I Reject Your Low-Income Food Challenge Simulations

In recent years, it’s become immensely trendy for middle and upper class people to embark on various ‘food challenges’ revolving around what it’s like to eat on a low income. Participants use a guideline like the amount food stamp recipients get each month, how much low-income people report spending on food, and so forth to determine their ‘budget’ for a thought experiment where they try to eat like poor people for a week, or a month. Then they triumphantly report back, often in the pages of a major newspaper, about their little thought experiment.

The report can usually summed up as ‘well, it was a bit difficult, but in the end I was able to eat fairly well, if sometimes monotonously, so I don’t really get what all the fuss is about.’ Very rarely, participants in food challenges are bold enough to say that low-income people don’t have enough money to eat well; and sometimes, their conclusion is that ‘they’ should be spending more, as though it’s easy for people stretched to the limit to just add more money to their food budget.

I hate food challenges. I hate them because they’re patronising and stupid, because like other simulations they don’t give you any real perspective on what it’s like to live as a member of a given group, and because there are usually so many holes in them that they aren’t even a meaningful approximation of what it is like to buy, prepare, and eat food when you’re poor. They’re based on transference of a middle class life and values onto a lower-class budget, with a fundamental lack of understanding about the issues surrounding lower class status and food.

For one thing, many people participating in food challenges cheat, and use the contents of their pantries. (Some challenges specifically disallow this.) Many low-income people don’t have space for food storage, and among those who do, there’s a limited budget available for stocking up a pantry. You can’t afford to buy a bunch of things to eat later; if you’re buying a can of beans, it’s because you plan to eat those beans now. If you’re buying bulk grains, it’s because you’re using them in something. Likewise, building up a stock of spices is expensive: a container of cinnamon, or nutmeg, could eat up a substantial portion of your food budget, and stores that sell these things in small quantities (like the bulk section at my own supermarket) are often located in upscale neighbourhoods, not low-income communities.

We’re all familiar, I think, with the problem of food deserts and the fact that many low-income communities don’t have much in the way of fresh food. Meanwhile, food challenge participants are trotting all over the landscape to pick up food at stores with bulk foods (avoiding the econopack problem), fresh vegetables, and staff who might be willing to help—for example, a butcher who’s happy to give away scrap fish parts at the end of the day.

Low-income people often don’t have access to these kinds of things because they need to work long hours, can’t afford to travel in search of food, or don’t have the ability to travel because they don’t have cars and the public transportation system is completely messed up—these options are closed to them. Likewise, low-income people in urban areas (usually the focus of such challenges) aren’t going to be wildcrafting in their communities because, one, not much is growing, and two, what is growing may carry contaminants and heavy pollutants that would make them sick.

Furthermore, food challenge participants will do ridiculous things like pretending the only cost that matters is the cost of the portion they use. Aethelread neatly dissected this is a post on a BBC food challenge:

All in all, in the five day period in which he claimed to spend just £4.82 on food, I calculate that Mr Milligan spent £38.52 buying foodstuffs in supermarkets. That’s just counting those items that he provides the pack price for: when it comes to the tomatoes, cucumber, cream cheese, tea, bread, scones, margarine, jam, butter, cream, apples and bananas he also enjoys across his five-day jaunt he doesn’t reveal what he actually paid in the supermarket, so I haven’t included those items in the total. Making even a modest addition for those items would mean that Mr Milligan actually spent well over 8 times his budget – £40. And keep in mind that, even overspending by that much, the diet he ate still left him undernourished.

‘Use what you buy’ is a frequent adage, which means that, yeah, you use things up as you buy them, even if you’re seriously, majorly tired of whatever it is that you’re eating, whether it’s beans and rice or quesadillas or whatever item you’ve found that’s accessible and reasonably affordable to you. That might also be fast food because it’s the only thing you can find that works with your budget (including not just your monetary budget but also your time budget). Which means that low-income people can struggle on a monotonous diet that, yes, doesn’t include a wide range of nutrient sources. And that sucks.

The way to deal with that, though, is not by having ridiculous ‘food challenges’ that obscure reality in a silly simulation that’s supposed to evoke pity or sympathy. It’s to take these issues head-on. Why aren’t there more accessible fresh vegetables in low-income communities? Why is it so hard to find food in bulk in such communities? Why aren’t advocates learning about what members of those communities actually eat and want, and making it easier for them to get? (Another common issue is suggestions that low-income people eat foods that are unfamiliar to them because they’re cheaper and ‘better for you’ without acknowledging that no one likes to have her diet dictated to her, to be told that her traditional foods are ‘wrong,’ to be confronted with an alien food item and informed she’d better learn how to cook it.)

So no. Enough with the food challenges. Bring on actual food change.