Nothing I’m saying here is new (and I pulled some of it from older posts) but it’s apparently necessary to make another post about this, because everyone always wants to give condescending and unhelpful “advice” to the poor on how to eat healthy. This “advice” puts all the responsibility on the individual and fails to acknowledge the systemic inequities which contribute to poverty and food scarcity. Most of these people give absolutely no thought to the realities of poverty. Even if they have first hand experience, they usually have no awareness of their own privileges and believe everyone has the same opportunities that they do. These are just some of the things I hear most often…
“Cook all your meals from scratch!”
Being able to cook is a luxury. It requires time, energy, effort, and access. Some people are not home for long enough periods to cook; some are too busy with their children, their jobs, their schooling. Some do not have the energy required to cook because of chronic illness, or demanding lifestyles. Many people have problems with executive functioning which affects their ability to cook. Don’t forget there is prep work, waiting, and cleaning involved when you cook for yourself, too.
In order to cook, you need access to a kitchen with equipment (pots, pants), appliances (fridge, stove), electricity and clean water. You need raw ingredients as well. All of these cost money. Flours, oils, spices – basics. It’s easy to say a recipe is “cheap” when you don’t factor in the cost of having to buy a whole bag of flour, a whole bottle of oil, and 10 different spice jars. These things add up very quickly.
Access to grocery stores is another huge issue. Food deserts are a reality for a lot of people. When you don’t have a car, can’t ride a bike or don’t own one, and don’t have the time to take two buses across town just to buy 2 bags of groceries since that’s all you can carry – you get your food at the gas station or the discount store. Poor neighborhoods often have grocery stores that sell produce on the verge of rotting and if you don’t have time to go shopping multiple times a week, you probably won’t be buying any. And in my experience, frozen produce is often of low quality and freezer burned unless it’s purchased at a place like Whole Foods.
“Go dumpster diving!”
Dumpster diving is not a solution. For one thing, it isn’t an option to everyone. Not everyone is physically capable or has the transportation. Not everybody lives in a city and for those that do, it may be illegal to dumpster dive there. And even if it’s legal, it is still likely to attract police attention. If you can do it without having to worry about such things, good for you, but you’re privileged. Also, many stores pour bleach on their food to discourage the practice, or they use compactors.
Secondly, it takes time, and there is no guarantee of finding anything, let alone healthy food – you might find a bag of day-old bagels but that isn’t a healthy meal. Those that have the access, ability and resources to have a healthy diet based entirely or mostly off of dumpster diving are rare and lucky.
Third, you’re probably taking food away from homeless people who have no other options for food. And finally, not everyone is comfortable rummaging through the garbage and eating what they find…. which is totally reasonable. Telling a poor person to just go eat out of the trash if they want to have a better diet is pretty insulting, and I say that as someone who used to dumpster dive on a regular basis.
“Start a garden!”
This should be obvious, but I hear it from time to time from people who I’m pretty sure have never even taken care of a basil plant. Gardening for your food is actually not that easy, and most people simply do not have the time and/or access to clean soil, space, and tools. It’s also not feasible year-round in a lot of areas due to climate. At best, gardening is a way to supplement a diet with some fresh produce a few times a year, but that’s it.
“Beans/lentils/rice are cheap!”
Yes, and they are far from the only things you need to have a *healthy* diet. If you don’t believe me, ask a nutritionist. Or live off that for a few months and see what happens.
Some other important points:
-Food prices vary greatly depending on location. What costs $1.50 for you might cost $4 or more in another state or country.
-What’s affordable to you is not necessarily affordable to everyone else. Being a “broke college student” whose parents help out when necessary does not mean you understand what poverty is.
-I mentioned this earlier, but “cost per serving” does not factor in the price of having to buy raw ingredients or other costs required to cook, and is an invalid way to present the “cost” of eating healthy.
-Many people have food allergies and sensitivities or are feeding picky children, etc. Again, what works for you will not necessarily work for everyone else with whatever condition you happen to have.
-“Healthy food” is largely subjective and debatable. Depending on who you ask, you will get varied answers on how to “eat healthy.”
-Not everyone is obligated to eat healthy. Not everyone is willing or able to make that a priority. Living in poverty means there are probably other, more pressing matters to worry about than the quality of food you’re consuming. And honestly, when you’re consistently hungry, your goal is to get something filling - not necessarily something healthy.
Food is, for most people, more than simply a source of nutrition. It’s also cultural and emotional. A person’s diet is often personal, and complicated… especially for those who do not have unlimited access to resources. After all, poverty is about limited accessibility, not just to food. And it’s a structural issue. It isn’t about personal choices; it can’t be fixed by individuals “shopping smarter”. If you really want to be helpful, cut the bullshit “advice”; go out there and actually help people by feeding them or working to reduce food scarcity.