.

    by saying that I could make a good, healthy meal in twenty minutes, and then go on to list all of the external factors that allow me to do this, such as a well-stocked fridge most days (access to a car helps with that, but my partner does the lion’s share of the food shopping) a small but well-equipped kitchen (including a double sink, a dishwasher, good pots/pans/woks, knives, and a shitload of gadgets), and parents who taught me to cook from scratch (and my father enjoyed experimenting with Asian and Latin American cuisine). One thing I’ve never had is a chest freezer. I’m lucky in that the house that I rent has a large one in the fridge, but I’ve mostly lived in apartments where space was at a premium.

    But I see Barbara Ehrenreich has made many of those points. I’ve got to get that book.

    My grandparents grew their own veggies and my childhood is filled with happy memories of home-fermented sour beans and “canned” pears. They did it because that was the only way for them to feed themselves, so my grandma was a fantastic cook.

    I’m by no means an expert, but this is a problem in many Northern Canadian communities. There wasn’t a common tradition of farming: the healthy diet that many elders ate was procured through hunting, trapping, and fishing. As populations grow and land is taken up for other purposes (say, tar sands extraction), and the pressure to conform to the lifestyle of the dominant North American culture increases, the younger generations are increasingly suffering from diet-related morbidity and mortality.

    Telling the poor to just eat better is about as helpful as abstinence-only education.

  14. says

    Well, I grow tomatoes on the balcony. Mainly because I like to get my hands dirty and and want my kids to know how stuff grows. But that’s nothing that can add meaningfully to our diet.

    And yeah, logistics is another factor.
    When I lived in Ireland I would spend half a day every other week going to the cheap supermarket. At that time I kicked ass in the gym and could cycle the 7 miles there with no problem and the same way back with an additional 20kg of food. The alternating weeks I’d cycle to the farmers market where I would get carrots, potatoes, onions and swedes.
    Totally doable for a young single student with some time on her hands. Absolutely impossible to do for a busy woman with a family. Without the car, things like potatoes would be off the list first: heavy, bulgy, time-consuming to prepare. No meal including potatoes is ready in 20 min.

  15. demonhellfish says

    Being poor isn’t like being rich only with less money.

    QFT.

    For anyone who hasn’t lived in poverty, John Scalzi’s “Being poor is…” post (the second-to-last link in the OP) and its comments are eye-opening and gut-wrenching. Not something to read if you don’t have time for a good cry, but definitely something to read.

    Every day, I’m grateful to my parents for giving me the education has has let me live comfortably. Thank you also to everyone who speaks up and puts a human face on economics, though I realize that’s quite secondary to just trying to fix this.

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