Thursday, December 08, 2011

On Eating Junk Food and Being Poor

I've recently had a discussion with a person who is of the opinion that poor folks (I presume in the developed world because this problem isn't even on the radar elsewhere) are in the main overworked, have no leisure time, and can't be bothered to take the time to prepare healthy foods.

They are thus not responsible, so the argument goes, for feeding their kids (and themselves) poison from Maruchan and McDonalds, not to mention the odd bag of Cheez Doodles.

I opined that this issue was one of personal responsibility, skills acquisition, and access to a reasonably well stocked supermarket, and that if a family of four could not get by on $129.50 in food stamps a week (according to the Kansas City Star) the main problem was a lack of enterprise and discipline rather than structural impedimenta.

This my friend objected strenuously to. I then went on to describe how I, being the designated chef here, put together baked macaroni and cheese for about five dollars, which was enough to feed four adults for two days, and how I did it in about an hour. This he described as classist and arrogant, suggesting that I'd never walked in the shoes of the poor (which is inaccurate) and that dilettante chefs and middle class housewives would of course do things as a test project that the poor, not being similarly blessed, could only succumb to the temptations of the Clown and Top Ramen.

Well. I haven't changed my mind and likely neither has he.

I surmise that when you're poor, like so many other burdens, it is incumbent on people to learn the skills necessary to survive, whether that skill involves navigating the social service system, the public transport network, or providing healthy and nutritious eating for the young 'uns. At a minimum it is necessary for child development and school kids from the other side of the tracks need all the help they can get. Good eating on a budget is the first rung on the ladder out of poverty.

Top Ramen and McDonalds don't build a foundation for any kind of sustained effort. They're the definition of empty calories and the white flag of surrender to a lack of initiative.

Get a plot in the public gardens if your town has them. Get a cookbook. You can find Irma Rombauer or Meta Given at the Sally for half a buck. Read it. Treasure it. Learn it. Use it.

Acquire the skills and tooling necessary to prepare wholesome food for the family, and learn to prioritize and manage a budget and develop a menu. Take the time to learn these skills, and there's a pretty good chance your kids won't get diabetes, either.

You may not be able to change the world, but you can change yourself and your family for the better. And if you can't, I'll buy you a week's worth of Top Ramen.

Of course it is not all fun and games, and when you're poor you're only one occurrence away from disaster. The Roanoke Times had this to say back in 2007:

Playing at being poor might seem offensively useless. But it can serve a purpose.
Living in poverty is not the free and easy ride that go-get-a-job critics who rail against taxpayer-funded public assistance programs would have us believe.

Living on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, food stamps, transportation vouchers and child care subsidies is tough.
That point can be made real for people who live much more comfortable lives through exercises that help them better understand what it means to be poor.
United Way of Roanoke Valley board members and other community leaders last week participated in a poverty simulation.

They assumed the roles of low-income people -- a single, working father raising a 3-year-old; an arthritic elderly woman; a grandparent caring for a grandchild. Then they set out to find food, secure child care and health care, and make sure they had a place to rest their heads at night.
Pretending to be poor for a few hours might seem feckless when one has a warm bed and refrigerator full of food to go home to. But a simulation can at least give people who are in positions to effect change a taste of the difficulty of life on limited means.

Such exercises can be perceived as political stunts when practiced, for instance, by members of Congress.
Earlier this year, four House members attempted to highlight the failings of food stamp benefits by pledging to live for one week on $21 worth of food, what the average food-stamp recipient receives. It wasn't easy.

Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan didn't last the week. Jars of peanut butter and jelly he'd stuffed in carry-on luggage were confiscated at an airport, leaving him with nothing but a bag of cornmeal to carry him through the challenge's final days.
He was caught eating a pork chop in a hotel restaurant because he feared he'd be too weak to deliver a commencement speech.

"It just showed me that when you're living on food stamps, you're really one event away from disaster," Ryan told The Washington Post. "Some people are constantly living on that edge."
There is merit in pretending to walk that perilous edge, if it provides a truer sense of how the poor manage from day to day.

Never mind the appearance of showboating. What's important is that action follows.