Home Food 101 Hierarchy of Food Needs: How Do You Get GOOD Food When There’s No Food?

Hierarchy of Food Needs: How Do You Get GOOD Food When There’s No Food?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Yesterday, I received an e-mail that really touched me, that I’d like to share:

I just wanted to say thank you for your “When is it okay to destroy food?” post. It couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m in the process of clean eating proofing my house, so of course I had to clean out my over stuffed cabinets. I ended up with a bag full of “non-perishable” items and a sort of existential dilemma: do I throw it away or give it away?

At first it was a no-brainer- take it to the food bank. The holidays are coming up anyway, so they will probably have a shortage soon. But then I thought, but why would I give another human being food that I have deemed to unhealthy for myself? I thought about that haunting phrase the opponent of food destroying used, “Millions of people are go hungry everyday, why would you waste food.” I had heard it so many times before (usually followed by finish your plate) that I really felt guilt for even contemplating throwing it out. Still, there was this nagging feeling that if I gave the processed food to the food bank, wouldn’t I be just as guilty of promoting chemically induced to those who can’t afford real food at the expense of their health?

I’m going to pause right there – in the middle of her e-mail – and talk about something called the “hierarchy of food needs.” I felt like this was an appropriate topic to bring up after the food stamp convo, but I didn’t want to beat anyone over the head with why I believe that food stamp bill is so wrong… I’m patient. I don’t mind waiting.

Meet the pyramid:

This is a pyramid that details the level of importance of different issues surrounding our abilities to feed and nourish (they are two different issues) ourselves and those who depend upon us.

Like any pyramid, you begin at the bottom. As a participant in this society, your first concern is having enough food for your family to eat their expected three meals a day. Doesn’t matter what those meals consist of (mayonnaise sandwiches, syrup sandwiches…), as long as you get them… and some days, you don’t. To quote the document, “They are driven by hunger and anxiety about getting enough to eat. The need to satisfy hunger promotes selecting food items previously experienced as being filling and sustaining—food items that are relatively high in energy density. Although many of those foods provide nutrients, nutritional value is not a priority guiding food selection.”

Once you’re able to secure enough food, then you get into issues of whether or not the food is acceptable and acquired in an acceptable fashion according to society. “Food security re- search identifies the importance of “the ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”The definition of acceptable food items is highly subjective and may relate to nutritional quality as well as social norms about food selection and manner of food acquisition. An individual’s values may or may not allow accepting public assistance or going to a food pantry. Research with low-income families addresses the notion of food acceptability via identification of personally identified core food items: the preferred and most important food items and beverages that individuals consume from 2-3 times per week to 2-3 times per day. People often refer to core food items as “common,” “regular,” or “ordinary” food items and feel they must be consumed regularly, alone or as ingredients.”

In other words… once someone has access to enough food, their next goal is to try to enjoy some of the same things as everyone else. We’ve discussed this before.

From here, then we go on to reliable access to food: “People who feel reasonably assured that an adequate amount of familiar and acceptable food is currently available can turn to ensuring food availability at the next meal or on the next day. They can plan for subsequent meals, accumulate a food stash, and budget for food purchases.”

Now, to good tasting food: “Although most people prioritize taste as a reason for food selection under starvation conditions food preferences become less salient, and individuals tend to accept previously-disliked food. Once food security is adequately addressed, appetite again becomes salient, and food choices are influenced by aesthetic and gustatory considerations.”

What is novel food? “At this level on the hierarchy, the prospect of wasting unappealing food is less risky, and experimenting with novel food becomes a possibility. Seeking novelty is a natural tendency with respect to human endeavor. However, fearing waste, a person functioning at a lower level on Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs is unlikely to choose unfamiliar food prepared in unfamiliar ways. Almost half of surveyed low-income parents say they avoid introducing new food items because their child doesn’t want them.”

Lastly, and (to me) most interestingly… the concept of instrumental food: “The person functioning at the apex of Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs reliably gets enough to eat of rewarding food and has food acceptance skills that are good enough to allow him or her to eat a variety of food. That person is thus in a position to consider choosing food for instrumental reasons: to achieve a desired physical, cognitive, or spiritual outcome.” So basically, most people who “shop purely organic” or are “strict vegans, and advocate that you do the same” are in this group. Far more privileged than the people they’re trying to influence to live like them. Just sayin’.

The e-mail concerned me because, as I know this pyramid and have experienced varying levels of it in my life… I’d hate for someone to make a decision like throwing away food that they’ve deemed insufficient for themselves (due to their higher up status within the pyramid), as if we all operate with the same functions and opportunities and access and, even, knowledge. As the pyramid says above… many more people operate on that “enough food” plane than we like to admit… and if they’re able to move above that level, then guess what – the very next thing on their mind is trying to get off of public assistance.

Going back to that dreaded food stamp conversation… that’s what made it so jarring to me that people would call something so inexpensive and nutritionally lacking as soda pop a “luxury,” because not only does it tell me what kind of mentality we have about food as a nation, that we place a higher social value on the wrong things… but (relating back to the information above) it proves a point that Satter makes in her hierarchy:

Research with low-income families addresses the notion of food acceptability via identification of personally identified core food items: the preferred and most important food items and beverages that individuals consume from 2-3 times per week to 2-3 times per day. People often refer to core food items as “common,” “regular,” or “ordinary” food items and feel they must be consumed regularly, alone or as ingredients.

So, in other words… the underprivileged in society are influenced by the core nutritional values of the nation… which [apparently] are pretty damned poor. Period.

It also highlights another issue that I have with the conversation – restricting access to an item without offering up a solution to the problem of… um, an already-existing problem of a lack of access. Communities dominated by food stamp recipients suffer from a lack of groceries offering adequate fruits and vegetables, and its members often resort to grocery shopping at the local convenient store… and we know what’s within the walls of a convenient store. Seriously… seriously. If the program intended to restrict access to soft drinks as well as [something radical, yet powerful] doubling the value of food stamps when applied to fruits and veggies? Hell, even if it took the money that’s anticipated to be spent on soft drinks and applied it to putting inexpensive and sustainable fruits and veggies in the community? I’d be down like four flat tires. But, it doesn’t.. and it’s not.

Lastly, I have to admit that the pyramid even calls out people like me, in a way, who insist upon saying it’s an education issue.. when its clear that even those who may have nutritional insight won’t always have the access or the means to act out that knowledge. Even I can admit that education can only go so far.

So.. having said all of that… how did that e-mail end?

I literally sat on my kitchen floor for an hour thinking about this, and let me tell you, linoleum is NOT that comfy. I read your post and eventually made peace with myself and the garbage bag full of non-perishables. They went to the rescue center in my area along with some clothes. in the short term, I can’t feel bad about doing what’s best for me. I can’t stop world or community hunger by myself so there is no reason to feel guilty either way. If my overspending on can goods can help someone right now then so be it. In the long term, I can advocate for full service grocery stores in my community, I can support actively policies that address the root issue- homelessness and poverty, and I can volunteer to cook at the shelter. it’s the best solution for my dilemma that I could come up with, and now I’m ok with that.

I don’t think I “taught” anyone that, but I’m honored to know that I was a part of it. If you find yourself in the position to donate in the process of “cleaning up your kitchen,” then by all means.. please do. 🙂

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Sarah October 20, 2010 - 8:25 AM

I love this pyramid, and this post. Throwing out a question for thought: is there food that would fall into the “enough” or “acceptable” food category that could also be “instrumental” food at the same time? My first thought on this is the ever-present trio of beans, rice, and greens (hold the ham hock).

When I’ve been in lean times financially, my first instincts were to run to the store, grab an onion, some carrots, some rice, and a bag of great Northern beans, and I knew I would have cheap, filling, and nutritious food for a while.

Erika October 20, 2010 - 8:44 AM

That’s an excellent point that I wish I could’ve fit into the post, but it was approaching 1700 words, LOL. I want to write about that too, but I’m trying to limit how much I hit people with in one week.

I think there are LOTS of things that have been cast off into the “enough” level that serve different purposes… and I think that the pyramid addresses food needs from a general perspective, and that there are people who actively take steps to bypass some levels in progressive ways (us.) Because I eat pretty well, but I’m extremely cheap. LOLOL

T.R. October 23, 2010 - 12:45 PM

Erika, thank you for the article. It really gave me some serious food for thought (no pun intended…well maybe a little :O) I do understand your position on the food stamp issue which definitely would make me have to rethink mine. Though I agreed a little of what everyone had to say, this aspect of it did not occur to me. And yes as the poster above stated a lot of people go immediately to the “staples” during lean times. I have another question to add to hers: Does age and generation determine that answer? Meaning I find that people of a certain age and generation are more prone to fall back on the “trio” because more women cook in the older generations (45+) but if you “can’t” cook does that limit your ability to cross the categories. Just another piece of food for thought.

Erika October 23, 2010 - 12:52 PM

I think there’s a generation of us who is used to “leaner times” in terms of the wallet, who knows how to cook well… and, at the same time, I think there’s also that generation who grew up with multiple siblings (read: before birth control) who’d rather enjoy the “novelties” that processed foods provide instead of going back to those foods they had to eat when they struggled. I remember making some baked beans and using navy beans as a base… brought some to my Mother and she was mortified: “I had 6 siblings… my Mother always made us eat navy beans because they were, like, a dollar.. I can’t eat them anymore.”

I don’t think my generation is familiar enough with that kind of thinking… hence why so many of us think eating healthier is so expensive. (I also think that has a LOT to do with what we classify as “healthy” and, like I mentioned before, what we consider a luxury… as we can see, both aren’t the same, unfortunately.) I think there’s a point where certain survival tactics weren’t taught, and it starts to get a little foggy.

Madame: The Journey November 3, 2010 - 7:12 AM

I’m involved with a nutritional accessibility case study and was directed to Ellyn Satter’s hierarchy, early on. I was immensely intrigued at how solid the model and philosophies on desire and necessity, essentially, were displayed. And further infatuated by her ability to apply Maslow’s hierarchy … to food! Genius. Love your presentation, Erika.

Busisiwe March 16, 2013 - 3:03 PM

Wow! What a powerful article. I live in South Africa and I believe most of us fall and the first two stages of the pyramid. This article has shown me though I’m not privilege enough to be an “instrumental eater”, I can still make good choices towards healthy and clean eating.

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