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13 December 2010

What Food Says About Class in America [More:]
Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, says these programs are good, but they need to go much, much further. He believes, like Fischler, that the answer lies in seeing food more as a shared resource, like water, than as a consumer product, like shoes. “It’s a nuanced conversation, but I think ‘local’ or ‘organic’ as the shorthand for all things good is way too simplistic,” says Berg. “I think we need a broader conversation about scale, working conditions, and environmental impact. It’s a little too much of people buying easy virtue.”
Thanks for that. I was just thinking last night that I'm so sick of people criticizing individual consumer choices, rather than systems that leave people with bad choices. This article did a nice job of talking about both sides.
posted by occhiblu 13 December | 12:29
But I think the article implicitly criticizes the choices of the rich people, in a somewhat mocking way. When in fact, the demand they drive is one of the keys to changing the system, creating a wedge for alternatives to proliferate.

I hesitate to wade back in, though, as there was a huuuuge discussion of this on MeFi a short while ago.
posted by Miko 13 December | 13:45
For anyone interested in the Barnys catalog with people covered in food, you can see it here. I just had to see a woman with a crab in her bouffant (pages 18-19) and someone with octopus tentacles on their head (pages 49-50).
posted by youngergirl44 13 December | 19:30
My comment regarding the actual substance of the article: I know that there are areas in which it's harder to get fresh produce or cleaner foods at reasonable prices. We hear about it a lot in Chicago. I saw it first hand in the neighborhood I last worked in.

I've also been on food stamps and welfare, I know what it is to run out of food before you've got money to buy more. It sucks. But my mom did a hell of a job keeping us away from soda and snack cakes and pretty much all other 'junk food'.

I agree with Suluki's position: " is the responsibility of parents to feed their children good food in moderate portions, and that it’s possible to do so on a fixed income. It's still hard, but possible. He even budgets for dessert. When I was 14, I would have killed for dessert!
posted by youngergirl44 13 December | 19:50
I agree with Suluki's position: " is the responsibility of parents to feed their children good food in moderate portions, and that it’s possible to do so on a fixed income. It's still hard, but possible.
I agree with this, too. For some years, I was a single parent on a fixed, subsistence-level income and I managed to provide reasonably healthy, if uninspiring and predictable meals. I struggle to understand the drive for those on low incomes to consume such large quantities of takeaway food because, here at least, it is far more expensive than home-cooked food (perhaps 2 or 3 times as expensive) and am dubious about the excuse that people can't afford anything else. For those who are time-poor, sure, but for those who are genuinely cash-poor, it's simply a way of justifying laziness. For me, takeaway food was a luxury item that meant something else didn't get paid, not a 'necessary' cost-saving measure.

But, yeah, only those on higher incomes can afford to eat 'organic' or similarly marketed food, which is a shame. I'm also dubious about the supposed additional health benefits from most of that stuff anyway. If you concentrate on unprocessed food, even if it's from the local big-chain supermarket, it's not too difficult to put together a reasonably healthy menu on a budget. If you buy highly-processed foods, no matter where you buy them, you are paying a premium price for an inferior product.

Of course, food that is less processed is less attractive to retailers because of the lower shelf life and buying policies of the chains means that they tend towards buying huge quantities of consistent product rather than looking to stock items that have a shorter delivery chain but would be cheaper on a local level. The up-side is that you get greater consistency of product, but the down-side is that the quality is consistently poor.
posted by dg 13 December | 20:21
For me, takeaway food was a luxury item

Me, too. I can remember a handful of times before I was about 12 when we ate at a fast food place - it was like a wild and crazy treat, definitely not a normal day's meal. Because it was expensive.

Just the other day we were driving and passed a billboard for Fudruckers, a place I've never been but which is apparently expanding into our region, which said in huge letters "FEED A FAMILY OF FOUR FOR $20!" Here's a version of it. I was kinda stunned that this is presented as a good deal. We then spent the next several minutes of the ride coming up with several days' worth of dinners you could make for a family of four for under $20 -- easily three or four big meals. It's not like it's a deal. Eat out if you want - $20 for four is probably cheap for eating out - but if budget is your main concern, $20 buys a LOT of food.

Count me as another person who listens to claims of difficulty cooking with some skepticism. I do recognize that difficulties are huge for a certain subset of people. However, I find that the more affluent tend to hide behind them in order to avoid doing anything about it themselves. Rather than tackle the systemic problems, as occhiblu mentions, there iare people who sort of argue that the whole idea of getting away from highly processed food is corrupt, because a subset of very busy poor people with big families, little time, and a 'food-desert' environment can't do it. I accede that point completely where those with limited resources are concerned, and would never judge someone for those difficulties, as I'm mainly interested in ameliorating those problems. But I also think it's crappy for people who can well afford to change their habits if they want to cite the lack of ability for the poor to do so as a reason the whole idea should be thrown out.
posted by Miko 13 December | 23:13's crappy for people who can well afford to change their habits if they want to cite the lack of ability for the poor to do so as a reason the whole idea should be thrown out
Exactly. Plus, if enough of those people changed their habits, more healthy food would be more popular, generate more sales at 'mainstream' retail outlets and prices would reduce, enabling less well-off people to change their habits more easily. Or at least remove some of the excuses for not doing so.

$20 is reasonably cheap fast food for a family of four. For reference, it costs about $35 to feed my family of five at the average evil multinational fast-food outlet. Yeah, you could buy the ingredients for a lot of home-cooked meals for that...
posted by dg 14 December | 01:06
But I also think it's crappy for people who can well afford to change their habits if they want to cite the lack of ability for the poor to do so as a reason the whole idea should be thrown out.

I think it's important to not handwave away obstacles, no matter how inexplicable or insignificant they may seem to those who do not face them. And I think that while rich people changing their buying habits likely would create trickle-down accessibility, it also likely would create trickle-down pressure to eat the "right" (i.e., like the upper classes) way. Which creates problems.

There's not a single right answer to any complicated issue like this, there are only people trying to live our lives the best ways we can, as we juggle numerous and often contradictory needs and desires. Projecting our own priorities, limitations (or lack thereof), and preferences onto others doesn't do anyone any good. I like that the author of the article kept from oversimplifying too much, and showed that there are issues (including class anxiety issues) with all of the paths available right now.
posted by occhiblu 14 December | 02:05
There are never simple answers to complex issues, that's for sure. People like me who criticise the rich for not setting an example and then being happy to spend $35 on shitty takeaway food to save an hour in the kitchen aren't helping the cause much, either.
posted by dg 14 December | 02:20
I think it's important to not handwave away obstacles

I want to make it very clear that I am not "handwaving" anything away. I've given a lot of time to working on the issue of food access and quality, locally and nationally, and am very well informed about it. That's probably why I tend to react strongly to this - I hear the criticisms from people who have not lifted one finger to do anything about the systemic issues, yet feel that they can lob the accusation that those of us working to solve difficult economic and structural issues are elitist, or unaware of the issues the poor face. I'm well aware, both through some degree of personal experience, and constant work over the last five years to put new forms of access and new tools in place for people in my region.

Yes, the diet of the rich may create trickle-down pressure to eat 'right.' However, I would rather they create that kind of pressure than the other kinds of pressure they would inevitably create; they can eat abundantly, they can eat poorly, they can eat luxuriously. The people in need that I know are far more aware of the message rich people can eat whatever they want than rich people can eat fresh fruits and vegetables. That reality of wealth - limitless choice - is a class issue and is never going to change, as long as we have social class. Meanwhile, in the knowledge that there is some example being set, I would rather there were more cultural literacy about the qualities of food than less, and the interest of the rich in food drives the production and dissemination of more information about it, more sources for it, and more access to it. A good thing.

There are issues with social change. There were issues with all the major social movements. It causes anxiety because it's disruptive to norms. We have to be able to critically evaluate economic conditions, habits, and diet and we have to be able to question initial reactions to what it would seem to take to make change. The tendency to judge or see judgment in that is, I think, an unfortunate aspect of the focus brought to the issue. Some do judge. I'm not sure how to avoid that in a movement seeking to change behaviors, but it can be minimized for sure. The important thing for me, here, is to note that the tendency to judge isn't limited to those looking at how to change conditions for the poor and middle class - it's also employed by the wealthy in order to maintain the status quo, maintain the power of the class marker, and call into question the motives and abilities of people to make the change. When people like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin with her cookies start promoting a 'populist backlash' against the food movement, I know we're on the right track.
posted by Miko 14 December | 07:23
Other than the health nuts, I question the premise that upper income families generally eat better when I see shopping carts full of what is essentially gourmet junk food. Marbled steak is expensive, sure, but not healthy. Frozen California Kitchen Pizza and frozen side dishes are full of sodium. The list is long.

On the other end of the spectrum, Cheerios and skim milk ("drink the milk!") is cheap and easy to prepare. Peanut butter and jelly on white bread is better than Doritos and no bread at all. A serving of fruit cocktail is better than no fruit whatsoever. Equivalently priced - Triscuit or potato chips? Again, the list here is just as long.
posted by Ardiril 14 December | 07:27
I think some of the sheen of this conversation (as you say Miko it keeps repeating itself in some circles) is also evidence of people being in a bubble of sorts. People love to hear themselves talk and magazines love to write trend pieces and I just think the real material effects of the food movement happen not in these essentially highbrow gossip arguments but in more material, more mundane, less angsty ways.
posted by Firas 14 December | 10:51
Yeah, true. And there's a big disconnect between a large part of the article-writing-and-reading public and the activities in the movement itself.
posted by Miko 14 December | 10:56
Word gamers beware || Christian alternative to yoga??? Whaaaa?