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?