Improving Food Choices

In a world where wallet size dictates access to healthy food

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This is post is adapted from a graduate paper I recently submitted. I thought it was important to be able to discuss it without academic constraints. (I primarily wanted to adorn my rhetoric with some wit, sarcasm, and expletives.)

Food. We need it. All the time. Not only for survival, but there are foods we turn to for emotional comfort and gratification—lascivious or otherwise. Thanks to advances in agricultural practices and the diversity of food retailers, the United States is rife with fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats. It is, therefore, ironic for a country considered part of the First World—that is to say, an industrialized, prosperous, and developed capitalist nation—to have an alarming number of its citizens starving, let alone without the pecuniary means to obtain salubrious foods.

Let’s face it… we all have food problems, whether of our devices or tainted supply lines. But the lack of nourishment is the gravest food problem of all.

What is Food Insecurity?

The official definition:

Food insecurity is a household-level condition of not having or not being able to acquire “enough food to meet the needs of all their members because…of insufficient money or other resources for food.”

Basically, not enough food or not enough money to buy food. I posit, like these authors have, social class is intimately associated with diet quality; foods conducive to good health require deeper coffers than foods conducive to chronic disease and malnutrition. Sadly, that’s why individuals with limited economic means have a higher incidence of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Although we only need to travel to our local supermarkets and food retailers, having a meta-analysis published in the British Medical Journal which evaluates the “prices of healthier versus less healthy foods/diet patterns” can be useful. The researchers concluded, to the sorrow of many, healthier food options cost approximately $1.50 more per day than less healthy options, equating to an additional $550 per year in food expenses. To be fair, the meta-analysis only evaluated one study that compared prices of restaurant foods. Therefore, any insights gleaned from this analysis must take that into consideration.

Yet, these findings can demonstrate how unforgiving social inequality can be. In 2015, 13.1 million children in the United States lived in homes beset by food insecurity. Allow me to bludgeon this point deeper in thy cerebrum.

National Geographic Magazine covered a poignant story about hunger in our contemporary world. The article covers three families in separate regions of the United States beset by food insecurity. One indeed becomes lachrymose—and perhaps horiffied—upon learning that an Iowa mother not only tries to dissuade her children from indulging in snack time, but sends her children to school hungry so the children may have food leftover upon returning home. I’m not horrified by the mother’s actions, but rather the set of circumstances which force parents to make such decisions.

“When Christina Dreier’s [the Iowa mother] cupboards start to get bare, she tries to persuade her kids to skip snack time. “But sometimes they eat saltine crackers, because we get that from the food bank,” she said, sighing. “It ain’t healthy for them, but I’m not going to tell them they can’t eat if they’re hungry.””

Possible Solutions

Food can be expensive, especially the stuff the media touts as being healthy. Tag on a few more buzzwords and, voila, the price increases dramatically. Such is true of organic food. Don’t get me wrong. Organic farming practices have certainly accomplished many laudable things such as promoting ecologically conscious farming techniques, maximizing biodiversity among flora and fauna, and abhorring the use of antibiotics and caustic industrial solvents. However, proponents of organic food often suggest it is a healthier alternative to conventional food due to its superior nutritional content, a claim hitherto unsubstantiated. This partly accounts—although not completely—for the bloated cost of normal supermarket fare, which significantly burden lower socioeconomic individuals.

Secondly, I think outreach programs would largely benefit from conducting educational and motivational seminars, being ever sensitive to the plight of low-income individuals and families; there is often shame, stigmatization, and misconceptions associated with using SNAP—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps—apart from the distress low-income families feel from food insecurity. Recipients are typically stereotyped as con artists manipulating the system or having a poor work ethic. I’m sure we’ve all heard the tale of the lady who purchased groceries only to pull her EBT card out of a majestic Louis Vuitton handbag. This lady, of course, departed the premises and drove back towards her dilapidated home in an S-class Mercedes-Benz.

Such vilification and maltreatment are perhaps why government handouts are anathema to senior citizens—the largest demographic eligible for SNAP who refuse to participate. I also reckon feelings of inferiority, the ebbing of one’s sense of autonomy, or foolish obstinance are to blame, too. The function of seminars would, therefore, be twofold: firstly, to dispell stereotypes and misconceptions about federal assistance, whilst educating individuals about the program; secondly, to motivate individuals to be active participants in their own well-being, preserving autonomy while empowering families to make healthier food choices despite their unfortunate circumstances.

If I were to make one further recommendation, it would be to avoid the “sheer cloudy vagueness” of language George Orwell warned against in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” This recommendation requires a small precis: at the behest of the Committee on National Statistics of the National Academies, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) presented new terminology in 2006 to describe the various gradations of food insecurity; high, marginal, low, and very low food security. Only the latter two—characterized by reduced food intake, disrupted eating patterns, and diminished food variety—qualify as food insecurity. In the Committee’s most bold—and perhaps most invidious—proposal, it deemed that the word ‘hunger’ should “refer to a potential consequence of food insecurity that, because of prolonged, involuntary lack of food, results in discomfort, illness, weakness, or pain that goes beyond the usual uneasy sensation”

[Insert wretching sounds] The words hunger and prolonged don’t fit well together.

By creating further stratifications in the already anesthetized term ‘food insecurity’, it disguises the real harm that befalls individuals without the pecuniary means to sufficiently eat. Stark and direct language—like give them food, they’re fucking starving! and/or they’re dying!—will perhaps change public opinion towards accepting those individuals receiving government assistance and assuage the stigmatization. It may also serve to sway legislation to provide more educational resources and places of recreation for SNAP recipients affording them sufficient opportunity to adopt better lifestyle habits.

Thankfully, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program isn’t the only federal assistance program which hopes to rid the United States of hunger. Charities like Feeding America and Oxfam America are two reputable organizations that come immediately to mind. There are also a generous number of local food banks (search for them here) that supply food pantries and soup kitchens. As with all important endeavors, our efforts must be collaborative if we hope to address hunger, improve health, and esteem cultural eating habits. We stoke the flames of meaningful public debate among parents, students, educators, local and state officials, and community leaders. Food is more than energy. It is culture. It is happiness. Food is life.

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