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Talking Down to the Poor about Food

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While I often like Mark Bittman, like a lot of the recent generation of food writers (and, all too often, environmental writers more broadly), he talks down to the poor. As someone who doesn’t work two jobs, who doesn’t have to search under the couch pillows for change to buy their kids meals, and who lives a life of leisure and high-quality food, it’s real easy for Bittman to tell the poor to cook more.

It’s not that Bittman’s message is wrong. The idea that fast food is cheaper than cooking healthy food is pretty much bunk. Processed foods are both masterfully marketed and physically addictive. The food system in the United States is broken. Obesity is a major public health problem in this country.

But when Bittman says things like this, it gets under my skin:

What’s easier [than political action] is to cook at every opportunity, to demonstrate to family and neighbors that the real way is the better way. And even the more fun way: kind of like a carnival.

Maybe. But cooking for a big family is hard work. It’s not fun for everyone. Food writers (Michael Pollan does this as well) romanticize a past of family meals. But those meals were not easy to make. They were almost always created by women who stayed at home and toiled away at running a household. Even if that situation were desirable today, and many of us would say it is not, it’s not realistic. Most families cannot survive without two incomes and even working two jobs. That doesn’t even take into account single parents. The history of processed food does not inspire one with delicious joy, but it is also a history of technological relief from drudgery. That’s no less true today.

Bittman dismisses the idea that we don’t have time to cook because we spend an average of 90 minutes today watching TV. But if you are working 2 jobs or are depressed or are stressed out by your troubles, watching some TV after a long, hard day is simply more enjoyable than cooking. Even after I get home from the office, and my job is far less difficult than blue-collar or service labor, I usually don’t want to spend 90 minutes cooking. I want a quick meal, a beer, and a baseball game.

Plus, what do the kitchens of the poor look like? Do they have decent pots and pans? Do they have functioning stoves? Have they paid the gas bill? Are their kitchens infested with cockroaches? Not infrequently, the answers to these questions are depressing.

Again, I don’t want to downplay the good points Bittman and others make. But in not trying to understand the actual lives of the people they are talking to, they are making the same mistakes that reformers have made throughout American history, ranging from Progressives who wanted to turn immigrants into good Americans to TVA planners who didn’t care about farmers losing their land on the Tennessee River to the designers of public housing projects who thought a patch of grass in front of a 20 story building would be enough green space to satisfy residents. If we don’t empathize with and listen to the people we are trying to work with, we risk alienating them. Food reformers are no different and messages like Bittman’s are going to go in one ear and out the other.

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