On Class and Food

I appear to have sparked an unwitting battle in the comments section at the Ethicurean. (Sorry, DairyQueen, but it had to be done. I had no idea it would blow up this much, I swear!)

At any rate, the post I commented on was Naked Fridge, in which the DQ posted the contents of her fridge and talked about them. It’s pretty neat, and I love the whole “expose your fridge” meme which is going on among food bloggers. It’s an interesting insight into the ways in which other people buy and use food. At any rate, the post also included a brief discussion of why the DQ chose not to participate in the Pennywise Eat Local Challenge.

Here’s a snip of what she said:

“I think it’s great that they did this, and that Penny-Wise got lots of press, but the premise did not appeal at all to me: my philosophy is that Americans spend too little on food, and that we should value it higher in our budgets.”

She went on to talk about how much she spends on food, and adds:

“Basically, I believe that real food — food grown greenly, fairly, and cleanly by small farmers — is worth every penny you can afford to pay for it.”

I somewhat took exception with her assessment of the Pennywise Challenge, so I posted a comment. I got the sense that the DQ didn’t really mean to be saying that spending minimal amounts of money on food is a bad thing. Especially since she mentioned “afford to pay for it,” indicating an understanding that maybe other people cannot spend as much as she does. I wanted to throw something new into the mix:

“I feel like the point of the Pennywise Challenge, for many participants, was not the idea that people spend too little on food. The idea was not “oh, let’s spend as little as possible on food to demonstrate our thriftiness,” although that was part of it…I think that a lot of low income participants and observers who cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars on food every week learned that it is, in fact, possible to eat well and eat local on a limited budget. That, to me, is an extremely important issue, because a large number of low income folks eat bad food because they think it’s all that they can afford.”

I thought it was a pretty reasonable statement, adding my own thoughts on the issue. I actually agree with the DQ: a lot of Americans do spend too little on food, because they’re busy buying other crap they don’t need. However, there is a growing group of low income Americans who spend too little on food because they cannot afford to do otherwise. And I sort of felt that her post was marginalizing this extremely important issue in American food politics. So I said so.

The reaction I got was a surprise, to say the least. I was attacked for “attacking” the DQ, mainly by people who had not read my comment all the way through, if at all. It’s always frustrating when this happens, because then people put words into your mouth that were never actually said. Word, from Bruce:

“Damn, and here I thought that feeding my family locally and sustainably raised food was the right thing to do. I guess it’s back to purchasing the cheap, calorie rich food, that’s stacked on the shelves of grocery stores everywhere. ..and you know what that means. Rachael Ray on every box of processed food in my shopping cart, and eventually peaking [sic] out of every cupboard in the kitchen. Yum-o!”

Which was, you know, sort of offensive, especially given the part of his comment which came before that, but it was more troubling because that was not, in fact, what I was advocating at all. Indeed, I was advocating the exact opposite of that, that people could benefit from a demonstration of eating locally, sustainably, and well on a minimal budget.

The DQ suggested that Mr. Bruce play nice, and added:

“Re-reading it, I do sound like the food movement’s Marie Antoinette: Let them eat local, organic cake for $10 a slice! You’re right about the benefits of the Pennywise Challenge, and maybe if I had paid closer attention, or tried it myself, I would have found that I don’t have to spend as much as I do to eat lavishly.”

Now that’s what I’m talking about. This, right here, is dialogue. A few other thoughtful comments were added, and I responded to Bruce. Snip:

“The thing is, Bruce, that some people don’t make as much money as you, or the DairyQueen. It’s not about skewed priorities, it’s about most people barely being able to afford their rent and basic necessities. It’s about a major and rapidly growing class divide in this country, which I think you and I are illustrating very well right now.”

Shuna added a great comment, which I am not going to bother snipping extensively, because it needs to be read in entirety. But basically, she added another issue to the discussion, which is the inability to access good food for a lot of low income folks. She talked about marketing, white guilt, and said that:

“But let’s attempt to remember that the less access a person has, the fewer choices they can see to make.”

Following are a smattering of additional comments, including yet another one from someone who obviously didn’t read what I was saying. Or maybe I am just an atrocious communicator, because people seem to misread what I say so radically.

The ongoing discussion, which I fervently hope is destined to continue, raised two entirely separate issues for me.

The first was one which I see a lot, all over the Internet. And that is the issue of people who do not read before responding to something. The comments which irritated me were universally from people who had not read my comments thoughtfully, and therefore put words into my mouth. I notice this problem with human communications quite frequently. I suspect it’s because we like hearing our own words more than we like hearing other people’s, but it’s also a great way to start an epic flame war.

It also made me think about issues of class and food spending. When I initially posted, I was really just thinking of low income Americans who have limited food budgets and need to make them work well. I wasn’t trying to go off on some self righteous rampage about how spending as little money as possible is virtuous, although I do think that profligate spending is kind of repulsive. However, Shuna added an important thought which really expanded my own thoughts on the issue, about access to food supplies. It’s easy to criticize people’s food choices when you can take a car to the Farmers’ Market, but what about when you live on an Island with no car and a shitty convenience store that sells expired sodas, motor oil, and freezer burned ice cream? Oh, wait, I do. We also have a Farmers’ Market, every Sunday, but it’s pretty pathetic.

I am not as poor or as limited as a lot of Americans, but I would love to see people with more opportunities taking the bus to the store for a week, or trying to feed themselves with a convenience store alone. I imagine that their perspective on this issue might change pretty radically when they’re standing in the cold with 50 pounds of groceries waiting for a J, especially once they get home and realize they forgot the olive oil.