Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Grocery Bills, Budgets, and Flawed Food Systems

The Conscious Shopper hops back on her soapbox

Last week, we talked a lot about the cost of groceries - first with my post about how I came to peace with my high grocery bill and then with Robbie's post about keeping her grocery bill inline with her budget.

Even before Robbie wrote her post, I had been thinking about the flipside to the issue. I realize that I'm very lucky to be able to splurge on what some consider food luxuries, and although there are many people who could afford to make cutbacks in other areas and shift their savings to their food budgets, there are also plenty of people (especially in these tough economic times) who are already living as frugally as they can and simply have no money to spare.

So what about them? Do we point our fingers at them and scold them for their poor choices?

In my last post, I wrote about my friend who was teaching a class about couponing at my church. Her husband is a student and works sporadically when he can find a job that fits his schedule. She has a few piano students (including my own son), but her main contribution to their income is her frugality. By keeping their grocery bill as low as possible, she has helped them get through this transitional period until her husband can finish school and get a steady job. Should she be condemned for not being able to afford organics and for often choosing the processed foods that come cheap with a coupon?

What about the average person who sees 3,000 commercials a day, many of them for processed junk? Who eats lunch in a break room with a Coke machine and a snack machine? Who drives past three McDonald's on the way home from work? Can we blame people for their food choices when they're bombarded constantly with the temptation to load up on fat and sugar and salt?

What about the typical shopper who thinks she's making a smart choice for her family's health because it says so right on the box? Is she to blame for her ignorance?

What about people who live in food deserts, areas of inner cities where there are zero supermarkets so people are forced to buy their food at convenience stores, which are typically more expensive and carry junkier foods?

What about people who send their kids to school assuming they'll get a nutritional lunch because it's government subsidized?

What about people who have to choose between paying their medical bills or buying healthy food? Wouldn't you make the same choice?

It's easy to conclude, "Well, I make a lot of sacrifices so we can eat healthy, and other people should too." But it's so hard to understand someone else's situation. Maybe they are choosing the flat screen TV or new iPad over healthy food for their families, but it's also pretty likely that they're doing the best they can.

Tom Laskawy wrote recently in a Grist article, "Our food system, indeed our entire economic system, all but forces low-income consumers into an unhealthy diet. Fixing this will be a tall order, and solutions to this problem will need to be both broad-based and comprehensive, from grassroots efforts to policy changes. But with all this overwhelming evidence of not just our system's inequality, but its injustice, what are we waiting for?"

If you're lucky enough to be able to eat a healthy diet, maybe now's the time to look around and see how you can help others do the same. Here in Raleigh, we have the Interfaith Food Shuttle, an organization that collects fresh food from area grocery stores and delivers it to people in need (similar to Meals on Wheels but with a focus on fresh). They've also been working to establish community gardens to serve low-income neighborhoods in those food deserts I mentioned above, and they're sponsoring a Plant-a-Row program where backyard gardeners can donate a portion of their harvest to the food shuttle. Perhaps your community has similar programs.

Or maybe your soapbox is school lunches. Grist has had all sorts of articles over the past few months about our National School Lunch Program, and I'm sure you've heard of Jamie Oliver. If you're disgusted by the food our children eat in school cafeterias every day, now's a great time to jump on that bandwagon - maybe by joining the Lunchbox Advocates.

At the very least, email or call your representatives and let them know that you support changes in our food system. We know the food system needs some serious fixes. What are we waiting for?


Shona~ LALA dex press said...

I noticed a co-worker had a commercially packaged bag of pre-cut apples on her desk + was somewhat appalled. She expects things like this of me, so it really wasn't a big deal when I quizzed her on why she bought this item. 3 kids, dog, cat, husband + full-time job + it's to grab this bag + go (she buys these for the entire family + the kids will eat cut apples). I suggested she buy one of those apple cutters that slice in a single cut, and she came back with "that's just one more thing I have to do + I'm already so stretched." We discussed cost + for her the additional price was worth the convenience. So here I am, no kids, one dog + a really supportive boyfriend...who am I to tell her all the things I think are wrong with this item?

Why are 5 lb of packaged organic carrots so cheap at Whole Foods + bunches with the tops + a rubber band so much more expensive? Just wondering.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@Shona - I have that same question. And why is applesauce so much cheaper than apples? My husband and I decided it's because of the shelf life. Even carrots in a plastic bag last longer than naked carrots, so the grocery store can keep them on the shelf longer and not have to sell them quickly.

I can definitely understand why working parents would look for shortcuts and convenience. At least she's eating the apples and not some junkier food! Ultimately I think that instead of judging or makng accusations, we should try to change the system to make it easy for people to change.

Anonymous said...

See this article for information about some good news about changing food systems in one city:

Rosa said...

No judgement from me on the consumer end - plenty on the policy/producer/subsidy/city planning side, though.

On a good note: our farmer's market takes food stamps (well, EBT cards) and is on a major bus line.

People are just ridiculously judgemental about food...but no two people can agree on what counts as "healthy" anyway, so the judgements just go in a circle.

Robbie said...

Erin, great article! (Coming from the girl who's lived on a lunchtime diet of microwave popcorn this week...)

Sense of Home said...

At one time I could not have afforded to choose the higher priced organic produce. I had to choose the produce that was on special, or the 50 cent (it was a while ago) head of iceberg lettuce over the healthier Romaine.

However, I did make the healthiest chooses I could for my young children. I would not buy them the candy, sugary cereal, bag of chips they would at times beg for, but I promised them they could choose one item in the fresh fruit section. They were excited by having a choice and tried many different fruits as a treat.

Condo Blues said...

I think it's all in how you define healthy and even then, some doctors, dietitians, and food professionals have their differences on what we should and should not eat. No wonder the average consumer is confused!

I don't buy for one minute that you can't eat healthy on a low income. I completely disagree with the Gist article because you can pay good basic ingredients at a standard grocery story and you can load your cart up with junk at Whole Foods if you choose. When I was trying to put as much as my income as I could towards paying off other bills, I cut my food budget as much as I could. I may not have eaten all organic food but I shopped at a no frills store and bought whole wheat pasta and bread, fresh or frozen vegetables and cooked from scratch. My doctor was and still is impressed that I do not have any of the health problems that run in my family. I think that instead of adding more rules and regulations we need to educate people more about what is and is not considered good nutrition in our schools. We need to make it easy to understand too. I get the 4 basic food groups but who can tell you off the top of their head exactly what food is on each level of the food pyramid and how many servings of each you should get each day?

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@Melissa - Great article! Thanks for sharing! I really like this quote at the end: "The framework behind this is that the American dream — that if you work hard and follow the rules, you’ll succeed — seems to be harder and harder to accomplish. Our attitude toward poverty is really counterproductive. We think the individual is at fault, rather than saying, “There’s something structurally wrong here.” We have to think of it not as something that affects them, but as an issue that affects us all. We all pay for these high rates of poverty and hunger. "

@Condo Blues - I think that education about nutrition is a part of the solution, but only part. Raleigh is a very small city, and yet there are still parts of the city with those food deserts - where grocery stores are few and far between and people don't have cars to get to the grocery stores. Yes you can buy inexpensive healthy food at Walmart or Aldi, but if you can't get to those stores, it does you no good. Have you ever tried carting a week's worth of groceries for a family of four on the bus? So your choices are to try to bum a ride off of someone when it's convenient to their schedule, or take a bus ride out to the grocery store more often, which is tough if you're a single mom working full time.

How can a hamburger (corn grown in Iowa fed to a cow in a CAFO across the country slaughtered somewhere else, processed somewhere else, shipped to a restaurant somewhere else) possibly be cheaper than a head of lettuce from the local farmers market? That's a problem! And if you've got to choose between the burger and fries that's going to fill you up and the lettuce that's going to leave you hungry, of course you'd choose the burger and fries!

Plus, they do teach kids the food pyramid in school, and then they turn around and feed them garbage for lunch, loaded with fat and salt, low on the vegetables. My son gets to buy lunch once a week from the cafeteria, and several times, he's come home and announced that he bought an ice cream cone or a popsicle - these are extras that they can buy, and although I've told him not to buy those things, I don't really have control over what he chooses. Why are they offering them in the first place?!

The Interfaith Food Shuttle here in Raleigh teaches classes about nutrition, cooking, and gardening, because you're right - that's part of the problem, but there are also a lot more problems that need fixing.


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