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Good Food is Not (Only) a Class Issue

A few alarming statistics:

  • If current trends continue, 1 out of 3 Americans will get type 2 diabetes in their lifetime. This includes 1 out of 2 African Americans and Latinos.
  • 32% of African American adults in Boston are obese, compared with 16% of white adults.
  • From The Yorkshire Post: Experts said obesity rates will be 35 per cent to 50 per cent higher among boys from lower socio-economic backgrounds aged two to 10 than among those who are more affluent. Meanwhile, the rate will be 25 per cent to 35 per cent higher among girls.

Obesity as a racist, classist issue was a clear and compelling theme at this year's Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Networking meeting, held from April 27 - 29 in Chandler, AZ. In one moving presentation, Cecil D. Corbin-Mark, Deputy Director/Director of Policy Initiatives at We Act for Environmental Justice, based in Harlem, New York, put it this way:

"We used Josalito - a boy who was very overweight - as an example of the problems we face. Walking down 125th Street in Harlem on his way to our office, Josalito passed a McDonald's, a Burger King, a Popeye's Chicken, and a KFC. KFC had a walk-up window right on the sidewalk, so Josalito didn't even have to go into the store to get his fill of fat and salt. Notice that there was no grocery store on 125th Street."

The facts are compelling and clear:

Photo credit: Kris HasePhoto credit: Kris HaseBut what about the rest of us? What about those who can afford good food but choose not to buy it? Why do we overwhelmingly, consistently make poor food choices for ourselves and our kids, even when we know better? Here are a few ideas:

Good food costs more.

On the surface, we tend to accept this as a truism, a simple fact: local and organic food costs more than industrial food. Want evidence? There's loads:

  • Grass fed beef costs $1 - $5 more than industrially raised beef per pound.
  • Organic apples cost between $0.50 and $1.50 more than industrially grown apples per pound.
  • Organic, fair-trade bananas often cost double what industrially grown bananas cost.

Watching the family in Food Inc. struggle with the decision of whether to buy fresh fruit or fast food for their family (even though the dad had diabetes!) really helped drive this point home for me. Nevermind the reasons - in the short term, bad food tends to be easy on the wallet.

But why do families who can afford good food choose note to buy it? During his presentation last week in Minneapolis, Joel Salatin said this:

"When it comes to most things, we believe we get what we pay for. Shoes, clothes, cars ... but when it comes to food, we don't believe that. Most of us have a more intimate relationship with our hair cutter than we do with our farmer."

We've come to think of cheap food as our right, and the idea of paying more when we could pay less seems silly, almost un-American. We're saving our money for the things we think are really important, like cable TV and betting on football games.

But cheap food is a fallacy: it simply does not exist. When we choose to purchase industrially grown vegetables laden with pesticides, corn fed beef devoid of its nutritional value, and pork raised near manure lagoons, we pay the price. Healthcare costs skyrocket (the system is overwhelmed with type-2 diabetics and other obesity-related patients) as does the cost of cleaning up the environmental messes we make.

Simply put: we can pay a fair price for our food now, or we can pay a lot more for our health and environmental safety later.

Bad food tastes great.

Try one of these experiments:

  • Pour two glasses of milk for your kids: one with chocolate, one without. Ask your kids which one they like more.
  • Next time the fellas come over, put out a bowl of french fries next to a bowl of baked sweet potatoes. See which one is eaten first.

Most Americans think a Big Mac tastes better than a turkey sandwich, and the fat, sugar, salt, and infused flavors in that Big Mac are meant to keep it that way.

Why do we feed our kids soda with their lunch? Why do we choose a Whopper instead of a salad? Why do we knowingly feed ourselves and our families food that is not good for us? Why do we cling to the bold health claims on the sides of cereal boxes that we know to be untrue? Because it tastes good! And also because...

Good food takes time.

This is true on multiple levels. Good food - pasture-raised, pesticide-free, grass-fed food - often grows more slowly than industrially raised food. Grass fed cattle need extra months to put on weight, for example.

Good food also takes time to prepare. When I told a friend recently that I simply rejected the idea of "the emergency cheeseburger," she laughed. "You can reject it if you want," she told me, "but lots of us need them."

Does it take more time to buy a drive-through cheeseburger than to buy a drive-through salad? No, it doesn't.

Yes, it takes time to wash and cut carrots. It takes time to season and grill fish. It takes time to find a recipe, buy ingredients, and cook a good meal. It takes time to eat with a knife and fork.

Many of us have decided that this is time we don't have. We've prioritized our life activities, and food didn't made the cut. We've decided that food is what we eat in the car between work and soccer practice, rather than something for which we make time.

Photo credit: Kate NG SommersPhoto credit: Kate NG Sommers

We hate to deprive ourselves.

We work hard, and we deserve a treat. Many of us have been told what to do all day at work. We've been deprived of sunlight, of a flexible schedule, of meaningful work, of exercise, of all sorts of things that make us feel good and human.

Bad food gives us the illusion of control, and it makes us feel good right away. Guilt and health concerns may come later, but right now we need a treat.

We hate to deprive our kids.

When the marketing teams hit their mark, our kids want sugar cereal, chocolate milk, ice cream, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and root beer. But why do we give it to them when we can afford better food choices?

Time-pressed, stressed-out parents know the answer: it's hard to say no to our kids. There are all sorts of reasons for this, including:

  • We don't like to fight
  • We don't want to disappoint our kids
  • Negotiating with kids is irritating and time-consuming
  • We don't want to hear our kids whine
  • "Yes" is a much nicer word than "no."

So, despite the fact that we know the food lacks nutrients - and that we can afford much, much better - we continue to feed our kids the junk they demand.

This doesn't make us bad parents, does it? It's not like our kids are asking for cigarettes or coffee, right? We'd definitely draw the line there. We're not feeding them things that are unsafe, are we?

Bad food is just as safe as good food.

Okay, I'll admit it: I don't believe this at all. When we consume animals raised in feedlots, we consume the antibiotics that they consumed, increasing our own resistance to antibiotics. When we eat apples grown with pesticides, we consume the pesticides they are covered in. When we eat beef that has been contaminated with feces, we consume feces.

Although conclusive results are hard to come by, several studies have shown that organic food grown in rich soil contains more nutrients than food raised on industrial farms. This makes intuitive sense: good soil begets good food. And eating organic produce means we can eat the peel without ingesting bonus pesticides.

In this context, we must also consider the health and safety of our communities and our environment. Good food is produced for a fair price, and does not take more from the earth than it gives back. Good food nourishes our bodies, our minds, our communities, and our planet. Good food doesn't pretend to cost less in the short-term, and then extract its toll on our health and our land over time. Isn't it worth a couple of extra bucks?

Summing Things Up

The issues of racism and classism in our food system are compelling and infuriating. These issues need to be addressed on a daily basis by our communities and our government. But there are many other issues affecting our country's ability to promote the health of our bodies and our planet as well. Understanding why those of us who can afford good food choose not to buy and prepare it can help us understand the cultural and social roots of the problem. And then maybe, just maybe, we can start to fix it.

Lee Zukor is the founder of Simple, Good, and Tasty. Email him at lee@simplegoodandtasty.com or follow him on Twitter.

Comments

I wish Jamie Oliver had dealt with many of the points you raise here. Namely, that good food does take time (remember the mother with the deep fryer on her counter?), and it does cost more. That scene in Food Inc. was the most heartbreaking to me, and I was sorry Oliver didn't address it, as there had to be someone in Huntington that faced that quandary.

I'm not ashamed to admit that sometimes I do eat bad food. But I also know full well what I'm eating, that it isn't good for me and I'd feel much better later if I ate good food. So my number #1 reason for eating bad for is because it tastes good, followed by the feeling that since I eat what I should most of the time, I deserve a treat.

As much as I love the foods I get from my local farmers at the farmers market and even as much as I enjoy taking the (little) extra time it takes to prepare, I will also acknowledge that it is unlikely I'll completely give up bad food. Moderation, everything in moderation.

Thanks Amy and Kris. Hey Kris, I'll bet we've all got pretty different ideas on what bad food is, don't you think?

I'm pretty sure that what I consider bad, the both of you would, too. Anyone up for Taco H, doughnuts or a bag of dill pickle potato chips?

Dill pickle chips...mmm...

Anyway, I'm pretty convinced beets are bad, because no matter how I've eaten them, they're nasty.

I think that our children (and we as a society) have grown up feeling a a "good-taste" entitlement vs. eating as a means of fueling our bodies. Take yogurt, for example. Real yogurt is runny. It is slightly sour. It's white. Yet, each day I ladle out the corn-syrup laden, thick pink muck disguised as yogurt because the vomit squad has informed me they won't touch the real stuff. But I do want them to get their calcium, so at least I pick the stuff without the nutrasweet.

With the arrival of dual income families, the ready-made stuff is made to sell - ie. must taste delicious and the marketing and availability permeates most aspects of our lives. I've had dismal success getting my family (all generations by the way) to work with me on the idea that food is a means to a healthy body. It's a mixed bag as fighting what is the "norm" is an uphill battle.

On another note, I truly believe that until fresh fruits and vegetables are competetively priced with boxed items, we will remain an overweight nation. Try comparing the cost of a box of pasta with the price of one mango? If I were trying to feed my family on a small budget, I would make less-healthy choices over keeping tummies full. I've got several radical ideas of ways of equalizing fruits and vegetable pricing, but I'll stop here.

Thanks, as always, for your interesting posts!

here is my favorite article on questioning why parents choose poor food for thier children, despite loving them and defending their health and safety in all other aspects-

http://www.breadandmoney.com/docs/parents2005.html

I gotta stop reading this stuff. It is making me crazy.

I just came in from checking on the greenhouse and the chicks. Most of the chicks are doing fine. The wobbly ones that don't run when I lift the lid are goners. And about half of the survivers aren't going to make it much beyond ten weeks...

Good Food Costs More
I'm not buying it. There were some tough years growing up. We had a yard and a big garden. We always had access to good food. Seeds are cheap and productive. I'd bet that I could grow all our food for a year with $100 worth of seeds and a garden no bigger than I could double dig in a couple days. Easy is always more expensive.

Does that cost more than eating a bunch of fast food crap or junk food ? Probably not in dollars, but certainly in time. And God knows that TV won't watch itself.

Bad Food Tastes Great
I always feel sick after I eat that stuff. To be honest, I have not eaten at any place with a drive through for 25 years or so. I have to order fairly carefully at conventional restaurants to avoid feeling ill afterwards.

People only think it tastes good because it is engineered to be unsatisfying so you have to want more. Why is it only fat people who drink diet pop ?

Good Food Takes Time
It was my turn to cook tonight. I made chicken 'tortillas' with roasted peppers and tomatoes for supper in about 20 minutes. It would have taken longer to drive to McDonalds, get a bag of junk food, and get back home.

What are people doing when they would be cooking? Something vaulable like watching TV ? Cooking takes time, but what else are you doing that is more important ? Remember Maslow and his hierarchy of need ? Wasn't food one of the early ones ? Cooking leads to other social goods if it isn't seem as just a burden.

Deprive Ourselves
WTF?! After a long day I want a beer not a bag of Cheetos. And it should be a good one, Surly, Summit, or Bells. There are worse things than being hungry for a few hours. One of them is having to eat junk food.

Deprive Our kids
Kids need parents not friends to raise them. When we were eating macaroni and milk for supper, it was okay. The only other option was to go without. That was just the way it was. My guess is that your kids are not deprived.

Bad Food is Safe
You have to be kidding. Diabetes is very safe.

On a related side note, the best yogurt is from Star Thrower Farm. To get some you need to know the right people and be lucky. It is like ice cream. The second best (so far) is the Greek stuff.

How many people does a box of pasta feed vs. one mango ?

I think that it is easy to confuse wants with needs. That is a luxury that is be hard for a lot of people to afford. We all really need good food.

Greg

Greg, We've got to get you a regular gig writing for us. I'm serious! Would you?

Greg, I don't disagree with a lot of what you say, but I do have to ask--what about families where the parents are both working multiple low-income jobs to make ends meet and live in an apartment; how are they going to grow their own food?

greg- totally agree about parents needing to be caretakers, not best friends who give in to demands for sugar (aka legal drugs for kids).

Greg, What you bring up is the food + time paradox. Sadly, we Americans have become victims of convenience consumerism letting others provide our food for us rather taking charge of it ourselves. As we are seeing, it's a very tough thing to reverse. Once you have something that makes your life easier (like prepared foods), it's hard to give it up - even when you know it's bad for you.

Thanks all. Greg, you're absolutely right. I agree with Shari (you should have a column!), and with Debbie (food + time), and also with Amy, who smartly points out that not everyone can grow their own food in their backyard.

I want to respectfully acknowledge that educated organic farmers may not be reflective of average Americans in terms of food choices and access. But I also want to point out that the article is not focused on people who can't grow their own food or don't have access, but on people who CAN afford good food, DO have access, and choose to eat fast food anyway. The excuses (topic headings) above are just that - excuses - but they're REAL excuses, used by real, smart people. Ignoring them - or poo-pooing them - won't make them go away, but addressing them head on, as many of you thoughtful commenters have done (Greg, Paige, Amy, Kris, Debbie), can help us convince people otherwise. That's the hope, anyway.

Thanks for being the kind of people I want to eat with.

Amy is right, social justice issues are tough. But...

About 18 years ago we sponsors some Tibetan refugees. They had minimal skills for our society, didn't speak english, worked multiple low paying part time jobs, lived in low rent apartments in rough parts of town, and always ate their own, made from sratch food. Simple, good, and tasty (I couldn't resist).

Detroit appears to be well ahead of Minneapolis as far as gardens providing fresh produce for poor people. My guess is that every neighborhood in Minneapolis has vacant space that could become community gardens for low income people.

Junk food is really expensive when you consider the whole cost. It goes beyond the health affects of eating the stuff. Farm worker's low wages and brutal working conditions subsidize our fast food diet.

Farm workers in Florida get 44 cents to pick a 35 pound bucket of green tomatoes. They really have to hustle to make minimum wage (~$7.25) and put a slice of color on a sandwich.

Doubling their wages would increase the cost of a pound of tomatoes by 1.25 cents. So a slice must be about 0.15 cents. The fast food chains fought giving them a 2 cent per bucket raise. What's with that ? Every mouthful of fast food takes a bite out of their ass.

Good food vs. time ? I think it is mostly a matter of having recipes that are easy, quick, and good (yes, once again SGT) and the ingredients on hand. There are cookbooks that are full of recipes that they claim can be prepared in twenty minutes. One of our favorites is 'The Moosewood Cooks at Home'.

There are several real problems in our society. I think that main one is shortsightedness compounded by not thinking for yourself. Blow up your TV...

Greg

I love this post. I'm currently struggling the same issues (http://lifeanonymousgirls.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/this-locavores-dilemmas/). It feels so good to know you're eating food that's good for you and others, but the time and effort needed will take some getting used to. I like your term "convenience consumerism" - it sums up perfectly what I'm trying to avoid!! Thanks for sharing :)