Saturday, 28 August 2010

Fit to eat

If you're anything like me you would have had lots of friends liking Child Poverty Action Group recently. I was all prepared to join in, until I saw they were promoting this post with a cheerful "What are our kids eating? And what is our government doing (or not doing) to encourage them to choose an orange over an oreo?"

First it reminded me of the endless ridiculous games of substitutions that you see in women's magazines and "healthy food" (Next time you feel like eating chocolate try a tin of tuna instead). Which made me think of Sarah Haskins, swapping a six pack of beer for a fifth of whiskey:

So I was happy for a while. But when I recovered from my distraction I was still grumpy. Why should children be choosing Oreos over oranges - why can't they have both, and lots of other food as well? Why is an anti-poverty group calling on the government to promote a diet mentality among kids?

The post they linked to was called "Not Fit To Eat"* was talking about a $2.50 pack sold in a South Auckland dairy, that contained Oreos, two packets of chip like things, and an orange drink. I agree that that is not an adequate lunch, but each of the individual components, and the pack of the whole, is totally fit to eat.

What I found most ridiculous about the response to this pack, was the emphasis on how cheap it was - as if that was a bad thing (someone made their horror at this food being cheap explicit in the facebook thread). I do not understand how anyone concerned with poverty could ever have a problem with any food being cheap. I have so often heard people tutt-tutting about the fact that a litre of coke is cheaper than a litre of milk - as if it is the cheapness of the coke that is the problem.

The person who had found this pack asked the dairy owner "aren't you ashamed to be selling this?" Why is it more shameful to be selling this for $2.50 than anything else? Dairies make their money through high margins - if their is shame in their trade - surely it is selling food for more, rather than selling food for less.

You know there was a time when calories weren't as relatively cheap as they are now. Cheap calories can give people the ability to stay alive, and they're fabulous. I understand being angry at the expense of other nutrients, such as milk, vegetables, fruit, meat and whittakers dark almond chocoalte, but why is this so often discussed as if the cheapness of other fooods is the problem?

This seems to be my week to be grumpy about how people on the left talk about food and bodies.** But I think it's really important. It is totally possible to talk about food and poverty, without buying into a worldview that fetishises food and buys into an ideology that sees food in terms of morality. I really should write a grand theory post about why this is bad one of these days - but the really short reason is that one of the purposes of this ideology is to blame individuals for the effects of poverty. This is not something we can co-opt - it is something which will co-opt us.

And because no post like this would be complete without it, here is a link to the fat nutritionist's If only poor people understood nutrition.

* I think it is written by my co-blogger AnneE - so I'd be interested in hearing her perspective

** Who am I kidding, every week for at least the last five years has been my week to be grumpy about the way some people on the left talks about food and bodies.


ideologicallyimpure said...

THANK YOU, Maia. This is just so, so annoying to me. Maybe we should consider things like the facts that (a) we'd rather kids BE EATING than starving because Cookies Are Bad, and (b) they're kids. They run around a lot. Calorie-dense food? NOT THE DEVIL.

Also Sarah Haskins is my personal goddess.

(also your link to Fat Nutritionist is borked,

Alison said...

Thanks for this Maia. It's an ongoing source of frustration and exhaustion to me to hear the cult of nutrition pushed on people who can't afford to care. It still escapes many people that we eat, first and foremost, to stay alive, not to live long and healthy lives. Being able to choose food based on the latter is a luxury.

Carol said...

I do agree that children shouldn't have excessive focus on over-pushing "nutritious" food to children. And I agree that the issue shouldn't be focusing on blaming individuals. And targetting the diary owner seems the wrong focus to me.

But in much of the linked post, it doesn't look to me that it is encouraging a diet mentality amongst kids. It looked to me that it was criticising the way commercial enterprises are encouraging an unhealthy diet mentality amongst children.

It looked to me that the linked post is putting most of the blame on the relative low cost, and high visibility of the less healthy food, and esepcially on they way they are marketed by commercial enterprises. And there is a suggestion that the government can be doing ((and was doing) something to encourage alternatives.

I do think government could look for ways to counter such practices, so that there are alternatives for lower cost nutritional food.

The linked comment is mostly focusing on the low cost of a lot of foods with relatively low nutritional quality, and maybe they should also be making the links with how this relates to the higher cost of more nutritious food.

In supermarkets, for instance, mark up the price of fresh fruit and vegetables and mark down the prices of alcohol and other things. Foods with low nutritional value are placed beside check-outs to entice people to buy them because there's big profits from these foods.

And I also do get frustrated at the sight of so much enticingly packaged and shelved foods of low health value in dairies. corner shops and supermarkets. I do see this as a bit exploitative.

So, yes, I'm sure many low income people do look more to just eat to survive in the first place. But the practices of commercial profit-making enterprises are undermining many people's long-term health in the way they manipulate the food pricing and marketing. At the moment, there is more profit to be made in processed foods of low nutritional value than in many of the healthier, usually non-processed foods.

And I did think the last government's policy of requiring healthier food to be available in schools was on the right track.

ideologicallyimpure said...


"Diet mentality" begins when we start saying some foods are "bad" and some foods are "good". Food is not a moral debate. Fresh fruit and veg are not inherently virtuous things and processed foods are not inherently immoral.

When we keep focusing every discussion on food around "nutrition" and a very narrow definition of "health" (which simply does not apply to the actual dietary needs of all humans), we begin the "that's bad, that's good, I'm a bad person because I eat X and I'm a good person because I eat Y" cycle and then it's not a particularly huge leap to get to calorie-counting and food-restriction.

As I said in my own post on the subject, the focus is explicitly *not* on supermarket markups or questioning a system which puts some food groups out of the reach of the poor. And CPAG's comments on FB go straight to "kids eating bad food!!!" and "make better choices!!!"

That is diet mentality.

Psycho Milt said...

Food is not a moral debate. Fresh fruit and veg are not inherently virtuous things and processed foods are not inherently immoral.

If only this view was more common. Apart from having a few vitamins and a bit more fibre, an orange is just as much a big lump of sugar as an Oreo biscuit is. Assigning virtue to one and vice to the other is pointless.

Hugh said...

Carol, since others have covered the whole "good/bad" thing, I want to point to what seems to be a logical flaw in your argument.

You say that supermarkets mark down the price of low nutritional foods, and then put them by beside check outs to entice people to buy them because there's a big profit to be made from them.

Surely if the supermarkets are marking foods down, they're making a smaller profit from them? If fruit and veg are being marked up, isn't that where the supermarkets are making the biggest profit - and isn't that what we'd expect to see next to the check outs?

ideologicallyimpure said...

That's a really good point, Hugh. Of course what the supermarkets are really banking on is the fact that it's "common knowledge" enough that Fruit Is Good For You that people will continue to buy it even at ridiculous prices because that's What Good People Do. They don't need to put it at the impulse-buy last-minute checkout position.

Maia said...

Carol - I've talked before about why I hate the way the term 'healthy' is used in association with food. This post goes into my criticism in some detail. But I honestly can't respond to what you say, because I don't agree with the way you're talking about 'healthy food'.

Which is healthier a packet of chips or a glass of milk?

For me, the answer every day no matter what will be the packet of chips, because I'm intolerant of dairy products. The assumptions that food are inherently healthy is ridiculous - they are only good for us depending on our body and what it needs. So when people talk about 'healthy food' as if that was a stable category for all time - that's completely meaningless to me.

As a suggestion what I think you're meaning when you say 'unhealthy' is "food that is low in micro-nutrients and protein, compared to the other macro-nutrients." I think there is real value in being specific in these conversations.

Carol said...

Maia (and others), the more I see of this debate, the more confused I am about the way it’s being polarised - and the talk of "moral language" just misses me.

I also am a little lactose intolerant (was majorly so as a child), and tend to avoid milk products (especially cheese). I have a life-long history of food allergies & migraines - but it is both some processed, and some "fresh", unprocessed foods that can trigger allergic reactions. Some manufactured/processed foods and/or drugs can be beneficial to me, but I also have had allergic reactions to alcohol & and or two prescription drugs.

Consequently, I tend to take note of the nutritional value of food, as well as the impacts various foods can have on some bodies (anything to avoid those frigging headaches & migraines). I do think, partly it depends on an individual's body as to how they respond to many foods. My system seems to be far more sensitive than others to the impact of some foods/food elements.

I, however, don't have a problem with talking about some foods being more healthy than others, and some foods having more nutrients or being more nutritious than others. I do think good health depends largely on a balanced and varied diet, while being also tailored to an individual's body (I for instance mostly avoid eating cheese, and never eat shell-fish, even though I would say they are relatively healthy foods for most people).

I will continue explaining my views on Anna’s more recent thread, because it responds more specifically to the issues she has raised.