“Poor People Can’t Cook,” and Other Myths

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In 2013, over 47 million Americans depended on food stamps to buy their groceries. Those food stamps turn out to be worth about $5 or $6 per day, per person.

Not a lot to live on—but better than nothing?

Canada does not have a food stamp program. Canada does not have a national school breakfast or lunch (or supper or brunch or snack) program. We are one of the few “First World” countries without a formal, national nutrition assistance program. Non-governmental strategic policy papers exist, but as such papers typically do, they promote particular interests and agendas.

Why not food stamps?

The view from Canada is that we don’t need specific nutritional programs because our social assistance programs are good enough. Instead of funding food stamps, or school lunches, we give families money–through Ontario Works (OW) or the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP)—and let them make their own food and other choices. This could be a more dignified, less paternalistic way to support individuals real freedom—and opportunities—to choose how they want to live.

Now, if our social assistance programs were empowering, i.e. established some equality of opportunity, we wouldn’t see poor health outcomes clustering around particular demographics. It’s true that we start with different abilities and inclinations, and so even in a system of equal opportunities we wouldn’t see equal outcomes. But when certain groups consistently and predictably fall below average on basic measures like health, or food security, or educational attainment, we can and should conclude that those groups face additional obstacles, or less-than-equal opportunities.

And we should do something about it.

Low incomes and food insecurity

In other words, your being born into a low-income (or indigenous or single-parent) family should have no bearing on whether or not you are food secure, or healthy, or likely to go to jail. However, in Canada it does, and signals are that it will get worse before it gets better.

what kind of equality do we want?

Our social assistance rates are not pegged to inflation, meaning that every year they fall further behind basic living expenses. In 1993, the last year that social assistance rates increased with the inflation rate, a single person could get up to $663 a month through social assistance. Shortly afterwards, that rate was cut down to $520 and it was almost a decade before it received any sort of increase.  Had the $663 rate kept pace with inflation, it would now be about $932 a month. The current maximum monthly allowance for a single person on Ontario Works is $626, though the recently released 2014 Ontario budget promises a $30 increase.

Unsurprisingly, then, a recent national food security study concludes that

…two-thirds of households whose major source of income was social assistance were food insecure,* as were 37% of those reliant on Employment Insurance or Workers’ Compensation. Other household characteristics associated with a higher likelihood of food insecurity included being a female lone parent (35% were food insecure), having an income below the Low Income Measure (33%), being Aboriginal (27%), and renting rather than owning one’s home (25%).

None of this is particularly surprising, I expect. We already knew, for example, that “a large body of epidemiologic data show that diet quality follows a socioeconomic gradient,” and that “whereas higher-quality diets are associated with greater affluence, energy-dense diets that are nutrient-poor are preferentially consumed by persons of lower socioeconomic status (SES) and of more limited economic means.” The same study concludes that, given these strong correlations, “some current strategies for health promotion, based on recommending high-cost foods to low-income people, may prove to be wholly ineffective.” In other words, telling low income people to solve their problems by getting more money is (best-case-scenario) not going to work.

Why do low income families eat less healthy food?

It’s hard to say why exactly this relationship between income and food security obtains. (Though a social indicators of health framework is a good place to start.) Neither of the above studies established a causal relationship between income and nutrition, but there are a range of better and worse explanations. For example, and beyond the obvious point that low income families just don’t have enough money to buy enough good food, many low income families have insufficient facilities to store or preserve lower cost and healthier fresh foods; live in “food deserts,” where there are no real grocery stores; cannot take advantage of bulk savings at large, typically accessible-by-minivan-superstores; and are relatively less “food literate.”

Do poor people know less about food?

I want to spend the rest of this post discussing and unsettling this last idea, that low income people are relatively less “food literate.”

Food literacy “involves understanding: where food comes from; the impacts of food on health, the environment and the economy; and how to grow, prepare, and prefer healthy, safe and nutritious food.” Elsewhere, the focus is more on how we read and understand food labeling and respond to food advertising. (See more here, and here.)

On the one hand, increasing food literacy seems a wonderful idea. By better understanding the consequences of our actions in a broken food system we are in turn more able to bring about positive change.  This worked for the anti-sweatshop movement, right? “There is much to gain by including more information about local food production and procurement in food literacy education, including helping to increase knowledge of local food systems, positively influencing the environmental impact of household food choices and raising awareness about the link between agriculture, food and wellness.”

Maybe even better, food literacy projects allow people–of whatever income–to do more with less. Indeed, a range of people involved in food security/justice/literacy projects emphasize the emancipating potential of teaching people how to turn raw ingredients into healthy meals. The world food superstar Jamie Oliver keeps food literacy at the centre of his advocacy work, and has argued that obesity crises across the ‘First World’ are “fuelled by lack of cooking skills.”

A similar impulse motivates projects like Leslie Brown’s beautiful “Good and Cheap” cookbook. Her book is full of healthy and delicious recipes that cost about $4 or less–originally it was called “a SNAP Cookbook,” so named because a person living on food stamps could theoretically afford to make her recipes. (SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is what the US government calls food stamps.)

four dolla

The cookbook is also free! (Or donate, and she’ll pay it forward.)

Brown’s cookbook is great, and Oliver is not wrong. When people know how to creatively prepare food from scratch, they can eat better food for less money, and should be healthier for it.

However, we should keep two distinct claims separate. Although it’s true that some low income people have poor cooking skills–are relatively less food literate, let’s say–it is most definitely not true that all low income people have poor cooking skills. This is true in the same way that some high income folks cook well and often and with other people, whereas other wealthy people don’t. You’re thinking: of course!

Whose fault? 

By making food literacy–or lack thereof–the basic issue or explanation for food insecurity, we risk losing sight of larger structural issues while leaning towards a dangerous kind of victim-blaming. As another blogger put it:

It seems like some people are constantly wringing their hands about how poor people eat (to wit: badly.) And the most popularly proposed solution is to teach them (“them”) more about nutrition! Or educate them in general.

Because obviously they just don’t know what they’re doing. And that’s why they eat so badly, and hence, why their health tends to be poorer!

And eureka! — you have a tidy solution that not only absolves financial and economic guilt, but, as a bonus, allows richer, more-edumacated people to assume the role of benevolent experts.

This doesn’t have to be the case, and indeed some of the groups talking about food literacy (explicitly or not) are careful to ask why it appears that certain groups are consistently less food secure, and to make that question part of ‘food literacy curriculum.’

When we assume…

Even better would be to question the assumption, which I’ve repeatedly caught myself making, that low income people are actually less food literate.

As discussed above, we know that people living on a fixed (and insufficient) income face plenty of additional obstacles to food security.

But are those folks actually and substantially less able and/or interested in cooking than their higher income peers?

As far as I can tell, there is a surprising lack of academic research about this question. We could let this confirm our assumptions: our best and brightest minds haven’t devoted research careers to the question, so it must be beyond debate.

On the other hand, what have low income people said, when given opportunity to discuss this issue?

In 2012 we conducted a survey at the Emergency Food Hamper Program, modeled after a Region of Waterloo Public Health study. We randomly interviewed 80 people on their “self-rated food skills.”  A few relevant results stick out.

First, three quarters of respondents ate ready-to-prepare meals less than once a week. Our interviewer noted that many people rolled their eyes at this question, and shed said the following response was representative: “pfff we can’t afford that.”  Asked whether they’d prepared meals from scratch (“using basic food items, with a recipe as needed”) in the preceding week, 28.75% of respondents said they had prepared 3-4 meals, 23.75% had prepared 5-9 meals, and 10% had prepared 10 or more meals from scratch.

In other words, roughly two thirds of respondents were cooking from scratch at least every other day. Most, more.

Second, 90% of survey participants stated that it takes them over 30 minutes to cook their main (dinner) meal–and 30% of people take over 60 minutes. Finally, 46% of our participants rated their overall food skills as “good,” and 29% rated their skills as “very good.”

Our survey was small, but it was also unique in that it actually asked low income people about their food skills.

And what sticks out is what you’d probably expect from people who have to carefully budget a meal plan and cannot afford to eat out: they regularly cook from scratch, don’t eat out very often, and have developed many of the skills necessary to make the best of their situation.

I could find one other similar study, this one a larger national survey of low and middle income Americans.  Like our survey, this study undermines common stereotypes of low income people, “including that they are frequent consumers of fast food and that they do not eat together often as a family or prioritize healthy eating.” Rather, the report, based on interviews with 1,500 low- to middle-income Americans, concludes that those families are “cooking dinner at home, mostly from scratch, and are highly interested in making healthy meals.”

Consider the following results: “Eight in ten families make dinner at home at least five times a week. Most of the time, low-income families are cooking dinners at home, from scratch. They are using easy-to-prepare packaged foods on other nights.” Moreover, 61% are making meals from scratch most days of the week, and 85% say eating healthy meals is important to their families. However “families view cost as the primary barrier to healthy eating…Most families are satisfied with their shopping options when it comes to accessing healthy groceries, but many fewer are happy with how much they cost.”

Again what you’d expect, right? Those surveyed were not clamoring for education–at least not making that their priority. When they have adequate groceries and facilities, and enough time, most describe feeling comfortable preparing food. The ‘hierarchy of food needs,’ below, helps visualize the challenges those folks commonly face.

satters-hierarchy-of-food-needs2

Nonetheless, it is good to learn new ways of preparing and/or preserving food.  And it is good to better understand how we all fit into complicated food systems. But stereotypes–no matter how convenient now–are counterproductive in the long term, and make it more difficult to journey in those directions together.  Once we concede that food insecurity is less about literacy, and more about finances (or lack thereof), our responsibilities deepen and expand to working towards better social assistance rates or a perhaps a guaranteed basic income. Regardless, these responsibilities are demanding, and implicate those of us in upper and middle class families in new and difficult ways.

In the short and medium term, it is vitally important to help people make the most of their situations, whether through $4 a cookbooks or better and compulsory cooking classes in school.

However, we should be careful in those efforts not to forget that we live in the land of plenty. Plenty of food, and plenty of money to establish a  more dignified standard of living for all Canadians. That being the case, we should never settle–not on strategies that ask people to make due or learn to live with want. When confronted with difficult circumstances, we can lower our expectations, ‘liberate‘ ourselves from desires that seem impossible to realize. But how do we know what’s possible? And, as sharper minds than mine have put it, “the logical culmination of the process of destroying everything through which I can possibly be wounded is suicide.” In other words, we lower our expectations until we don’t really have anything left to live for.

I think we all benefit when we refuse to settle.

————–

*Borrowing from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the report used the following definition: “[The] experience of food insecurity can range from concerns about running out of food before there is more money to buy more, to the inability to afford a balanced diet, to going hungry, missing meals, and in extreme cases, not eating for a whole day because of a lack of food and money for food.”

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