Fit to eat

The New Zealand based Child Poverty Action group has discovered the wonders of facebook, and so a lot of my friendshave been liking them recently. I was all prepared to join in, until I saw they were promoting this post with a cheerful “What are our kids eating? And what is our government doing (or not doing) to encourage them to choose an orange over an oreo?”

First it reminded me of the endless ridiculous games of substitutions that you see in women’s magazines and “healthy food” (Next time you feel like eating chocolate try a tin of tuna instead). Which made me think of Sarah Haskins, swapping a six pack of beer for a fifth of whiskey:

So I was happy for a while. But when I recovered from my distraction I was still grumpy. Why should children be choosing Oreos over oranges – why can’t they have both, and lots of other food as well? Why is an anti-poverty group calling on the government to promote a diet mentality among kids?

The post they linked to was called “Not Fit To Eat”* was talking about a $2.50 pack sold in a South Auckland dairy, that contained Oreos, two packets of chip like things, and an orange drink. I agree that that is not an adequate lunch, but each of the individual components, and the pack of the whole, is totally fit to eat.

What I found most ridiculous about the response to this pack, was the emphasis on how cheap it was – as if that was a bad thing (someone made their horror at this food being cheap explicit in the facebook thread). I do not understand how anyone concerned with poverty could ever have a problem with any food being cheap. I have so often heard people tutt-tutting about the fact that a litre of coke is cheaper than a litre of milk – as if it is the cheapness of the coke that is the problem.

The person who had found this pack asked the dairy owner “aren’t you ashamed to be selling this?” Why is it more shameful to be selling this for $2.50 than anything else? Dairies make their money through high margins – if their is shame in their trade – surely it is selling food for more, rather than selling food for less.

You know there was a time when calories weren’t as relatively cheap as they are now. Cheap calories can give people the ability to stay alive, and they’re fabulous. I understand being angry at the expense of other nutrients, such as milk, vegetables, fruit, meat and whittakers dark almond chocoalte, but why is this so often discussed as if the cheapness of other fooods is the problem?

This seems to be my week to be grumpy about how people on the left talk about food and bodies.((Who am I kidding, every week for at least the last five years has been my week to be grumpy about the way some people on the left talks about food and bodies.)) But I think it’s really important. It is totally possible to talk about food and poverty, without buying into a worldview that fetishises food and buys into an ideology that sees food in terms of morality. I really should write a grand theory post about why this is bad one of these days – but the really short reason is that one of the purposes of this ideology is to blame individuals for the effects of poverty. This is not something we can co-opt – it is something which will co-opt us.

And because no post like this would be complete without it, here is a link to the fat nutritionist’s If only poor people understood nutrition.

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20 Responses to Fit to eat

  1. 1
    Elusis says:

    Who am I kidding, every week for at least the last five years has been my week to be grumpy about the way some people on the left talks about food and bodies.

    I actually laughed out loud at this.

    In re: this post and Mandolin’s on “Trash, Bootstraps, and the Undeserving Poor,” was it on this blog or elsewhere that I read someone comment that when she bought inexpensive high-calorie processed foods to stretch her food stamps, she got the stink-eye from other shoppers, but she also got the same reaction when she bought a package of fresh berries because they were on sale?

    Oh, and here’s the link I think you wanted to post at the end (my browser shows a color change when I mouse over the final words but it doesn’t become click-able): http://www.fatnutritionist.com/index.php/if-only-poor-people-understood-nutrition/

  2. 2
    mythago says:

    And what is our government doing (or not doing) to encourage them to choose an orange over an oreo?

    Developing a government program to create Oreo-flavored oranges? Seriously, what an idiotic thing to say. Kids choose Oreos over oranges because Oreos taste better. It’s precisely this kind of stupid, “wouldn’t you rather have healthy wheat bran instead of delicious chocolate?” moronity that dooms child nutrition programs.

    The problem is not that kids are eating Oreos; the problem is that they’re not also eating healthy main meals, and that they’re eating cheap, filling food precisely because it’s cheap and filling (and quick to cook).

  3. 3
    Lee says:

    It is about food that fills you up. Fruits and vegetables wear off quickly and you’re hungry again… they should be pushing some complex carbs in place of oreos.

    It’s sick to think of feeding poor kids oranges instead of cookies, when the cookie pack has so much more. Oranges only have about 85 calories. One of the components of child hunger is not having a steady food source… not knowing that you will be able to eat again when you are hungry. If you’re not sure if you’re going to have food tomorrow, don’t waste your money on some damn oranges!

    People gripe about soda… cause drinking nothing but water is so much better for you, when you survive on a pack of ramen a day.. which means only 380 calories a day, way below what your body burns, even if you’re lying in a coma.

    Better to eat virtuously, and die on water and oranges, then to survive on cookies, ramen, and soda I guess.

  4. 4
    Hazel Stone says:

    The problem is that the junk food is subsidized by my goddamn tax dollars and fruits and veggies are not. And those same subsidies (to grains) make factory farms economically possible when they damn well shouldn’t be.

    All I want is a level playing field for the stuff that is not actively bad for you and for poor people to have cheap access to wholesome food. In any sane society, sustainably grown fruits and veggies should not be a luxury just for the Whole Foods set.

    And no, not everyone in the world thinks an Oreo tastes better than an orange.

  5. 5
    Sajia says:

    I was ranting in my head yesterday that fat hatred is the source of all evil. Because if you say that it’s ok to deny fat people the right to eat as much as they like, you’re saying it’s ok to deny ugly people the right to eat as much as they like, which means you’re saying it’s ok to deny bad people the right to eat as much as they like, which means you’re saying it’s ok to deny people from non-dominant groups, e.g. blacks, poor whites, aboriginals, Muslims, women, the right to eat as much as they like. With all that implies in terms of justification for control of food supplies.
    Full disclosure: I started slimming down after reading the Fat Nutritionist. I started working out because I wanted to be a great dancer and not because I wanted to be beautiful, and I started to eat fruits and vegetables because really good produce, as opposed to supermarket crap, is a thing of joy and pleasure forever. I still have flabby weeks, and I’ll never be a size 4, but I don’t stress out when I’ve regained weight because I know it’s because I’m eating more fast food and exercising less because I’m broke and tired. It makes you wonder about how many eating disorders come from living in households with chronic food insecurity. Oh, and to anyone saying “why can’t you cook at home,” if you commuted an hour to downtown to take classes and all your friends are downtown and you live alone in the suburbs, you’d be eating out all the time too.

  6. 6
    mythago says:

    And no, not everyone in the world thinks an Oreo tastes better than an orange.

    I strongly suspect that the set of people who would happily throw out an Oreo for an orange is skewed towards the over-18 part of the spectrum. The chirpy “let’s all put away our treats and eat wholesome goodness!” backfires, horribly, because it sets up a false dichotomy between food that is good for you and food that you like to eat.

    I agree with most of your comment, actually, which is why I believe a better approach is “How can make sure that Oreos are only an occasional treat and good foods make up most of a child’s diet?”

  7. Hazel Stone above said what I came here to say, but I’ll say it again just to make sure: high-calorie, low-nutrition, heavily-processed foods are subsidized. If we could just remove that distortion, poor people’s diets would improve dramatically, and without causing too, too much pain to the delicate wallet nerves of the wealthy.

  8. 8
    Diatryma says:

    I’m working in a special-ed classroom right now. The school’s just begun a healthy snack program where a local grocery provides single-serving fruits and vegetables free. The rule in my classroom is that you must have at least one bite of healthy snack, then, if you have earned the reward, you can have alternate snack or snack from home (both of these are rare).

    The kids mostly take one bite and then complain for the rest of snack time because it’s not what they’re used to.

    It’s inappropriate to use the same diet for weight loss and for kids’ nutrition. Food has to have calories and nutrients, and honestly, in most cases I’ll privilege calories. It is more important that a kid eat *anything* than that the food meet other standards. Once that baseline’s met, we’ll talk about vitamins and such.

  9. 9
    Elusis says:

    And no, not everyone in the world thinks an Oreo tastes better than an orange.

    No, but there is actually some pretty compelling research that part of the reason that many children reject bitter or other strong flavors (such as those found in vegetables and some fruits) and prefer the taste of sugar and fats is evolution at work. Many poisonous substances, toxins created by spoiled food, etc. have bitter/strong flavors, so spitting them out when you are too small to make informed choices about what to eat helps you survive and pass your genes on. And sugar/fat are quick sources of larger amounts of calories, which, when food is not guaranteed to be universally available, also helps you survive to pass on your genes.

  10. 10
    Jill says:

    Elusis, that’s really interesting. Can you point me toward any literature on that? I’d like to know more.

  11. 11
    Angiportus says:

    Oranges and cookies both just make me hungrier for the next meal sooner. I need protein! I do love my treats, but at a potluck I make for the meat [or complementary proteins] first. Then see about fruits and veggies, and some complex carbs, and then yummies. Too much grease, though, makes me feel bloated.
    I have always felt deep down inside that the idea that anything nice is bad for us is some kind of plot made up by someone to keep the rest of us in subjection by worry and guilt.
    Elusis, I also find what you say interesting, it would explain a lot, but it does not explain my early and perennial liking for sharp cheese. Nor how someone who feels hungry too soon, or bloated from too much grease, could survive well. Maybe there’s other factors at work.

  12. 12
    Elusis says:

    I don’t have a Delicious tag for childhood food research, and haven’t collected links, but here are a couple that turn up on a quick Google for “evolution child taste” -
    http://speech-language-pathology-audiology.advanceweb.com/Article/Taste-Flavor-Preferences-in-Children-2.aspx
    http://www.parentingscience.com/picky-eaters.html
    http://www.dukehealth.org/health_library/news/9145

    There’s apparently been a fair bit of new research on the impact of genetics on taste preference.
    http://blogs.babycenter.com/mom_stories/picky-kids-smug-parents/
    Angiportus – like you, I preferred sharp cheese very early (also lima beans, fish, and Sweet Tarts, while rejecting many common childhood foods like hot dogs, bologna, yellow mustard, and ketchup). I experience sharp cheese, though, as more a combination of salty, sour, and umami than a flavor involving bitterness.

    I grew from an extremely picky eater as a child to a very broad eater as an adult, with a few hard-and-fast exclusions remaining quite firm from childhood.On the other hand I can only drink coffee and to a lesser extent, tea with significant sweetening even though I don’t have much of a sweet tooth as an adult, because they taste so bitter to me. I know one factor is probably that I’m in the group that has the marker that allows me to taste PTC (celery is an unbearably bitter non-food in my world, so much so that I cannot eat the ribs of romaine lettuce because they have the same mouth feel); I suspect I am also in the general “supertaster” category, and was somewhat hyper-sensitive to texture as a child (it was certainly true for clothing, and my sister still will not drink orange juice with pulp in it as the texture gags her.)

    To return to the subject of the post, this has created some fairly difficult class-related issues for me, food-wise. Foods I would not eat when I was young were often some of the cheapest – commodity cheese, bulk condiments, processed lunchmeats, many canned vegetables and fruits – and many of them are still on my “do not eat” list. I have been lucky as an adult to be able to afford groceries I like rather than just filling my stomach, but we had some very lean years when I was a kid and while I know what a battle mealtime was from my perspective back then, now I cringe to think what it was like for my mother who was trying to feed us as best she could (and with a degree in Home Ec mandating that she follow the 4 food groups to the letter).

    As I’ve aged, my food consumption has become wildly diverse, but experiencing a period of unemployment right now, I find it difficult to cut my food budget as much as another person might be able to because my tolerance for low-quality, high-filler, mass-processed foods is tricky. I have managed to trim a full third out of my employed food budget, but if circumstances dictate that I cut back even more, I am going to be hard pressed to keep myself eating a diverse, nutritionally-complex diet in part due to cost and in part due to taste preferences. In theory I could wash down barely chewed canned green beans, as I did for years when I was a kid, but in practice it’s very hard to go there when I know that some fresh beans, lightly steamed and dressed with lemon, olive oil, and maybe some toasted almonds would be better for me in body and in spirit.

    Which, you know, first-world, middle-class problems.

    But this is all the more reason why, if one has 50 cents to spend on a meal, one might look back and forth between the pack of off-brand “Ho-Hos” and the can of green beans, and choose the snack cakes. If you’re a supertaster for bitter, the choice isn’t even a choice, regardless of other factors.

  13. 13
    Hazel Stone says:

    “I’m working in a special-ed classroom right now. The school’s just begun a healthy snack program where a local grocery provides single-serving fruits and vegetables free. The rule in my classroom is that you must have at least one bite of healthy snack, then, if you have earned the reward, you can have alternate snack or snack from home (both of these are rare).”

    For some reason, children don’t like to be treated like a pigeon in a Skinner box. Hmmm.

  14. 14
    mythago says:

    Elusis @9 – also, let’s face it, Oreos (like all commercial foods) are heavily researched and designed to be tasty so people will buy them.

  15. 15
    estraven says:

    I have a very small sample of kids (mine, plus memories of myself as a child). I can confidently assert that there are children who think that fruit and some vegetables are a treat. If they were more affordable my kids would gorge on blueberries every other day; as is, they eat fresh local produce, including reasonable amounts of raw carrots, tomatoes, and bell peppers.
    I don’t know why. My kids have never been hungry in their lives, which I suspect is a factor, and have had ample access to produce, together with parents gobbling said produce. I suspect there’s a relation.
    Also, one of them (like me before him) drinks no soda, and the only liquid he prefers to tap water is… supersweet, commercial ice tea. Which I conveniently “forget” to buy.
    I don’t think we should tell people what to it. I think that a child who is not exposed early and often to all the gorgeous fresh produce existing is being deprived. But of course, I know many children are deprived of much more important resources like health care, and nutrition. In an ideal world, children would get a chance to like produce. They still might eat oreos, but I’m willing to bet they wouldn’t eat only oreos.
    My kids love oreos. It’s another of those snacks I often forget to buy :-).

  16. 16
    Hazel Stone says:

    Not that it matters, but my Mom is from Italy. In her culture desserts are something you only eat on feast days. The rest of the time you eat fruit. No soda, no Koolaid growing up for me. My Dad had a sweet tooth, but as a frugal (ok, cheap) farmer that meant he made a batch of cookies or cinnamon bread from scratch. That was a fun weekend thing.

    I hated fruit growing up, but it was about the texture and lack of ripeness (as I realize now) not the sweetness. When I lived in Thailand and had access to ripe, fresh fruit I figured out what all the fuss was about.

    I was the crazy kid who loved liver, broccoli and brussel sprouts.

  17. 17
    Vidya says:

    “but why is this so often discussed as if the cheapness of other foods is the problem?”

    There is a widespread cultural belief that fat/poor people (a) continually gorge themselves on such foods, and (b) lack the desire/restraint/willpower/intelligence to choose more-nutritious options unless their access to ‘junk foods’ is restricted in some way (in this case, economically). Deep down, I believe that many of these advocates of access to healthy food truly believe in the myth of the gluttonous and stupid fat poor person (usually an implicitly racialized person as well) who will always choose doughnuts over veggies.

  18. 18
    Robert says:

    You can generalize it, Vidya.

    There are many people who are convinced that their fellow humans are idiots in need of salvation, which can come only through the wise ministrations of better, smarter people.

    The food busybodies are simply one particularly noticeable outcrop of this major underlying vein.

  19. 19
    RonF says:

    “What are our kids eating? And what is our government doing (or not doing) to encourage them to choose an orange over an oreo?”

    Why is an anti-poverty group calling on the government to promote a diet mentality among kids?

    Here’s my question. How is it any of the government’s business what my kid eats, and why is anyone calling on the government to have anything to say about it? If the government is giving you (my) money to buy food then it justifiably has a right/duty to have something to say about what you spend it on. But if it’s not then what I or my kid spends their money on is none of their business.

  20. 20
    Ruth W. says:

    When will the government fund research to develop a delicious chocolate sandwich cookie with orange frosting inside!?!?