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Poverty and food insecurity

January 14, 2010

Yesterday, I ran across an excellent post at The Fat Nutritionist: If only poor people understood nutrition!. The main thrust:

Because obviously they just don’t know what they’re doing. And that’s why they eat so badly, and hence, why their health tends to be poorer!

And eureka! — you have a tidy solution that not only absolves financial and economic guilt, but, as a bonus, allows richer, more-edumacated people to assume the role of benevolent experts…

The reality is that people who don’t have enough money (or the utilities and storage) to buy and prepare decent food in decent quantities, cannot (and should not) be arsed to worry about the finer nuances of nutrition.

Because getting enough to eat is always our first priority…

The idea is that, before we worry about nutrition (i.e., “instrumental food”) we’ve first got to HAVE food. Enough of it. Consistently.

Word. So much for that particular brand of “Less Virtuous Others” condescending, privileged BS, which has infuriated me so many times.

I’ve been poor. For a scary period of time, my parents had no income whatsoever, thanks to job loss, illness, and disability. Still, reading Michelle’s post, I was struck again by how fortunate we were to be “small town in a rural area” poor, rather than urban poor. There was a lot more fresh food readily available (and space to grow some). We were also lucky in a way to be coming from a cultural background which still pushes gadugi and sharing what you’ve got. Staying well fed is a lot easier if other people give you bags of stuff from their garden and “extras” from hunting and fishing, knowing that you’d do the same if you were able to right then. Especially with family helping a lot, we never really experienced food insecurity.*

Urban poor people don’t have the same food security safety nets, especially if they’ve been poor for a long time and most of the other people they know are in just as bad a shape. That’s a special kind of poverty, probably even harder to deal with than the “Fourth World” kind my family has found itself in.

Another excellent point from that post:

The following quote from this book sums things up nicely as it relates to what people really need when it comes to nutrition, and how nutritionists, dietitians, and social workers can best help:

Is it our role to teach the poor how to live quietly on less than minimum standards of health and decency and how to starve on minimum wage? Do we teach them how to budget malnutrition more neatly? Or is it our job to struggle for those minimum standards…?

I wouldn’t say that this concern even primarily falls on professionals, though they should certainly set their classism aside and find out what people really need. This is another area in which we need some real responsibility. While there is still this level of inequality, we do need to find/figure out what is really likely to help (and that’s not organic baby food).

One thing that you can do, on an individual level, is leaving bags of food on the doorsteps of people you know are having a hard time. Even if you do not have a lot of money yourself, you can share something. That avoids a lot of the “charity”-related awkwardness on both ends, and you know it’s getting where it needs to go. People who would be ashamed to go to a food bank or similar will benefit from this. Besides staples and fresh fruit/veggies, I have also included personal care products, herbs and spices, and a few “luxury” food items, like sweet baked goods and mushrooms–luxurious when you’re seriously poor, that is, the kind of thing that will get you filthy looks and comments when you dare to buy them with food stamps.

I am aware that I’m coming from some position of privilege here, but did come up with some suggestions on how to get enough healthy food for very little money–lots of personal experience with that, based on generations more! As Tonia Moxley half-jokingly put it, “In the Southern Appalachians, a sack of corn meal and a sack of pinto beans have sometimes been all we possess”. 🙂 I tried to adapt this to urban conditions as far as possible, since there are some differences in what’s feasible. I do not want to come across as another condescending “you can do better, stupid!” voice with this. But I know very well that when you’re being worried like a rat by economic problems (and the health and other problems coming out of that), it can be hard to see anywhere near a full range of options. I doubt that many people who are in serious poverty will be reading this and picking up ideas, unfortunately. It might give some ideas to someone who’s more temporarily down on their luck, the way economic conditions are right now. This is more a mental exercise than anything else, to show that it is just about possible!

1. Buy as big a bag of beans as you think you’ll be able to afford and store. Be sure to check price per unit, but usually beans are a lot cheaper if you buy 10 lbs. or more. I’ve seen a 20-lb. bag of pintos run the same price as a 5-lb. one.

2. Do the same with rice and potatoes, and cornmeal and/or grits if you like it. Ditto for sweet potatoes. If you don’t have a car, this will take multiple trips, but you won’t have to lug more home for a while.

3. If you don’t already have one, pick up a Crock Pot (or other brand of slow cooker!). Thrift stores have them a lot, and new knockoffs are not that expensive. It’s an excellent investment, especially if you’re working all day and don’t feel like cooking when you get home. Beans are super easy to fix if you’ve got one. You can get by with a slow cooker and a microwave.

4. Look for sales on frozen and canned vegetables. Frozen ones are as nutritious as fresh, taste pretty good, and tend to be much cheaper–assuming you’ve got freezer space. When I was back in the US, Kroger kept running mix-and-match “10 for $10” sales, which included most of their store brand frozen veggies; you may be able to find something similar. Canned is much better than nothing. Stock up on canned tomatoes, green beans, greens, etc. Consider getting a lot of cheaper fresh veggies, such as cabbage, if they’re not too ridiculously priced.

5. Buy onions, fresh or dried/powdered garlic, seasoning meat for the beans (average piece goes a long way!), good-tasting cooking fat, and whatever other seasonings you can afford right then which will help jazz up your rather limited ingredients. Again, most supermarkets have a cheap range of seasonings for $1 or less, and you can pick up a bottle a week if you have to. Also check dollar stores. Bouillon cubes or powder add a lot of flavor for not much cost.

6. Buy smaller bags of different kinds of beans, pasta, etc. as you can, for variety. Ditto for things like carrots, peppers, and celery. Also cheese, butter, etc. The last thing you need to be worrying about is using real butter and the like, which are nutritious and add a lot of needed energy to your diet.

7. Check the reduced sections of stores regularly. It’s an excellent way of picking up things like meat and fresh fruit and veggies that you couldn’t afford otherwise. Variety is good. Be flexible, and plan around what’s cheap. Soups and stews are your friends. 🙂

8. Another way of getting more fresh stuff is to ask the produce manager what they do with leftovers. Some people might be uncomfortable with this, but my stepdad got an amazing amount of free fresh stuff that way; he said it was for the rabbits, but we ate most of it. Same with day-old bread and the like. Otherwise, it would just go to waste, and a lot of people are happy just to give it away.

9. There is also the option of dumpster diving for fresh produce, baked goods, and other stuff that’s not quick to spoil. This may sound like a demeaning suggestion if you’d be doing it out of real need, but again, my stepdad did it when we had no income whatsoever for a while. I helped on the ground. It’s a sin and a shame how much useful stuff is just thrown away when so many people could get some good out of it.

10. Grow fresh food. This can be less practical in urban environments, which is why it’s so near the bottom of the list. But, if you have a sunny window, you can at least grow a potted tomato or pepper plant–or some herbs–without much time and energy required. It works OK to just save seeds out of something you eat; you may not be sure exactly what kind of tomato/pepper/whatever you’ll get, but it’ll taste a lot better than the one from the store! If you have the space, try at least one summer squash plant, which will give you an amazing amount of food. Even if you can’t grow much, this can help break the monotony some, and it just feels good to eat something you’ve grown.

Even back home in Southwest Virginia, where people have spent an awful lot of time living off dry beans, a lot of people now think of cooking them as too long and involved a process when they’re working their asses off already. They do take a while to soak and cook, but they don’t need a lot of attention while they’re doing it. With a slow cooker, they need even less attention, and can cook unattended during the day.

Before you go to bed, sort and rinse some beans and leave them to soak overnight. Drain, rinse, and put them in the slow cooker before you leave in the morning. If possible, add boiling water and let them cook on high for a while before turning the pot down to low when you leave. Add onions and other seasonings after you get home, and let it go while you cook the starchy stuff and veggies. Supper will be ready in about half an hour. There are a surprising number of variations possible with just those ingredients, and you can get a lot more variety through reduced/free stuff!

For example, you can cook your rice with fried onion, bouillon, and the veggies. You can throw frozen spinach and cumin in black beans, near the end. With a bag of cornmeal, you can quickly make bread, dumplings, or just plain mush (“polenta”, if you must *g*). You can bake potatoes in the slow cooker or microwave, beside boiling, mashing, or frying them. Make chili or curried chickpeas or other beans. You can fry an onion and add seasonings to make canned greens a lot more interesting. Or cook frozen vegetables with onion, a can of tomatoes, and some seasonings. And so on. You can figure out specifics based on your own taste and cultural background.

This approach is cheaper and much more nutritious than the cheap hamburger and white bread or pasta approach it’s temptingly easy to fall back on these days. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t suggest the “look for chicken legs on sale” approach. You can do that too–not a bad idea for variety, if you don’t mind the way $0.79/lb. chickens were raised–but it’s not the best quality food you can get for the money on a regular basis. I have been feeling a lot better overall with the older “beans and taters and greens” approach.

I’m not poor now, but still eat pretty much this way; it just makes sense to me in a lot of ways. We can just afford more extras these days, and don’t have to buy as much in bulk, which is handy with no car! It’s a shame this style of cooking has gotten a kinda bad “poverty food” reputation.


* This reminds me of one paper I found interesting: Net Nutritional Success on the Great Plains: The Remarkable Heights of Equestrian Nomads in the Nineteenth Century. (There’s data on them, while if anything folks back home were taller AFAICT). Not too surprisingly, the author points to egalitarian social setups as a factor; everybody had access to a “rich and varied diet”. Also that “women were about the same height as men relative to modern height standards”; I’d add that this probably had something to do with consistently having enough food and no incentive to starve themselves or their girl children!

It is possible that greater inequality among whites adversely affected their health relative to Native Americans. Height and health are known to be sensitive to inequality.86 Hunter-gatherer and the Plains equestrian societies were known for their egalitarian practices of sharing food and shelter, and for their communal efforts in caring for the sick or wounded.87 As small communities of similar ethnic heritage where people knew each other well and misfortune was readily distinguished from shirking, sharing and helping others in need was a form of social insurance.

Fancy that!

9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2010 6:43 pm

    Another issue that ties in to food and poverty is transportation– something I have some personal experience with as someone who’s unable to drive due to processing issues.

    If there’s no grocery store in walking distance, and the nearest one is a lengthy bus ride away, you’re likely not to get much in the way of perishable foods, or if the bus ride’s long enough, possibly even frozen foods. One can only carry so much home in a single bus trip, and it’s easier to stock up on stuff that will last more than a week.

    • urocyon permalink
      January 14, 2010 8:39 pm

      Good point!

      I was thinking in terms of where I’m living now, without a car, on the outskirts of Greater London. It’s only about a mile to the closest decent-sized supermarket, with decent bus service. I use the bus a lot for shopping, and it is hard sometimes to drag things home even with that short a trip. It also helps that I’m shopping for two people and pets, not a whole family!

      Some kind of cool bag comes in handy for chilled/frozen stuff. You can get a 4-5L capacity insulated cloth one here for under £5. They also have bigger Mylar-looking ones for about £2 at a lot of checkouts, but they’re expecting a decent bit of foot traffic. Unfortunately, I don’t recall seeing many of those back in the US, but I was mostly in small town store locations the last few times I was back. They would be handy in the summer, even in a car. One like this, now that I look for one. 🙂

      Using a couple of plastic bags, maybe with newspaper in between for extra insulation, and putting all the frozen/chilled stuff together helps.

      • January 14, 2010 9:12 pm

        I’ve got one of those insulated bags. It has indeed been very helpful in getting frozen and refrigerated foods home.

        Still, though, I encounter the issue that buses beyond campus only run once an hour, and it’s only possible to carry a certain number of bags home in one go. And it’s very fatiguing and sensory-overloading as well. Oh, and it has to be worked around my work schedule, too!

      • urocyon permalink
        January 15, 2010 1:58 pm

        Yeah, the transport issue can be a pretty big obstacle, especially once you throw in sensory issues and the like. Public transport and stores are both overloading!

        A shopping trip tends to wear me out for hours. And that’s without doing paid work right now. I really don’t know how a lot of people manage (including my mom when I was growing up).

        This definitely falls into the category of things a lot of people just can’t see through various kinds of privilege. I wouldn’t have thought of the shopping transport problems straight away, having spent most of my life where even really poor people need cars to get basically anywhere. Then you get the problem of people having to drive unreliable junkers (with all the fuel and insurance expenses), which break down semi-regularly and leave them stranded with no money to get them fixed–that I know about firsthand, but it’s a totally different transport obstacle!

      • Freya permalink
        January 15, 2010 2:16 pm

        I take my lunch to work in one of those insulated bags, which means that if I choose to go to the supermarket on the way home, I have it with me already (Australia is phasing out plastic bags; if I don’t take my own bags with me, I have to buy them at the supermarket). This makes it more likely that I will visit the supermarket and take advantage of any specials that happen to be going that day.

  2. January 14, 2010 11:41 pm

    With regard to the transportation issue, i believe (most of) the UK (and probably other countries in Europe) is a *lot* better than (most of) the US, Canada and Australia both in terms of distance to food shops from housing areas and of public transport provision. Still nowhere near as good as it could be, but *assuming* you’re able to get out of your house and get to a bus stop without unacceptable levels of pain and/or fatigue, and that buses are accessible to you (which obviously isn’t true for everyone), it’s pretty rare to be more than one bus journey from a supermarket in all of the UK except the most rural areas (and here there are *very* few very poor people in the *very* rural areas, and most of the exceptions are small farmers who at least have access to land for growing crops on. Very old people living in villages, maybe, but most villages have at least a corner shop or “mini-supermarket”.).

    There are some good comments over there about the subsidizing of foods that makes “healthy” food prohibitively expensive – it infuriates me that white bread, for example, is cheaper than wholemeal bread, when wholemeal bread requires less processing and therefore costs *less* to make. Likewise white sugar, white flour, etc. On the other hand, perceptions of which foods are more expensive than others are often false – Camembert is “posh cheese” to a lot of people i know, despite being one of the cheapest cheeses you can get (by weight), certainly a lot cheaper than the over-processed brand-name cheese spreads or “processed cheeses” they eat. It really gets at me when people say they “couldn’t afford to be vegetarian” – the main reason i became (mostly) vegetarian was because i couldn’t afford meat.

    I think a lot of this ties into really weird stuff about percieved class (rather than real economic class), which seems peculiar to English-speaking countries. (Skipping/dumpster diving, for example, is pretty mainstream in much of Europe, but in the UK it’s seen as something only either the truly abject homeless or “middle-class hipster dropouts” do. And the homeless themselves are often regarded by working-class people as “middle-class dropouts”… and other weird shit like that. Anything “healthy” or “ethical” seems also to be really heavily coded as middle-or-higher-class, even if it’s completely not.)

    Apologies for rambliness, am really tired and need to go to bed.

    • urocyon permalink
      January 15, 2010 2:43 pm

      More good points on the transport obstacles. I was thinking of firmly urban areas in the US, which are more likely to have some kind of vaguely practical public transport. Accessibility is another issue entirely; I have trouble using it a lot, and preferred to use my bike with big panniers, a handlebar cool bag, and a backpack for shopping until (a) the chronic pain vetoed that one, and (b) it got stolen off our patio. Cycling 2.5 miles each way to Tesco was actually less tiring than taking the bus!

      When I was back in the US for months last time, I was really impressed at how much more I was able to get done without overload and fatigue, with a car available! (Even under a lot of stress, taking care of someone with terminal cancer.) As I mentioned in the last comment reply, in an awful lot of the US, you are in a very sad shape indeed without some kind of personal motorized transportation. It’s a bad situation.

      It really gets at me when people say they “couldn’t afford to be vegetarian” – the main reason i became (mostly) vegetarian was because i couldn’t afford meat.

      I know what you mean. That’s closer to reality for most of the rest of the world! Ran across a pretty good post on that a while back. Unfortunately, I’ve run across a lot of people who might give that impression, usually based on the idea that you need special, expensive veg*an foods.

      subsidizing of foods that makes “healthy” food prohibitively expensive
      It is infuriating. You get to pay extra for brown rice, too, which irks me. You can pay extra for decent food in the first place (notice how much “healthy” designation brings up the price, whether it really is or not), or you can pay for supplements to replace what they’re taking out of the cheaper food, you can learn a lot about nutrition and carefully juggle things, or you can get malnourished. Those should not be the viable options. And then, back to the Fat Nutritionist post, people get blamed for eating what’s affordable.

      Interesting observations about perceived class and geography. I have noticed some difference in perceptions of pulling things out of the trash–it’s seen pretty much the same way in the US, Canada, and the UK, AFAICT. Another one of those weird moral judgment things, I guess; if you were “virtuous” enough already, you wouldn’t need/want to rummage through “other people’s” trash at all.

      Unfortunately, this kind of crap too often seems to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s one of the reasons I got turned off trying to work with various radical groups, having run into far too many spoiled upper middle class lifestyle activists. That can run other people off.

      I’m reminded of an excellent post at Reclusive Leftist, A fair deal for every American, involving the weird classist perceptions around feminism:

      What I want to talk about is this notion that feminism is some exotic thing, some intellectual latte that none of the rubes could possibly care about. Bullshit.

      You know what feminism is? It’s fairness. It’s about giving women a fair deal. Every woman in this country wants that, and the only women who don’t think they deserve it are the brainwashed fundie hostages.

      Look: I, too, know from RedneckLand. I come from crackers and hillbillies and trailer trash. My folks are the salt of the South: Scotch-Irish and Melungeons and Indians, all mixed together in the farm villages and mill towns of Appalachia and the piedmont. This is a culture where women work and have always worked. You wanna talk about strong women? I tell you what: there ain’t a woman in my family that doesn’t think she’s worth a fair shake and equal pay and some damn respect.

      That’s feminism. That’s popular, grassroots, redneck, middle American feminism.

      Exactly. We’re coming from basically the same background. And maybe 10% of them would ever call themselves feminists by now, for a variety of mainly classist reasons on top of the backlash.

      I’m feeling another post coming on here. 🙂

      I am the last person who would expect apologies for rambling. Ah, the joys of radial thinking and trying to wrap words around ideas! *g*

  3. January 16, 2010 10:34 pm

    I really need to write about the intersections of neurodiversity, activism, “intellectualism” and (real and percieved) class. This post on the subject might interest you:

    I find that whether walking or getting the bus to places is “easier” for me in terms of overall stress, fatigue etc depends on several factors, including the weather, the distance, how crowded the buses are, how much i have to carry, etc. In winter, getting the bus is easier for nearly everything, but my nearest food shops are the same distance from me as my nearest bus stop, so i nearly always walk unless i want to get specific things that are a lot cheaper in supermarkets that are one or more bus rides away.


  1. Red State Green » Blog Archive » Eating when times are tough

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