July 18, 2011

Food: What's Class got to do with it?

new janisBy Janis Prince Inniss

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. (In this piece, by “diet” I am simply referring to what I eat on a regular basis, not a way of eating 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 led me to many various food stores—not only grocery, but fresh-air 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). (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 six 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 knew me was aware that I was constantly eating. I ate 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 seeing my next client.

But one day, I ended up hungry in Compton, a low-income city south of LA. I was evaluating a service learning project at a few schools around LA 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 snack that was low in fat, sugar, and salt, like a packet containing a variety of nuts, maybe with 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 never seen an individually wrapped roll of toilet paper in the United States before now. 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 I 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 by clicking herethis 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 wer growing up. What connections do you see between the way you eat now or ate then and your social class?


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Really enjoyed this blog. Then I happened to read about an effort to combat a food desert in Buffalo. This article talks about making produce available to city residents at affordable prices. http://www.buffalonews.com/city/article492401.ece
There's a good quote in the article in which someone states that our attitude toward food has changed from that of function to pleasure.

Appreciate the feedback and the link, Todd.

I live in Vermont where there are tons of farmers markets and access to fresh food. But these places are usually filled with middle and upper middle class people. The lower classes don't go to them as much. So it's not just about access.

I really enjoyed reading this article because I strongly agree with this economic hardship that many Americans go through. I was very fortunate to grow up with a great many places to shop for fresh fruits and vegetables, but now looking back at that I wish I had that luxury. I live in an upper middle class neighborhood and the local supermarket is very pricey. I am a struggling college student and not being able to even shop healthy is a problem. I would like to buy healthy, but the inexpensive route lies on the chip and soda aisle. I wish that this concept of food desert didn't exist.

I also live in a middle/upper class neighborhood, and it does cost more $$$ to eat healthy. Shopping for groceries at our local Walmart compared to our WholeFoods is a huge difference. So we tend to shop at a variety of markets to get the good deals that are out. I believe that education is key...if we educate or kids in school on healthy eating habits then they will grow up to know better and hopefully break the cycle of eating processed foods. "You are what you eat"..is so true!!! It might be more expensive to eat healthier but if your planning to live a long life, why not invest in your health?

Food is really a huge treat in our health specially to those who are really love eat.I am really glad that you share some very informative article like this.In Finland country many people use to have their own personal trainer and most of the personal trainer recommended to eat healthy and leaf food to maintain their fitness which is common rules that need to follow.Anyway thanks.

I once tried to spend so many hours in a gym just to lose weight. However, I wasn’t looking at my diet while the training was going on. It was a total waste of time and effort. I just learned then that the two must come together.

I am a having difficulties university student and not being able to even shop healthier is a problem. I would like to buy healthier, but the inexpensive path can be found on the processor and soft drinks section. I wish that this idea of food wasteland didn't exist.

It's truly an honor to run across informational content like this. You are clearly knowledgeable on this topic and you have unique views to share.

As a kid growing up in the 90's, I don't believe that food education was as common knowledge as it seems to be today. Nowadays, it seems as if everyone is an expert on what is "good" for you to eat and how to avoid harmful additives, gluten, or GMO's. It is definitely true, the lesser your income, the less money you have to spend on food so you have to resort to things like fast food restaurants or fatty junk food that is affordable and accessible at your every day convenient store. When I was growing up my parents were relatively moderate in the unhealthy things that they'd allow me to eat. For the most part I would eat fruits and vegetables and good home-cooked meals every evening, rather than the fast food that seems to be so common today. I would like to say that these habits transitioned into my adult life, but as I said before, the less money you have the more unhealthy your diet seems to be. As a broke college student, my diet could definitely use some improvement.

Thanks for sharing. Diet and exercise go together. :)

quite knowledgeable ideas

wow, nice one

Food for thought

I live in North Carolina, we have a farming industry and we are big on growing tobacco. I don't believe I have a eating habit because I don't eat very much. I take a few bites of something and i'm full for a while. I don't necessarily eat healthy but I take care of my body.

Thanks for the info

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