Food: What's Class got to do with it?
Annoyed that my results don’t match the number of hours I spend in the gym, I decided to hire a personal trainer to tweak my training program and to offer tips on my diet. (By diet in this piece I am simply referring to what is eaten on a regular basis, not a part-time way of eating that is meant to help me lose weight.)
Based on what might be called my diet consultation, three of the major tweaks I am making are moving around things I already eat—eating them at different times of the day, eating less, and adding a few new items to my diet. All of this has lead me to many various food stores—not only grocery—but, fresh markets, health food stores, and various specialty markets. My conclusion: eating well is expensive!
Let me recount an experience that I had many years ago while living in Los Angeles. (LA is not unique in this way, but this experience has stuck with me for more than a decade.) At the time, I was a gym rat. I went to the gym about 6 days a week and usually spent three hours each time. And my diet was rigorous: I had dessert no more than once a month and didn’t touch ice-cream for years!
Anyone who knows me is aware that I am constantly eating. I eat at least every four hours until dinner. As a family therapist in training, I remained on campus some evenings to make myself available to see families. For those long days, I lugged in a bag of goodies that included lunch, snacks, and dinner. And I remember hoping that I didn’t reek of dinner when I would scarf it down just before my next client.
How I ended up hungry in Compton, a low-income city south of LA, I don’t recall. I was evaluating a service learning project at a few schools around Los Angeles and visiting a school in that area when I grew ravenous but had no food stash with me. No problem, I thought, since there was a small supermarket close by. My plan was to find a high protein, low fat/sugar/salt snack like a packet containing a variety of nuts, with maybe some dried fruit. Nothing fancy.
As I walked up and down the aisles in that supermarket, I was stunned. Almost none of the items looked like those in my middle-class Culver City supermarket. I didn’t recognize most of the brand names or the items. I had to read packages to identify their contents. The sociologist in me grew increasingly curious so I decided to conduct a tour of the entire store. My initial findings held true. Most of the items in the store were made by companies with which I was totally unfamiliar. I remember picking up a roll of toilet paper and marveling at the fact that I had not seen one individually wrapped roll of toilet paper in the U.S before this. Where was I? Was I still in Los Angeles or had I gone to some poor, foreign land?
Back to the food: What was I going to eat? I didn’t have to read the labels of the food items very carefully to know that they were not on my list. Just about every possible snack in the store was a processed treat in a box. The few packets of nuts were filled with salt. What did I choose? Hunger.
Although I had these experiences and am a sociologist who has studied class issues, I was surprised to learn that income and obesity are related. How so? Think about it this way: Despite sometimes mixed advice about what is good for us and despite the various fad diets that come and go, what foods are consistently listed as important for optimum health?
The answer is, of course, fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish, and grains. These are not foods that are readily available to low-incomes shoppers – at least not in their neighborhood stores. I don’t how many people want to trek across town to do their grocery shopping, but for the poorest Americans, even if they wanted to make those trips—the cost of such travel is prohibitive.
This condition has been described as a food desert, a term that refers to areas in which people lack access to the foods that are important for optimal nutrition. By comparison, my middle/upper middle class neighborhood has big box stores, several well-stocked supermarkets, health food stores, and farmers’ markets. (You might find it instructive to look at data on factors related to access to healthy foods for any state in the U.S. by clicking here and to visit this website and point your cursor at the pictures of the food at a Mississippi convenience store in the country’s “fattest county”.)
Think about your own eating now and when you were growing up. What connections do you see between the way you eat or ate and your social class?