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Barriers to Eating Sustainably, Real and Imagined

During the period of my life when I was a professional smart-ass (ie, my adolescence), I used to complain to my mother that even the day after she went grocery shopping, there was never any food in the house, only the component ingredients of food. As I teenager I wanted to eat like my peers who seemed to have an endless supply of chips and soda around. To have to come home from school and actually scramble eggs or make a sandwich seemed horribly unfair. My mother and step-mother expressed little sympathy.

It was only later that I realized how central this "buying the ingredients of food rather than the pre-made stuff" was to their strategy of getting by on a small income. In both the households I lived in as a kid - my father's single parent household and my mother and step-mother's joint one, not enough money was constantly be stretched by care and thrift. I didn't realize then how lucky I was to have this model.

My father owned no vehicle and was a single parent half the time to three girls. My youngest sister was a baby when my parents broke up, and we did not own a car. My father packed three girls under 10, one an infant or toddler in a stroller onto a series of buses each week, and took us into Boston (we lived in small cities well outside Boston) to Haymarket, an open air produce market that operates all year round. We would buy the food on the way home from some adventure in the city (my grandmothers always gave us the gift of museum memberships for Christmas) and then pack as much produce as we could afford and carry into backpacks - along sometimes with meat and fish from the Halal market or the fish vendors who came in from Boston Harbor. We would then take buses home and walk the mile or so back. Once a month my father would get a ride from a friend or pay for a taxi from the local supermarket - he'd take the bus there and take a cab back, loaded up with things that couldn't be carried back on the bus. And that was it for our shopping.

And then my father would cook. Despite working two jobs most of this time, he cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner, 7 days a week. My father's education in food had come from Julia Child, and his Polish grandmother so it was an elaborate cuisine. He rejected his mothers' bland, British WASP cooking, but he built on his mother's model. Gram had been a single parent in the 1950s. She left an abusive husband, and despite a full time job as a telephone operator and post-polio syndrome that left her mobility severel impaired during her whole life, she too produced meals every day for her sons.

My mother and step mother at least had a car, and there were two of them, but they had considerably more mouths to feed. For a long period my mother ran a daycare out of her home for low income families trying to get off welfare (this was back when there actually was such a thing as daycare to help women get off welfare). The state paid a tiny subsidy for food, but the project of providing breakfast (not mandated, but often the children hadn't had any), lunch and two snacks a day for kids made of healthy food meant that my family had to be extremely careful about money - the stipend didn't cover it even remotely and if my mother wanted to turn a profit at all, she had to be thrifty. Her innate concern for the children, however, meant that she would not do this by shorting them on nutritious food.

In addition, for some time during my teens, my mother and step-mother were foster parents to additional children - and again, the tiny stipend provided for foster kids by no means covered food, clothing, school supplies, presents etc... The kids often were inadequately nourished, so the food had to be nutritious, and they often had little experience of fresh or home cooked food so it had to be tasty. I don't think I realized as a teen how churlish my complaints about food were when I was fed so well, on so little.

The central means of making this happen was cooking from scratch, using simple and inexpensive but healthy ingredients - my mother and step mother both worked full time, and often were going back to school in the evenings as well. And yet my step-mother also produced breakfast, packed lunches and dinners every single night through my entire childhood.

So perhaps I didn't know any better when I went to college and graduate school and simply assumed that poverty and plentiful, good food weren't necessarily incompatible. My friends and housemates and I cooked - we threw parties with elaborate meals and ate inexpensive foods - produce in season from farmer's markets, often bought in bulk at the end of the day, meats from ethnic markets (goat curry was a big favorite), asian staples from the Chinese grocery store, backpacked from Chinatown, with 25 lb bags of rice in drag-behind grocery carts. I learned a hundred ways to make rice and beans.

I married a man who cooked and who had his own large repetoir of cheap, healthy dishes made from staples. We lived on baked sweet potatoes with greens and a cheese sauce with less cheese than roux (cheese was expensive) and learned to cook taro and plantain and duck eggs, which were cheaper than chicken eggs.

Eventually, I added more scruples - I started to care about how the produce was grown and how far my food travelled. I learned more about the pollution that contaminated the fish off the boats and about overfishing. I learned more than I wanted to know about how cheap meat was produced and stopped buying it. And we started keeping kosher. All of which should have sent our food budget skyrocketing, but didn't - because the same basic strategies for eating that we used before worked fine. Kosher food is much more expensive if you eat a lot of meat and processed foods - it is quite cheap if your meals are mostly vegetarian and fresh. Eating locally is the same - if you want to eat local, organic leg of lamb regularly, you must either be affluent or grow your own. If you are content to save up for the occasional festival lamb, and eat meat about as often as is healthy anyway (less often, used as a condiment), and are creative with what is readily available and in season, then eating locally and organically is not significantly more expensive than eating.

But the assumption is that it must be. I run into this all the time - the idea that local sustainable food is best embodied in Whole Foods or something comparable, and that good food is only for the elitist affluent is wrong, but a widespread assumption. That doesn't mean that there are not real barriers to local, sustainable and healthy eating for many people - these are real and exist, and for some populations, are so burdensome that they may not be remediable. But I think it is important to talk about what these barriers are and what populations they affect, rather than to state, as one of my colleagues did recently in a discussion of his post on kosher coke, that a diet made up mostly of fresh foods is unachievable for most people. (I think his claim that kashruth is also unsuited to modern life is equally incorrect, but while I do think that more people should eat locally, sustainably and healthily, I don't really care whether more people keep kosher, so I'll leave that subject alone. ;-))

I'm not trying to pick on Revere at Effect Measure - what interests me about his observation is the fact that his assumption so much reflects a strain of popular opinion, that regards food awareness and particularly food that is local and sustainable as largely elitist and hard to achieve for most people. So let's take a look at what the primary barriers to eating sustainably are for most people.

The first one is poverty. For a chunk of the US population in extreme poverty, there are insurmountable barriers to cooking from scratch and eating whole foods. Families living in transitional housing or shelters have no access to cooking facilities. Immigrants sharing a very small space may have limited access or none at all to the facilities to cook and store food. The homeless often have no cooking facilities at all. For families who rely on older children to do meal preparation, pre-made and processed food may be the only thing realistically produceable. For families with limited transportation living in "food deserts" in urban or rural areas, it may be almost impossible to reach food, or there may be little time to do so. People working multiple jobs may be so tired that cooking is out of reach to them. The elderly and disabled may find cooking or shopping to physically onerous.

Some of these barriers might be overcome with various strategies. For example, for families with low incomes but stable housing and some discretionary funds, whose primary barrier is lack of time to shop, help in finding bulk sources and techniques for using bulk foods might over time both lower their grocery bill and reduce the amount of time they have to spend shopping.

An elderly couple who cannot travel out to buy local produce at farmer's markets due to the walking required or having given up a car might well be able to commission a local person to shop for them when they also go shopping - for example, in my neighborhood we served this function. We shopped for my husband's grandparents who lived with us, and became aware that other neighbors wanted to take advantage of wonderful produce but couldn't get out to do it, and so began to deliver produce to neighbors.

In some cases, policy shifts are needed in order to make significant changes - before homeless families can focus on quality food, they need a stable place to live - cities might enable families to take over foreclosed properties in exchange for maintenence, for example. A shift in policy that enabled food stamp dollars to pay out double at farmer's markets creates an incentive to use them there. Policies that encourage local soup kitchens and shelters to source local first, if comparably priced produce can be had would make more local food available to people who can't buy it at any price. Incentives for bringing farmer's markets and coops to low income urban food deserts can create food access.

But we should also remember that the poor are not a monolith, and while they often have reduced access to good food, not everyone experiences these barriers equally. I know among my own readers many, many low income people who do cook, buy in bulk, eat locally and sustainably despite being extremely poor. Some who are unemployed due to economic circumstances, retirement, youth or disability have time to cook. Many of them do the extraordinary and heroic work of producing a healthy, sustainable meal three times a day while living on tiny incomes.

It is one thing to articulate and try to alleviate the barriers to eating well that the poor face. It is another thing to claim that it isn't realistic to expect the poor to eat well. The latter erases those who do accomplish these things, and naturalize their situation, the former acknowledges that it is more difficult for some people, sometimes insurmountably more difficult, and gives us challenges to work on.

The same is true for those who are not poor - I just as often hear that it is not realistic for working people to eat well - that those who do so must be unusually wealthy or not have jobs. But this truly troubles me because it erases the experience of my parents, my grandmother, my own experience. By implying that good food is elitist, it is easy to marginalize those who care about it - but wanting to be healthy, wanting to vote with your dollars for a kind of system that is valuable to yourself and your community, wanting to enjoy your meals - that's not elitist, that's human and normal.

That does not mean that the middle class doesn't face real barriers to eating sustainably too (or that some of these barriers may not also affect the poor). But again, it is important to distinguish between imaginary generalities like "modern people work too hard to cook meals from scratch" and specific, real barriers. These include lack of time, lack of knowledge about how to cook (lack of cooking skills is a American problem that crosses class barriers, but, of course, the lower your household income, the more you suffer physically from it because of the quality of pre-prepared food available), false perceptions about how hard the process of preparing food is, unfamiliarity with fresh foods and preferences for processed foods or even aversions to healthy foods.

I recently ran a workshop in which a young woman, a recent college graduate who came to the US from a less affluent country talked about being a Nanny for a family with young kids. The family ostensibly cared about what they ate - but she observed that the parents almost never cooked, because they were too tired. It was always easier to get take out. She contrasted this to her mother, a single parent with several children who worked long hours in a menial job while also maintaining a garden and cooking three meals a day, and observed that the people she worked for didn't work harder - but they saw cooking as more difficult and they were constantly made aware of the availability of take-out and processed foods.

This is one of the reasons I think we have to be so very careful about not naturalizing barriers to cooking and buying sustainable food - because while some of them are very real, it is also true that magnifying those barriers is enormously profitable and is part of nearly every advertising campaign. Unless you are extremely conscious of the impact of those strategies it is easy to take for granted that Campbell's Soup is better than homemade, that it is easier to put the kids in their carseats and drive to Taco Bell than make a salad, that tired Moms rely on Stouffers and Pop Tarts. It behooves us to be very suspicious whenever we go along with the message of corporate culture, and more so with food, because there is so much money to be made in processed and premade foods. There is virtually no marketing budget for fresh vegetables, none for water from the tap or homemade iced tea not from a powder, for whole grains and legumes - while there is an enormous marketing budget for all of those other foods. Telling us that local and unprocessed is more expensive, more work, harder, pricier is very, very profitable.

And again, some of the barriers people face are very real. It may be that your wife or husband really won't eat anything green - but maybe you can get started with the local berries and fruits. Maybe you really are working too long to be able to do elaborate cooking - but a crock pot could make it possible for you to save money and eat better food. Maybe you don't know how to cook - but perhaps you could learn.

Some of these things require policy and social changes - the revitalization of home economics in schools, for example, may be necessary to ensure that the next generation has better cooking skills than their mothers. Investment of resources in materials that help people locate local sources of food can make it possible for busy families to buy more locally. Encouraging more meatless or low meat meals in schools and other places where people get their ideas about how meals are supposed to look could certainly help.

And some of these changes may never happen - someone who eats only coke, steak and doritos may never buy the "Let's get a bale of fresh collard greens and eat less meat" argument. But again, we can't erase the many people who come home at the end of a long day of work and put a freshly made meal in front of their kids. The truth is that the issue is not realism - it is a complex combination of commitment, education, policy support, community support, enthusiasm and knowledge. And the very fact that so many people do do this is proof that far more could than do.

At the center of my presumptions is this - that despite the high barriers to eating well that our society throws up, there is a remarkable commitment to making both personal and social change. Given the enormous weight of the money that pushes us to eat industrial and not regard the cost, I find it both heartening and astonishing that so many people from every walk of life find themselves united around the basic cause of feeding their families decent food. I was lucky enough to live in a family where that mattered, and it shaped my life. But more, I am lucky enough now to be an adult in a society where as a people we are learning to care about our food - that does not allow us to evade responsibility for not making food access equal - but it does give me hope for what emerges over time.

Editorial Notes: Photo credit: mauricesvay

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