Last month, The Atlantic published an essay titled “The Dreadful Inconveniences of Salad,” which almost instantaneously sent my eyes on a journey to the back of my head.
“Oh, look – another essay basically telling us, ‘Pushing healthy eating alienates the poor, so let’s stop pushing healthy eating,’ like that’s some nuanced position or something.”
The article was, uh, a hodge podge of misnomers and misconceptions about healthy living, and how the way we all live in American society contributes to it being such a challenge.
There are just a few quotes I wanted to pull out for the sake of discussion:
The security guard, Margaret Harris, told us that there was often a line for the machine, and that people were always asking her when the delivery guy was coming. I asked her how she likes the salads.
“They’re pretty good, I’ve heard,” she said. “I haven’t had any because I don’t eat salad.”
At this, Saunders leaped back a little.
“Why not?” he asked in a squeaky, incredulous pitch.
“It’s just nasty to me; it doesn’t agree with my taste buds,” she said.
“What do you eat?” Saunders asked.
“The usual: burgers, pizza, chicken …”
We left the center, and Saunders’ gentle demeanor crumbled. “That woman literally will not try lettuce! She doesn’t want vegetables. What do you do?” he exclaimed. “Food is so emotional and driven by history. Just plopping a vending machine in front of someone is not enough.”
For starters, I’m shocked by anyone who doesn’t understand the general public perception of what “salad” is. Salad is “iceberg lettuce, carroteen, cucumbers, and ranch dressing.” Yes, it’s disgusting and flavorless – can I at least get some salt? – and no, it doesn’t compare to the ease and consistency – or satiety, for that matter – of something like a burger from your regular burger joint. If salad has only left you starving and unhappy, you wouldn’t eat it, either. Some of y’all – namely me – say the same thing about okra, or brussels sprouts, or quinoa. Same dif.
Remember – empathy first, not judgment. Her response of “burgers, pizza, chicken” didn’t sound like things she makes herself – she’s a security guard. Does she work long, hard hours? Does she have the time and energy (or money) to explore veggies?
Speaking in Chicago in 2011, Michelle Obama described the “food deserts” that many low-income neighborhoods have become: “If people want to buy a head of lettuce or salad or some fruit for their kid’s lunch,” she said, “they have to take two or three buses, maybe pay for a taxicab, in order to do it.”
But the following year, two different studies suggested that a lack of access to healthy food isn’t the true problem. One, out of the Public Policy Institute of California, found that poor neighborhoods have three times as many corner stores as rich neighborhoods and twice as many supermarkets per square mile. Those findings are consistent with a study in Health Affairs, published earlier this year, which found that, when a new grocery store opened in a “food desert” in Philadelphia, locals’ body-mass indices and fruit and vegetable intake didn’t change.
In the other 2012 study, Roland Sturm, an economist with the RAND Corporation, analyzed the heights, weights, addresses, and diets of more than 13,000 California children and found no relationship between what they ate, what they weighed, and the type of food available within a mile and a half of their homes. More recently Sturm authored a paper, which I wrote about for The Atlantic, finding that while people of all incomes now eat about 30 pounds more vegetables and fruit annually than they did in 1970, obesity is worsening because they’re eating more of everything else, too. The average adult consumed about 2,100 calories in 1970, but recently that number has risen to more than 2,500.
“Obesity is not about more food, it’s about less food,” Sturm told me. “Improving diet quality is separate from obesity, and it’s its own goal. But adding more fruit and vegetables won’t make people thinner.”
I don’t know if this is a matter of a writer not delving into the details or what, but this is just weird: First Lady Obama spoke pretty plainly about what she meant: fresh produce isn’t readily available. Studies that talk about the number of food-selling stores in poorer neighborhoods outnumbering those in wealthier neighborhoods don’t dispute that.
Because it speaks nothing to the contents of the stores, the quality of the food sold there, and whether or not the stores are even open when people have time to actually shop.
When I lived in Indiana, I had to drive a great distance to get to the nearest grocery store – almost a 20 minute ride on a highway-esque street – until a store was built, basically, in our backyard, a quarter-mile away. But, whenever I went, the food was fresh. The shopping experience was pleasant. The employees were kind and helpful, like someone who was being paid well for what they do and felt appreciated at their jobs. They quality of the produce was consistent. I trusted that their butchers knew what they were doing and taking the right precautions when it came to packaging the meat. They had ample refrigerators to handle the amount of produce and dairy they had, and the refrigerators were set to the appropriate temperatures. The store was fumigated frequently.
When I moved to Brooklyn, I recalled visiting the fruit stand on the corner near my train stop. As soon as I walked in, the awkward young man behind the counter kept asking me questions and, when I replied, insisted upon calling me “baby.” The produce was often wrapped in cellophane and styrofoam, a clear indicator that it wasn’t fresh, and they were trying to sell it without me seeing the “unfresh” side. The sections of the different fruits had cockroaches crawling between them. The saltfish and hamhocks was out in open buckets, for people to pick up and purchase – or put back – at their leisure (which, while I know that that’s culturally customary for some, when you contrast that with the amount of flies and cockroaches in the place, c’mon.) There was just one refrigerator, holding garlic and herbs. It was wholly unpleasant, and I had to fight the urge to catch a case for slugging this dude who couldn’t accept that I – with a tattooed wedding band and an actual wedding band on the hand I used to pay for my purchase – was not interested in being his “baby.”
What’s more, bodegas aren’t required to sell produce – they’re only required to sell three items of produce (or meat, or bread, or dairy) if they want to accept food stamps. They also know that accepting food stamps is enough to get you in the store to buy something else. And, since many only carry things like “onions, bananas, and oranges” – since those are the three cheapest produce items you can buy – without actually taking care of them or storing them properly, what you find in the store are browning bananas and oranges that, when you cut them open, are already rotted on the inside. That experience – biting into a fruit that’s rotted on the inside – will absolutely turn you off from buying perishable produce items.
Meanwhile, a 2013 analysis by the USDA, using Gallup data, found that it’s a lack of money, not a lack of access to grocery stores, that’s primarily driving obesity. Earlier this year, the Farm Bill cut food stamp benefits by $8.7 billion over the next 10 years, shaving about $90 a month off of the incomes of 850,000 households.
This is the USDA’s analysis, and yet, they still cut the Farm Bill and left these families short $90 a month. Is the USDA going to advocate on the behalf of those families, or is it going to simply continue to be a shell company for giant multinational agricultural corporations?
What’s more, people of all income levels suffer from obesity. A more comprehensive way to address unhealthy eating might be to try to change food preferences—to make people want green beans more than French fries. Kelly Brownell, a psychology and public-policy professor at Duke, says this type of preference shift is difficult, but not impossible. He points out that the number of people drinking milk—particularly whole milk—has plummeted in the past few decades. Per-capita consumption of whole milk has tumbled by 78 percent since 1970—this in spite of aggressive “Got milk?” ad campaigns sponsored by the dairy industry.
“People can switch their taste preferences, but it takes time and a concerted effort by the government,” Brownell told me. The USDA began pushing the skim variety in the fat-wary 1980s. “In the beginning, people thought ‘yuck!’ whenever they had skim milk. Now people find whole milk unpleasant.”
I like Kelly Brownell. I do. I liked his book, Food Fight, and I generally like his analysis. I don’t like what “time and a concerted effort by the government” sounds like.
I do like the idea of the government offering grants to organizations with history serving their communities in the health and fitness realm, so that they can host classes that teach people the myriad ways to cook produce. I do like the idea of culturally sensitive means of teaching people how to make the food they like, the food they grew up eating, healthier for themselves and their families. I love the idea of local efforts that respect local communities and their traditions. I don’t want a standard effort telling me I need to eat standard food in order to be healthy. If anything, it’s not my culture’s food that left me unhealthy. It was the bastardization if the ingredients I use to make it.
In regards to people “finding the taste of whole milk unpleasant,” that’s not entirely accurate. Research has shown that, when people are consuming something they deem as unhealthy, they’re far more likely to say that they “don’t like it” even as the receptors in the brain that are responsible for feelings of “like” and “dislike” respond favorably. People allow themselves to be ruled by guilt far more than their genuine feelings for a food, strictly because they believe “if it tastes good, it must be bad.”
One problem, according to McCarthy, is that convenience is crucial when it comes to mealtimes. A 2009 study in the journal Obesity found that convenience was a major motivator in people’s decision to buy fast food, and suggested that public education about the unhealthfulness of burgers and fries was not likely to be as effective as simply making nutritious meals easier to obtain.
After all, what overextended adult is willing to give up an hour to carefully roast an acorn squash when a Happy Meal can be had in seconds? “[Low-income parents] are often single parents. They’ve got a job and a family to take care of,” McCarthy said. “It’s not the money, it’s the time.”
We work long hours, we have long commutes, we’re tired, we have kids with needs, we have spouses with needs, and we just want to sit down and let our home be a place of rest after spending 12 hours (sometimes more, sometimes less) away from it. We probably ate a bad lunch at work – fast food, undoubtedly – and find ourselves starving going into our commute. What could be more sense-making than stopping at a fast food place, not even having to get out of our cars, to place our order, drive around to the other side, and pay? Shoot – we can even snack on bottom-of-the-bag fries as we make our way home.
To fight this, we – first – stop talking about acorn squash, as if that’s the only alternative to fast food. Dinner can take four hours Sunday roast-style, or it can take 10 minutes, or anywhere – and everywhere – in between. The false dichotomies don’t serve our purpose.
It’s not enough to just say, “Oh, time and convenience play a huge part.” Why? How? Listening with empathy lets us hone in our solutions, to support people towards their goals. We can encourage people to plan for that mid-commute hunger by keeping healthy snacks in a cooler in the car or eating before we head home. We can talk about snacks that people can pack away in their bags for the ride home, and ways to craft our meals so that we’re not starving so quickly. But we can’t do any of that if we just stop at “Oh, time is a factor.”
One middle-aged man who sounded like he was from Great Britain was chowing down on a sandwich from Potbelly. “I’m not a salad fan,” he said when I asked him if he’d consider trying the Fridge. “It’s rabbit food, not something that would fill me up.”
Rabbit food. Not filling.
So, lets recap. We work long jobs in areas where fresh produce for meals (or restaurants serving them) isn’t readily available for many. Unhealthy fast food is more accessible than anything healthy. We’ve crafted public policy around making grains super cheap, and produce hyperexpensive, and getting more expensive by the year. We’ve crafted public policy that leaves the most vulnerable Americans less able to afford produce than they were before. We believe in pushing a single solitary standard for what “healthy” looks like, in a multi-cultural United States, which is easily the least likely way to ensure success. We allow processed foods to be pushed as “the answer to busy lives,” instead of questioning why our lives are so busy that we can’t even make meals for our families. We do nothing to improve the availability of fresh produce, to support the organizations doing the hard – and, often, unpaid – work of trying to teach people about fresh produce and making it filling, or to make it more affordable.
And we wonder why people are turned off from salad?