Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Harassed, bored, and miserable

Just followed a link to the Web site for a new documentary called "Food Stamped" that I might like to see. The tag line for the film is this: "Is it possible to eat healthy on a food stamp budget?"

I say that I might like to see this film b/c I also am a bit afraid of what the message of this film might be. I say this based on who is being quoted in the blurbs praising the film - two cookbook authors whose sincerity I do not question, but whose relationships with food are not like those of the people who live on food stamp budgets - and based on the Tips that the filmmakers offer on their Web site. Here is a sample:

# Plan, plan, plan – Creating a menu of meals before going shopping helps save you money at the checkout. Shopping with a list in hand also helps prevent lots of impulse buys.
# Buy in bulk – Many grocery stores have bulk sections, where you can get whole foods like grains, beans, nuts, and seeds by the pound. These are often cheaper than buying food in the package.
# Buy seasonal and local – Seasonal and local produce is often times more affordable (not to mention tastier and better for the planet)

Is it just me, or does this strike you as terrifically unhelpful advice for someone who actually might be living on a food stamp budget - which the filmmakers define as $1 per meal? For example, I think we need to remember that planning is a privilege that middle-class folks take for granted. Who else has the time and the assumption that the transportation is available on demand? Who else has the $ on hand to be able to pay a bit more upfront for the bulk goods - which btw, who else has the room to store?

The problem that I see here - and I allow for the fact that the film might be rather different from its marketing here - is that "bad" lifestyle and "wrong" choices are being discussed, yet again, as the culprits. Not the problem of inequalities the shape our experiences with food and eating.

BTW, if the film is rather different from the marketing, then I wish that the message here emphasized the structures that make food inequalities possible - and the institutions that benefit, frankly, from a Fast Food Nation. Certainly individuals have the ability to make decisions, but think about the ways in which the decision, say, to drive-thru McDonald's is made so easy for us.

I also just have to add: In conversations about how and why Americans might not be eating "better," I am struck always by the implication that "bad" lifestyle, "wrong" choices, and "bad" taste go hand-in-hand. In particular, "bad" taste equals what I have heard some college students call "lower class behavior." Which they feel free to say b/c they say that sometimes they do it, too. Which apparently demonstrates the security of their own class position (as not "lower") and at the same time absolves them of being snobs, judgmental, and biased ("class-ist").

To hear some college students talk (as I do in courses on cultural anthropology and medical anthropology), eating fast food is wrong not just b/c it is too many calories and not enough nutrition, but also b/c it exhibits lack of refinement!

Indeed, take a look at the Recipes on the Web site for this film: It smacks of the assumption that if only the lower classes would learn to appreciate how delicious and nutritious and affordable it is to eat "simply"* - like sauteeing a bit of kale in olive oil with garlic, then squeezing a bit of fresh lemon juice on it...

*Simple itself being a bourgeois aesthetic that can be rather costly to achieve: Real Simple, Simple Home, Simple Living, and so on.

The Economist led an editorial on malnutrition (with which I did not agree entirely) with the following:

AT THE depths of the Great Depression, George Orwell wrote of the English working classes: “The basis of their diet is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea and potato—an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread? Yes it would, but the point is, no human being would ever do such a thing. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man does not. When you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want to eat something a little bit tasty.”

The issue today is not necessarily that people (at least in the United States) are underfed, but apparently not much else has changed since Orwell made his observations.


  1. Although I'm not an obesity researcher, much of the data from my understanding shows that in addition to "personal" behavior and preferences, these preferences are generally re-inforced by conditioning (what foods are perceived to taste good), economic incentives at the corporate level, government farming subsidies, and at the individual level (what food is affordable for many peoples). Add to that accessibility of affordable, nutritious food (certain neighborhoods have lack of grocery stores and even those grocery stores have an appalling poor selection of fresh produce), and well gas stations, convenience stores, and fast food joints become quite appealing when you are trying to put a meal together for a family with a couple dollars.

  2. May also want to check out the article from Mark Bittman today "Go Philly!" Apparently Philadelphia has made some interesting moves to locate grocery stores and promote farmer markets, and it is now considering a tax on soda to keep up the momentum. Although I would say Bittman downplays how much that tax could turn regressive, and would need to take measures to ensure money from the tax goes back into real food subsidies.

  3. Thanks, Bowen! I think you summarized well the range of concerns that surround obesity (and food and eating in general) in the United States today. So much more than individual "will power." Personally, I have become interested in the "conditioning" or cultivation of taste / appetite - I will have to think about turning this into an ethnographic study :)

    I am suspicious about such measures as junk food taxes for exactly the reasons that you state. Not to mention what I find to be a rather unsettling orientation toward punishing "bad" choices that is afoot these days.

  4. Wow, the film's "tips" seem so obtuse and smacks of the elitism that liberals are always accused of. Maybe the tips are more for the middle class audiences that would most likely see the film, so there's a certain confusion of audiences? Eesh. I recently heard a public radio story about food deserts in chicago, and new urban farming efforts that create access to fresh foods in underserved areas of the city and that are trying to get city ordinances and zoning policies changed to make such urban farming more easy to set up. those kinds of efforts recognize the systemic causes of food inequity. If you do watch the doc., please post a review!