May it Please the Palate

 What the poor eat

Syndicated columnist Joe Sobran once concluded that there was no poverty in America because while he was driving through a poorer section of Washington D.C., he saw an overweight Hispanic man drinking a diet soda. I have never forgotten that image, nor the pointedness with which he indicated the man’s apparent ethnic origin. This was on the cusp of “Reaganomics” and anecdotes like these were often used to justify making cuts to social programs.

Thirty years later, TV chef Jamie Oliver made a similar observation about England, noting that some poorer Britons choose to eat “chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers” while sitting in a room with a “massive f***ing TV,” adding that he cannot understand “modern-day poverty in Britain.”

Clearly, this debate shows no sign of waning, nor becoming less polarized. It often comes down to anecdotes, because people understand anecdotes.

On one hand, studies show what the non-profit Food Action Resource Center (FRAC) calls the “counterintuitive” link between poverty and obesity, due to poor nutrition. Often this is traceable to inadequate food choices in locations where poverty is high. On the other hand, there are innumerable resources on budget shopping that purport to show how one can eat well for as low as $5 per week. The message seems to be that if the poor worked hard enough at meal planning and shopping, they would have nothing to complain about.

President Reagan’s Secretary of Agriculture once famously undertook to feed his own family for a week on a food-stamp budget. A horde of reporters followed John Block and his wife through the Bethesda, Maryland Safeway as they purchased food based on the Department of Agriculture’s “Week Two Thrifty Food Plan” and made it just under budget – although as the New York Times noted, this required Block to pass wistfully on a juicy, in-season watermelon. 

A vegan chef in Los Angeles triumphantly wrote on her blog that she fed herself well for $1.50 per day, including organic produce at her local Whole Foods. The reality is more complex. Hunger cannot be understood by an upper or middle class person who maintains the same lifestyle while spending less on groceries. 

National Geographic journalist Tracie McMillan was recently interviewed on the syndicated radio show “The Osgood File.” McMillan visited families in Iowa, Texas and New York City to find out what it means to be among the 48 million Americans who report they run out of food at least once a year. What she found was a lot of families - more and more in the suburbs, supported by a single parent with a full-time job “whose second job is the constant search for food,”

She calls this not hunger but “food insecurity,” described as “Folks who maybe know what they’re having for dinner tonight, but they’re not really sure about tomorrow night - and they have no idea what’s going on next week.”

McMillan related this story from Iowa. “A skeptical businessman asked the person who ran the local food bank, “Who are these people that come into your food bank? Just exactly who are these people that can’t get it together?” He implied that these were lazy people who were “gaming the system.” And the food bank operator responded, “Well, two of them work for you.” The point being that when employers can’t - or don’t - pay their employees enough, someone else always makes up the difference.” McMillan added, “That’s why they’re turning to food banks ... Not because they don’t feel like working - it’s that they’re not earning enough money at the jobs that they have.” 

McMillan addressed Joe Sobran’s point about obesity, noting that Americans are often less sympathetic about poverty because they see so many overweight poor people. 

She said that’s often a “symptom of the daily scramble for food,” and that “A working mom has to build in an extra hour in her day any time she wants to get fruits and vegetables. So she ends up buying fast food, because it’s cheap and it keeps the kids quiet.”

The top source of calories for low-income Americans? Soda and energy drinks - followed closely by processed chicken and desserts. McMillan concludes, “I knew it was bad - but I didn’t understand how bad until I did this piece for National Geographic.”

Today, someone will see an overweight man drinking a Red Bull, and conclude otherwise. The debate rages on.