Poverty and food insecurity
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.