Food and the Difference Between Knowledge and Access

Like many governments, the United States is involved in an ongoing nutrition education programme to reach out to citizens and provide them with useful information about food, nutrition, and related topics. Unfortunately, this programme is very much focused on ‘obesity prevention’ rather than just food and health in general. This is but the first of many flaws when it comes to how the United States communicates messages about food to members of the public, though.

There’s a fundamental lack of understanding about the difference between knowing something and being able to access the tools to do something about it. Much of the public health intervention in the area of food and nutrition has to do with educating people. These outreach efforts are based in the assumption that people living here don’t know any better; they don’t know that fresh fruits and vegetables have health benefits, they don’t know how to read food labels, they don’t know how to cook. Some of these programs take things a step further and suggest that members of the public are brainwashed by big agriculture, and thus are incapable of making balanced decisions about food, cooking, and nutrition.

And it is certainly true that some people in this country probably do need nutrition education and are not aware of some of the latest information surrounding food and health. But for the most part, this is an issue not of lack of knowledge, but lack of access. Many people in this country live in food deserts, regions where you cannot obtain fresh food easily. Many people in this country are poor, and cannot access many foods, including the things that some helpful nutritional suggestions seem to take for granted. People are told, for example, ‘well just buy xyz in bulk packaging’ and this advice ignores the econopack problem and the fact that many people cannot afford bulk packaging, even though it is cheaper per meal, because the outlay of cash is too high.

And much of this signaling also revolves around a ‘get back in the kitchen’ message that is commonly aimed primarily at women. People are given messaging like ‘just get up half an hour earlier to chop vegetables so they will be ready for dinner’ and ‘don’t you want to be a good mother and prepare dinner at home for your family?’ Sexist expectations behind this messaging aside, there’s also the issue that many people face a serious time deficit that cannot be erased. You do not have time for a lot of activities, no, not even 20 minutes extra a day. Cooking a meal at home requires access to the ingredients and tools to make it and the time to get these things. For people who may be working long hours and traveling an hour or more for groceries, the thought of devoting more time to meeting basic needs like eating is not a pleasant one.

All of this messaging primarily accomplishes one thing, which is making people feel guilty and inadequate for the way they live their lives. Making people feel worthless, like failures, because they cannot meet these goals and expectations. This messaging is supposed to ‘benefit’ people but it doesn’t, when all they get is shaming and unhelpful suggestions on how not to be such giant, worthless failures. If the United States is really committed to improving the state of nutrition in this country, a place where many people face nutritional deficiencies, it should work on improving access to the tools people need. Like making sure that fresh foods are readily available to everyone in the US. Including, yes, fresh ‘convenience’ foods like pre-chopped and packaged vegetables for people to use, along with recipe cards for people who might be casting about for cooking ideas. There’s no shame in cooking with convenience foods.

Like addressing the unfair pay balances in this country that force people to work long hours and multiple jobs to survive. Maybe if someone really was working just 40 hours a week, there would be more time to source ingredients and cook. Maybe if benefits didn’t come with heavy strings attached, people who need assistance buying food would be able to make the purchasing choices they want to make. Have you ever gone shopping with Women, Infants, Children (WIC) coupons? It’s a nightmare. Some of the decisions about what qualifies and what does not are purely arbitrary. Maybe we could trust people to make their own food decisions instead of telling them what to buy, and how, and when?

And we should be talking about the gendering behind the messages about food preparation and responsibility for household nutrition. Most nutrition outreach programmes focus on women; it’s right there in the name of WIC, for Pete’s sake. Women are held responsible for these things. Not people in general, not parents, not families, women and mothers. Women are already held to unreasonably high standards in society and things like this reinforce these standards, reinforce the idea that you are failing at life if you cannot keep a clean house, have dinner on the table by six, perform all the myriad other unpaid tasks assigned to women. In an era where most households need two incomes to survive, it is not in any way reasonable to expect one person in the household to do twice as much work for substantially less pay.

Instead of assuming that poor people are ignorant, that most people in the United States cannot understand nutrition unless they are fed a tide of often conflicting and unclear information about food and eating habits, these public health initiatives should be grounded in trust in the public’s ability to make decisions, and should focus on helping people access the tools they need to make those decisions. Tools like equal access to a wide range of foodstuffs, and equal pay to be able to buy those foodstuffs.