I was in Sun Harvest the other day, standing in the checkout line and this lady in front of me is being offered the opportunity to purchase a bag of goods for the local food bank’s Thanksgiving campaign. She examines the bag, but doesn’t say yes or no, she asks the checker, “Is it healthy?” I’m impatiently waiting my turn to check out and get home, while rolling my eyes and thinking “It’s Sun Harvest for God’s sake lady, of course it’s healthy, now move it along.” The checker gives one of those non-committal shrugs that indicates she is obviously telepathic and picking up on my brain waves.
Now I’d taken a look at those same bags a few days earlier and decided I didn’t want to buy one for exactly the opposite reason. The $20 price tag got you one half-full bag of canned goods, all organic, all natural, but I can guarantee you, if I was dependent on feeding my family with those food bags, I’d be saying to myself, big freakin’ deal. Organic, free range, fair trade are words that mean squat to people who have six mouths to feed.
Eating or rather what to eat has become so politically correct. If you are upper middle-class you eat conscientiously, environmentally, societally. I really started to think about the political correctness of eating when I saw a 60 Minutes interview with the founder of Whole Foods Market, John Mackey about two years ago. When he was asked about how pricey Whole Foods products were and how the poor could afford to shop there, he said
To me, you make a tradeoff. It might be a little bit more expensive. But you’re getting a better tasting, higher quality food that’s going to be better for your health and better for the environment.
I guess the poor will just have to trade-off medicine for their asthmatic kids or bus fare to get to their minimum wage jobs. How out of touch can you be! The concern of the working poor and down-and-out is not quality, it’s getting the maximum amount of food for a minimum price. The irony these days is that the current economic mess has started to blur the lines of the food haves and have nots. Even middle class professionals are feeling the strain of making a paycheck cover the purchase of foods that cost 30% more than they did one year ago. In my case, I plan meals; I cut out expensive ingredients, including free-range and organic if it costs more than about 10% of the non-organic stuff. Wine and artisan cheeses are off the list, and so are many out of season fruits and veggies. I’m buying more frozen veggies rather than waste money on letting the fresh stuff spoil before I can cook it. I’m buying lesser cuts of meat and poultry and preparing them in ways I never would have believed before (my 2 cent tip – turkey thighs).
I’ll be honest. It’s been a bit of a snobbish let down for me. I was a little proud of the fact I was a food connoisseur. I labeled myself a “foodie” and read every page of Saveur and Eating Well. I could go to the local foodie paradise, H.E.B. Central Market, and splurge on artisan cheeses, $4 per pound organic, heirloom tomatoes or single source honeys, and carry $80 worth of groceries out in three paper bags. But quality over quantity is easy when the cost of living isn’t eating up your entire paycheck. So I saved another $70 a year by dropping my subscriptions. I am now fixing meals that aren’t PC and they aren’t extravagant. In some respects I think my cooking has gotten better because I have to try harder.
But getting back to that $20 Thanksgiving food bag. Give the poor a break. Maybe their poverty has instilled unhealthy eating habits in them. Eating habits are shaped by experience and custom – systemic poverty is a learned culture of neglect and calorie stretching. Giving the poor a can of organic sweet potatoes and a free-range turkey for Thanksgiving might make your conscience feel better, but it isn’t going to make a light bulb go off in the head of a teenage WIC mother or fill up her table. Her kids will still be drinking Kool-Aid out of a bottle because she either can’t afford orange juice or she just doesn’t know any better. I’d say your money would be better spent buying the four-for-a-dollar canned beans. And while you’re at it, buy the poor some pie and ice cream. Thanksgiving shouldn’t be the time for making an object lesson out of peoples’ holiday traditions.