Do You Have to Be Rich to Eat Well?
A comment that I get a lot in response to writing about eating locally and eating seasonally is that doing so is only doable for a small percentage of people; those with money. I have been told that it must be nice to be “picky” about what I eat. I have been reminded time and time and again that those who have a finite amount of money don’t always have the luxury of choosing real food.
But do we have to be well off to eat well?
It’s a question that I am constantly asking myself, particularly in a world of the one percent and the haves and have nots.
First of all, what we eat isn’t all about income. Part of what dictates what you eat is your location. If you live in a city that has committed to hosting local markets, chances are it’s easy to buy local and seasonal produce. But that’s not everyone. According to the USDA, 23.5 million people live in food deserts.
I have the luxury of living in a place where I have a lot of choice about what I eat, and that choice is reasonably priced. Assuming that you do live in an area where you do have access to real food, then what? Is choosing real food over packaged, fast food an activity of the one percent?
As Mark Bittman once said, “The “fact” that junk food is cheaper than real food has become a reflexive part of how we explain why so many Americans are overweight, particularly those with lower incomes. I frequently read confident statements like, ‘when a bag of chips is cheaper than a head of broccoli …’ or ‘it’s more affordable to feed a family of four at McDonald’s than to cook a healthy meal for them at home.’ This is just plain wrong.”
I read a column written by Tom Philpott last week that showed that those on food stamps actually make healthier choices at the grocery store than those who aren’t on food stamps. According to Philpott, “a 2015 USDA study concluded that, adjusting for demographic differences, people who take SNAP benefits don’t consume any more sugary drinks than their low-income peers who aren’t in the program.”
In other words, it’s not necessarily the bottom economic category that is eating poorly, it’s the middle one. The one that could choose differently. In fact, the middle class are the big consumers of junk food, not the poor.
There’s another issue at play as well: the percentage that Americans spend on food as a part of their overall income is actually quite small. Food made up about 6.4 percent of annual household expenditures in the U.S. in 2012. In France it’s 13.2 percent, Spain spends 14 percent, Germany spends 10.9 percent and even Canada comes in higher than Americans at 9.6 percent.
Americans literally haven’t put a value on eating well. And I don’t mean “eating well” in the five-star restaurant sense. I mean eating well as in giving your body the real food that it needs to thrive. If you owned an expensive, high performance sports car, would you skimp on gas to save cash and buy the cheap stuff? No, you fill it with the ultra performance fuel that would keep it running well.
And yet when it comes to our own bodies, the only thing that we are obligated to keep running every single day, we fuel ourselves with all the bad stuff, and expect high performance anyway.
There are people struggling to put food on the table–about one in six Americans have that problem every single day. And we should work hard to deal with that insecurity. But then there is that larger category of people that aren’t extremely well off, but still use the “eating well is expensive.”
Now certainly, a $6 cold pressed juice isn’t affordable for everyone. I can’t afford that. An apple however? A lot of people can buy an apple, and you don’t even have to deal with the problem of disposable packaging that comes with the bottled juice. The problem is that when we have come to think of “healthy foods” we think of all the trendy, branded healthy foods. But all you need to do to eat real food is go to the grocery store and go to the produce section.
You don’t have to be rich to eat real food, but you do have to be willing to make the choice to buy whole products over processed and to take the time to make them. Maybe you will spend a little extra on some products, and less on other, but overall, the investment on food is an investment in your personal health, that of the community and that of the environment’s.
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