Food Responsibility

We all know that fast food isn’t the healthiest, but these calorie, fat and sodium counts from popular fast-food restaurants are still really horrifying. More than 10,000 milligrams of sodium in one order of chicken wings? I don’t think I eat 10,000 milligrams of sodium in a week.

The article itself focuses, predictably, on The Obesity Epidemic, and how these kinds of foods are making us all fat. More importantly, these kinds of foods are making us really, really unhealthy. And while most of us probably realize that eating a whole cheesecake is not going to be great for us, some of the foods on this list are particularly sneaky — like a chicken burrito that has more than a day’s worth of fat, calories and sodium. I don’t think that most people are under the impression that Chipotle is healthy, but if you’re on the run and trying to make a health-conscious choice, the chicken option might be your pick. Similarly, the portion size at some of these restaurants is unreal — if a dish is marketed as a “personal pizza,” it shouldn’t be enough food for four.

Part of the problem with the American dependence on fast food is cultural, which is enabled by (and to some degree helps to create) the structural problems that keep us from accessing the healthiest foods possible. We’re bizarrely puritan when it comes to centering pleasure in our lives — we just don’t do it. We think that Just Say No works for food and for sex — two of the most basic human pleasures and (on a species-wide, if not individual, level) necessities — but then we heavily market the most reductive and unhealthy versions of both. We’re inundated with advertising that uses women’s bodies as symbols of sex itself and with mainstream pornography that centers heterosexual male experience and dominance. Culturally, we’re not focused on holistic sexual pleasure so much as easy titillation and shock-value sex, coupled with disdain and judgment towards people who actually do have sex in whatever way is deemed outside of local values — whether that’s outside of marriage, or at too young of an age, or outside of a monogamous relationship, or with someone of the same sex, or wherever else we draw that line (and we like to draw and re-draw that line).

We do the same thing with food (and obviously I’m far from the first person to make this connection). We talk a big game about The Horrors of Obesity and the necessity of healthy eating. We blame feminism for taking women out of the kitchen and into the workplace. We look at fat people like they’re moral failures. We watch television shows like The Biggest Loser, which contribute to the cultural myth that If You Just Work Hard Enough, You’ll Be Ok. We ascribe fatness to simply eating too much.

And then we subsidize the worst kinds of foods, and we don’t emphasize eating as something important and pleasurable; we make it about pure consumption. We make sure that healthy food is available to the relatively wealthy, while the poor have to travel further and spend more to access the same. Those same lower-income neighborhoods where fresh fruit and vegetables are scarce are inundated with fast-food chains. And while of course there is a place for encouraging individuals to make better food choices, that’s easier said than done when 90% of what’s available to you is processed and unhealthy.

We also emphasize the Bigger Faster More model of eating. Small portions are frowned upon. Meat is heavily marketed as “man food,” and anything small or vegetable-based is girly and emasculating (you mean your girlfriend makes you eat quiche?). Restaurants like the Olive Garden promote their food by making their portions unlimited. Restaurants like PF Chang’s heap four portions of noodles into a single entree. Of course, if they didn’t, customers would flip, and would feel like they weren’t getting enough food for their money.

We also necessitate fast eating because we’re working so much and so damned hard (even as many of our jobs are largely sedentary). The lack of pleasure-centering extends to our work lives as well. American companies typically don’t offer much in the way of parental leave, let alone vacation time. And government-required vacation or leave time? Forget about it. A few years ago, there was a telling moment in the George W. Bush / John Kerry presidential debates where a divorced mother of three got up to ask a question, and prefaced it by saying that she worked three jobs. Bush praised her, saying, “You work three jobs? Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.”

No, it’s not fantastic. And it’s contributing to the poor health of our nation. Healthy lifestyles take effort. They take time, and in our current culture, they take money. If a single mom with three kids lives in a place like Harlem, and works three jobs to stay afloat, when is she going to have the time to take the bus to a supermarket on the Upper East Side to buy vegetables (for non-American or non-New-York readers, Harlem is a neighborhood that is traditionally lower-income and of-color; the Upper East Side is traditionally white and wealthy)? How is she going to transport food for four on public transportation? How is she going to do that several times a week, because fruit and vegetables perish quickly? How is she going to afford frequent trips to the supermarket to buy enough vegetables for four people? Why would she spend $4 for a small bunch of asparagus or $7 for two packages of salad mix when for the same amount she can buy frozen chicken nuggets or pizza that will actually fill her kids up?

It’s also worth noting that the kinds of health problems caused by lack of access to healthy food and poor environmental factors are devastating — the chances of our hypothetical single mom having diabetes or a physical disability or asthma or a host of other health complications are higher if she lives in Harlem versus the Upper East Side, making her travels for food all the more onerous. The chances of those conditions going untreated or under-treated are also higher if she’s low-income.

I’m not a parent and I don’t live in a food desert and I’m not poor and I only work one job. I make a concerted effort to eat healthy and to exercise. But even with all of those privileges in place, it’s hard, and there are a lot of nights when I end up eating a bowl of pasta or a can of soup because I just don’t have the energy to really cook something nutritious. Or I end up ordering food and eating it at my desk while I work, and not really thinking about how much I’m eating or what’s in it. I’m certainly not taking the time to really enjoy the process of eating. I’m also fairly well-educated when it comes to food and making healthy individual choices, but I’m still occasionally shocked when I see the amount of added sugar in every-day food items, or how much sodium is packed into just about anything you don’t make for yourself. It’s easy to say that people who eat 5 Big Macs a day shouldn’t be surprised when their health suffers; it’s a lot harder to argue that people should intuitively know how all of their food is processed and prepared. A lot of this stuff isn’t common-sense — personal pizzas that should serve four, smoothie chains that use high-calorie dairy base, restaurants that coat your salad with creamy dressing. It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect individuals to bear the burden of guessing just how bad a restaurant’s food really is.

In an ideal world, we would re-haul all of these structural impediments to healthy eating in one fell swoop. We’d have a marked cultural shift that centered holistically pleasurable experiences as opposed to simply consumptive ones. We would value independent business-owners more, and we would have an economic system that enabled small businesses to stay afloat in the face of big chains — we’d have fewer Olive Gardens and more localized cooking, and not every mall in America would come equipped with a PF Chang’s and a Cheesecake Factory. But since that isn’t going to happen any time soon, what responsibility do we think fast-food marketers and purveyors have to their customers, in the short-term? Right now, most of the onus is on the consumer to figure out what the healthiest options are — but that doesn’t work when fast-food and chain restaurants are intentionally misleading about the contents of their food. I know a lot of Feministe readers don’t like calorie counts, and they’re problematic for a lot of reasons, but I am a big fan of requiring chain restaurants to disclose the nutritional contents of their food (including sodium, fat, saturated fat, protein, sugar, carbs and fiber — simple calorie-counts don’t take into account good fat vs. bad fat, or how how much protein you’re getting). But nutritional information can’t be the end-all be-all — again, it puts the onus on the consumer to choose from a host of bad options. It also implies that food can be the enemy, and that healthfulness requires constant counting and tabulating. And that’s not really how it should work, either.

Requiring that restaurants eliminate trans fats and curb sodium levels, like New York has done, is another good start, even if it’s hardly a solution. But broad structural issues aside, if we recognize that fast food restaurants are in fact feeding a large chunk of the American public, what responsibilities do those fast-food chains hold? And what should be the consequences of their feeding people the foods that lead to diabetes, heart disease and a host of other health problems?

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*A note about this post: It is not about the obesity epidemic or fatness or the size of someone’s body. Fat-hating comments are not relevant and not accepted.


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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
This entry was posted in Advertising, Environment, Food, Health and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

87 Responses to Food Responsibility

  1. karak says:

    I worked at McDonalds for several years. And a secret mission of mine was to educate people–so many dieting women chose the salad without realizing that a Big Mac is healthier, or that the side salad has no nutritional value. They didn’t know our “baked chicken” had butter painted on it and sat in grease in the microwave reheater.

    I used to work the night shift at another fast food place. We were not allowed to leave the restaurant at night (it was dangerous, anyway) and we couldn’t put our personal food in the refrigerators, or use any of the restaurant cooking utensils. How the hell am I supposed to make myself a lunch at 3am? I’m not–I’m going to eat a free sandwich at my job. Most people I worked with openly admitted they worked 3rd for the privilege of eating a free sandwich and whatever food got wasted by accident. We were literally living off of fast food. Who can turn down free food five days a week? Certainly not us minimum wage workers.

  2. andrea says:

    Excellent post. It’s a difficult balance between being keenly aware of what you are ingesting (ie, fat-and-calorie counting) and still enjoying what you eat. I do agree that a lot of chains mislead with so-called healthier choices.. There are some restaurants such as East Side Marios that I have stopped eating at.. I mean, in what universe does a side caesar salad have 60 grams of fat??

    The holistic aspect of enjoying food reminds me of the critic in the film ‘Ratatouille’. “I don’t like food, I love it. And if I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.”

  3. Aunt B. says:

    This burns my britches every time I go to Wendy’s. I can get a medium size bacon cheeseburger meal (bacon cheeseburger, fries, drink) for less than I can get one of their fancy salads and a drink. Having eaten both, I can tell you, the bacon cheeseburger meal feels like more food. I am fuller when I eat it.

    I can afford to get the salad, both because I can afford it right then and I know I’m going home at the end of the day to have a substantial dinner. But, there have been days when I get the bacon cheeseburger because I know I will still feel full at dinner time and I know there’s not anything in the house.

    I’m sure I’m not the only person thinking that.

    But every time I order, regardless of which thing I order, I wonder “Why is a salad more expensive than a fancy-pants burger and fries?” If I’m supposed to be eating healthy, why can’t I get a salad at a fast food joint for the same price I can get a burger and fries? How is it that I can get so much more food for less money if that food is bad for me?”

  4. mk says:

    The McDonald’s “Values In Action” page is pretty telling. If you take their categories at face value, McDonald’s cares about (in no particular order) sustainability, “green” restaurants, recycling & renewing, and animal welfare.

    Notice anything missing from the list?

    Okay, so it would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that they have a whole nutrition section as well, “dedicated to making [the customer] feel good about choosing McDonald’s foods and beverages,” but I still find it troubling that health and/or poverty aren’t anywhere on that values page.

    (And I could go on and on–like about their bogus comparisons between Happy Meals and meals made at home…)

  5. Margaret says:

    Chipolte can be healthy. I get a burrito bowl with black bean, rice, tomatoes and lettuce..sometimes chicken. There are ways to make better choices.

    • Jill says:

      Margaret, sure. But the point is that some of what sounds like it’s on the healthier side of things — like a chicken burrito — is much, much more terrible for you than you’d expect.

      Even your burrito bowl with chicken has more than 50% of your daily sodium needs, and 40% of your recommended cholesterol.

  6. catfood says:

    More than 10,000 grams of sodium in one order of chicken wings?

    I hope you mean 10,000 milligrams, Jill. 10,000 grams is about 22 pounds.

  7. Diane says:

    I really, really, really dislike the idea of forcing a restaurant to modify they way they cook. I would much rather see bonuses/incentives being given to supermarkets that offer affordable healthy food (vegetables, beans, that sort of thing) and open in lower-class neighborhoods.

  8. Great post, Jill.

    As an aside, there’s got to be an error in the WaPo piece. The article claims that a pasta bread bowl contains between 65 and 115 grams of fiber. That’s impossible. I bet even the Pasta Primavera version has less half a cup of veggies in the whole dish. The main ingredient in this dish is the white flour in the crust and the pasta. White flour contains a negligible amount of fiber. One slice of store bought white bread contains between .5g and 1g of fiber and 60-80 calories. This dish is a starch orgy, but there’s no way it contains the starch equivalent of at least 65-115 slices of white bread.

    A high fiber diet contains at least 40g of fiber a day. In order to get that much, you really have to work at it. One of the first steps is substituting whole grains for flour-based foods whenever possible.

  9. OK, the 10,000 mgs of sodium in one dish thing really freaked me out. Like HFCS, sodium is one of those things that’s much too high in pretty much all processed foods. I’m not sure what to do about that, but I do know that it’s dangerous to people who eat those foods often.

    I also feel like this is a useful addendum to the debate about fat acceptance that’s still ongoing. While America is busy freaking out about fatness, we’re not paying nearly enough attention to the fact that our food culture is such that the food most people eat is intrinsically dangerous to everyone who consumes it, even if through the luck of the metabolic draw it doesn’t make them get fat.

  10. Annaham says:

    The “energy deficit” issue when it comes to grocery shopping for fresh ingredients, making healthful meals and/or choices is a huge issue for some folks with disabilities as well (unfortunately for me, I know this from personal experience). Nobody wins, really, and it ties in so much with body and health policing as well as food choices-policing.

  11. Lissa says:

    Great article. I’m fortunate to live in a city in the Bay-ish Area that cares about this topic. I was stoked to find, when reading the paper the other day that In-N-Out was having trouble getting in to our city because our city has a ‘No New Drive Through Restaurant’ ban! If a new fast food restaurant comes to town (and wants a drive through, which most do) they have to buy out an existing site. No new drive through fast food restaurants are allowed. Awesome!! Of course, there are plenty of places that serve food of little nutritional value that don’t have a drive through, but it’s a start.

  12. I’m reading a great book called “The End of Overeating” by former FDA commissioner David Kessler. It’s a popular science book about how food scientists working for chain restaurants and processed food companies methodically hack our natural appetite regulation systems.

    For example, they exploit a huge body of research on palatability, the scientific term for the extent to which a food stimulates us to consume more of it, irrespective of whether we’re enjoying the food or whether we feel hungry.

    Food science is all about making foods hyper-palatable. A morsel of fine dark chocolate is delicious, but it’s not palatable in the scientific sense because one blissful bite will do you.

    Whereas, mini-Mars Bars are hyper-palatable in that you’re likely to keep popping them in your mouth long after you’re full, not because they’re especially delicious, but because they’re formulated to sustain your eating drive.

  13. Jennifer says:

    Above all, thank you for recognizing that it is harder to eat well–I get tired of being lectured by some (not all) foodie types about how easy and cheap it is to whip up a healthy meal. Even if you’re relatively well off, it’s not easy if you never learned to cook and have to invest time learning, which involves ruining some things, buying spices or cookware/utensils you never use again because you don’t know your taste or what’s common, etc. I decided to learn to cook once I was in a living situation where I had space, etc. to do it, and it felt like an uphill battle for a long time. And yes–veggies do spoil quickly and there isn’t the same quality control as with packaged foods–sometimes you find that the lovely looking and expensive item you purchased is rotten inside.

  14. Cat Faber says:

    My mom had a 1,000 mg / day (7,000 / week) sodium restriction for a decade. It was hard to do–it meant no pre-prepared foods or canned foods at all, no meats (like ham or bacon or deli meats) that had added salt, (most raw meat has sodium phosphate added, for example), no cheese, and being careful of how much milk she drank (4 cups a day was half her salt intake right there.) She had to make her own bread, and learn how to restrain the yeast without salt (a tablespoon of vinegar turned out to do the job and evaporate in the oven, so the bread tasted as normal as salt free bread ever does.) Eating out was automatically breaking her low salt diet, of course.

    So unless you’re really trying hard, I’d be surprised if you don’t eat 10,000 milligrams of salt in a week. I grant you–it’s still a lot for one dish, though.

    • Jill says:

      Yeah, I try really hard to avoid sodium, and I can’t handle a lot of dairy (despite my love of cheese), and I eat meat maybe once a week (I stick to a lot of fish, whole grains, fruits and vegetables with the occasional indulgent night out). I average about 800 mg of sodium a day (although obviously much more if I’m eating out or busy). So I actually do usually consume less than 10,000 mgs of sodium in a week. But I realize that’s not usual. At all. And it requires preparing most of my food for myself.

      And either way, 10,000 mgs of sodium is a TON, like you said. Even if you stick to a standard 2,000-calorie daily intake, 10,000 mgs of sodium is more than half of what you should be consuming in a week.

  15. Hugo says:

    Great post and comments. The problem of confusing virtue with access is an old one that shows up in virtually every middle-class debate about “why the poor don’t make better decisions” (about contraception, obesity, drugs, work, etc.)

    My healthy choices owe far more to my income and my neighborhood and my opportunities than they do to anything else.

  16. pony says:

    Sometimes I feel like I have zero control over what I can put into my body because of economic reasons. And I am luckier than a lot of people. I feel like “they” took control from us, and are now trying to hand it back as the exact same wolf, different sheep suit.

  17. smmo says:

    Restaurants like PF Chang’s heap four portions of noodles into a single entree. Of course, if they didn’t, customers would flip, and would feel like they weren’t getting enough food for their money.

    Broad remarks like this bother me. I think some customers would be bothered, but I know plenty of people – myself included – that are overwhelmed by the portion sizes in restaurants. And I’m a chubby food lover!

    I’m definitely of two minds re food counts. Part of me rebels against the dieting naggy finger-wagging aspect of it. But overall I think more information is never a bad thing.

  18. Bagelsan says:

    I really, really, really dislike the idea of forcing a restaurant to modify they way they cook.

    I understand what you mean, but I don’t think it’s necessarily that different from regulating acceptable levels of toxins in food/homes/products etc. Even if there were a really low bar set (like, you can’t sell a single dish that has more than 4 days’ worth of sodium in it, or a single drink that has more than an entire day’s worth of calories) it would still weed out a lot of the really horrifying foods. Once you start talking about the kinds of numbers that Jill mentions — seriously, 10g of salt in a single dish? just give the customers a damn salt lick already — I think it becomes a genuine health and safety issue, not unlike mercury levels and the like.

    (Also, you must mean terms like “restaurant” and “cook” reeeeally loosely… I think those terms usually refer to the preparation of actual edible food? ;p)

  19. RenKiss says:

    Thank you for writing this, I especially agree with the points about being able to eat healthier when you have more money. Fruits and vegetables can be quite costly. When you’re low income and have a family to support, you can’t really spend much time thinking about what goes into your food. You’re more focused on trying to feed your family and yourself. That’s why low income people are more likely to be considered obese.

    To me, I feel it’s basically a luxury to be able to really spend time thinking about what type of food you’re eating.

  20. Realistically, customers would flip if PF Chang’s kept charging the same price and slashed portions by 3/4. The thing is, crappy food is cheap. Which means that restaurants can dramatically inflate portion sizes without raising the cost of the meal very much. The cost of the extra food pales beside the costs of labor, rent, etc, which stay the same regardless of the size of the portions.

  21. Thomas says:

    I agree in principle but worry about the workableness of legislating the content of food.

    The neo-conservative world view that’s been so foregrounded for the last two decades puts an onus of personal responsibility on everything, whether appropriate or not. Culture at large certainly spends too much time blaming individuals for the faults of the world, faults that would be better addressed structurally than individually.

    That said, I can’t see a workable dividing line between what is ‘good for people’ and what is likewise ‘bad’ that does not mete out injustice onto someone, rob individuals of choices they really should get to make for themselves or that will not work counter to it’s own goals. Someone who, by genetic fate or otherwise, can indulge in unhealthy food for the pleasure of it, should get to. Moreover, in-depth analysis of food’s nutrients might be so costly or so time inefficient as to be impossible for small, stand-alone establishments that we would prefer dominated.

    To be sure, the status quo is unjust and unacceptable and I’m not saying that this is a line that cannot be walked but rather that it goes far beyond any solution as simple as dictating what can and cannot be served at restaurants.

  22. Part of our national mindset is rooted in making the biggest, the latest, and the best. This certainly goes for fast food. But when that takes dominance over what is healthy for us on all sorts of levels, we suffer.

  23. Thomas says:

    To add to my last comment, the glut of dubious nutritional information floating around doesn’t help at all. There are far too many self-styled experts claiming to know what constitutes a healthy diet and most of them disagree, even on fundamentals.

  24. shah8 says:

    Sodium is an economic issue.

    Food would cost a lot more without it. We should still set maximums per gram of food (and set it at a serious number, natch), but we should expect great howls of capitalist rage should that happen. It’s not as if there aren’t “helpful” ads that suggests you add salt to fresh fruits. *Sight*. Black pepper is highly underrated for aromatic fruits, but salt?

    A real food policy would make what is an already highly stretched profitable food economy (in which lots of subsidies are used) untenable. Tysons, just about all fried chicken chains (they need heavily brined chicken meat for shelf life), ADM, McDonalds/Wendy’s/BK etc, none of them are viable without life-threatening amounts of salt in food products. Or if policy are switched from simple foodstuffs like sugars and starch to veggies and other complex food that is much more expensive in terms of labor and capital inputs. I think people need to understand that the pervasiveness of bad food is largely a consequence of the capitalist process itself–a combinations of Gresham’s Law (bad food drives out good food, given set subsidy/duty policies), and Say’s Law which is that if you produce, someone will consume–and that consumption will push up demand elsewheres. A better food economy is pretty much only going to happen over dead boardmember bodies and it will be very highly regulated, which probably will generate its own issues.

  25. Why would anyone add salt to fruit? I’ve heard some wierd food seasoning suggestions, but that’s a new one.

  26. Diane says:

    Bagelsan: (Also, you must mean terms like “restaurant” and “cook” reeeeally loosely… I think those terms usually refer to the preparation of actual edible food? ;p)  

    And McDonald’s, technically, is edible food! ;) I can put it in my mouth, chew it, and get some nutrients (even if they aren’t the best nutrients, and I get them in outrageous quantities). I try to be loose in my definitions of “restaurant” and “cook” because I could quibble about a specific definition all day – but that is getting way off track.

    I guess the main thing that sticks me the wrong way about regulation of this sort is that I don’t want to protect the consumer. I want to educate the consumer and give options. I’d support giving tax breaks/other monetary incentives/almost any kind of bonus to restaurants that conform with nutritional guidelines. I don’t support a flat-out ban on foods that go outside those nutritional guidelines.

    The problem is that in order for my idea to work, it would not not be enough for there to be some immediately obvious incentive for a restaurant to have reasonable meal sizes and nutritional content. There would have to be other options in the area – restaurants with similarly priced meals with vastly different nutritional content. And then also consumers would have to be able to make an informed decision about which restaurant they would go to at which time.

    Realistically speaking, the “require foods to have Nutrient content below X” solution is a much more viable solution to promote healthy eating. Widespread societal change won’t fix the problem for everybody, and it also won’t fix the problem any time in the near future. But I still don’t like the idea of the requirement.

  27. C/L says:

    CassandraSays: Why would anyone add salt to fruit? I’ve heard some wierd food seasoning suggestions, but that’s a new one.  

    Clearly you don’t spend much time eating in the rural Midwest or the South. Salted watermelon is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

  28. Cara says:

    Aunt B.: But every time I order, regardless of which thing I order, I wonder “Why is a salad more expensive than a fancy-pants burger and fries?”If I’m supposed to be eating healthy, why can’t I get a salad at a fast food joint for the same price I can get a burger and fries? How is it that I can get so much more food for less money if that food is bad for me?”  

    Actually, the salads are a trick. Aside from costing more than the bacon cheeseburger, Wendy’s salads also have more calories and fat! I usually get the Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger, and most of the salads have about twice as many calories and over twice as much fat. Even the Apple Pecan Chicken Salad with vinaigrette has more. Upgrade to the Bacon Deluxe Single, and you’re still better off than most of the salads as far as calories, fat, and sodium.

    I went there once after exercising, and feeling all virtuous, got a salad with honey mustard dressing instead of ranch. (Both the salad and the dressing have since been discontinued, but the stats on the current salads aren’t significantly different.) I happened to glance at the back of the dressing packet and almost fell on the floor! A serving of Ben & Jerry’s has fewer calories! Forget the salad, I’m all for the Ben & Jerry’s! It’s not just Wendy’s, either–most fast food salads are like that. And then we eat more salad because we think we’re being healthy.

  29. C/L – Hmm, I will pass. I am a purist, I like my fruit totally unadulterated. Even years attending summer events in the UK failed to convince me that strawberries need cream or sugar added to them.

  30. Ledasmom says:

    A little salt – a little – sets off sweet flavors quite nicely; adding a little to the apples when making a pie, for instance, or sprinkling a bit on top of chocolate chip cookies or, for that matter, the infamous chocolate-covered pretzels, or thin chocolate bars in between two saltines, or chocolate-covered pretzels. Salt on fresh fruit isn’t that bizarre.
    Of course, if one doesn’t have to rely on canned or otherwise processed food for the bulk of one’s diet, one can do things like put salt in the apple pie without overdrawing one’s account at the sodium bank. The problem is that so much of the sodium we consume is basically invisible, already in the foods we eat (breakfast cereal! Can anyone explain to me why freaking breakfast cereal needs to have three hundred milligrams or more of sodium per serving?), which leaves no margin for such small pleasures as a sprinkle of salt on a boiled egg.

  31. Emily says:

    I currently live in a low-income, urban area of a large city, and I’m currently living at about the poverty line. I don’t have many food options – I can take two buses ($6 round trip) to the affordable grocery store, or one bus ($3 round trip) to the expensive Whole Foods store, or go across the street (free) to the convenience store, or go anywhere down the street (also free) to get fast food. I usually go to the affordable grocery store once a week, but I can only carry back 4 grocery bags, so I live on mac and cheese (made with milk and butter from the store across the street – I can’t take cold food onto the bus and have it stay cold) and fruit from the fruit stands towards the downtown area.

    And yes, eating healthy is financially difficult, especially since I have to pay that $6 in bus fare to get to the grocery store. I’ve never worried about gaining too much weight (on the contrary, no matter what I do, I can’t seem to push my BMI above 16) and I’ve got low blood pressure so I couldn’t care less about calorie and fat content, but I need to be very careful to limit my sodium intake to avoid aggravating my kidney problems. So, I pay 20 cents more here and 60 cents more there to buy lower-sodium food options – it only adds up to about $5 to my weekly grocery bill, but I pass on expensive things like coffee, veggieburgers, desserts, expensive fruit, or organic food, and it makes up the difference.

    But, if I was a single mom with 2 or 3 young children (not uncommon for a low-income woman my age), that would mean that healthy food might cost $15 or $20 more per week instead of $5 more, and that would require more grocery store trips, which would mean more bus fare, which would make me more likely to go to the convenience store instead for food. In that situation, it would be borderline impossible NOT to feed my hypothetical kids almost exclusively on ramen noodles and cheap, high-sodium boxed mac and cheese and other unhealthy, inexpensive prepared foods.

  32. littlem says:

    The neo-conservative world view that’s been so foregrounded for the last two decades puts an onus of personal responsibility on everything, whether appropriate or not.

    An underemphasized point, imo.

    It’s the antithesis of the New Deal mindset, which I find both staggering and staggeringly ironic in the face of the domestic New Deal-esque economic landscape.

  33. FashionablyEvil says:

    Shah, good point about the salt. There was a great article in the New York Times several months ago about salt in processed foods. As a general rule of thumb, you can reduce the sodium levels by about a third before you have to start improving the quality of the other ingredients (fresh herbs, better quality vegetables, etc.) Apparently once you go beyond that, processed food starts to taste like “cardboard” or “damp dog hair.”

  34. Bushfire says:

    I was fortunate to visit schools in France when I was on exchange as part of my teacher training. I attended PUBLIC elementary schools that had cafeterias with cooks who prepared food for students. They had an HOUR for lunch booked into the daily school shedule, and on one day when I was there they served fish and zucchini. The students ate it. I was completely amazed because American/Canadian kids bring a lunch box to school with unhealthy consumer products to eat (pudding, lunchables, Handi-snacks, I’ve even seen microwave popcorn) and rush to eat in the 20-30min they are allotted before recess, and I know they would turn up their nose at the sight of fish or zucchini at school. Even adults in North America usually have 20-30min to eat lunch while at work. Now that I’ve seen lunchtime in France I realize how structural this food problem really is. Imagine if every school and workplace had a cafeteria with low-cost healthy food? “Obesity epidemic” solved.

  35. Hot Tramp says:

    @Diane, thank you for pointing out that processed food IS STILL FOOD, and the nose-in-the-air snobbery about “real food” does us no good. I absolutely love The Fat Nutritionist‘s blog. She argues that the good-food/bad-food or real-food/fake-food dichotomy only reinforces the thoughts and feelings that lead to unhealthful eating.

  36. William says:

    One of the big problems I have with restricting ingredients, calories, sodium levels, or requiring posted nutritional information in restaurants is that these kinds of practices (while good for consumers in the short run) end up being a hidden subsidy for large chains in the long run.

    A big company like McDonalds is always going to be a step ahead of regulations and they have such a massive (not to mention distributed) profit margin that they can suck up added costs. Demand a reduction in sodium levels? They’ll switch to MSG (or god knows what) and take the loss knowing they’ll make it up in the future. Restrict calorie counts? They’ll pay to develop some kind of artificial fat, make enough campaign contributions to ensure that it gets FDA approval, and move on. Require detailed nutritional information? They’ll pay to have the analysis run and print signs. Thats the advantage of being a huge chain: you know you’ll have income tomorrow (so you don’t have to worry about even a significant loss in the short term), banks and investors know you’ll have income in the future so you can always find credit, and you can take advantage of the sheer volume of money you need to spend to stay open in order to demand deep discounts from vendors. A small company can’t do that.

    I live in an immigrant community and one of the great parts about being where I am is that within a mile of me theres dozens of cheap, authentic, family run restaurants representing food from dozens of cultures. They serve some of the best food in the city, often use local ingredients, and I can all but guarantee most of them are a lot healthier than McDonalds (and sometimes just as cheap). The problem they face, however, is that they’re small. Virtually all of them run on the razor’s edge and theres always someone going out of business and someone else opening their doors for the first time. Stuff like printing new menus when prices change is a big deal for some of these little restaurants and with the recession a lot of them have trouble just staying open now that the yuppies are staying home more often. Requiring detailed nutritional information, consistent recipes to reflect compliance with calorie and sodium regulations, or other kinds of regulations is going to mean that a lot of these people will need to pack it in. Its going to mean established members of the community losing their only means of making income, its going to mean fewer places for new immigrants to find work and get their feet under them, its going to mean less business for all the little local meat and produce markets. Ultimately, its going to mean more customers for McDonalds because a lot of people just don’t have time to cook. When you only have 15 minutes and six dollars you take what you can get. Heavy regulation, for me, means that I’ll have to trade my pretty healthy range of options from Ethiopian to Romanian for a marginally-less-unhealthy-than-yesterday, government approved portion of McSlop.

  37. Paraxeni says:

    A question from a curious Brit – are there no grocery (ie. all types of household food shopping) delivery services Stateside?

    I live in a food desert. Our nearest supermarket is a ten mile round trip, and I’m disabled and can’t drive, or waste energy walking around a huge hypermarket/supermarket. However, virtually every supermarket chain does food delivery. You pay a fee (usually between £3-£5) and pick a two-hour time slot, up to 11pm, on the day of your choice. Then you use the website to add things to your basket, checkout, and just wait for your stuff to arrive. The site has full nutritional breakdowns for every food/drink item, as well as allergy warnings, and a full list of ingredients and cooking/preparation instructions. They’ll even suggest cheaper versions of items you’ve picked.

    The food arrives in vans with sections for frozen, refrigerated and other items. Everything’s bagged up according to where you’ll need to store it, and the driver will bring your order into your kitchen if you need that.

    We’d be lost without it. There are no other options in the village we live in. Our local community centre even has computers so that people without their own internet connection can still get good food delivered. If someone can’t use a computer, then the CC staff will sit with them and set up their order.

    Are there any delivery services like this in the US?

  38. Bri says:

    bushfire@comment37

    You are making the erroneous assumption that fat is caused largely by what people eat. There are a number of reasons why people can be fat. And what is more important than WHY people are fat is WHY are fat people treated like a problem that needs to be ‘solved’ or as a ‘war’ that needs to be fought?

  39. Ismone says:

    I just want to throw out there that the research on salt and fat is really not good. It is likely that eating lots of refined carbs and going low fat has caused a lot of problems. /soapbox

    That said, I get really tired of people posting snarky things on fb about how the non-socialist healthcare plan is to eat well and move more. Grrrr. Because that is so easy for poor people.

  40. JustDucky says:

    I’ve been broke this summer – so broke, every last dime I had went to paying rent, and we lived off of a couple of different food bank boxes a month. Luckily, one of the locations provided staples, like flour, dried beans, rice, etc; but of the three we went to, the other two were all canned foods and convenience foods. No such thing as fresh foods at all, and certainly nothing better than bottom shelf canned goods (peas that are almost brown, corn with no flavor whatsoever, all laden with amazing amounts of salt and sugar). Luckily, both me and my husband are pretty good cooks, and were able to come up with inventive ways of preparing the ingredients to not kill us while we’re eating them (in better financial times we were, I admit, foodies), but if people who don’t have the same skill set we do are stuck living off food boxes and the kindness of strangers, it’s no wonder their health and eating habits are so out-of-whack with where they should be.

  41. @Paraxeni – Not that I know of. I believe some supermarkets have a limited delivery option, but I don’t think it’s as extensive as the one in the UK.

    As a transplanted Brit (now in California), I have to say, options designed for the general public good like that are a lot thinner on the ground here. There’s something in American culture that really resists the idea that the community should be helping people for whom things are difficult. It’s just not a very communitarian society, is what I’m getting at, in fact it’s often rather aggressively the opposite.

  42. littlem says:

    @Paraxeni –

    Are there any delivery services like this in the US?

    There are, but if you live anywhere that could be arguably construed as a comparative food desert, you have to wait for the neighborhood to gentrify before the food delivery service arrives — which, imo, really ought to offer yet another clue to those who sneer about food availability problems not being deliberately tied to class structures here in the U.S.

    I’ve lived in my multi-ethnic residential neigborhood for some years now, and was looking into the FreshDirect service aboout four years ago, when it wasn’t to be found in my neighborhood. However, now that my neighborhood looks — both demographically and in terms of new construction — more like the “new” Village, what else do you think is here?

    If you guessed FreshDirect, you win something.
    But I don’t know what.

  43. littlem says:

    Oy. Sorry about the typos, you all. Long day.

  44. Brennan says:

    @Bushfire,
    Yeah, pudding snacks are bad, but let’s not forget that (in America, at least), the hot lunches that the school supplies are just as bad if not worse. Tater tots are a staple, meats are a mystery, and vegetables are either canned or catsup. Plenty of parents send the boxed lunches because at least they know that the sandwich wasn’t deep fried. Of course, if you go that route, you have to send something that will keep, so they’re back to PB&J or sodium-rich deli meats.

    On a more general note, eliminating food deserts is a good place to start, but it won’t completely solve the problem of cost. On my last trip to the local Safeway, for instance, I discovered that not only is hamburger the only meat I can currently afford, but 80% lean is out of my price range. Even in well-stocked supermarkets, the cheapest food is always the least healthy.

  45. Bushfire says:

    @Bri

    I’m not sure where you’re getting that. Nowhere in my post does it say anything about why people are fat. I did, however, tell the story of how I came to notice the structural problems in North America that cause people to be unhealthy. If your comment comes from the term “obesity epidemic”, which I included in quotation marks, because it is someone else’s quote, then let me clarify that that is not my idea. Perhaps I should have written “obesity epidemic [sic]” but I was pretty sure on this blog people can figure out that such an idea is silly/ignorant/nonsensical/hateful without me pointing it out.

  46. Brennan says:

    @Paraxeni:
    I’ve never heard of that kind of food delivery service. It sounds awesome. The only full grocery delivery I’ve encountered in the States has been the institutional food services that stock commercial kitchens and deliver a week’s worth of food on a refrigerated truck. And, I know from my church’s experience trying to maintain a preschool that that kind of food is more expensive and has a poorer nutrient content than what you’d find in a local grocery store.

  47. Heidi says:

    Paraxeni: Our local community centre even has computers so that people without their own internet connection can still get good food delivered.If someone can’t use a computer, then the CC staff will sit with them and set up their order. Are there any delivery services like this in the US?  

    There are equivalent services in the US (Peapod, Amazon Fresh, etc.) but part of the issue has to do with the sheer size of the US in comparison to the size of the UK. I’m not sure if you’ve ever lived here, Paraxeni, but in rural areas in the US, you might be thirty or forty miles from a “real” grocery store, which means that services like the above, which tend to congregate in urban areas, are far less likely to be delivering to you (and that’s if you have a reliable internet connection to order with).

    It could be an option for more urban areas – but then you have to bear in mind the availability of a stove (many low-income families in the US live week-by-week in motels that don’t have food storage/cooking facilities), the ability to cook food, and the time to do so in the evening even if you have all those things.

    Low-income people in the UK have it much better, in my opinion, than their counterparts in the US. I once read that the UK as a whole has something like 1,000 people sleeping on the street on a given night. The US has more like 1,000,000 (and has far less than 100x the population of the UK). The availability of government services is dramatically less here, in my experience (poor people should just BOOTSTRAP themselves out of poverty, you see!).

  48. Spilt Milk says:

    Bushfire: “Obesity epidemic” solved.  

    Don’t make this about the ‘obesity epidemic’.

    The problem with conflating these food related health issues with fat is two-fold – firstly, as Bri has already pointed out, there are plenty of reasons why people are the weight they are and implying that it’s always about eating certain foods is really not helpful.

    Secondly, very pertinent to this discussion, is that making the conversation about food quality into one about fat drowns out the real issue — health — to the detriment of all (thin people included.) If a thin person eats fast food often their intake of things like sodium and trans fats is the same as a fat person who does the same: pretending that fat is the health issue clouds that reality. Likewise, concentrating on ‘ending childhood obesity’ instead of improving the health of ALL children leads only to fat shaming. Fat kids are already picked on disproportionately and their parents are already demonised (especially if they are also fat). And thin kids who aren’t getting enough nutrients are ignored. Let’s not do that, even obliquely. I think Jill has made it very clear that this is about the quality and accessibility of the food supply and sure, talking about school lunch programmes is very pertinent to that – so long as it’s about the healthfulness of those lunch programmes and not how many fat kids they allegedly ‘produce’.

  49. Colin Day says:

    @Cat Faber
    #16

    Aren’t there no-salt-added cans of veggies in your neighborhood stores? They may not be as good as fresh vegetables, but they will last longer. Del Monte has canned vegetables with only 10mg of sodium per 120 grams of product.

  50. haley says:

    Someone asked, rhetorically perhaps, why a cheeseburger and fries is cheaper than a salad. Other comments were made about giving tax incentives to restaurants that serve healthy food. Maybe thats a good idea, but I don’t think its the best one. Certainly not a solution. Burgers cost less because meat is heavily subsidized and because the meat industry is run like an assembly line. I won’t lecture everyone on the meat industry, cuz I’m pretty sure most feministe viewers are already familiar. I think if we want to encourage healthy eating, the first thing we do is stop subsidizing unhealthy food and meat. Then, the price of your McDonald’s hamburger would actually reflect its cost of production. Instead of being $4, it would be $10. Suddenly that $5.45 salad is more economical. (though still overpriced).

  51. de Pizan says:

    Paraxeni, there are some grocery stores where I live (in Portland, Oregon) that do deliver. However, most of these stores are local and will only deliver in the immediate area or if they are a national chain, will only deliver in certain cities or states. I only know of one store that delivers nationwide to any area, rural or urban (netgrocer), but they use a FedEx delivery service and so are much more expensive.

  52. Djinna says:

    I normally don’t care about sodium levels in foods, other than to make sure that I keep plenty of high-sodium foods on hand for when the blood pressure gets too low and I get all passing-out-every-time-I-stand, and need a quick patch. But that 10,000 mg thing really gave the chem-nerd me a major double take, and I’m glad the article pointed out that they thought it had to be a typo as well. Because, wow. That’s approximately an ounce of salt (sodium being less than half of salt, by weight, so 10 g of sodium is about an ounce of salt). How the hell do you get an ounce of salt into an order of wings? Not how do you make a dish and think it tastes like anything but a salt lick, but how on earth do you even manage to get an ounce of salt into however much breading and sauce go on 16 boneless wings?

    Wow, just the idea of pouring out that much salt into a jar blows my mind. I’ve weighed enough salts out in the lab that my first thought is, “what balance can actually weigh out that much with that many significant digits, and how much did it cost?”

    On the less geeky side, I hate how label-reading is such a gendered skill, in my experience. Doing the calorie-content math is so second nature to me, that I can’t not do it, even though I’m very good about the not-caring and instead listening to what my body needs thing. It’s math, it’s a compulsion. But the man, who is just as math-OCD as I am, is completely incapable of doing the x calories per serving times y servings per container equals the real calorie content of this food item. Have to always remind him, and how many servings per container? He wrestled in HS, so he was exposed to socially-reinforced eating disorders back in the day, but calorie-counting never got internalized the way it did with me. A lifetime of indoctrination that women must always be calculating every bite they put in the mouth, and preferably writing it down, it’s incomprehensible to me that anyone who regularly does mental algebra can’t even get close. I mentally always calculate “How many calories if I eat this entire container? And what fraction am I actually likely to eat?”

    And that’s just wrong, that some manufacturers think that it’s ok to fool people by putting 1.75 servings in a cup o’ soup that no one would ever think should be split. And I do appreciate those who make tasty things that will be nommed until gone have a serving size of one container, make a point of writing to them to thank them for their transparency.

  53. Bagelsan says:

    Eh, Diane, I thought the tongue-in-cheek nature of my comment was obvious.

    • Jill says:

      A question from a curious Brit – are there no grocery (ie. all types of household food shopping) delivery services Stateside?

      As others have said, it depends on where you live. In much of NYC, yes — there’s FreshDirect, which is a door-to-door delivery service. The problem is that it doesn’t go everywhere, and that it’s very pricey. Some supermarket chains here do deliver, but most of them require that you’re home to receive the delivery, and they only offer certain delivery times. That works if you spend most of your day at home. But if you work long hours (or two or three jobs), it’s not realistic. Although I do think it’s a great option for a lot of people.

      That said, delivery groceries seems to be a very New York-specific thing. Where I grew up — Seattle — I don’t think there were delivery grocery services.

      Aren’t there no-salt-added cans of veggies in your neighborhood stores? They may not be as good as fresh vegetables, but they will last longer. Del Monte has canned vegetables with only 10mg of sodium per 120 grams of product.

      Unsolicited suggestion to people who, like me, cannot handle a lot of salt in their food: Rinse anything in a can. I make a lot of bean salads, and it’s really difficult to find cans of beans that aren’t soaked in salty mixtures. I pour all of my canned beans (and canned vegetables) into a colander and rinse them really thoroughly before I eat them. It decreases the sodium significantly.

  54. prairielily says:

    Paraxeni –

    There’s a few problems with what you’re suggesting. Yes, there are grocery delivery services. However, they require:

    – credit card (to pay)
    – computer
    – internet access
    – two hours to wait at home
    – electricity (for the computer and storing fruits/veggies)
    – living in a neighbourhood that’s “covered” (there’s areas where cab drivers won’t go, so I doubt grocery delivery is different)
    – time/pots/knives/etc to prepare the healthier food
    – once you’re eating crap food for a long time, it’s hard to taste healthy ingredients. you get too used to the crap.

    I think the problem is that it’s difficult for people who haven’t experienced the American lifestyle to understand just how literally to take it when Americans say that people are being nickled and dimed to death. It takes poor people every ounce of effort just to *survive* a lot of the time. People work multiple minimum wage jobs with no benefits, no healthcare, no vacation, no maternity leave, no sick days, etc. Stores and fast food chains are open everyday and with very long hours, so people working those jobs often don’t even get Sundays/holidays/nights off.

  55. Jackie says:

    I realized that we have a Sonic restaurant in our area now, and the calories aren’t that bad. I mean, I wouldn’t order a burger, but the salads are pretty good. I’ve been utterly boggled by their claim that the crispy chicken salad, has less sodium than the grilled chicken salad. How is that? Are they like the Twilight Zone of salads or something?

  56. Bushfire says:

    Thanks Spilt Milk, but I’m not making this about an “obesity epidemic”.

  57. Jeff Kaufman says:

    @Dijinna:
    what balance can actually weigh out that much with that many significant digits, and how much did it cost?

    When they say 10,000mg sodium that’s not actually being given to that many significant digits. Really only the first two or so matter.

  58. shah8 says:

    Folks.

    Chicken is brined for shelf life. That is, meat is injected/soaked in high salt solutions.

    Fried chicken keeps.

    Those two facts are why charbroiled/grilled chicken might have more salt than fried chicken, however, in my experience, fried chicken uses the same meat, so it is typically saltier.

  59. Sheelzebub says:

    CassandraSays: Why would anyone add salt to fruit? I’ve heard some wierd food seasoning suggestions, but that’s a new one.  

    Cassandra, I love to salt my fruit. It’s delicious. Seriously. A little bit of salt on watermelon or mango or an apple is freaking awesome–it contrasts with the sweet just enough to give it a more complex flavor.

  60. WestEndGirl says:

    Re: what prairielily said, I’m like to ask some USians how many people are affected by being ‘nickle and dimed’ to death.

    Because it sounds like in the OP, there is a very wide structural issue with fast food in general and the prevalence of very high fat, very high sodium food in huge portions available in most restaurants, not just affecting those suffering under absolute poverty. I thought the Olive Garden was fairly middle class, for example?

    I work in a community centre right in the middle of the London inner city and believe me when I tell you it’s a food desert. There are very few regular street markets any more, which used to provide local, cheap sources of healthy produce, and the nearest proper supermarkets are a good 15+ minute walk which when you factor in the time issues and the bag carrying issues, means that often people resort to using the convenience stores nearest them which are full of canned/processed food. That said, I’ve noticed the community (which is ethnically, racially and religiously diverse) does cook for the most part at home, particularly their cultural dishes and doesn’t just go for the McD’s and kebabs and fried chicken which are sadly very available and very cheap. It’s usually the teenagers who go for the fast food.

    In general, the vast majority of Brits, including the poorest, have pretty good access to supermarkets with a huge array of fruit and veg. We do have delivery services and/or cheap mini-cabs to get home from the supermarket with bags. We work the longest hours in Europe, but our convenience meals from the supermarkets are *relatively* healthy and are traffic lighted (red, amber and green for recommended daily amounts) which makes it easy to make healthier choices if a person wants.

    So I guess what I am saying, is how much is structural and how much is choice in the US? I know for myself, if I’ve had a long stressful day I am far more likely to go for a lovely creamy lasagne from the supermarket rather than choosing a lower saturated fat alternative as it’s a question of comfort and not just availability.

    My sense is that the traffic light system should be made available in restaurant food and all prepared/processed food. Lots of restaurants have started making notes on menus about Healthier Choice etc. And then, it’s up to individuals to choose.

    Further than that, I’m not sure what can be done, short of overhauling the entire capitalist system which enables someone in every extended family to choose to be a homemaker and shop and cook for health or ensures that working hours are short enough for everyone to do it individually!

  61. Ledasmom says:

    I assume the grilled chicken has more sodium as a cheap way of making it tasty, as opposed to making better grilled chicken. The crispy chicken has the deep-fried thing going for it, as far as tastiness goes.

  62. Sarah says:

    Just wanted to point out before someone else does: Harlem isn’t a food desert. I used to live in East Harlem and there’s a big Pathmark on 125th St, and even in areas that are relatively far from the main drags you can find bodegas that sell fresh vegetables; no pre-washed salad packs though, and forget organic anything. In West Harlem there’s Fairway, which is a huge supermarket with fairly low prices on staples and lots of specialty items, and they also do delivery service although there’s an extra charge that may make that out of reach for some.

    Aside from that New York City centric bit: sodium is a real problem but I have no idea how to handle it. A lot of the time, as a single vegan person, I’d buy either ramen noodles plus some kind of vegetable or $1/lb boxed pasta plus olive oil plus some kind of vegetable plus herbs/spices. Sometimes I’d add seitan for protein, which you can get in Chinese stores at $2/can but which is super salty. The ramen noodles are less healthy but quicker to prepare, come with their own seasoning and oil, and produce less dishes that need to be washed–this last one’s a real issue if you come home late and your roommate gets woken by noise in the kitchen. Living on a budget, I’ve developed a habit of checking food labels to make sure they have enough calories, not for diet purposes–I doubt I’m the only one who’s done this. It makes a difference in terms of snacks too–in Indian stores you can get cheap snack mixes that have flavor and a fairly even mix of carbs/protein/fat, but at supermarkets and drugstores the cheapest snacks are either super-fatty potato chips or super-salty pretzels with barely any protein, or “beef sticks” bursting with salt and fat.

    But I think the biggest issues that stands in the way of parents keeping their kids healthy aren’t even related to the cost of food in a strict sense. It’s more that food is a relatively cheap indulgence compared to everything else. I think that if you’re a parent, you want to feed your kids healthy stuff and you’re going to sacrifice time and energy to chop up a bunch of veggies after getting home from your 3 jobs–but then on the weekend, your kids are clamoring for treats and guess what? You can’t give them a shopping spree at the toy store. But a trip to the local, heavily-advertised fast-food joint is an indulgence you can afford. Ditto for personal indulgence–ice cream is cheaper than a spa treatment. I just get pissed off when I hear “socially conscious” people put “cheap food” in quotation marks and say that we should all be paying $10 for burgers. In New York, the legislature came close to imposing an extra tax on soft drinks, which I personally never drink because I hate the way they taste, but I was against it because it’s just one more increased cost in the typical family budget–it’s not like they were trying to give an at-the-register credit at the same time for veggies. It’s just one more example of people claiming to care for you while making your life harder.

    • Jill says:

      Just wanted to point out before someone else does: Harlem isn’t a food desert.

      Someone should probably tell Scott Stringer and a multitude of community groups, then.

  63. piny says:

    So I guess what I am saying, is how much is structural and how much is choice in the US? I know for myself, if I’ve had a long stressful day I am far more likely to go for a lovely creamy lasagne from the supermarket rather than choosing a lower saturated fat alternative as it’s a question of comfort and not just availability.

    …When I’m especially fatigued, I usually ask Cook to make her famous three-cheese rarebit. So satisfying on a cold day, and she hardly has to wash up afterwards!

    I know that Tesco’s is just a supermarket–although some of its offerings, IIRC, are a lot more plush than what you would find in a grocery store in a blighted American area–but we aren’t taking about lovely creamy anything. We are talking about canned, fried, flash-frozen, reheated shit. When people have access to fresh foods, they do eat and enjoy them. The problem in the US is that many people can’t even purchase nice veggies at high prices. They can´t make comfort food. They can´t even buy it.

    The structure you were just describing is superior in convenience, cost, and appeal. The milk is stale, the cheese is rubber, the bread is styrofoam, the sauces are crammed with sugar and salt, the preserves are covered with salt and sugar, the produce is anything but green, and the meat is…second-tier. Fatty and fibrous, it’s pretty much bad, and it’s often more expensive than the food wealthy people can buy at their markets. Imagine being able to choose between brown lettuce with greasy canned dressing, scorched fishsticks with sweet ketchup, and a bag of frozen gristle from the local chicken factory. Do any of them sound lovely? Or nutritious? You can also have a bacon cheeseburger.

    Actual disparities aside, Orwell made this point, too. Tea with sugar is nicer than oatmeal with nothing; if you can buy oatmeal or tea, you might well prefer tea. It seems, though, like a lot of these examples indicate small cost and time differentials. Why the hell can’t a working family of four budget for lasagne and veg? And why is everyone too exhausted to make an evening meal?

  64. Sarah says:

    OK, just read up on Scott Stringer’s proposal. It lumps together neighborhoods that have vastly different food options: Far Rockaway where you can walk 20 long blocks without seeing a single food store, and Washington Heights which has lots of fresh-fruit-and-veggie selling bodegas plus a weekly farmers market on Thursdays on 175th St from July to November–the food there’s cheap, too.

    Maybe my definition of “food desert” is just more restrictive. I’ve often noticed that veggies and fruit bought at the local bodegas in East Harlem and Washington Heights tend to keep for much shorter periods than those bought at the farmers markets. But that’s nothing to me compared to the vast stretches without fresh food that I saw when looking for housing in Far Rockaway, or when visiting Detroit, where the delis I saw only had processed snacks.

  65. Jadey says:

    When I moved to my new city, I was initially dismayed by the change in quality of grocery from what I was used to. The quality and range of produce, and even the dating on dairy products. I can go through 4L of milk in two weeks just fine, but when I first checked out the grocery stores I couldn’t find any dating better than a week. I talked to one of the managers and he explained that it wasn’t an anomaly – that’s just the way they got it. I assumed it was a regional thing – I’d moved quite a distance across the country into an entirely new locale.

    Then I started shopping on the other side of town (I live in the middle and the buses take me either way – there are no stores in walking distance of downtown). Suddenly, even though it was the same chains I was shopping in and the prices were consistent between stores in the same chain, the quality of produce dramatically improved. We’re talking less than an hour’s drive from one end of the city to the other (and that’s only if traffic is bad), but suddenly the quality was right back where I was used to from the neighbourhood I grew up in. Just guess what the major difference between one side of the city and the other was.

  66. Bakka says:

    In reply to Thomas @24, there might be ways to meet food needs that consider the problems of access, that don’t require regulating options, but instead provide additional options.

    Thomas: That said, I can’t see a workable dividing line between what is ‘good for people’ and what is likewise ‘bad’ that does not mete out injustice onto someone, rob individuals of choices they really should get to make for themselves or that will not work counter to it’s own goals.

    I think the Station 20 West Community Enterprise Centre provides an interesting example. The gov’t noticed a food desert in a poor neighbourhood, and health inequalities in that neighbourhood, and then set out to develop a solution based on the input of the people from that neighbourhood. As a result of the access problems the local residents described in relation to food, they developped a food co-op, with community kitchen (for those without fridge/stove where they live), integrated with childcare (to make food prep and attending health services accessible to people with children, espec. single parents), community gathering spaces, a cafe, library, affordable housing units, job services and health services. The Centre is taking a holistic approach to health that sees these various elements as interrelated. It is also an interesting example because while it began with government funding (under the NDP), the government changed at election (to a conservative gov’t) who withdrew funding. But because the project has strong support from citizens, churches, health care professionals etc. the project is going ahead (though more slowly) without gov’t funding. It is also supposed to be under local-control so that the majority of the board will be community members.

    This does not really reduce anyone’s options, as far as I can tell. It only seems to create options.

  67. Sheelzebub says:

    Yes, there is a grocery gap.

    No, it doesn’t always come down to choice. When you have to take two buses for a 45-minute one-way trip to the grocery store AND take a couple of kids in tow, you aren’t as likely to go. And you aren’t going to be able to get things like milk, eggs, meat, or cheese unless it’s cool outside and the kids are older and are available to help you lug those grocery sacks home.

    Couple this with housing insecurity–if you are marginally housed in say, a motel or with family/friends (and you have kids) or in a boarding house (there’s one in my town), you don’t have the facilities to cook and preserve/store fresh, healthy meals. No huge freezer or comprehensive cooking facilities (besides, say, a burner and/or a microwave if you’re lucky), OR the kitchen is used by 10 separate people and there’s no room in the freezer so cooking a big pot of chili or lentil stew isn’t a viable option.

    That’s why the food pantries in my town actually ask for the “bad” food–the stuff that keeps, that doesn’t require a lot of cooking, etc. Cans of tuna, jars of peanut butter, salty-ass ramen noodles, etc. will keep your stomach full and you don’t have to worry about storing frozen vegetables or meats, or say, putting the chili you made into containers and putting them into your freezer. When you don’t have a freezer–or even a full sized fridge–you may as well be expected to fricassee a chicken.

    Add that with not having enough money to buy “the good” stuff (yes, there are farm stands here and they are at least 2x as expensive as the stuff trucked in from 3,000 miles away in the grocery store), working long hours to make what little you live on (or coping with a disability that makes it nigh impossible for you to work), and/or raising kids, and you basically have a perfect storm of suckitude.

    And maybe, after having (for all intents and purposes) only access to this “bad” food for all of their lives, people in this situation might “choose” the bad food. But keep in mind that a) they got used to it and b) as someone mentioned upthread, this food is designed to trigger our hunger response/generate cravings. So if it’s a choice, it’s not made in a vacuum, or made as freely as some would have us think.

  68. stonebiscuit says:

    And maybe, after having (for all intents and purposes) only access to this “bad” food for all of their lives, people in this situation might “choose” the bad food.

    YES. I’m struggling to correct years of really bad habits I developed while in college, and it is very, very difficult. Every morning is a struggle between oatmeal, which is cheap, easy, and good for me and will leave me feeling good in a couple of hours, and a biscuit from McDonald’s, which is none of those things…but I WANT IT.

  69. Cat Faber says:

    @ Colin Day #52

    My mom (on the low salt diet) got no-salt-added canned goods, but I think she made a special arrangement with the store manager to order a box (about 36 cans) at a time for her, and she would buy the whole box. She had more room to store cans than I do.

    I normally go for frozen or fresh veggies and haven’t looked into no-salt-added canned veggies here. (I live on the other side of the continent from where Mom had her deal with the store.) And for things like beans and lentils I normally cook them from scratch–otherwise I’d definitely give this a try, though.

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  71. Diane says:

    Bagelsan: Eh, Diane, I thought the tongue-in-cheek nature of my comment was obvious.  

    My response also started tongue-in-cheek, but then I got off on a rant. “Real food” versus “fake food” is one of my pet peeves.

  72. Colin Day says:

    #74
    @Cat Faber

    I’m normally able to get just a few cans at a time. I would have trouble carrying 36 cans, let alone storing them.

  73. Elisabeth says:

    I feel like these comments are kind of missing the point of the main post. The argument in the post was not another rehash the (usually strawman) McDonald’s or Whole Foods dichotomy, but rather that MANY restaurants we don’t think of as serving fast food or unhealthy food are indeed serving extremely unhealthy foods. These foods are not only aimed at poor people (indeed, any restaurant whose main clientele is poor is usually already considered unhealthy), but also the middle and upper middle class. PF Chang’s, the Cheesecake Factory, Chipotle, Jamba Juice, etc. are maybe not considered gourmet, but they are definitely *not* cheap, nor do they remotely cater to the poor or even working classes. (For example, I have to travel on the bus for miles through one of the largest food deserts in the US several times a week, and during the hour on the bus, I see plenty of McDonalds, KFCs, local fried chicken places, and gas station convenience stores, etc, but never have I seen one Cheesecake Factory or Chipotle. In posh neighborhoods in the city center? I can practically pass all the aforementioned restaurants in a 3 block radius. I haven’t done a scientific study of this, but I imagine if you look at the neighborhood distribution this would be true almost everywhere in the US.)

    Anyone who can pay $15-$20+ for a meal can afford to buy reasonably healthy foods from a grocery store. But more to the point, people who buy reasonably healthy foods at grocery stores might stop at Chipotle and assume they are not consuming 2,000+ calories and multiple days worth of saturated fat in a meal when getting a chicken burrito and drink. This is not an issue of “I know it’s not great but I only have $5 and have to feed my family,” this is an issue of purposely misleading customers on the part of big food chains by calling foods things like “grilled chicken salad” or terms they *know* people associate with healthy foods. Large chains have very sophisticated marketing people who actually study and do research on how people think about food and what sorts of decisions they make, and then take advantage of that when designing menus.

    One thing that people don’t seem to realize in these discussions is that junk food is not primarily aimed at poor people. I mean, yes, there is a type of junk food aimed at the poor, but there is also junk food for the middle classes (e.g. pop tarts, pudding cups, sunny delight, etc.), and junk food aimed at the rich/upper professional classes (e.g. “organic” granola, luna bars, etc.). The point is that, across ALL economic spectra, in all sorts of packaging and price points, American food is packed with crap to a degree that shocks (or would shock) pretty much everyone else in the world.

    Finally, holding restaurants accountable for what they put in your food can help everyone, not merely those with economic and political clout. When McDonald’s has to clean up its act and offer more healthy options due to public pressure, this makes (slightly) healthier options available to those in food deserts. This makes it possible for a mother feeding her family at McDonalds to get something green in her kids’ diets. (Or as I have personally observed, their “real fruit” smoothies seem to be really popular on my bus route, and people who otherwise might be drinking “milk” shakes can now at least get some vitamins and fiber in their diet where they otherwise might not have.)

    I get that the whole “let them eat organic whole-wheat gluten-free cake” attitude is annoying and elitist, but on the opposite spectrum, being shills for large food companies and industrial agriculture and the status quo seems equally problematic.

  74. piny says:

    Wellllllll…I think that all the points you make about industrial food are true, but I don´t know if I agree about the discussion of industrial food. The thing is, whenever this subject, the untenability of industrial nutrition, comes up, somebody will suggest going off the grid.

    And for many people in this country, that is possible. Many people have access to lower-sodium, lower-sugar options. Many people can investigate alternative access to fresh produce. Many people can cook more often, or use more whole grains, or whathaveyou. For those people, a personal campaign to be like Michael might have a salutary effect on health and budget. I´m one of those people, the people who can go, ¨Hm, flax seeds, wonder where I can pick up some of those?¨ Information about the calorie count in an eight-dollar burrito is useful to those people. A few years ago, it would have been useful to me.

    BUT there´s this other, probably larger, segment of the American population that has no choice at all. They simply do not have the time, money, or logistical advantage necessary to obtaining good food. They eat bad food not because they are confused about what bad food is, but because bad food is all there is. And even a meal as treacherous as that eight-dollar south beach burrito represents a luxury both in taste and nutrition.

    In these discussions, the two groups of people are typically conflated right out the gate–if not by the OP (and I think not here), then by commenters.

    So then other commenters feel obliged to chime in with informaton about the severity of the problem and the several factors that make it extremely difficult for any individual to combat. And I think these comments are important. I think many people don´t understand that many Americans live beyond the scope of conventional concern about health, and that they have to worry about basic nutrition.

  75. Kristin A says:

    We enjoy Chipotle from time to time and after studying the nutrition page, cutting out the tortilla and getting burrito bowls has significantly lowered the fat and calories. Of course we only have it as an occasional lunch treat!

  76. piny says:

    That is to say, I think that there are ways to make healthy choices that don´t depend on the worst excesses of consumerist re-packaging. Oatmeal at home, not from Jamba Juice, etc. And I think that some people can make those choices.

    But I think that a much bigger problem with our understanding of food and health is our inability to understand food and poverty. I think a lot of us don´t grasp just how desperate the situation is for many people. We don´t understand that in America there are children with blackened teeth and sour guts and fuzzy heads from bad food or too little food. We don´t believe that malnutrition is really an American problem anymore. Part of the disconnect is because our overall economic situation is hidden from us. Part of it is because malnutrition looks very different in a country that can devote so much money and effort to creating a national system of subsidized production and distribution. Part of it is because many of us have never lived without access to adequate food.

    But whatever the reasons, I think it deprives discussions like these of much of their force. It isn´t just about getting Chipotle to stop pouring salt on the Heart-Healthy Choices menu. It is about making sure that everyone has enough food–and about understanding that in this country, it really is that bad.

  77. piny says:

    BUT there´s this other, probably larger, segment of the American population that has no choice at all.

    I would like to edit out the ´probably,´ because it is a really stupid thing to say.

  78. Tei Tetua says:

    George Orwell wrote about this in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’. He makes it very clear how he’s frustrated by the choices poor people make about nutrition, but he sees it as more or less inevitable:

    the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t… When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea!

    http://www.george-orwell.org/The_Road_to_Wigan_Pier/5.html

    We can rail about the evils of big business, but we do have choices, and people are ultimately responsible for themselves. There’s a point at which worrying about other people’s health becomes telling them what to do.

  79. Elizabeth says:

    @Elisabeth 77

    How thought provoking! I know that cheap fast food is an enormous problem in many communities, but there is also a big assumption that if you go to The Olive Garden, you’re not eating crap food.

    As an on-and-off vegan/vegetarian/pescetarian/locavore/whatever, my friends tend to think of me as the health food nut in our little circle, and will proudly tell me of choosing an organic chocolate milkshake over a soft drink, or an enormous cheesy pasta dish over fried chicken. In addition to overprocessing and crap ingredients, people are also taught, at least where I’m from, to have a completely warped idea of what is “healthy”. While I don’t condemn my friends’ food choices, I have to question why they consider these things to be “healthy”.

  80. Bagelsan says:

    Elizabeth @ 77: I think you’re making some good points. Talking about the absolutely most worst-off people in the country is obviously important but it’s not the whole story here. We don’t need to play this “race-to-the-bottom/most-miserable” game because this is a problem for everyone — it’s bad to not have access to healthy food at all but it’s also bad to be lied to about your food. Both problems need to be solved, and the latter issue is a little more relevant to this research/post.

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  82. Heo says:

    I’d like to add one more voice to the chorus explaining the food delivery options in the U.S. — I live in the teacher/cop building in a very affluent suburb of DC, and I can have fresh food delivered by three grocery delivery companies, as well as door-to-door CSAs in the summer and early autumn. My colleague and friend lives in a working class suburb, and she didn’t know grocery stores delivered at all, because they don’t deliver anywhere near her. This is ironic because I have a no more than 15 minute walk/ 3 minute bus ride/ 2 minute drive to several grocery stores, while she has to drive for thirty minutes. If I feel peppy enough to walk for thirty minutes, and take out my old lady grocery cart to prevent arm fatigue on the way home, I can get to specialty stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. She would need to point her car in the direction of the nearest yuppie village, and drive for an hour to get there to see those same stores.

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