Five couples are scattered about in a sunken living room. It’s close to midnight and they’re all donning black tie attire from an event earlier in the evening. They had taken a limo there and then the limo back to this home, where their cars await. They linger and laze-about, rehashing the night; retelling earlier conversations and gossip; commenting on whom was coupled with whom and how others were dressed. All of it is very friendly and light-hearted, with a twinge of snobbishness. In this intimate social circle, they speak freely.
One party goer steps away from the group and makes her way down the hallway into a kitchen. She opens the refrigerator to refill a water glass and sees a can of biscuits. She is reminded of a rarely eaten, delicious treat. She returns to the group with a memory of using leftover canned biscuits as a recipe for jelly-filled doughnuts. Roll out the biscuit to a flat circle, and fill with a big tablespoon of jelly. Fold the dough over or crimp in the center and seal, then fry in hot oil. One person relishes this decadence. The majority are aghast that one would eat fried food.
‘You’ve eaten a donut, right?’
‘Of course I have!’
‘Well, what’s the difference? Because you bought it in a shop and didn’t personally drop dough in a pan of grease?!’
Food shaming is one of the worst. One of the main reasons the group organized a limo was so they could take it through the drive-through at McDonald’s and order out of the rooftop window. ‘How cool would that be?’
NYT had an article on Friday about fry bread and its indigenous origins. The article posits how the ingredients are cheap and economical, and how the bread sprouted out of making due with what one has. These available ingredients are also detrimental to health, thus further marginalizing the particular community around it. Nothing to dispute here.
Another article from last week annoyed me, though, via The Counter. It was still perpetuating the myth about low-income communities having no access to nutritious or fresh foods. These studies and their refutation came up in my Nutrition Science course I took via Stanford during the initial lockdown of Covid. The absurdity is staring the writer in the face. This article posits how low-income communities get their food stuffs from gas stations. The four gas stations noted in the article are in a one-mile radius, thus perpetuating the unavailability of fresh food. Did it never dawn on the author that if one can drive to a gas station to fill their tank, they could also drive a few miles more -at most, to any type of traditional grocery store? Counter to the narrative, low-income households will actually drive beyond a closer-by smaller chain, to access a larger, inexpensive grocery chain, such as Walmart. It is what they are purchasing that impacts health, not location. Very little fresh fruits and vegetables, as one would imagine, and considerably more packaged, processed foods. I do not deny that when one is cash poor, nutrition is not top of mind. Cheap and tasty win. Yes, proximity and availability matter. Some may not have a car; some may only have the option of accessing what is within walking distance. But you can’t argue to me that in a society where every poor person has a cell phone and a tv, these same people don’t know someone with a car to drive them to any type of grocery with ‘real’ food? It’s about priorities and personal responsibility, too. I don’t deny that food manufacturing and their marketing handlers learned early on exactly how to combine sugar, salt, and fat and exactly whom to market it to. Personal agency can’t be removed from people’s choices, but dietary education is terrible in this country, also. We now have a perpetuating cycle of cheap foods for poor people, and an insurmountable case of obesity in the United States. Fast food is most prevalent in suburbs and low-income communities. It takes driving a couple miles out of any wealthy neighborhood to find a fast-food option, and these are represented by Chik-Fil-A and more costly, fast-casual choices. Food choice isn’t simply an access and affordability debate, it is about information. People need more and better education. I acknowledge my broad sweep about more education is reductive and doesn’t account for cultural, household influence and personal taste. Still, education about nutrition does change how people eat.
I am reclining in a chair after work, in a state of shutting down for the evening when I receive a text message. A friend is inviting me last minute to meet him at a popular steakhouse in the city. He’s just arrived there for a happy hour cocktail and thought I’d like to eat dinner with him. I change quickly and make my way. When I pull into the parking lot, the valet is backed up with cars waiting to be parked. The parking lot is already full with any number of high-end vehicles, and I consider how the class of people driving these automobiles can afford the considerable steak, seafood, and wine mark-ups on the menu. They know what they are walking into.
There is a misconception that cheap food is crappy food or bad-for-you food. Certainly, packaged and processed things are. Grains and beans are the least expensive, most nutritious foods one can eat, though. Meat is now the most expensive and will soon fold itself into another class war we don’t need. Who can afford it and how often? The real pushback currently is from diners against eating bugs and cultured meats as alternatives. Fair. Yet meat as the main is also a result of cultural conditioning and rearing that will take a couple generations to break. There is so much government infringement in our lives already, asking one to sacrifice in this way is too emotional for a majority whom see meat as a staple. Food is mood; a lot of emotion is tied into what we eat. If meat becomes too expensive, whether intentionally or deliberately so, there may be no alternative. The zeitgeist is shifting regardless. More people are aware of how awful factory farming is and how much our food crop is specifically grown to feed these animals that contribute to global warming. It is a vicious cycle. I don’t eat them, but meat alternatives have come a long way. The science will catch up and the culture will be ready just in time, too. Most of what we eat comes down to habits and taste; social setting, context; price. Cost is the last of the three considerations. That’s basically it. Sadly, as all societal considerations lean more political, food choice is/will become more of a virtue signal.
This whole conversation has been my life for twenty plus years. My TED talk would come out of it. I can go on for hours. Such as why I have a minimum of five long drafts opining on food as it relates to specialty diets, fad diets, and the click-groups that spring up around each diet; the marketing of foods; cultural and environmental impacts on our food choices; and yes, the affordability and education needed. It’s a thorny topic to opine on, because so much emotion is tied into choice. No two taste or diets are alike. It’s one of the most prolific topics, too, because you go down one rabbit hole to fall down another. Inevitably, I see myself putting out an e-book with a cheap fee to access it. I know what I’m talking about, or I wouldn’t charge. And it would be a labor of love.