Rich people concerned about the health of the poor are perplexed:
In inner cities and poor rural areas across the country, public health advocates have been working hard to turn around — neighborhoods where fresh produce is scarce, and greasy fast food abounds. In many cases, they’re converting dingy, cramped corner markets into lighter, brighter venues that offer fresh fruits and vegetables. In some cases, they’re building brand .
“The presumption is, if you build a store, people are going to come,” says , professor in the departments of sociology, anthropology and demography at Penn State University. To check that notion, he and colleagues from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine recently residents of one low-income community in Philadelphia before and after the opening of a glistening new supermarket brimming with fresh produce.
What they’re finding, Matthews says, is a bit surprising: “We don’t find any difference at all. … We see no effect of the store on fruit and vegetable consumption.”
What, you mean poor people have agency in the choices they make? You mean they may not want to eat kale? The clear answer is for rich people to tell people what they should put in their bodies even more stridently:
Alex Ortega, a public health researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees that providing access to nutritious food is only the first step.
“The next part of the intervention is to create demand,” he says, “so the community wants to come to the store and buy healthy fruits and vegetables and go home and prepare those foods in a healthy way, without lots of fat, salt or sugar.”
An intervention! Exactly! We rich need to intervene more in the lives of the poor and tell them everything they are doing wrong. I have trouble seeing any down sides to this attitude…
Look, the diets of modern Americans are problematic. I am not saying that this is not something health professionals should be paying attention to. But let’s not obscure the connections between class and food. For the upwardly mobile of this country, local food, organic food, GMO-free food, backyard produced food–often at high prices–these are signs of social status. I can go to the farmers’ market and buy some greens right now if I want to pay a lot to do so. The farmer gets some money and this is good on a number of levels. I indeed want to support this when I can. Also, I get to look cool with my green canvas bag and see some other people of my socioeconomic status. If I was single, I might even strike up a conversation with someone that could lead to a date. Maybe I will see some fashion I want to emulate. If it was summer, all the yuppies would bring their designer dogs to the market to show off to the other rich white people. (This is a real thing at the big Saturday farmers market in Providence. I always see breeds I’ve never seen before. It cracks me up every time).
So while there are health problems related to food in America, let’s also remember that telling poor people what to eat is also just another episode in a history of rich people in this nation telling poor people what to do, a process constantly shifting as social and moral norms among the upper classes change over time. And look, Doritos and Coke are tasty products. People like fat and salt. Throwing a bunch of cauliflower in front of the poor and telling them it is good for them is not going to change their behavior. They want to eat these things because they are yummy. Moreover, desirable body shapes are changing with changing diets and health norms and this is also divided by class. The person who looks hot to someone on the Navajo Reservation or the south side of Atlanta or rural West Virginia may be different than who is hot in San Francisco or Portland or the cover of Runners’ World. But that’s entirely socially constructed as well. Pushing diet is also pushing body type.
And even if life is shorter and diabetes is a major issue, it’s an entirely reasonable and respectable decision for someone to say they’d rather live to be 52 in the comfort of their homes, surrounded by their family and friends and enjoying themselves as part of the culture of their people watching football and eating nachos and pizza than live to 82 and eat celery every day. That’s actually an OK decision for someone to make. Obviously, some of those decisions are being made by parents for their children and setting their children on a nutritional path that might not lead to long life, but unless we are going to call CPS when a child’s BMI gets over the norm, I don’t see any real solutions here.
Let’s also not forget about the very real issue of price. I was at a farmers market last year that took food stamps, which is great. But that doesn’t mean the food is any cheaper. A southeast Asian woman came and bought some peppers. The price came up. You could see her physically blanch in horror. She bought it but I wonder if she ever came back. There might be good reasons for the prices to be high, but if you live in a food desert, you probably have a limited income and those organic tomatoes aren’t any cheaper because of it. Even if you want to eat healthy, you may well not get full doing so because you can’t afford it. I’d love it if the government directly subsidized this food in a way that lowered the sticker price to consumers. Short of that, how can you tell a poor person they should spend their hard-earned but small amounts of money on the food you think they should eat versus what they can afford? A box of Kraft mac and cheese or package of ramen is awful cheap. Might allow you to also have cable television. Which is also a totally OK choice to make.
Again, all of this isn’t to say there aren’t health issues at play here that are reducing people’s life spans. But it would help if the very real and conscious choices made by the poor were also respected in these debates and if the rich would quit thinking the poor are doing something wrong (today in food, yesterday in having sex out of wedlock, tomorrow who knows) when it doesn’t follow the fashionable behavior of the elite.