Monday, March 08, 2010

if only the poor were more like me!

If only poor people understood nutrition! The Fat Nutritionist

That post up there, btw, is brilliant. Unfortunately, she had to shut down comments because some folks were deliberately misreading her thesis, which I will repeat and clarify for you:

You want people to eat better? Give them enough money, a place for cooking and storage, and access to a decent variety of food.

There. That's her thesis in a nutshell.

I'll boil it down even further:
So, if we want other people to shop and consume like us, in our hip, healthy, and globally conscious ways, then they're going to need what we have.

What do I have that most really poor people (earning < $16k/annually) do not?
I have a properly operating kitchen, with counter space and lighting.
I have a gas stove that lights when I turn it on. (And all burners that work.)
I have a large refrigerator that freezes the things that need to be frozen, and a fridge that keeps my butter from melting and my food from spoiling.
I have a pantry that is free from bugs and mice so I can store dry goods there.
I have a running sink with water that isn't all gunky or rusty.
I have a mexican mini-mart, a walgreens, AND a large, clean Dominick's all within short walking distance.
I have a dude who sells fresh fruit/veg from the back of his truck during the spring/summer.
I also have about a $50/week grocery shopping allowance. Sometimes, I go over my allowance and buy $100 in groceries/week.
I live in a part of town that does not have slum landlords.
I have a few bus lines within walking distance and a train line.
I work in a part of the city that hosts farmers markets during the summer that I can visit on my lunch hour.
I have Bon Appetit, Saveur, Cook's Country Kitchen, Cook's Illustrated and a stack of other cookbooks from Borders and friends in my kitchen.
I have internet access to
I have a wok, pots, pans, serving platters, mixing bowls, forks, utensils, measuring cups, cutting boards and towels.
I have a place to store them.

I also have a job, no kids, healthcare, access to public transportation, flexible work hours, and adequate housing.

Basically, I am middle class, with typical bourgeois middle class tastes and habits.
Here is a completely irrelevant personal story (irrelevant because personal stories, while illustrative, are not prescriptive):

My parents were poor before they were middle class; the clothes I wore were not my own but hand-me-downs from another family. We received bags of groceries from anonymous church members - there would be a package of Peppridge Farm cookies in one of those bags. Or a bottle of Tang. A block of gov't cheese could last a really long time - for tacos, grilled cheese sandwiches, ham/cheese sandwiches, on crackers, in the toaster oven slapped over white bread.

We were poor but we ate dinner every night: chicken, pork chop or steak, a salad, rice and a desert (jello or ice cream). A glass of whole fat milk. In the morning, it was a hot cereal, orange juice or toast with butter and then to the bus.

Eventually, our meals got more complicated - coinciding with my mom going back to work and my dad getting a better job. Then we were shakily middle class.

There was a Chinese supermarket two blocks away for emergencies (we didn't trust their meat after one bad incident), and if we had to drive to a supermarket, there was a Vons or Ralphs only 15 min away by car. I remember going with mom every week after she got home from work to do grocery shopping. I hated unloading our 10 or 12 bags of groceries, my arms held stiff, the plastic handles making red rows in my skin.
Think of that. 10-12 full bags of groceries. Every two weeks. For a family of four. Without fail.
Whether we want to acknowledge it, this is the middle class standard most of us have running in the backs of our minds when we tell poor people to eat, or grocery shop, better. We never have their memories in our heads. We don't think about how the hell they're getting 10-12 heavy shopping bags from the supermarket 2 miles away from their house, on foot, with only a couple small kids to help them.

Much less from organic farmers market to farmers market.
Do you know where poor people live? Oh, not your hipster living in Ukrainian Village in an apartment no bigger than two cubicles at your office. Real poor people. Like, over in Greater Grand Crossing or Austin. Or Lawndale. Or Chicago Heights. Like, in those places you can see from the Green Line headed toward Cottage Grove. Or those places you see if you take the #66 bus all the waaaay west to the end of the line. Ever check out the apartments in that neighborhood that always sees the police action? Or the 'hood that always gets the helicopters hovering over it? Do you know how really poor people live?

I've only been in my Aunt D-'s apartment two or three times. It is so stuffy, I want to gag. Incense smells try to cover up other smells, but don't. And in the hallway outside, that splotch is either shit or vomit. I won't go in her kitchen. (I have never been invited to see her kitchen.) I don't dare ask to use the bathroom.

Once, when I dropped off some clothes and extra pots/pans/cooking pans, she kept us standing in her living room. There are only two bedrooms in this 'garden' apartment and I think she sleeps on the couch in the living room, giving the bedrooms to her daughter and son. She complains about the landlord who won't fix anything; he just collects the reimbursements from the gov't for providing Section 8 vouchers. She says, though, that once my cousin reaches 18, their rent is going to double or my male cousin will have to move out. (18 year old black boys, it seems are a threat to building.)

Down the street from Aunt D-, there is a KFC, McDonalds, a fried fish shack, a Chinese joint and a couple of gas stations, where you can buy cigs, bottled water or soda pop. The nearest real supermarket is in Hyde Park which is about a couple of different buses away. That's where the Walgreens is, too.

She doesn't have bus cards, so I gave her a few with $10 on them. In Chicago, one bus ride is $2.25. How far can she get on that? And how often? You do that math.
At my very tony Presbyterian church we once had a social services program to help provide healthier meals to really low-income neighbors. (You'd have to find these neighbors with a magnifying glass and move a few neighborhoods over, but they're there.) A friend served on this task force and they were told to help develop and test cook menus for this project.

But there were rules:
Think healthier ingredients, not necessarily 'healthy'.
The meal's ingredients couldn't cost more than $10, total.
It would have to be enough to serve at least 4.
Meal preparation couldn't involve more than 1-2 utensils.
The meal had to be cooked/served in the same dish.
It had to be able to be cooked on a hot plate.
Task force members could not assume refrigeration was available.

When you or I are cooking 'healthy' how many of these rules do we break?

It isn't class warfare to point out that the poor live differently from us. To ignore that fact maintains our caste system rather than demolishing it.

So until we are prepared to solve the 'problem' of their poverty first, perhaps we should keep mum with our 'advice' to poor families about making better nutritional 'choices'.

(And that means you, Jamie Oliver.)


Songbird said...

Well said!
In the late 1960s, my mother did the Welfare Diet experiment, feeding us on whatever the amount was that some sociologist declared appropriate. I remember asking permission to eat a popsicle at a friend's house. I remember eating sugar on toast because she told me cinnamon would be too expensive to buy. I'm glad she put those thoughts in my head early, asking me to consider how other people lived and what their resources actually might be.

Anonymous said...

awesome post. well said. another way to think of this self-centered thinking is to put yourself in paris hilton's heels, looking down at us from her penthouse. would she wonder how anyone could bear to abuse themselves with synthetic fibers?