Classism, Inc.

Precision Nutrition, a site whose RSS feeds I follow in large part because they offer a very different take on food than the typically more academic materials I read, have a new post up tonight. This post starts out

A few days ago I re-watched Food Inc, a documentary on the food industry. About halfway through, we meet a family of four ordering from the dollar menu at the fast food drive-thru.

During the interview we learn that the father has type 2 diabetes, takes about $200 in medication and may lose his job if his eyesight worsens from the diabetes. Meanwhile, the mother explains how the dollar menu is a better deal than a head of broccoli for 99 cents.

3 burgers a day for a month — $90.

Diabetes medication for a month — $200.

Your health – priceless.

Actually, even keeping good health out of the calculation, a $1 burger costs a lot more than $1!

Let’s say this gentleman ate burgers for breakfast, lunch and supper for a month – 90 meals that cost $90. Now let’s add in the medication, for a grand total of $290 a month or $3.22 a burger.

The post then goes on to discuss metabolic syndrome, and includes some interesting (if old) studies and results for the most effective way to treat metabolic syndrome. The post ends by saying

As a society we prefer “easy yet complicated”, like discovering new drugs for disease. But “difficult yet simple”, like diet and exercise, is probably the most valuable both in terms of money and well being. …Combining diet and exercise is more effective for losing body fat and improving your health than diet or exercise alone.

And this solution is a lot cheaper than drugs.

Well, yes. And no. The problem with Precision Nutrition’s post is a problem that I repeatedly see crop up in discussions about food, health, and how we eat. What makes it more egregious here is that the movie Food, Inc. is very clear, in their interview with the family of four that Precision Nutrition is using to anchor their blog post, is that finances and time are a significant factor for this family.

Before I go further, it would probably be helpful if we were all on the same page. Here is a two and some minute clip from the movie, discussing their eating/buying habits (the drug costs were in another section which does not appear to be online):

What do you hear the family saying? Yes, they’re talking about their health, but they’re talking about a lot more than that. They’re talking about time, access, convenience, and yes, money; the family interview makes it clear that they have $1-$2 a meal to spend per person, and very little more. Yes, at this point it is in part because they are juggling prescription costs with everything else, but you can’t presume that first and foremost, the father could just stop taking the medications and switch his diet around (that the $200+ on medications would automatically be available to switch to food, if he desired). Nor can you necessarily assume that the extra $200 – an extra fifty cents per person, per meal – will be enough to radically change the diet of a family of four.

As much as I enjoy the Precision Nutrition website and blog (and I do, don’t get me wrong; I don’t have time to read things that bore me), this post of theirs, the tone they take towards the family that anchors their post, and in fact the tone they take towards food and health in general, mirrors a larger issue within the healthy food and lifestyle movement: a lack of awareness of the classism being imported into the discussion.

A family that is straining to spend $2/person on food is not going to find a head of broccoli for $1.29/lb affordable, no matter how many times they are taken to the produce isle. They will point out that the snacks, candy, and even soda are cheaper, a better value, and more affordable (as Michael Pollan notes in the clip, the foods that are made from subsidized crops). Is this a long-term sound plan? No, of course not – but it can be hard, if not near-impossible, to reconcile long-term risks when the short-term benefit (being full) is so clear.

A family that is gone 14-18 hours a day is not going to find the advice to just eat at home a simple, easy, or even practical one. Ignoring advice on when food should be consumed for maximum health benefits, let’s just consider the implications for a moment: the family leaves the house at 6am. What does this mean, practically? Well, it means that the latest people are rising is probably 5:30am. In order to have a fresh-cooked meal, everyone would have to get up earlier, by 15-30 minutes, in order to eat it, and someone else would be up 30-60 minutes prior to that to make it. So we now have three people waking up at 5am, and one person waking up at 4am.

The family arrives home at 10pm. One person has to make dinner; let’s be generous and say that the cook could get the meal on the table in an hour. Now it’s 11pm. The family eats, someone does dinner, everyone cleans up; the “earliest” they are going to bed is now midnight. Practically speaking, three people get five hours of sleep, and one person receives four.

This is as unhealthy, and as untenable, as eating fast food for a meal – and could have greater consequences on many people. (Chronically sleep-deprived people can become a danger to themselves and others at work.)

It’s easy to say make food at home or exercise for an hour a day when your job doesn’t take you out of your house for more than eight or nine hours. It’s easy to say buy unprocessed foods from the perimeter of the grocery store when you don’t have to count your pennies, when you can consider quality instead of quantity.

But for many Americans, these things are not an option. Food, Inc. went out of it’s way to make sure that viewers understood that how we eat is more than a choice, it’s a class issue that is driven by time, money, and knowledge. It’s disturbing to see the class issue continually dropped out of discussions about healthy lifestyle and healthy eating because many of the most at-risk people for health issues from eating habits are in the lower income classes.

I realize that the target audience for the Precision Nutrition website is people with some very disposable income, rather than those within a lower income bracket. However, when the family from Food, Inc. is utilized like this, an uglier side of classism can be seen: patronizing humour. By swiping the Mastercard format and slogan, Precision Nutrition moves away from an informative discussion of metabolic syndrome, and crosses the line into poking fun; those poor folks who don’t know better, if they only did X, Y, and Z, their lives would be so much healthier.

I am sure that almost anyone who is in a lower income class bracket would agree that their life would be better, and healthier, if they spent less time at work, less time commuting, were paid more, and had more time in the day to cook, relax, sleep, and do all the things that are advised by pro-health and pro-food advocates. But until the jobs pay more and the food costs less, ignoring the issues of class to instead focus on why of varying income levels aren’t just like people in the more privileged income levels is just going to isolate and alienate those who can benefit from the great knowledge the pro-health and pro-food advocates bring to the table.