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poor people totally matter, except when they eat shit we don’t like

Posted by pocochina on March 31, 2009

Before I start, I want to say that generally, I really recommend Redstar’s (a former H1K compatriot) page at change.org, US Poverty. However, she’s taking some light-posting time, and in her sorta-absence, there have been some guest posts from those along the poverty activism spectrum, including a couple of writers on hunger issues.  Now, I agree with the guest hunger bloggers that the poor should not have to eat unhealthy or less-healthy food.  However, in two articles now, there’ve been some deeply judgmental (and implicitly, though not explicitly, anti-fat) statements about food available to the poor.

Hammond’s article describes a mixed  reaction to seeing food bank employees turning away food.  A mixed reaction.   Now, I shouldn’t say that with such irritation – my reaction was “mixed” too, between fury and disgust.  It’s important to remember, when talking about nutrition for the hungry, that not all the world is on a fucking diet.  People need a certain caloric intake to live healthily – probably around 2000 calories for an adult, but for the working poor, especially those in jobs like retail or food service, where you’re on your feet all day, it could easily be higher – and, though I’m not a hunger expert, I think it’s probably safe to say that many of those depending on food banks don’t get that.  So when we talk approvingly about deciding for the hungry that of course it’s right to substitute an apple which may (around 65 calories) or may not (exactly zero calories) even exist for a cupcake (around 250 calories, less for low-fat or mini cupcakes; more  for larger ones) which definitely exists, it’s not just gallingly condescending, it’s deciding for the poor that they don’t need an entire 10% of their daily calorie intake – excuse me, their optimal intake, which they are almost certainly not getting – because we don’t approve of their sugar choices.  Aside from which, yes, Virginia, there really is nutrutional value to fat.  You need a certain amount of fat.*  Those of us who can afford to choose our food without Very Concerned Helpers parceling it out are likely to get enough, and to be able to choose polyunsaturated veggie-based fat, but if you can’t, you can’t.  To Hammond’s credit, there’s no explicit fat hate in his writing, but there’s plenty floating free in the comments, and you don’t have to be a friggin’ Conan Doyle creation to figure out what was behind the refusal of the pastries.  And there’s absolutely no suggestion of a zero-sum choice given to the food bank workers – it’s not as if they could take, say, 100 items of food and decided that if something had to go, it should be the pastries.  They could have taken more food for the hungry, and they chose not to.  So Hammond’s rosy visions of of “kids munching on apples and carrots” are, almost assuredly, pipe dreams, gross distortions of the actual picture, which is growing children not munching enough, thus also permanently distorting their body chemistry.

This story goes to the RQ’s point about charity – it fuckin’ doesn’t work for long-term solutions.  I’m not saying don’t give to food banks (if you can, totally!  Even if it’s the DREADED CUPCAKES), or that it’s wrong somehow for poor people to take advantage of food banks, but that we won’t solve long-term nutritional issues with individual giving and decisions.  It takes the power away from the individual person choosing her foods for the day, and puts it in the hands of a person who, likely, has never had to make those particular cost-benefit analyses.  It’s not just that it’s offensive to the dignity of individuals, but it’s also perilous because theses decision-makers are a product of our systemically bigoted society.  Poverty, hunger, malnourishment and the resulting health problems are structural issues.  They require serious, structural solutions based on lots of rational thinkers with serious resources.

However, even when we do move up to large-scale policy changes, we still can’t stay away from condescending judgment about the food choices of the poor.  Plotkin’s post, about the expansion in New York and Delaware of the WIC program to include fruits and vegetables, is right on in some instances, and painfully condescending in others.  He talks equally approvingly about “adding fruit and vegetables” and “limiting access to high-calorie, high-fat foods such as processed fruit juice and cheese,” and there he loses me.  If you’re stretching food stamps to feed an entire family, “high calorie” is not necessarily a bad thing.  Again, if this is your only way to get several thousand calories a day on the tightest budget possible, you’re still going to not just want, but need, the option of calorie-dense foods.  Aside from his goofy contention that juice is “high fat” (I realize I’ve spent more time than most people ever will searching for meaning in nutritional labels, but really, not a mistake to make if you want to make while establishing your Superior Nutritional Decisionmaker cred), he ignores some basic realities – if a box of macaroni and cheese feeds your kids for 50 cents, it’s still not an unreasonable choice in the face of the Librul Dood Sanctioned apple (a delicious and healthy snack, but no substitute for an actual dinner).  Juice, even if undesirably HFCS-y, might be a cheap source of vitamins.  Sugar can calm down kids with ADHD – valuable enough for any parent with a child who experiences ADHD, but maybe the only relief for a kid whose family Then, as in the previous article and comments, there’s some very concerned lecturing about how the poor folks need a nice white dude to teach them how to eat properly.  The fact is, until a substantive amount of nutritious food is genuinely affordable, these musings about what the poor should and shouldn’t eat aren’t going to amount to more than privileged moralizing.  He also buys into the panic-mongering about weight.  For the hundred thousandth fucking time, weight and health are not synonymous. Even if they were, the article buys into the idea that poor kids’ weight and health is due just to the damn cheese and juice is simplistic and self-serving.  Quoth Kate:

  1. Poor people are a lot more likely to go through cycles of eating too few calories followed by bingeing — which, when it’s known as “dieting,” instead of “only being able to afford enough food sometimes” — has indeed been shown to make people fatter in the long run;
  2. Plenty of poor people are getting at least the recommended amount of daily exercise at their jobs, but show up as “sedentary” in surveys that ask about how much people work out in their leisure time — i.e., the kind of time that someone working 2 or 3 physically demanding jobs probably doesn’t have;
  3. In this country, African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately poor, and they also happen to be genetically predisposed to having higher weights than white people.

If you aren’t thinking about those three factors when you think about poverty and fatness — not to mention rigorously asking yourself what else you might be forgetting — you can fuck right off, as far as I’m concerned. But having said that, of course I’m all for making nutritious food and safe exercise opportunities more available to poor people — not to mention, oh, the time to cook fresh foods and exercise (outside of work) that comes with making a living wage while working a reasonable number of hours.

Not to mention the utter cruelty of this to children growing up already pre-disposed to eating disorders.  Contrary to popular opinion, and certainly to the ignorance of the bloggers in question, the girl-children growing up in poverty are still susceptible to eating disorders, and almost definitely do not have access to the mental health resources needed to overcome an ED.  How cruel it is to reinforce unhealthy good food/bad food dichotomies with the stamp of the fucking government, and how thoughtless to praise such an action without even considering this near-guaranteed consequence.

In other words, adding fruit, veggie, whole grain, and soy choices to food assistance programs is surely necessary to making those nutritional benefits available to the poor, but it’s not close to sufficient.  It’s not an equal swap between three apples and one pound of pasta, even though they’ll both cost roughly the same thing.   And making food available to the poor isn’t an either-or, where we get to sit down and decide what they should and shouldn’t eat, so we don’t have to think about poor people daring to eat food of which we disapprove.  There should be more food available to the poor.  Food and poverty is complicated, I’ll give the bloggers that, and everyone deserves all the healthy food they need, and the choice between different degrees of healthy and unhealthy food.  We as a country need to do a lot better on affordable nutrition and adequate living standard for everyone.  What poor folks don’t deserve is  more insult to their dignity and decision making skills by their supposed allies.

  • I’ll never forget when #8, in going over my diet for potential sleep problem triggers, told me I probably wasn’t getting enough fat and should eat more potatoes.  I think I stared at her cross-eyed for a few seconds before I started having dreamy fantasies about the french fries I was going to start eating again.  Didn’t help the sleep like they were supposed to, but on the other hand….mmm, fries.  Clearly these men do not approve of #8 and her evil quest to help people sleep.
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