Food: The Problem Isn’t Information Deficit

At FWD recently, I highlighted this label I found attached to a bunch of asparagus:

The tag which was attached to a bundle of asparagus, photographed on top of said asparagus. Text on the tag reads: 'Healthy, Sensible Food Practices: Always wash fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water. Health Professionals recommend that you eat least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Distributed by The Nunes Co. Inc Salinas, CA 93902 Produce of USA For more information 1-800-695-5012'

I pointed out that it felt to me like an example of food policing in action; you must eat five a day! Health professionals recommend it!

Some commenters responded to say “well, maybe some people don’t know about five a day.”

Do people really believe this?

This seems to feed into the idea that fat folks don’t know we’re fat, or don’t understand nutrition. That if we can only be educated, we will magically become unfat. Likewise, if only consumers became educated about five a day, they would be better people. Sensible people. Healthy people. If only socially undesirable and icky people were educated, they wouldn’t be so icky anymore.

The produce section in my grocery store is filled with numerous signs about five a day, including signs illustrating what a “serving” is. Every other grocery store I’ve visited has the same types of displays. Likewise, five a day information in plain language with illustrations is on a lot of food packaging, and it’s taught widely in schools.

I don’t think that the problem is people not knowing about five a day. I think that the problem is lack of access to choices.

If you’re on Women, Infants, Children (WIC), a food assistance program, your choices are limited, often in surprisingly arbitrary ways. Food stamps are better, but not necessarily, and the total you can spend on food is still capped. Produce is expensive. Whether you’re getting assistance or not. Asparagus, pictured here, is very much a “luxury” vegetable.

If you have very limited money to spend on food, fresh fruits and vegetables may not be as much of an option. Because you can get more calories from other sources, so you’re driven to buy something else. You might want fresh fruits and vegetables, but the prices are a serious obstacle. Production of most fruits and vegetables in the United States is not subsidized like animal products and corn. That means high prices at the grocery store.

If you can only go to the grocery store once a week and you  need to stock up on stuff to eat through the week, your choices are again limited, especially if you are also poor. You can’t afford to buy lots of fresh fruits and veggies because they will go bad before you eat them. So maybe you get some to eat on the first few days, and then you buy other things, things which will keep, so that you won’t starve before you can go to the grocery store again.

If you have a disability which makes you sensitive to smells, textures, and tastes, you may have a tough time with some fruits and vegetables. Likewise, produce can cause stomach upsets for some people. Yes, healthy, lovely, wonderful, sensible produce! Can make people sick! Those people have a mighty fine reason for not buying produce.

If you are in a food desert and your shopping options are limited to the corner store, you might not even be able to buy produce, for any amount. Perhaps there will be a few tragic looking bananas, some oranges, some potatoes. That’s it. You can’t afford the time to take public transit to a store in a neighborhood where fresh produce is available. (And this is one aspect of Michelle Obama’s otherwise troubling food crusade which I like, is addressing food deserts and trying to make more food options available to people; Mrs. Obama gets what some people  seem to fail to grasp, which is that it’s not a lack of education,  it’s a lack of opportunity.)

If you are a single working parent, you may not have time to prepare produce, or you may have a child who doesn’t like fresh produce. Should you be made to feel guilty because you can’t coax your child into eating vegetables every night and because you only have 20 minutes to make dinner and that is just not enough time?

This produce label illustrated, for me, a fundamental disconnect a lot of people seem to have with the world around them. People focus on patronizing “education” without recognizing any of the barriers to access people might face. I may be wrong in assuming that most people in the United States know about five a day because it’s been shoved down my throat and in front of my face for most of my life.

But I would also note that the five a day program isn’t very helpful. What sticks in my head is “five a day,” not how much a serving size is. That’s why I like the charts in the grocery store which illustrate how much a “serving” of fruit and vegetables is. What would have been more helpful on this asparagus label was a note including how many servings were contained in the bunch.

And even that doesn’t solve the fundamental problem: You can know about five a day, you can know from your experience with your body that you benefit from eating five servings of fresh fruit and vegetables a day, and you can still not be able to access five a day. These campaigns are dreamed up by middle class folks in nice neighborhoods with lots of time and money and a big grocery store. Here in the real world, they can feel almost ludicrously unrealistic.

Related reading: The Fat Nutritionist.