The Dietary Policing of the Poor

By: Drew Silverthorn, Assistant Food Bank Coordinator 

carolWhile browsing my work Facebook news feed, an article Michael Pollan had posted caught my attention. The headline read “Woman A Leading Authority On What Shouldn’t Be In Poor People’s Grocery Carts”. At first I was alarmed that someone could even be considered a leading authority on such a matter.  I felt an instant spark of anger in my stomach and prepared myself for an eye rolling marathon.

When I clicked on the link, however, I realize the article was from The Onion. My anticipated eye rolling was quickly replaced with laughter. The article described the fictional character of Carol Gaither as a “real estate agent and mother of three [who] is capable of scanning the contents of any low-income person’s basket and rapidly identifying those items which people like that don’t need to be buying, based on the products’ nutrition and cost”. Names started flying out of my mental rolodex as I identified many of these “experts” from my own life. 

For a while I was really wrapped up in nutrition. I mean really wrapped up. The only sugars I would eat were coconut palm sugar and maple syrup. I shunned premade sauces and condiments and laboured away nightly in my kitchen making my own. I forwent gluten even though I showed no signs of being celiac or gluten intolerant. I had survived a near death experience a few years back and my body was a temple – I wanted dietary perfection.

I became immersed in the local vegan community to connect with other like minded people. Toronto boasts a rather large vegan community with new vegan businesses popping up like dandelions in the summer. I acquainted myself with local chefs, vegan nutrition gurus and food bloggers and expanded my circle of vegan friends.  I even switched jobs and took a significant pay cut to work at a vegan and gluten-free bakery where we’d discuss nutrition like we would the weather. My life literally revolved around food.

During this time I was battling severe clinical depression and was looking for a way to heal myself. I didn’t have much money and I had convinced myself that I could cure my depression entirely through food. My weekly therapy bill was double my weekly grocery bill; it made financial sense and agreed with my holistic ethics. I was caught between not having much money and trying to only consume nutritionally perfect (ie. expensive) foods that were all the rage in the vegan community.

However, after a while, I began to notice something within this community. There was an incredible amount of shaming by self accredited “experts”. Instagram pictures of cheap produce in Chinatown would be hash tagged as “poison” “GMO” and “chemicals”. A blog post would suggest seitan (wheat gluten prepared as a meat substitute) was the “Satan” of foods because of its gluten content (don’t get me started on the prejudice behind this – Buddhist monks have been eating seitan for hundreds of years). I, myself, would look down upon anyone who stepped foot into a fast food restaurant. It was exhausting. We had all become nutrition police.

Looking back on it now, what strikes me the most is who we were policing. Yes, while some people who can afford to eat organic, local, vegan, fair trade, etc. do not, the majority of this policing was directed at the poor and working class. For many, Chinatown is considered a gold mine because of its low prices that allow people the financial ability to eat more produce on a more regular basis. Gluten is, quite arguably, the stuff of survival for those battling hunger. Fast food is cheap, familiar, and quick for people working too much and not earning enough. As I started to explore issues of poverty and marginalization as a social work student, I started to wonder: what gives me the right to police these people and their decisions?

As a food bank coordinator I still fall into this trap from time-to-time. A service user will ask me if we have any chips or pop or cookies and I’ll frown and wonder to myself if that person truly needs our service. Then I remember many people who use our service are international students. The food on our shelves might be foreign to them and maybe they recognize and understand those prepackaged foods they’re asking for. 

Something I have come to terms with is that it is not my decision to make about what other people put into their bodies. Furthermore, it probably won’t affect me! It isn’t just criticism that results in policing, either. When someone purchases a homeless person food instead of donating money to them, when they are clearly asking for money, then this results in a form of policing. The rationale behind this is often that the homeless person might spend the money on alcohol or drugs. My answer to this is twofold: a) that’s an incredibly unfair generalization to make, and b) so what if they do? Should homeless people be subjected to detoxing on the street and possibly dying from their withdrawal symptoms? Money is much more likely to help that person out, whether or not they spend it on alcohol or drugs.

To real life Carol Gaithers I say this: you’re asking financially insecure people to micromanage sums of money too small to micromanage. It’s not that they’re spending their money incorrectly; they simply do not have enough money. Your attention is directed at the wrong party. We live in a time when CEOs, politicians, and the rich are saying, “Let them eat cake”. Hold your neighbours’ hands and work together to make the giants fall. Use food to heal and build community, not to divide. And always remember, that could easily be you.   

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3 thoughts on “The Dietary Policing of the Poor

  1. You’re saying “let people make their own decisions”, but their “decisions” are predetermined based on what mass media has told them. The problem isn’t rich telling poor what not to eat, the problem is brands and corporations telling them to eat. This needs to be examined on a global level, not a neighbour to neighbour level. Only increased accessibility knowledge will heal our broken food system.

  2. Thanks for your reading the article and for your response, Alex!

    It sounds like you’re saying that criticism from wealthy consumers isn’t the problem, but rather brands and corporations marketing efforts are. I totally agree with you that marketing has been really damaging for the public consciousness regarding food. However, I think the types of “experts” I mentioned in this article are also implicated. Nutritionists, chefs, and health advocates cause a lot of harm when they say “eat this – don’t eat that” without considering the economics behind that advice. It centres those “experts” as morally superior because of the decisions they have been financially able to make in regards to their food choices.

    At the end of the day, I believe that food shouldn’t be a commodity. Everyone should have equal access to it. That’s why I focused on the well off and the wealthy in this article as often (not always, however) they don’t seem to have a full understanding of how capitalism restricts financially struggling people from making the “right” choice.

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