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Jan 2, 2011 09:46 AM

"Divided We Eat", What Food Says About Class in America - Newsweek


"What we eat has increasingly become a definitive marker of our social status. As the the upper and middle classes constantly refine their tastes for meals sprinkled with Sicilian sea salts or for "locavore" foods, the poor find it ever harder to find affordable food that's healthy. In fact, 17 percent of Americans are described as "food insecure" by the Department of Agriculture, while others splurge on fresh, organic produce."

  1. When I first read that, I wondered if anything in the article was really revelatory.

    Hasn't this always been the case? Not the food insecurity part, but the part about food being a marker of social class.

    The author hints at this and almost acknowledges it with this statement:

    "Corpulence used to signify the prosperity of a few but has now become a marker of poverty. Obesity has risen as the income gap has widened: more than a third of U.S. adults and 17 percent of children are obese, and the problem is acute among the poor."

    39 Replies
    1. re: ipsedixit

      Perhaps not revelatory, but worth articulating nonetheless. In the thousands of years of human history, it is only recently that the poor have a higher incidence of obesity than the rich. Status has moved away from overflowing bounty towards quality; whether one defines quality by healthfulness, political correctness or heavenly taste.

      While it is no surprise that in a capitalist society, the rich have more choices, it seems more troubling in the areas of food, health & nutrition. One would hope that in a country as wealthy as the US, everyone could afford to feed themselves on a diet that will not undermine their health.

      It is not simply a question of income. Tasty, nutritious meals can be prepared at home at lower or similar cost of a fast food dinner. Big food biz is adept at presenting the semi-addictive properties of fat, salt and sugar in ways that appear irresistible to much of the population. The challenge is to raise people's consciousness so that they make better choices, without the gov't being overly intrusive in influencing those choices.

      1. re: Rmis32

        if it's not a question of income they why don't poorer people cook these cheaper and more nutritious meals? Pound for pound fresh fruit and vegetables are generally more expensive than canned anyhow, but it's a question of education and habits. Eating well is expensive.

        I also do not believe the US is wealthy, yes there are many wealthy parts but there are overwhelming poor areas. It would be interesting to see if eating habits changed if you could give low income families more money or grocery coupons and see if they changed their grocery buying habits. I suspect that they would not.

        1. re: smartie

          "I also do not believe the US is wealthy, yes there are many wealthy parts but there are overwhelming poor areas"

          Sorry, but this is just plain wrong.

          1. re: yfunk3

            I don't think it's wrong so much as incomplete... there are very wealthy areas and very poor areas. Overall, however, I suspect our average income falls on the higher side compared to many other countries. Of course, our cost of living is higher than many other countries, as well.

            According to Wikipedia, 50% of US households earn under $50,000/year, with a national median of $44,389/year (although elsewhere in the same article, they quote $49,777). As you might expect, countries like Switzerland and Canada are higher than us, while other countries like the UK and Australia are slightly lower.

            1. re: waldrons

              And at least my anecdotal experience after living in Europe is that the cost of food here (especially meat) is dirt cheap compared to other countries.

              1. re: kleine mocha

                The US also spends less money per capita on food than Europe. It would appear that owning an SUV, buying a house you can't afford, or the newest technological advancement are more important to the majority people here (in the US, obvy not on CH) than eating well.

              2. re: waldrons

                Canada is not richer than the US, on the contrary. I do think our income gap remains smaller though, although it has been growing in recent years.

                1. re: lagatta

                  I think food desets are something folks forget about unless they live in low income areas. In my city, there are no grocery stores accessible to folks who didn't have cars or time to take public transportation. The closest general grocery to downtown has sad looking food. A new small market opened downtown, but is struggling due to management reasons and higher prices.

                  You really can't buy better food, if you cannot get to it.

                2. re: waldrons

                  middle class in america starts at 125K, and goes up from there. are you middle class?

                  by some definitions, America is beginning to descend into a third-world country (concentration of wealth by the elite, primarily).

              3. re: smartie

                I think poorer people don't cook as much as they did a couple of generations ago for a couple of reasons: They don't know, and they don't know how. If there was no one in the home to serve as a role model for "This is how we behave to avoid spending unnecessary money," they don't KNOW that cooking saves money. And cooking in general, as most of us know, is something that fewer people learn to do than in generations past. No classes in school, a household that doesn't cook but relies on prepared foods, both fast-food type and the microwave stuff (and its ilk)'s a young person learn how to cook a pot of beans?

                In addition, for the deeply poor, unless they have recently come to this state and have belongings from when they were more financially able, it takes capital to buy a bean pot and the rest of the equipment. Now, I know a bean pot can be had for, oh, $5 or so, but that's delayed gratification compared to the special at Taco Bell, and delayed gratification (and the inability or unwillingness to tolerate it) is another problem that's added to this whole thing.

                1. re: lemons

                  Exactly. And if you're poor and can't cook, you can't afford to bin any cooking disasters. So you can see why people think better safe than sorry and eat out.

                  1. re: lemons

                    I think this is especially true for the working poor by the time required to obtain and cook food. I'm specifically thinking of a family I know, where the mother bakes for a living while the father works full time and then some, but they are still below poverty level. They do very little baking or cooking at home. It's kind of ironic, because I know for a fact she has the skills to make wholesome, inexpensive meals for her family, but she's just plain dead tired much of the time, and he's worse than dead tired after working overtime most weeks. So, they end up eating at Cici's Pizza much of the time, where the buffet is cheap and filling, but of neglible nutritional value. On top of this, she has health problems that are exacerbated by processed carbs and fats. It makes me sad for them.

                    1. re: amyzan

                      time is key. if you don't have a spare hour to make food... and the kids are still too young...

                    2. re: lemons

                      I wonder about this 'delayed gratification' assumption here, which implies a lack of restraint and will rather than a lack of time as well as energy. Shopping for produce takes time-- especially if one lives in a poorer area where the quality of goods is less. (I recall quite the upset in DC when it was discovered Safeway was taking the expired/wilted produce from VA and MD and sticking them in the DC shops.) Moreover, shopping for fresh produce, looking for deals, etc. takes time (not only in the shopping, but in the transportation) and is not always met with success (how many of us shopping after work find empty shelves, long queues, etc.?)

                      This may seem like semantics, but these language issues go a long way to framing issues of economic injustice and choosing to hint at laziness when it comes to the working poor is possibly something best avoided lest one prompts the sort of fingerwagging I've seen down thread.

                      1. re: Lizard

                        I agree. I found the "lack of discipline" argument smacks of notions of inherent inferiority, as if it's genetic. That is a very slippery slope.

                        1. re: Lizard

                          I agree. The working poor tend to do the more physically demanding jobs in society--it's not about laziness if you're moving heavy equipment, doing construction, being a maid, etc. And, even if there is access, which often isn't the case, to good quality food, there's just being exhausted at the end of the day. Delayed gratification is about willpower, or lack of it--it's not exclusive or predominant in people in lower income levels.

                          1. re: chowser

                            Winner winner, processed dinner. If I had to lay the blame at the feet of any one factor, it'd be the double earner nuclear family. In the past, even the poor had someone at home to cook the meals.

                            1. re: Naco

                              that ain't the case anymore. 20% of 25-35 yr olds live with their parents... nuclear family is a fantasy.

                          2. re: Lizard

                            I can cite plenty of areas in my city, where it's at least a two mile walk to a supermarket. And people get bused out of there to jobs in the morning.

                          3. re: lemons

                            I just want to add that many poor people live in 'food deserts' where a regular grocery store doesn't exist. Imagine that you are a nurses' aid or a kitchen worker with 3 kids to feed. You spend hours waiting and riding a bus, making an 8 hour day more like a 12 hour day. You spend your days on your feet, but you don't move around all that much, or at least you don't move quickly enough to be fit. By the time you get home you don't feel like cooking, and even if you did you can't find decent food to cook anywhere around where you live.

                            Of course you buy fast food, or food from a convenience store. Of course you and your family eat too many simple carbs, and not nearly enough fresh veggies, fruit and good quality protein. And since your day is taken up with waiting, riding a bus, and standing or moving slowly all day long, of course your body pays the price of this.

                            1. re: lemons

                              yeah, you walk three miles on bad knees to get some beans. good luck!

                          4. re: Rmis32

                            The rich are not thinner on average because they eat more nutritiously vis-a-vis the poor.

                            Rather, they are thinner because they have more money, leisure time, and/or insurance to pay for Botox, liposuction, lap band surgery, gimmicky diets (e.g. cabbage soup and even some iterations of Zone or Atkins) personal trainers, gym memberships, etc.

                            1. re: ipsedixit

                              guess that leaves only one solution:

                              EAT THE RICH!

                              1. re: linguafood

                                Wouldn't recommend it.

                                Even after a full day's worth of brining, the Rich are still not very succulent.

                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  You don't really beleive that, do you? Botox does not make you thin. Insurance does not pay for lipo. Cabbage in water is about as close to free as any food I can imagine.

                                  Perhaps you're making a subtle joke that i've just missed.

                                  I think lemons above has hit the nail on the head with the "delayed gratification" phrase. The same inability to deny oneself immediate pleasure by eating a salad instead of a pizza bears a remarkable similarity to the ability to put money in a 401k instead of spending it immediately.

                                  1. re: danna

                                    If the group at issue is identified by the fact that they are unable to consistently afford food, isn't a 401k contribution a bit of a stretch?

                                    1. re: MGZ

                                      Well, first, I'm not talking about people who actually can't afford enough food. I'm responding to ipsedixit's comment on obesity. I stand by the assertion that if you are obese, you are not "food insecure." I'm talking about the VAST number of fully employed people who can afford food, but choose to waste money AND calories by making unhealthy choices.

                                      And although it might be a savings account or a piggy bank in the closet rather than a 40ik, saving some money for a rainy day (or to buy the bigger, cheaper by the pound bag of rice, if you will) is the ONLY way people will pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty.

                                      I have seen this phenomenon all my life. I grew up in a rural, poor part of South Carolina. My Mom taught in the public schools. I remember her telling me of colleagues who were sent by the county to the grocery store w/ underprivileged mothers to try to explain the concepts of how to shop and cook and eat real food. I assure you in the 70's South, this was not done for the sake of "slow food" or "going green", it was done because real food is cheaper than packaged and pre-prepared. Lucky, since it's also healthier!

                                      And today, at work, i audit the payroll registers and i see the numbers of people who appear to make a high enough wage to support themselves, yet they fail to take advantage of 401k, even though it means FREE MONEY from the company. But it's free FUTURE money, and the future is apparently too far off to worry about.

                                      I'm not saying I don't have sympathy, and even empathy (it's not like all my food and financial choices are golden either), but it's not helping anyone to pretend that obesity is not caused by personnal choice.

                                      1. re: danna

                                        The correlation between poverty and obesity is pretty well documented. See, e.g. While I agree that our choices affect our well being, I am not sure that we all make choices based upon the same motivators or value systems. Moreover, this entire conversation has the neglected subtext regarding poverty and education - not just about food, but as to decision making as well.

                                        1. re: MGZ

                                          Education: exactly! i'm not saying i don't believe the poorest Americans are the fattest. I'm just saying they aren't fat because healthy food costs more. I agree w/ the suggested actions in the article you linked.

                                          1. re: danna

                                            That's simply incorrect. It's an undisputed fact that whole foods cost more than processed crap. Calorie for calorie, soft drinks are the cheapest stuff in the store.

                                            1. re: alanbarnes

                                              I hate this argument, and I don't buy it. I am well aware that the processed crap is, in effect, subsidized, and thus way cheaper than it ought to be. But there is plenty of real food out there that is dirt cheap. Rice, beans, and corn tortillas cost next to nothing and can sustain one for a long time. Add some collards, and when money allows, a cheap cut of meat as a treat, and you have a perfectly healthy diet that I'm pretty sure beats the price of junk food. Maybe not calorie for calorie, but in terms of nutrient value and feeling full an satisfied.

                                              I do not think calories per dollar is how anyone needs to be looking at food costs, at least not in this country. Anyone who is obese, regardless of income, is getting too many calories. To say someone can't afford, financially, to eat fewer calories is absurd.

                                              1. re: MelMM

                                                It isn't an argument, it's a fact. You can hate it all you want, but that doesn't make it any less true.

                                                There's a ton of peer-reviewed scientific literature about food costs. And all of that literature is consistent: whole foods cost more than processed foods. A lot more. Yes, some whole foods are less expensive than others, and some junk food is downright spendy. But on the whole, it's cheaper to eat junk than to eat well.

                                                If you want to inform yourself (instead of just "not buying" the facts), pick up any issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The December 2007 issue would be a good place to start, especially the article "The Rising Cost of Low-Energy-Density Foods" by Pablo Monsivais and Adam Drewnowski. It touches on issues of food cost, satiety, and socioeconomic stratification.

                                              2. re: alanbarnes

                                                Agreed but it is still not an excuse for too many people only using processed crap instead of whole foods. (But it is also well known that it is doable to eat healthy with less money). There are many factors necessary to solve these problems and education is one of them.

                                                1. re: honkman

                                                  Agree totally. It is possible to eat well for very little money. The problem is, nobody's going to get rich selling people healthy food. Seriously, if kale got 1% of the advertising that KFC gets, don't you think it might cause a small change in some peoples' behavior?

                                                  And while education is important, it's not well-received by the same folks who deny that food inequality is a problem. Anybody who tries to educate others about nutritional alternatives (Michelle Obama, Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver) is shouted down by the same folks who claim that obesity, poor health, and poverty all stem from moral inferiority.

                                                2. re: alanbarnes

                                                  Yes, healthy food is often more expensive, but supermarket purchased healthy foods are no more expensive than a meal bought at a fast food chain. If one accepts the premise that his/her health is at stake, then they may be willing to trade the convenience of prepared food for a nutritious meal. Of course, if one has gotten used to a steady dose of cheeseburgers and fried foods, then it will take some adjustment to learn to enjoy the taste of vegetables, grains and proteins that are less fat & salt laden.

                                                  1. re: alanbarnes

                                                    not at costco. i can get a pound of flour for the same price as one soda, I believe.

                                              3. re: danna

                                                Actually, obesity has been direclty correlated to food insecurity in numerous studies. And while personal responsibility and good judgment can't be overrated, the simple fact of the matter is that they (and everything else in life) are a whole lot easier to accomplish when you don't have to worry about how to pay the rent or whether you're going to have the cash to put food on the table next week.

                                                1. re: danna

                                                  umm... this seems stupid in the extreme. if you are having babies born headless, you are nutrionally food insecure. if you get rickets, same deal.

                                                  I have not taken advantage of 401K. because I know a ponzi scam when i see one. maybe after the boomers tank the market?

                                      2. The message is a time-tested fact, but the argument was poor and just about contributes to the problem.

                                        The excerpt that got me was this:
                                        '“I buy bananas and bring them home and 10 minutes later they’re no good…Whole Foods sells fresh, beautiful tomatoes,” she says. “Here, they’re packaged and full of chemicals anyway. So I mostly buy canned foods.”'

                                        To me, that's just mis-information run amok. So many louses are exaggerating and lying to further their own cause and as a result a lot of people believe junk science to the point where it's having a negative impact in their lives. I'm actually upset at the thought of people that are forcing themselves to buy organic milk (and other expensive items).

                                        The one that left me speechless (in the level of incompetence) was:
                                        "By contrast, 54 percent of the French dine at 12:30 each day. Only 9.5 percent of the French are obese."

                                        Not the first (or last) time I've seen researchers be really dumb. The thing about France and many other nations is that what's "Small" over here is usually "Large" over there. Not to mention that French food is arguably the most calorie-loaded of all cuisines considering all the butter based sauces and ingredients like foie gras. Nevertheless, they've got a handle on the whole portion size issue.

                                        If I took away anything from that article, it's this:
                                        Bad science and information often lead people into making poor nutritional decisions.

                                        6 Replies
                                        1. re: ediblover

                                          Do want to point out that foie gras is an indulgence - I've never met anyone in France who served it except at Christmastime. And there are far fewer elaborate "butter-based sauces" in everyday French cooking than you think.

                                          1. re: lagatta

                                            Everyday French cooking is actually pretty darned healthy. No snacking between meals, smaller portions, lots of vegetables, foods from all four food groups, and most of it DOESN'T come from a can, jar, or freezer box.

                                            And most of the ingredients are recognizable as actual food.

                                            1. re: sunshine842

                                              Absolutely. Though France and even Italy are also succumbing to processed food, and its attendant ills.

                                              I add some protein to the classic French breakfast, but remind people that for most people, it is NOT croissants every day, but tartines of bread. And a new nutritional consciousness means some of the bread is less refined than a generation or two ago.

                                              Foie gras and "butter-based sauces" exist, but they are in the realm of fine cuisine, not what most families eat every day.

                                              The fabled French Paradox includes a lot of salad and cooked vegetables.

                                              1. re: lagatta

                                                Just wanted to add here that it is true that France is, I believe, headed for trouble in this area was well. Last year, I lived about 45 minutes outside Paris, and while I often headed to the outdoor market for my produce and cheese, I went to Carrefour for the other items.
                                                Just like in the U.S., I saw the wealthy, well-dressed, young, childless, shoppers at the marche, and the less well-off woman with three children with her in the Carrefour -- and she wasn't buying nice cuts of meat and Epoisses. I should point out that this Carrefour was quite near a low-income housing project. Most people I stood behind in line had processed foods (chips, meals-in-cans, cereal, etc) at the Carrefour and many appeared to be overweight.
                                                (**Just wanted to add, I don't mean to imply that people with children don't go to farmers markets or anything like that, but I noticed that the women with large families who appeared to not have much money were NOT there).

                                                1. re: anakalia

                                                  Interesting...the market in my town (about the same distance from Paris) is crowded with people from every walk of life, and the boulanger in the public housing development is held in high regard by everyone.

                                          2. re: ediblover

                                            "Not to mention that French food is arguably the most calorie-loaded of all cuisines considering all the butter based sauces and ingredients like foie gras" - You couldn't be further from the truth. Just because high-end restaurants in France (and anywhere else in the world) like to serve foie gras doesn't mean that the average French meal consist of foie gras or mainly butter like you implied but is rather healthy. (But I agree that one of issues with obesity, beside many others discussed in the thread, is the portion sizein the US.)

                                          3. i think the article is an interesting read, however its points are pretty obvious and have been for a long time IMO

                                            1. Horseshit. First, humans got to this point by eating meat. Lots of it. Vegetables and green stuff were eaten when THERE WAS ABSOLUTELY NO OTHER CHOICE. The current food pyramid is a direct creation of lobbyists paying off the FDA.

                                              A coworker of mine and I are working with a single mom with three kids. She gets roughly $400/month in food stamps. I got her enrolled in a local co-op that takes food stamps (I paid the fee but she'll be able to afford it next summer). We help her shop and cook. She and her family are enjoying delicious soups and stews. Some of the farms involved in the co-op have greenhouses so there are treats like tomatoes and raspberries. But the best part is they eat real food (coworker and I gave everyone thermoses for Xmas so they can have healthy real food for lunch) and their health is improving. Mom used to be on meds for type 2 diabetes, but no more. The oldest daughter has lost 50 pounds, the two sons have shed their fat and are growing up healthy and lean. They have a planned junk food binge once a month, but per Mom "they don't like how it makes them feel" and I think the last one was in the summer.

                                              Following a "healthy" diet on food stamps is totally doable if it's shown how to do it. If you're in a position, please do so.

                                              /New Year's love to Michelle, Jaquinta, Marcus and Jayron

                                              15 Replies
                                              1. re: MandalayVA

                                                Not everyone lives in areas where there are co-ops and easy-accessible, fresh vegetables. Not everyone has the transportation network or access to access such sources. Every situation does not happen in one homogeneous vacuum and one location where there are no variables and things are predictable.

                                                1. re: yfunk3

                                                  Thanks for making this point. I live in a poor urban neighborhood which has great access to junk food, but almost zero access to grocery stores unless you have a car, which many of us don't. Those of us who care about eating real food organize our weekends around the three hour farmers' market on Saturdays with all of 7 or 8 vendors, which is at least somewhat nearby. Those who have to work, or who don't know to care about getting there, are basically out of options for produce and other non-processed foods.

                                                  1. re: cbrunelle

                                                    I shop once a month at costco. this may be a silly idea... but surely there's someone you can buy a car from once a month ($100 a day, or some such...)?

                                                  2. re: MandalayVA

                                                    I agree that, given access to good ingredients and instruction on how to prepare them, it is entirely possible to eat well for very little money. But what if you live in West Oakland, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Northern California, where there's not only no food co-op, but no grocery store? How can you eat well when all of your food options come from convenience stores and fast food restaurants?

                                                    The line that struck me hardest was the quote from Michael Pollan: "we have a system where wealthy farmers feed the poor crap and poor farmers feed the wealthy high-quality food."

                                                        1. re: alanbarnes

                                                          I applaud Bittman and the article, but I think he over simplifies or rather neglects to mention one key ingredient that stops many people from learning to cook or to continue to cook and that's seasoning. No matter how fresh or whole the ingredients if you don't use the right amount of salt, pepper or whatever can make them taste terrible. Since seasoning is a trial and error part of cooking I'm sure many well meaning people try it, find it tastes bad or not as good as the KFC pot pie, get complaints from the family and give up.

                                                          It's not that cooking is so difficult, but you have to be willing, you have to expect to make some bad food until you learn to make it the way you like it. I would like to have seen him set peoples expectations a bit more realistically.


                                                          1. re: JuniorBalloon

                                                            This particular article isn't a "how to," it's a "you can." While Bittman's certainly guilty of oversimplification, he oversimplifies for a reason - to succinctly make the point that nearly anybody can cook tasty, nutritious food for very little money and without investing huge amounts of time. That's a message that bears repeating, even if all the details aren't laid out with each repetition.

                                                            1. re: JuniorBalloon

                                                              finding cheap and good seasoning, like penzeys, makes up for many a bad experiment... ;-)

                                                            2. re: alanbarnes

                                                              This article is relevant to all people, not just lower incomes. I live in a relatively wealthy area and few people I know cook and those who do usually reassemble processed foods a la Sandra Lee. It's not about access to the right foods, skills, money; it's about convenience to them. We'd all do better, CHers aside who do cook, to try to cook real foods. That said, it's one thing to have a desk job and come home and cook a meal. It's another to work a physically demanding job and then come home, cook, clean, shop, etc after. If I were making beds and cleaning toilets all day, or something like that, I'd have problems coming home and making a complete meal, too.

                                                        2. re: MandalayVA

                                                          Good for you!!! The teaching a man to fish concept still holds true.

                                                          1. re: sunshine842

                                                            It's really satisfying to see this family get healthy and enjoy real food.

                                                            And for you naysayers, how many of you are willing to get off your butts and TAKE people to where the food is, hmm? It eats a whole, I don't know, TWENTY MINUTES of my life a week to take Michelle with me to the co-op pick-up and bring her back to her place. I have lots of free time on the weekends and it's a joy for me to go over to Michelle's place (which is located in a part of Richmond VA where people my shade pretty much always have on cop uniforms) and help them set up food for the week. It's true that more and more people of every income bracket don't cook anymore, but if someone wants the opportunity I'll be glad to give it to them. Like I said, if you're in the position to help someone please do. Michelle was raised by her grandmother and fondly remembered her grandmother's collard greens with bacon, and she literally cried when we were able to recreate them. And they were excellent. :D

                                                            1. re: MandalayVA

                                                              I help. But I'm not so pennywise to think that your help, or mine,is fixing anything. Consider: this american individualism help means that the person needs to be of sound mind, and reasonably socially adept, combined with a good network of friends (enabling her to find you).

                                                              There's five vets on the street, who may want greens -- just a taste of home. They don't got no facilities, and your solution wouldn't help them none. and you might not want their drunk asses in your car.

                                                        3. The original comment has been removed