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On Food Privilege: When is good nutrition code for entrenched social status?

Author: 
Francesca Moroney
November 20, 2017

Urban farm in ChicagoFor anyone with access to a smart phone, tablet, or computer, there is almost nothing that can’t be bought with just a few swipes and thumb clicks: Cuban cigars, recycled toilet paper, 100% organic cotton bed sheets – the list is endless. In our consumption-driven society, it seems a logical conclusion, then, that shopping for groceries – even fresh produce – would inevitably be available via our mobile devices.

 

I already have an Amazon prime account, and now I have yet another tool in my arsenal of easy, stress-free shopping. The new Instacart app has made its way to my neighborhood; that means that at any time of day, if I run out of milk, or I need fresh veggies, or we are suddenly craving something for dinner for which we are missing some ingredients, all I need to do is simply hop onto my mobile device, and said food will appear on my doorstep within hours, or sometimes even minutes.

 

As with so many things in life, this is both wonderful and disturbing. It is wonderful that I no longer have to drive to a store and wander my way through the aisles, where I would likely buy food I don’t need and won’t eat. Yet it is worrisome that our instant-gratification society has made this sort of instantaneous grocery-delivery service a real thing. I dislike the ways in which this immediate access to food is an extreme privilege reserved for only some of us. As our class divide is growing, as poor people’s health declines, and as wealthy people grow ever more obsessive about their own health, health disparities and divides across access to healthy foods are growing as well.

 

Freshly-grown fruits and vegetables used to be a staple in most rural communities, but they are now mostly the stuff of privileged white people. Famers’ markets are now so mainstream that it is almost impossible to find a privileged community that doesn’t have at least one market a week, filled with folks who believe that eating organic produce, sipping green juice from stainless steel straws, and using canvas totes for their purchases are the hallmarks of ethical living. It hardly matters that these consumption habits are neither sustainable nor desirable when viewed through a social equity lens.

 

People like me also have access to transportation, to refrigerators in our homes, to working stoves and drawers full of knives and blenders and cast iron skillets and gourmet spices.

 

Yet beyond my glut of resources, I am, sadly, also suffering from a misunderstanding of how my privilege negatively impacts our food distribution system.  I am part of that small group of people who debate which organic quinoa is better than another. We do this while remaining mostly ignorant of quinoa’s indigenous roots for people of South America, and the fact that the latest U.S. consumption craze is pricing quinoa out of reach for many people who have for years relied on this nutritious food for their diet staple. Trendy, white restaurants have appropriated collard greens as healthy soul food – eaten without any awareness of the rich, vibrant culture from which soul food grew. In my own family, we blithely look forward to Taco Tuesday without any discussion or awareness of the multitudes of cultures from which we have plucked a new weekly tradition.

 

Meanwhile, 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts, where access to fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables is limited or unavailable. If a grocery store is to be found at all, it likely a convenience store that stocks only packaged foods – ramen noodles, macaroni and cheese, Spam, or other kinds of shelf-stable dairy or meat products. Additionally, prices at these kinds of convenience stores tend to be higher, in any neighborhood, than supermarket prices, making it doubly problematic when they provide those neighborhoods with their only food options. Any alternative store, one that might sell fresh produce or fresh meats, is often too far away, or otherwise inaccessible. To have access to fresh, healthy food in our country today, sadly, is a privilege for an increasingly shrinking number of people.

 

This is increasingly dire when contrasted with the communities of plenty, where residents don’t just have the benefit of easy access to nutritious food: we also have the actual resources themselves.

 

I live in a primarily middle- to upper-middle class community on the Illinois side of the metropolitan St. Louis area. It is a somewhat unique blend of small town, suburb, exurb, and farm community. While I have no less than five supermarkets in my immediate community, plus two locally-owned grocery stores, a handful of specialty food stores, a Walmart, and a Target, there are neighboring communities in the surrounding area that, in spite of their working class status, are considered food deserts because of the distance one must travel to reach an actual grocery store. Additionally, my community is not far from St. Louis proper, where huge swaths of the city centers are defined as food deserts.

 

Beyond the lack of access to food, food scarcity is another real concern for millions of people living in the U.S. today. According to Feeding America, during 2015, fully 42.2 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children. And of the households that dealt with food insecurity, 6.3 million of them experienced very low food security (emphasis mine).

 

And while food scarcity and food deserts often go hand in hand, food scarcity is a reality of life that people are experiencing in every single county in our country today: yes, it is possible that even your neighbors are going hungry.  Just as with food deserts, food scarcity can coexist in the same region – and even in the same schools, churches, communities.

 

Yet even as I know and understand intellectually that my neighbors are struggling, I continue to prioritize my own family. I buy my groceries at Whole Foods. I eschew conventionally-grown produce and conventionally-produced dairy products. I watch my children’s sugar intake. I know what GMOs are, and I know why I should avoid them. I bristle at the thought of my children eating school lunch even though they beg to do so. And, worst of all, I somehow feel it my right to claim the moral high ground by eating and acting in these ways. In other words, I believe that by prioritizing my children’s health, by being attuned to and aware of environmental issues surrounding our food production and consumption, and by having the resources (time and money among other things), I am not only making “healthier” choices, I am inherently a “better person.”

 

Ostensibly, we would all agree that there is nothing wrong with a mother who wants “good nutrition” for her child. But at what point is “good nutrition” really just code for “entrenched social status?” When viewed through a social equity lens, do my eating habits function in the same way that legacy admissions do for the children of the upper middle class? Or internships granted by a friend of a parent? Do they allow me and my children a social mobility that is lacking to families and children whose social status doesn’t allow them these same luxuries?

 

So what is a privileged white woman to make of this? The United States is a bit of a paradox right now. On the one hand, we seem still to want to rest on our laurels from some idealized past – “life, liberty, and the pursuit of justice” – yet on the other hand, our systemic classism and racism can mean that the execution of those goals are questionable at best, and unavailable at worst, to many of our fellow citizens. It’s literally impossible to find any single standard of living that isn’t impacted negatively if you are a poor person or a person of color today. From life expectancy, to healthcare concerns to education, transportation, and housing – the old maxim holds: “while the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.”

 

On the other hand, the privileged in our society are obsessed simultaneously with being as thin as possible while consuming as much as possible. We find ourselves today in a society that neither prioritizes nor supports healthful habits. Our cars have gotten bigger and more comfortable as our sidewalks have gotten smaller. Our walkable corner stores have been replaced by behemoths plopped in cement wastelands that are impossible to reach by foot. Convenience stores abound, fast food abound – even for a person with access, eating well in today’s society is no small feat.

 

So white people have, of course, turned it into a competition. Who can be the healthiest? Who can be the fittest? Who can be the slimmest? But what if we turned that on its head.

What if, instead of prioritizing an individual view of health, we prioritized a collective view of health? 

When I buy groceries for my family, I am usually concerned with a very narrow set of concerns: what vegetables will my children eat? What fruits and vegetables look the freshest? What will be easiest for me to cook? But what if, instead of about my individual needs, I think about health more broadly and I use my spending power to reflect that heightened consciousness.

 

The truth is that many of the ways in which we eat today are problematic when viewed through a social justice lens. Because our food distribution system has profits as its ultimate goal, then human health suffers. Conventional food in this country is grown, processed, packaged, transported, and distributed at great human and environmental costs. While production has risen, soil quality has decreased. Water quality has decreased. Humans and animals alike are mistreated in this capitalistic pursuit. When I, in turn, support the purveyors of these foods and food products, I am contributing to these abuses – human, environmental, and animal.

 

Instead of being concerned with my daughter’s dairy intolerance, I was concerned with getting fresh milk into the families who need it. What if I bought a membership to Glenn Art Farm, a cooperative on Chicago’s Westside, in the food desert of the Austin neighborhood that provides nutritious and delicious goat’s milk to its residents? In Detroit, the Oakland Area Urban Farm is growing and distributing vegetables, canning homemade preserves, and participating in farmers’ markets. These are nonprofit groups that reinvest in their communities. What if instead of buying nutraceutical-grade turmeric or curcumin, I set up a monthly donation to an urban farm? The Idaho Foodbank has set up a network of mobile food pantry to reach the massive food deserts in the state’s rural areas. Perhaps I can look into that group, or others like it – in Mississippi, West Virginia, Oklahoma – to learn more about the ways to combat hunger, no matter where it exists.

 

When our culture makes it very easy for us to shop and eat in irresponsible ways, it actually requires a great deal of effort and commitment to switch our habits to line up with a more holistic approach to societal help.

 

The following are some suggestions for ways to get started.

(More ideas can be found here or here.)

 

Do you shop at a large grocery chain? Ask them to consider opening a store in a current food desert. Create a petition with fellow residents who shop at the same store. Follow up to see how seriously they take your concern.

 

Support local food co-ops or independent grocers over chain stores.

 

Consider buying a share from a Community Supported Agriculture program. These are small, local farms that share their proceeds in exchange for a cash investment at the start of their growing season. Additionally, many CSAs have established relationships with food pantries, which can benefit from extra produce, unused produce. You could also consider buying an extra share to go specifically to the food pantry.

 

Volunteer! Check out Meals on Wheels, food banks or soup kitchens, and/or local agencies that are assisting people with applying for nutritional assistance.

 

Lobby your local, state, and federal governments to increase incentives for local farmers and markets to improve access to fresh, healthy food.

 

Grow your own food! Start a community garden! Donate any extras to food banks.

 

Shop at a farmer’s market. Inquire as to whether or not the market accepts SNAP payments, or, even better, if they offer incentives to SNAP users.

 

Avoid factory farmed meat, which, unfortunately, is the overwhelming majority of meat sold today, as those factories are among the worst offenders of human, environmental, and animal abuses.

 

Consider food banks, local farms, and CBOs in your philanthropic priorities.

 

A listing of all markets in the country who accept SNAP can be found here. Many individual state websites offer more interactive guides to their markets, like this one from the state of Illinois.

 

 

 

Francesca MoroneyFrancesca Moroney is a writer, anti-bias activist, and health advocate living and working in Edwardsville, Illinois, with her husband, five children, and one large dog.

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