Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

So I’ve posted before here about the problems with judging poor people for eating “unhealthy” foods. I was thinking about one particular aspect of the ways that eating healthy foods can cost more, in this case not so much in terms of money but time.

I am getting sick of people who suggest that cooking at home totally doesn’t take any longer than fast food.

Bullshit.

Starting backwards in the process, one part I think no one ever seems to consider is clean up. When people talk about how quickly they can make a homemade meal, they pretty much never include the time to clean up. Which in my experience, takes a lot longer.

If I run out and buy fast food, I am using nothing that requires cleaning up. Now counter or stovetops that need to be wiped down after cooking. No cutting boards, knives, pots or pans. And no plates or silverware to eat with.

Part of what got me thinking of this is being able to cook at home and still keep up with all my dishes right now since school is over. Because when I get busy, I am more inclined to order or pick up food, or just eat frozen foods that I can heat up and eat in the container, and the issue for me is less often the time and effort to cook the food than the time and effort required for all the clean up after.

Even when food doesn’t require cooking if it requires any preparation that typically means something that needs to be cleaned, such as a cutting board and a knife.

I also feel like people tend to underestimate how long it takes to prepare meals from start to finish, at least the folks who claim “I can make a whole healthy meal in just 10 minutes”. Even recipes that estimate prep and cook time I feel like often underestimate the prep time…. or I just am really slow at cutting things up, though even if that’s the case it just goes to show that how long something takes you doesn’t mean that’s how long it would take anyone.

And I get underestimating how long it takes. I do that all the time. I never realize how long a lot of things I do take until I’m actually in a time crunch and suddenly like “how on earth does it take more than 2 minutes to run downstairs and get clothes from the laundry and put the clothes from the washer into the dryer?” It feels like it takes no time at all to me, but when I actually look at a clock, it’s a lot longer than I thought.

I imagine the same is often true for prep time in cooking for many people.

And there is definitely a degree of “you can’t assume how it works for you is the same for everyone”. When it comes to cooking time for foods, a lot of foods you can set and do something else for awhile. Of course I have no timer in my kitchen and am bad at setting one of my phone for food so I often leave food and forget about it until it’s burnt. Or I have something in the oven and I’m up every 5 minutes to check on it (in which case I’m not super productive in what I’m doing between checking on it) and often I check on it and it’s not quite done and then check again and it’s burnt, because apparently it was much closer to done than I thought. Even still, I’m not terrible at this and a lot of food I can leave to cook and do other things while it’s cooking. This is not the case for everyone. I’ve known people who said they had to be in the kitchen the whole time they were cooking something or they would always forget about it and burn it. That makes cooking more time and effort intensive if you can’t multitask at the same time.

And then even more time if you don’t already have the food at home to prepare and need to run to the store to get it.

This probably sounds like making a big deal out of a minor issue, until you are living in poverty and exhausted at the end of a long ass day, and you have the choice of picking up some cheap fast food at one of the many fast food places nearby or cooking at home.

*and I really mean many. ever been to Detroit? I’m still shocked a lot of the time at how many fast food places there are around all the time, and I’ve live in or very near Detroit most of my life (23 years by my count). And many of them are even 24 hour unlike the far fewer grocery stores. Access to fast food around here is much easier than access to groceries.

And the fact that fast food often makes more sense for poor folks because not just of the cost but the time and effort when you are already exhausted from the stresses of poverty is a serious public health issue. One that we should be putting in real effort toward fixing, primarily by working to end poverty. Pretending poor people are just too stupid to realize that cooking at home is just as cheap, fast, and easy is not only not true, it’s not helping anything.

So on facebook the other day this article was shared on my feed titled Why Judging People for Buying Unhealthy Food is Classist. I wanted to comment a bit more on this topic because people who say that it’s not expensive to eat healthy and that poverty is no excuse annoy me so much.

For a little background, if you don’t already know this about me, I’m a social worker in the metro-Detroit area. I’ve worked with a number of non profits in this area and others, and have done community organizing work in Detroit and other poor areas across Michigan. All my personal and work experience has been in Michigan. I have some of my own experiences I draw from regarding poverty and food, but the vast majority actually comes from work experience.

First two points that  I originally was going to put at the end, but really need to be emphasized:

Poor People Deserve Little Luxuries/Enjoyments As Well

Being poor is bad enough, it is absolutely unfair and cruel to expect anyone to live based purely based on survival with no regard for enjoyment. Maybe that means having cable, maybe it means getting some candy, a cake, or some other food they don’t NEED but want at the store. Someone who is poor, including those using SNAP, have just as much right to buy some foods for enjoyment over pure survival needs as those who are not poor.

Mind Your Own Damn Business!

Really, everything else could be ended with this. You have no right to know all about poor people’s lives and choices just because they are poor. They owe you no explanation for every choice they make. And it is classist from the start to think their choices are any of your business to pick apart and judge just because they are poor.

So with those two points covered, let’s still move on to the issue of whether it is cheaper to eat healthy foods.

What is Healthy?

So right away one problem we need to acknowledge to start with regarding judging poor people for buying “unhealthy” foods and insisting that eating “healthy” is cheap is that “unhealthy” and “healthy” foods are not well defined and will vary a lot from person to person. I’ve written a bit before on issues of “what is healthy” (and a bit here). One thing that stands out to me is that for “healthy” homecooked meals on the cheap there is often a reliance on boxed pasta- it makes sense, it’s cheap for the number of calories and how filling it is, and you can do a number of things with it, and include smaller amounts of veggies and meat. For me though, my first thought for pasta is “so many carbs!” I think I eat pretty healthy. What I eat is primarily fresh vegetables, dairy, and meat (mainly chicken breasts or bacon)- and that is relatively expensive. Especially the meat. I actually eat less meat than I should to hit my protein goals but it’s too expensive to eat too much of. Plus none of this keeps long, so I have to deal with going to the store more often and risk wasting food from spoiling if I overpurchase- both of which increase the cost, or potential cost, of these foods.

Also important to keep in mind that even if you consider a food healthy, a healthy diet needs variety. Lentils are a cheap healthy food that gets brought up often, besides some issues I will go into more detail on soon, there is also the “who wants to eat lentils everyday?”, and also that eating the same one food day in and day out is not healthy. A healthy diet needs variety. And there is context to consider for “healthy”- take for example a parent living in poverty, feeding their kids lentils is certainly not healthy if the kids won’t eat them. Kids need to eat, so healthy is going to have to be within what the kids will eat, and also it’s not cost effective to buy and prepare food that is going to end up going uneaten.

The line between what is “healthy” and what is “unhealthy” for foods is not as clear cut as many like to pretend it is.

Food Cost and Availability Varies by Location

The subtitle here really sums it up, and applies most to judging people over distances for how they spend money on food. What you can purchase at your local grocery store for a certain price is not what all people can purchase from their closest grocery store for that price. This is especially important because people living in poverty often live in areas very different than people at higher incomes. And as contradictory as  it seems, groceries are frequently more expensive in poor areas! (Especially in food deserts because stores can cash in on lack of options.)

This especially goes for those who brag about how little they spend on groceries who are saving by having a vegetable garden (which is great if you have the time and resources too, but you need to acknowledge the cost of that, the time for it, and that not all people have the ability to supplement groceries with growing their own food).

It’s More than Just The Cost of Food

The article linked in the beginning addresses this- it’s not just about how much the food costs, it’s also access, time and cost to purchase (transportation to the store), time to prepare the food, cost to prepare the food, and access to means to prepare the food. People who have never lived in these conditions take these things for granted, but these are not givens for all people.

Grocery Stores:

Let’s start with access to stores, cost to get to them, and time to get to them. If you are not already familiar with food deserts, you should do some reading on them. These are areas that do not have ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service approximately 23.5 million people live in food deserts.  Detroit, for example, until relatively recently did not have any national chain grocery stores within the city. This recently changed and there is now a meijer at 8 mile and woodward and a whole foods in midtown. If you aren’t familiar with Detroit, chances are that sounds better than it is to you, since most people don’t realize how large the city of Detroit is.

An image of Detroit's relative size showing you can fit San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan within the city of Detroit (proper, not metro area), which I added approximate location of Whole Foods and Meijer onto (the red polygons).

An image of Detroit’s relative size showing you can fit San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan within the city of Detroit (proper, not metro area), which I added approximate location of Whole Foods and Meijer onto (the red polygons).

Prior to this there were of course local grocery stores, but just having access to a close grocery store does not mean access to fresh, healthy foods. I’ve been in stores years back in Detroit that sold rotten produce, spoiled meat and dairy products, and would even change expiration dates on those foods to try to sell them after they spoiled. People who lived near these stores would not shop at local stores for anything other than canned goods. Anything else people have to travel out of their area for, and speaking personally I don’t remember ever grocery shopping in Detroit as a kid- we always drove outside the city for grocery. I shop in Detroit now, at the previously mentioned meijer. But on the topic of not assuming your situation is everyone’s- many people are still shocked to learn the meijer in Detroit closes everyday at 11pm. It is the only meijer I know of that does, all others are open 24 hrs. So there is a meijer in Detroit now, but it also has more limited availability than those in the suburbs. Even with changes including (but not limited to) these two chain stores opening in the city, there are still many people who have to travel significant distances to a grocery store.
If I were really accurate when talking about my grocery budget I would be including not only the cost of the foods, but also the cost of my car and gas to get to the store. And the time it takes me to make food would include the time it takes (averaged out for what I can get during a trip) for getting to the store and back. For those who do not have a car, then it’s the cost and time of travelling by bus. Having a car is a huge benefit for access to groceries. I can travel further for groceries if need be than someone who does not have a car, it doesn’t take me as long, and I can fit more groceries in my car than if I was carrying them to and from bus stops and had to carry them on a bus. And in places like Detroit, public transportation is not reliable. It can take a long time to travel short distances, the longer the travel time the more it limits what you can purchase, and you need to work around bus schedules which is harder depending on your work hours. I looked up a hypothetical of how long it might take me from a particular area to a grocery store and the time given was so ridiculous I could bike that distance faster, and I have biked to the grocery store before (not in metro-Detroit), but that ignores whether or not someone has a bicycle, if they are already taking the bus for some other reason (like going straight from work to the store to home) such that changing transportation methods adds time, if they have a disability that makes them unable to ride a bike that distance, and lastly but very importantly, if they would have to go through areas that are not safe to walk or bike trough if they did that. Some folks think I’m crazy for the areas I walk and run, and for the community organizing work I’ve done in Detroit (that involved among other things going into communities, talking to people, and getting chummy with local gang members!), but contrary to the opinions of some folks I don’t just ignore safety issues. But I use some common sense (or street smarts might be a better way of phrasing it) to assess relative safety, and there are areas I will avoid for safety reasons- top of that list is places where all the houses are abandoned. Which is like every street around some areas of Detroit.

When you can just get in a car and drive to a local grocery store and pick up groceries, that is a huge privilege a lot of people do not have, and that is often overlooked when people talk about how cheap eating healthy is.

Having a Kitchen:

You also have to take into account having a kitchen and appliances or not. The article mentions a woman who is homeless who has no access to a kitchen- this is one of many possible reasons someone may not! Even people who have homes do not always have kitchens at all, or basic appliances like refrigerators or stoves. I previously worked with a non-profit that provided donated fridges and stoves to low income people who didn’t have them- the waiting list for those items was massive and donations do not keep up with the need. Eating healthy without those things is very hard, and again, something many people take for granted having access to.

And just like the real cost of my groceries includes transportation to get them it also includes the part of my utilities that goes toward these appliances. I’ve also known people who had a stove and fridge but didn’t run them because it was cheaper for them to save the electricity of having those hooked up and running and just eat fast food. Whether or not the food from the store is cheaper, if it’s too expensive to have the fridge and stove to store and prepare the food, it doesn’t really matter that much.

The Problem of Solutions Created by People Unfamiliar with the Problem

The article addresses this.

Even organizations designed to help frequently get it wrong. I worked for an anti-hunger organization whose pricing was so out of touch that I — while employed by them — was unable to afford to make their recipes regularly.

In fact, I decided to do a challenge where I ate only their recipes for a week. These recipes were marketed to low-income families as cost effective ways to eat healthier. A week’s worth of groceries (for two people) for this challenge cost $150. My partner and I had previously been spending about $25 a week because that’s what we could afford.

Most people who are not actually having to survive on these low budgets don’t really realize what it’s like. And then when you have people not living it creating the advice, it doesn’t match up.

Of course there is also the problem in here that people working non-profits are paid such pitiful wages that many workers rely on the same services and programs their clients do to get by! Not entirely on topic of this post, but people should be paid enough to afford more than a little over $100/month for groceries for two people. (Even SNAP for one person when I received it was $200/month, and my current grocery costs for just myself are well more than that even.)

Stop Thinking Poor People Are Just Too Stupid To Know Their Own Lives

One of the themes running throughout all of this is the underlying issue of people assuming they know better about circumstances they are not living in that the people who are. Which is also based on the stereotype that poor people are stupid and can’t be trusted to make logical decisions about their lives. People are very quick to jump to the conclusion that poor people just lack their knowledge of the better options out there, rather than jumping to the conclusion that maybe there are factors they (as someone not living in the situation) simply aren’t aware of.