If only poor people understood nutrition!

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.


It seems like some people are constantly wringing their hands about how poor people eat (to wit: badly.) And the most popularly proposed solution is to teach them (“them”) more about nutrition! Or educate them in general.

Because obviously they just don’t know what they’re doing. And that’s why they eat so badly, and hence, why their health tends to be poorer!

And eureka! — you have a tidy solution that not only absolves financial and economic guilt, but, as a bonus, allows richer, more-edumacated people to assume the role of benevolent experts.

Here comes the part where I bust up that nice, warm bubble bath.

The reality is that people who don’t have enough money (or the utilities and storage) to buy and prepare decent food in decent quantities, cannot (and should not) be arsed to worry about the finer nuances of nutrition.

Because getting enough to eat is always our first priority.

That’s why Ellyn Satter (yes, her again) created the Hierarchy of Food Needs. Which looks like this:

Hierarchy of food needs, in order: enough food, acceptable food, reliable ongoing access to food, good-tasting food, novel food, and instrumental food.

The idea is that, before we worry about nutrition (i.e., “instrumental food”) we’ve first got to HAVE food. Enough of it. Consistently. And it’s got to be acceptable to us (which, for some people, might mean not coming from the garbage, or meeting certain standards of preparation) and it’s got to taste reasonably good. A little variety is nice, too.

These are not silly little preferences that can be brushed off lightly — even “tasting good,” which seems to always be the first thing thrown out the window when someone decides to change their diet For Health Reasons.

Tasting good is actually a function, biologically, of

  1. food’s microbiological safety and freshness (meaning it’s not spoiled or contaminated with sick-making germs),
  2. food’s caloric density (there’s that pesky ENOUGH FOOD thing again — because calories and water trump everything else, nutrition-wise, and hey, guess what?? Sweet, fatty foods are the order of the day when it comes to caloric density), and
  3. food’s chemical safety (meaning, it’s not naturally poisonous, chemically adulterated, or containing some toxin produced by sick-making germs.)

Of course, flavour isn’t infallibleC. botulinum can’t be detected by taste, for example, and ethylene glycol, a.k.a. antifreeze, is apparently as tasty as it is poisonous — but there’s likely a strong evolutionary reason why we developed certain flavour preferences. And it’s not because we’re totally depraved and destined by our love of Twinkies to doggy-paddle the Lake of Fire forever and ever, amen.

It’s because, for the most part, those preferences kept us fed and out of trouble with food. And they still do.

For most of us, this becomes apparent for the second reason listed above — when we’re hungry. I’m sure you’ve noticed how cake and fried foods and whatnot become SUPER MASSIVELY APPEALING when you’ve either missed a meal or started a diet.

It’s not because you lack willpower or have an inborn preference for BAD, BAD JUNK FOOD — it’s because those foods are naturally jam-packed full of what you need right that instant: energy. Meaning, calories — most of them coming from carbohydrate (whether it’s starch or sugar) for instant energy, and fat for MOAR energy (and tasty, creamy mouthfeel, to boot.)

So, extend this to someone who doesn’t have enough food on a regular basis. In my neighbourhood, which is poor, corner stores sell Ensure and Boost individually for about $2, right up in a big display near the counter. You find empty bottles of the stuff laying around on the sidewalk next to smashed beer bottles.

Ensure for sale at the corner store.

It’s complete nutrition; it’s portable and requires no preparation; and it’s reasonably calorie-dense. Imagine being hungry and walking into that corner store with a couple of bucks in your pocket.

Sure, choosing the Ensure over a chocolate bar or bag of chips might make logical sense, and you might even do that sometimes to ensure you don’t end up with some horrific nutrient deficiency. But there’s one important point I forgot to mention about Ensure and Boost: not super tasty.

So, when it comes down to it, you’re likely to choose the tastier option — which is pretty calorically dense and provides some nutrition (as well as the satisfaction of chewing actual food) — more often than not.

And it’s not because you’re stupid, ignorant, lazy, or just a bad, bad person who loves bad, bad food.

It’s because other needs come first.

The following quote from this book sums things up nicely as it relates to what people really need when it comes to nutrition, and how nutritionists, dietitians, and social workers can best help:

Is it our role to teach the poor how to live quietly on less than minimum standards of health and decency and how to starve on minimum wage? Do we teach them how to budget malnutrition more neatly? Or is it our job to struggle for those minimum standards…?

I think you know what answer I’d choose. And once again, we’re back to the social determinants of health.

You want people to eat better? Give them enough money, a place for cooking and storage, and access to a decent variety of food.

Then you can worry about the finer points of nutrition.

ETA: Further reading: Ami’s Guide to Food Privilege







186 responses to “If only poor people understood nutrition!”

  1. JMT Avatar

    YES! AMEN!

  2. Alexis Avatar

    Excellent! This is exactly why I often get frustrated with Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and even Marion Nestle at times. They can’t seem to get out from under their own middle-class moralistic biases enough to see that you have to treat the disease–poverty–and not just the “symptoms”, and stop thinking that poor nutritional habits are a willful, behavioral choice rather than bilogical necessity.

    In other words, awesome post. :)

    1. Alexis Avatar

      Er, and that’s “biological” obviously. :)

    2. Nicole Avatar

      Yes, yes, yes! I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to bite my tongue when some privileged person is waxing rhapsodic about Pollan and Waters and how they must spread their good word to the masses. Memo: Boutique, grass-fed beef and $25/pound heirloom tomatoes. Not helpful.

      1. deeleigh Avatar

        Where the hell do you get 25 buck a pound tomatoes? I mean, I know heirlooms can be expensive, but that’s ridiculous.

  3. Sarah N Avatar
    Sarah N

    Absolutely with you on this one.

    Over this past year I’ve been eating healthier, exercising regularly and sleeping better… and in my case it has reflected in a change on the scale.

    And people have said things like “You look great. See, you can do it.”

    Which totally ignores the fact that in the past year I’ve also gone from being a full time student working 2-3 part time jobs to pay the rent and not starve to an employed professional working a regular 9-5 schedule who suddenly has the money to buy watermelon in January (violating the 100 mile diet *gasp* but I’m not wealthy enough for my own greenhouse) and the time to go for a run.

    Yep, first rule of fitting into a social convention…have the time and money to do it.

    If I have kids someday it’ll all change again as I suddenly won’t have either anymore.

  4. Anna Avatar

    You are amazing. You’re doing holy work here. I can’t tell you how much you’ve helped me, and I can’t imagine how much you are helping other people. Thank you.

  5. Kelly Avatar

    Michelle. This is just – jaw-droppingly amazing. Thank you so much for writing it. I am so g-d tired of “richer, more-edumacated people to assume the status of benevolent [and often doucheily judgy] experts.”

    Thank you so much. You are awesome.

  6. MamaVH Avatar

    WOW. As a person who actually does struggle to put food on the table, I appreciate this so much. Thank you.

  7. Your husband Avatar
    Your husband

    It don’t fly with me. We’re poor because we’re stoopid and we are fat because we are stoopid. Obviously.

    1. Michelle Avatar


      ur not even fat

  8. Jenny Avatar

    Too true! My mother was on food stamps when my oldest sibling was a baby, and she said that nearly every time she pulled out her stamps in line at the grocery store, the middle-class jerk behind her in line criticized her food choices. As in, “You don’t need ice cream with MY money.” But a gallon of ice cream actually provides a lot more nutrition – in the barest sense of the word – than a bag of broccoli.

    I recently organized a food drive and went out with a $50 budget for foods to kick things off. I focused on baby food, and bought as many jars as were on sale as I could. When my husband saw that I had bought non-organic baby food (more than half the price of the organic stuff), he accused me of caring less about poor people than I did about my own family (since my kid eats only organic). I told him that if we were hungry and didn’t have enough to eat, my concerns about organic would go out the window, and my concern would be enough food for my child. I figured that the food-drive recipients would prefer twice as much non-organic baby food to half as much organic. He thought that made me a snob – I thought it made me a realist, especially given that I come from a background of poverty.

    But for the record–the choice is not between springing for a South American watermelon in January or running your own greenhouse. The choice is between eating winter fruit in the winter (like apples, pears, whatever is nearby and there is usually something closer than South America) and summer fruit in the winter. My husband and I are both currently unemployed–and we also wait until July to eat melon. To do otherwise takes too great a toll on the planet.

  9. Writer Writing Avatar

    WordPress ate my comment :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :( :(

    Basically, I was saying thank you and right on, and can douchebags please stop telling me I don’t know how to eat well and that’s why I’m death fat? Ugh.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Yeah, my site seems to be burping right now. But thanks for persisting :)

  10. MeNe Avatar

    That table seems to be Maslow’s hierarchy of needs translated to encompass food itself. Am I right?? What do I get?? ;)

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Ding ding ding!

      You win…the satisfaction of being correct.

      If I had an Ensure handy, I’d give you one of those.

  11. Lisa Avatar

    Sigh…. awesome as always. This social worker agrees with you 100%. And I agree with the poster above who noted that THIS is what Michael Pollan, et. al., don’t seem to understand.

  12. Twistie Avatar

    It constantly amazes me how many people don’t get the difference between ‘not enough money to summer in the South of France’ and ‘not enough money to make sure my kids don’t freaking starve to death.’

    Mr. Twistie and I have enough to be a little (though not terribly) picky. I’ve known plenty of people in my time who didn’t have enough to give a crap about whether what they eat is organic or in season or farm fresh. What they’ve needed to worry about is whether it will carry them through to the next meal.

    You can’t worry about how much nutrition you’re getting until you no longer have to worry about how much food you can get.

    1. Nicole Avatar

      Exactly what Twistie said:

      It constantly amazes me how many people don’t get the difference between ‘not enough money to summer in the South of France’ and ‘not enough money to make sure my kids don’t freaking starve to death.’

  13. LEOLEOLEO Avatar

    You’re so completely right on here. Fortunately in my neighborhood we have a really, really excellent produce market where fresh fruits and vegetables are absurdly cheap. But in the poorer neighborhoods surrounding mine – not so much. And in urban cases like that, when people can’t be arsed to pay attention to nutrition, they can’t really get nutritious food anyway. The stores on their blocks sell beer and flamin hot cheetos (do you have those in Canada? They’re vile.). So in cities at least, the problem really seems to be more about economic development in impoverished city centers rather than who cares about what and who is a better person with their nutritional high horse.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Yeah, having a car is a big issue too when it comes to grocery stores.

      In the linked article, the writer (Caitlin Flanagan) talks about driving to Compton to find out they have really awesome grocery stores! And she mentions they’re mostly empty (of people.)

      Now, I don’t know anything about Compton, but an empty grocery store here would mean that maybe people don’t have a great way to access it?

      I don’t have a car, and so I get my groceries on foot (with a cart.) That means: I can only buy so much at a time to take advantage of bulk discounts or special deals, I can only walk to a couple of stores within a reasonable distance, and sometimes whatever is at the corner store has to suffice because of weather or other inconveniences.

      1. zingerella Avatar

        I likewise don’t have a car. I do have the luxury of being able to afford a downtown apartment, in a city where, for the most part, downtown apartments in walk-able neighbourhoods are far more costly than high-rise apartments in car-friendly, pedestrian-hostile inner suburbs. So, yeah, accessibility of grocery stores is a privilege and luxury in many towns and cities. And this is something that middle-class folks seem to forget, a lot.

      2. deeleigh Avatar

        I’ve got to note, th0ugh, the neighborhood that Michelle and I live in is not exactly lacking in cheap, high quality grocery stores with lots of cheap, fresh produce. We’re lucky. I have a car and I usually shop on foot with an old lady cart anyway.

        In Detroit, where I’m from, neighborhoods containing large number of poor people don’t generally have grocery stores, let alone 3 discount grocery stores plus 2 full priced ones, plus about 10 mini food stores (ranging from a gourmet deli to ethnic stores to convenience stores), plus a bakery, a butcher shop, and a caterer with a retail business, within walking distance.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          I really only consider the No Frills and Metro to be within comfortable walking distance for me, and I feel like this neighbourhood is distinctly lacking in fruit/vegetable stands. In both of my other neighbourhoods, I had 2-3 different vegetable stands within walking distance, and that’s where I bought all my produce. It was much cheaper, and in better shape than the grocery store stuff available. The Food Basics and even the organic grocery shop are places I hardly ever go (unless I’m walking up to your place!) and certainly not when I’m hauling 70 lbs of groceries in a cart. Luckily No Frills has a good produce section, so I don’t mind the lack of veggie shacks so much.

          Certainly could be much, much worse though.

          1. deeleigh Avatar

            You should see the Spartan stores and party stores in Detroit – and most neighborhoods don’t even have one of those. NO fresh produce, or if they have any, it’s disgusting.

          2. Michelle Avatar

            Mmmm-mmm. Sounds tasty.

      3. Noel Lynne Figart Avatar

        YES. Having the car is a huge issue in a lot of areas. I didn’t realize quite how much so until I had to do without a car for about two weeks while getting extensive and expensive repairs on mine.

        I live 1/2 a mile from an… adequate grocery store. It’s very small, but actually has a produce section. Not that it’s great, but it exists. It’s also more expensive than the grocery store I have to drive to.

        That’s right folks, it’s cheaper to be affluent.

        From Men at Arms, by Terry Pratchett:

        The reason the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

        Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in the city on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

        But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

        This was the Captain Samuel Vimes “Boots” theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

        1. Arwen Avatar

          ABSOLUTELY. It’s the “Poverty Premium”. Everything is more expensive when you’re poor – the difference is that there’s a higher upfront cost when you’re rich. From groceries to banking to enjoying wine to making your own whatevers; it’s all more expensive to do it poor.

  14. Atchka! Avatar

    Normally I’m not a spelling Nazi, but this made me laugh:

    <blockquote cite="The reality is that people who don’t have enough money (or the utilities and storage) to buy and prepare decent food in decent quantities, cannot (and should not) be arsed to worry about the finer nuances of nutrition.”>

    If you meant it, sorry. If not, that’s f’in’ hilarious. :)

    Anyway, about the actual content: awesome. I was just thinking about how we need more info on how and why poverty and obesity are correlated besides the obvious (can’t afford nutrient-dense foods). I’m putting this in the FATs.

    Great job!


    1. Atchka! Avatar

      Damned HTML. Now I’ve arsed myself.


    2. Michelle Avatar

      No, I really meant “arsed”!

      I swear sometimes. A lot.

      1. Atchka! Avatar

        I thought you meant asked. Whoops! Still funny. Just intentionally so. :)


  15. spacedcowgirl Avatar

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Now I have somewhere to point people when we get into tiresome discussions about how poor people just need to be educated about nutrition and how they should be spending their scarce food dollars on fresh fruits and vegetables when many people would not get enough calories if they didn’t buy things that are more calorie-dense. I just tend to get angry and can’t make a cohesive argument in the moment, so voila, now I will link here instead. Also I had never seen that hierarchy of food needs before, and it is very interesting.

    1. deeleigh Avatar

      It’s true that a lot of poor people don’t know how to cook though, and if they did, they could eat better. Wealthier people can get away with not knowing how to cook.

      1. Michelle Avatar

        The counterpoint though is, even if some people DO know how to cook, if you have shitty facilities, it doesn’t really matter. My kitchen is so tiny that it’s quite a feat to pull off a full meal in there. I cooked (and baked bread) a lot more in our previous place with the big kitchen. But the rent was higher.

        1. deeleigh Avatar

          Good point. Your kitchen is indeed woefully inadequate. But, it’s actually an unusually tiny kitchen even for a poor person in North America. A lot of poor people live in places that are essentially the same as (okay that ARE) middle class dwellings from a generation or two ago. The house I lived in as a teenager was very similar to the houses that much poorer people lived in three blocks over, and the kitchen and bath hadn’t been updated, either. The house and neighborhood just looked better because they’d been better maintained.

          Poor people in North America, when it comes to the basic facilities they have access to, are not that different from middle class people. Not many are living in hovels with no heating, electricity, or phone. (I don’t think that having 1000 square feet per person rather than 250 or laminate vs. granite counter tops are real issues.) Poor people have refrigerators and stoves. The most significant difference is in their level of security – food security and financial security – and in their local mobility (car?). Even the amount of leisure time is not predictable by class. Only in very densely populated areas does the tinyness of the kitchens become an issue for poor people.

        2. deeleigh Avatar

          You know, it occurs to me that poor people are often caught in a catch-22. It denser cities like Toronto, they often have access to good, cheap groceries within walking distance but tend to have very little kitchen and garden space. In less dense cities like Detroit, they’re more likely to have functional kitchens and yards where they can grow things, but they tend not to have adequate and affordable groceries (or gardening supplies) available within walking distance.

  16. Andrea Avatar

    As someone who works in the emergency food system, trying to get food to people who are food insecure or nearly so, I want to say THANK YOU. We struggle daily with the quantity/quality question, trying to get ENOUGH food to people, and trying also to make it NUTRITIOUS food. And the people who get mad at food-insecure folks, or at us for giving them food, are indeed the over-edumacated people who have the luxury of being able to afford to make those kinds of choices. Makes me nuts!

    *puff puff* Ok, rant over.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Awesome to hear from someone who actually works with this kind of stuff!

  17. Chris Gregory Avatar
    Chris Gregory

    Combine these things with a nice, rigid class system, and you end up with Jamie Oliver, who makes TV shows where he goes into poor people’s homes and improves their lives by teaching them how to cook, for the entertainment of a judgemental and hateful middle-class audience. That the poor people (who are clearly cherry-picked for their attitudes) is pretty obvious (I don’t know of any real study that shows that poor people care any less about their children’s welfare than rich people). A lot of people think the guy’s a saint. Myself, I think he’s a horrid monster. And don’t get me started on Michael Pollan.

    1. deeleigh Avatar

      Did I just say that poor people who know how to cook can eat better than those who don’t? Yep, but I still HATE Jamie Oliver. What a prick.

    2. Kalinka Avatar

      I detest Jamie Oliver too. Smug twit. What gets forgotten in this type of programme is that people without money to spend on food don’t have the luxury of being able to cook food that their kids might not like. If the kids like chicken drummers, and will readily eat chicken drummers, and chicken drummers are cheap to buy and can be easily stored in the freezer, then chicken drummers will be bought.

      It’s all very well trying to get poorer parents to cook fancy stews and curries, but if younger palates don’t like them, then it’s money down the drain. It’s interesting to note that ever since Jamie Oliver brought his campaign into British schools, the number of kids taking school meals has nose-dived. They don’t want his salads and “healthy options”. They want something hot and tasty, which might be their only hot meal of the day.

  18. Daniel M. Avatar
    Daniel M.

    I am interested with the taste- nutrition relationship.
    One thing i know is that rice. besides a curry, tastes best when combined with beans (such as a baked bean conserve (+ other veggies and condiments of course) – i am a not especially rich college student)
    The surprising thing is that i have read once that actually rice contains stuff that helps to metabolise the bean proteins much more easily

    I also agree with the general article – especially since my country was industrialised in the 1950’s by the communists, and my grandparents were around before and although not exactly starving, my grandpa’s parents had to lock up bread from the children. He pretty much first ate chocolate from the UNRRA rations as there was a set dose for each family :D
    one of the funny effects is that the most likely reaction you will get to any of the crap plant fats they sell now as “healthy” from anyone older is “Are you kidding? Gimme butter. i ate enough margarin during the war!”

    Funniest thing is that recently some smart-ass dietetician had an article in the newspaper writing about how unhealthily do people eat in my country and described the typical obese Czechoslovakian (working in agriculture, from a village, has no college ed blah blah)
    My grandfather fits all of the traits except that he is 1m75 and about 77-71kg but he can carry as much as me and i am 50 years younger and 30 kg heavier…

    Besides, again from my own experience when you do not have time for a meal and need energy, or have not eaten since the last evening you buy a coke or equivalent, not some healthy fad food.

  19. saskatchewan Avatar

    Please do check out George Orwell’s excellent The Road to Wigan Pier. There’s an excellent break-down of this very issue from the 1930s (my how we’ve learned over the years):

    “Would it not be better if they [the poor] spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the write of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionare may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. [. . .] When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t *want* to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’.

    It goes on. And it’s all very good. I read it when I was a teenager and I thank Orwell for making me aware throughout the whole of my adulthood, that my pickiness about having good food was only possible through my privilage.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Also of interest: Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. As well as Round About a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves.

  20. Chris Gregory Avatar
    Chris Gregory

    People need seven different proteins to be healthy (there’s another one too, that children need because they can’t produce enough of it). You can get all eight from meat or eggs, but not from plant sources. Which is why there are certain combinations that are good, because they manage to complement each other to provide all the proteins you need.

    So beans and rice do the job. Or peanut butter and white bread. Really, foods that people call junk foods aren’t junk, they just may be higher in calories and lower in nutrients. But if you need the calories, particularly if you use up a lot of calories in your work, then you’re going to need to eat more calorific food. And I think this is the heart of the matter: choosing to eat food with lower calorific content marks you as being of higher social status (not needing to do physical labour for a living, so needing fewer calories).

    You make a good point about fizzy drinks too. People drink sodas for quick energy boosts when they don’t have time to eat, which is not inherently bad. I drink caffeinated things to alleviate back pain (they help quite a bit)…I think that’s just sensible behaviour. But again, middle class people have the time and money to go home for every meal, or to eat out at a restaurant, and it becomes an indicator of social class. Poor people don’t always have time to go home to sit at a table to eat, or eat in a restaurant. So foods designed to be eaten by hand are considered debased. But that has nothing to do with their nutritional content: there’s no reason why a hamburger can’t be part of a perfectly balanced diet, and they’re yummy to boot.

    1. Writer Writing Avatar

      choosing to eat food with lower calorific content marks you as being of higher social status

      I never really thought about it in those terms but you’re right. Thanks for the insight! I use soda to alleviate pain as well, but for migraines.

      I find our relationships with food so interesting because so many people spend a lot time fighting with food instead of using to help themselves – their mental and physical health.

      1. living400lbs Avatar

        Thanks for the insight! I use soda to alleviate pain as well, but for migraines.

        My migraine remedy: diet pepsi (or diet coke), tylenol, advil, possibly chocolate.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          Proving, once again, that CAFFEINE IS GOOD FOR YOU.

    2. littlem Avatar

      “So foods designed to be eaten by hand are considered debased.”

      No injeera? No falafel? That’s kind of … xenophobic, isn’t it?

      1. Bookwyrm Avatar

        None. Jamie Oliver says so*! And he’s here to save your children!! Because he [the unlike-you is implied] cares about them!!!

        * http://www.thetranquilparent.com/detail/jamie-oliver-on-why-kids-lifespans-today-are-10-years-shorter-than-their-pa/ , timestamp 10:30 – 10:56 “They don’t even get given crockery. . . it’s purely endorsing, from a state level, fast food.”

  21. RachelB Avatar

    Thank you! Just wanted to let you know that if I had a lighter, I’d be waving it over my head right now; you’ve neatly encapsulated what frustrates me about all the good-intentioned, privilege-blinkered folks in the locavore movement.

    When I made minimum wage, I was lucky to have a (mostly) working stove, a refrigerator, cheap grains and beans within walking distance, a free garden plot at the church I attended, and enough time to prepare meals. Those privileges combined made it possible for me to eat cheap food that filled me and met my taste and nutritional needs. Without any one of them, I probably would have opted for the potato chips, though they generally make me feel kind of ill.

  22. hsofia Avatar

    Wow, there is a lot of hatred for the middle-class here.
    I have to say, having grown up both poor and working class, and growing up in poor and working class neighborhoods, in urban and suburban environments, among American born and immigrants … my thought here is that there no one way that poor people eat. And there is no one reason that poor people eat the way they do.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Really? I honestly didn’t think I hated the middle-class (or anyone, really, since hate doesn’t work very well for me.)

      What I thought I disliked were nutrition experts condemning poor people for not eating “healthy” without examining what the barriers might be.

      Of course, you’re right that poor people (like anyone else) have varying reasons for eating what they eat. But there are also systemic barriers that poor people predominantly face — to ignore those systemic barriers is short-sighted at best, and discompassionate at worst.

      I say this as someone who grew up middle class, and who would still be identified as such even though my income doesn’t justify it.

      ETA: Oh, also — one of my big issues is the idea that education/information alone will solve problems. I just don’t believe that works, and I was trying to make that point in this article. I admit, I got kind of sidetracked though.

      E(again)TA: I just realized you must be referring to a lot of the comments re: middle class. I didn’t notice this so much myself, but maybe it’s a discussion we should have? I mean, after all, many of the people likely to read blogs like this are probably middle class.

    2. deeleigh Avatar

      Hatred for the middle class? I don’t see it. I’m middle class and haven’t felt the slightest bit offended by anything here. There have been a few criticisms of self righteous middle class food puritans, but not all middle class people are self righteous food puritans.

  23. Elizebeth Turnquist Avatar

    As someone that identifies as poor but well informed (my mom used to say we’re a part of the intellectual ghetto) the real solution to getting poor people to eat healthier foods…wait for it…subsidize healthy foods*!

    Give me some FREE vegetables. Or make healthy foods, like vegetables and fruit, CHEAPER than other energy dense foods.

    For a dollar I can by a cheeseburger from McDonalds, which is about 295 calories. Or, for a dollar, I can buy an apple, which is about 65 Calories. Or, for a dollar, I can by a 1/2 pounds of carrots, which equals about 87 calories.

    The economics of my situation clearly suggests I should BUY THE BURGER.

    I love healthy foods. I was raised by a granola-eating lesbian. I got a taste for whole grains and nuts and fresh fruits and vegetables. But, if I’m going to be completely honest, in my life those things are luxuries. They’re what I add to the grocery cart AFTER I’ve made sure we have enough food for the month.

    The harsh truth is that education tells me what I SHOULD do. It doesn’t get me any closer to being able to implement what I’ve learned.

    (*I’m using the definition of healthy foods which means whole foods, with a focus on fruits and vegetables.)

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I agree. When you take calorie density into account (and lots of times, people don’t — but your body sure does), a lot of “unhealthy” foods are cheaper than some staples. Especially if you don’t have access to a proper grocery store.

      1. WellRoundedType2 Avatar

        This is what makes me want to get a nutrition degree and combine it with my creativity, love of cooking, science, marketing experience and entrepreneurship and actually make healthier foods available more cheaply to those people who could use it.
        It could be that things might move in this direction in terms of some of the shelf-stable products out there that now just require adding water — I can imagine some tasty pasta-based dishes that would likely be high in sodium but otherwise pass for “wholesome food.”
        Part of it is pricing, packaging and marketing. Tuna in packets is easier to deal with (even better — have mayo and some good seasonings mixed in already) than cans, but priced higher. Often the “quick wholesome” foods are marketed to high-end customers (designer oatmeal or freeze-dried bean and grain soups) and priced higher, even if the ingredients/processing/packaging doesn’t cost more.
        I am all for free CSAs or veggie vans or working with corner stores to have very low cost but high quality fruits/veg available, along with lower-fat milk products, lean protein sources and more nutritious grain-based foods. I think people who have less money, just like me, will also need ice cream and snickers bars and pringles from time to time. I think it takes more thought/energy to develop solutions, but I think they are out there.
        Poor health in poorer people is a result of societal neglect more than anything to do with “lifestyle” in my opinion. There may be “tweaks” in food culture that can happen — once the higher quality food is actually affordable/available.
        And, of course, social support and food together can have a huge impact on quality of life. If housing/transportation/urban planning supported the ability of people who were at home to cook and serve meals to families or “families of friends” — that would be a great solution. I know that in Canada there are some communal kitchens and cooking clubs. As a single working mom with sole custody, I hate to cook only for myself and a child who may not even eat what I’ve prepared — I would much rather have the company and extra mouths to feed once I’ve gone to that trouble.

        One other thing here — I do shop at Trader Joe’s, which has some amazing “convenience” foods that are priced well, but their locations are definitely planned for reaching “upscale” bargain hunters. If offerings like some of theirs (including ethnic foods) were available in convenience/corner stores, that could make a difference.

        Looking at Satter’s pyrimad, it would make sense to “engineer” the instrumental food to be reliably available (in price and location), good tasting and culturally acceptable.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          Or maybe you could get a food science degree and work in product development? Either way, that’d be awesome.

    2. hsofia Avatar

      I would wager to guess that you would eat the free healthy foods because you want to eat healthy foods, not because they’re free.

  24. Writer Writing Avatar

    Addressing the hatred of the middle class: I don’t think it’s a hatred of the middle class but rather a frustration borne of the insistence that our (that is, the poor) inability to eat sensibly can be solved by educating us (on how to cook, what to buy, how to manage our time, etc.). I’ve come up against this a lot when talking to people who have watched Food, Inc. Many of them chastise, though indirectly, people of all income levels for not paying attention to where their food comes from or what they eat, and go on to emphasize buying locally grown organic foods without much regard for situation or circumstance.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Yes, I think people’s frustrations come from those who are unwilling to examine their privilege. In fact, I’m not sure a lot of middle-class people see themselves as particularly privileged, since our society is set up in such a way as to encourage people to always, always be grasping for more. And when people can’t place themselves realistically in context, it makes it harder for them to understand that different people struggle against a different set of obstacles than they do. They might not even realize that a lot of those obstacles exist in the first place, when other people can’t imagine life without them.

      When I was growing up in America, for example, living in a car-scale suburb, I don’t think I ever would have imagined that some people had to walk to get their groceries. It was just unthinkable to me, I guess. Now, when I go home to visit, I am stunned by how much we use the car. And I’m not saying using a car is BAD or anything, it’s just a totally different way of living — and if it’s the only way you know, it’s hard to understand other ways.

      1. living400lbs Avatar

        The man of the house grew up in a semi-rural area with a big vegetable garden, goats, chickens, et cetera. Not a farm per se, but growing some of their food because they had the land, they knew how, and had cheap child/teenage labor to assist with weeding and such.

        You think suburbs are car-oriented? Try a semi-rural neighborhood where the smallest lot is 5 acres. :) Needless to say he has a slightly different take on the locavore idea. He’s happy to eat meat his mother raises, for example, or to buy from people he knows. But he doesn’t assume that “local” is always better, either.

  25. […] model, wétiko by urocyon Yesterday, I ran across an excellent post at The Fat Nutritionist: If only poor people understood nutrition!. The main thrust: Because obviously they just don’t know what they’re doing. And that’s why […]

  26. Lu Avatar

    Love this post! Everyone needs to read this. I’m always dumbstruck when I read an ignorant comment about poverty and the quality of food that some people are getting. C’mon, it just isn’t easy to make ends meet sometimes. It isn’t about knowing what to eat, it’s about having something to eat.

  27. Chris Gregory Avatar
    Chris Gregory

    I don’t think its very common to see Americans talking about class (I’m an Australian myself, where these things are a little less transparent, and England is of course much, much worse), but I think it’s a very healthy thing. There’s a kind of middle-class guilt that, rather than accept that privilege is the result of chance and not accomplishment, is expressed through hostility to those lower in status. They must be poor and under-privileged, the reasoning goes, because they deserve it. If only they tried harder and looked after themselves better, they could have all the same stuff I have. So it’s their own fault.

    This sort of reasoning is given expression in popular culture and the media, which is mostly dominated by the middle class. I don’t think it’s possible to make sense of the way that fatties and the poor are scapegoated and villified without some understanding of the way the system works. It’s not hatred of the middle-class, it is hatred of certain negative aspects of middle-class behaviour, which really should not be acceptable, but which play dominant roles in shaping our societies. To dismiss it as hatred of the middle-class is to blindly accept the status quo, which I guess is fine if it’s to your own advantage.

  28. Ashley Avatar

    This can (and should!) extend to other food deprivation situations, like illness, surgery, and pregnancy.

    My recent pregnancy, which featured such fun things as hyperemesis gravidarum, was an education in nutrition. Being that I couldn’t eat, and what I did eat I pretty much didn’t keep down, my diet drastically switched from a healthy American diet (lots of meat and veggies, whole organic foods) to simple starches and soda. Because I needed to keep down as many calories as I could, and carrots weren’t gonna cut it.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Yes, yes and yes.

      Food deprivation — for any reason — will result in people prioritizing taste/caloric density/etc over nutrition every time.

  29. Thalia Avatar

    Every time I come here I swear first thing I think is, God, Michelle, you’re just so fucking smart. What an excellent post, and so clearly laid out.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Best compliment EVAR!

      Seriously, thanks.

  30. hsofia Avatar

    @Chris, my problem with the middle-class bashing is that it’s pointing the finger at “those people.” I spend a lot of time with white, middle and working class, liberal white people and listen to them talk about “white people” and “middle class people” as if they are neither. My response is very likely out of proportion to what was said in the comments here because my feelings are already flared on the subject. I just get very uncomfortable with “poor people don’t eat right because they don’t have any free time” and similar statements about why African American people and Hispanic people “don’t eat vegetables.” First, it insults my intelligence (and flies in the face of my own experience, having grown up around poor people of color in a major urban area), and it sets up this “woe to poor people of color” patronizing tone that I really can’t stand.

    1. Chris Gregory Avatar
      Chris Gregory

      No, it’s a different situation because the power relationship is different. A member of the dominant group in a society has power over other people lesser down in the social hierarchy by virtue of their birth and heritage. Statements that justify inequalities – rationalisations of why poor people are poor, or why people are fat or whatever – are reactionary, in that they support the status quo. Questioning these values questions the way things are, which undermines the status quo. While it is, in some sense, finger-pointing, the groups are not equal, and that’s the crux of the matter.

    2. Michelle Avatar

      I’m glad you’re bringing all this up, hsofia. I think it’s very much worth discussing.

  31. Christine Avatar

    I take $10 month to put together food bags for the homeless guys I run across. My goal is to create a complete meal (of sorts) in each bag, with the following criteria: Reasonably non-perishable, no cooking or heating required, no can opener required, no nuts (because a lot of these guys have bad teeth), and able to keep on hand in my car (extremely hot being more of an issue than cold). I came up with the following, which I now pretty much stick with: A bottle of water, a Hawaiian Punch powdered mix-in stick (because warm water tastes nasty), a can of Vienna sausages, a package of cheese or peanut butter crackers, and an individual pie. I also include a packaged Handi-wipe so they can clean their hands before eating, and a napkin.

    The cost per “meal” is about $1.20, give or take, and each one contains about 900 calories and 50 – 60 grams of fat (depending on the brands I buy). When I first started doing this, I felt a little guilty for not providing more “healthful” food, even though it meant making far fewer bags. But after reading you (and other sources), I realized that making these bags as calorie-dense as possible was actually a good thing – and more “healthful” to these guys who might not get anything else to eat that day.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      My husband would knock someone over to have that for lunch every day. I’m going to put that together for him sometime!

  32. Rachel Greer Avatar

    This is something I’ve been wanting to articulate to myself and other people for a really long time. I love your website. It has really changed my life. My new year’s resolution is directly inspired by you…I wrote a blog post about it…read if you feel like it: http://greerio.wordpress.com/2010/01/14/first-post-of-the-new-year-woot/

    1. Michelle Avatar

      That is awesome, congratulations. And thank you.

  33. […] Good discussions of intuitive eating, nutrition, and comfortable […]

  34. hsofia Avatar

    @Christine – Great idea! Do you buy these things in bulk? Do you make the pies yourself?

  35. MizFit Avatar

    *stands and claps*

  36. Emerald Avatar

    one of the funny effects is that the most likely reaction you will get to any of the crap plant fats they sell now as “healthy” from anyone older is “Are you kidding? Gimme butter. i ate enough margarin during the war!”

    Daniel, that was pretty much my folks’ attitude, and they were kids during WWII rationing in the UK. They also distrusted wholemeal bread when it started to become popular in the 1980s, and I’d guess that might have been to do with the ‘national’ loaf of the war era, which was part-wholemeal and widely disliked. Conversely, my mother always insisted white sugar was an essential part of the diet, while bread and potatoes were stodgy and bad for you – the latter having been among the few reasonably cheap and plentiful foods during WWII. Can’t help but wonder whether that, more than any nutritional concern, contributed to the distaste for ‘fattening’ carbs in the post-war diet.

    Speaking of WWII, nobody’s yet mentioned the suggestion now popular in the UK that people could improve their diets by ‘digging for victory’ (over obesity – yes, they actually put it like that!) and growing their own veg. Again, this presupposes that you have garden space, or can find an allotment plot, and that you can find the time and energy to tend it…not foregone conclusions for many people. I’m never sure about this whole wartime nostalgia thing; if you actually listen to people who lived through that era, many of them spent a lot of time feeling very hungry, not particularly healthier, and just plain bored with the restricted range of foods available. (In the UK, I think, we especially don’t appreciate how few native fruits we have available in the winter months.)

    Access to healthy food isn’t just an urban issue. I live in a tiny English village, around a half-hour drive from the nearest supermarket, with very poor public transport. Those of us who (like me and my hubby) have a car can go shop elsewhere; many people, and this especially applies to the elderly folks, don’t have that option. We have two corner grocery stores, but like most of their kind, they’re not hot on produce: expensive, poor selection and often less than fresh. We used to have a greengrocer here, but because profits went downhill they decided to go for box delivery only, which is fine if you can afford it and will use a whole box of veggies in a week (which an elderly woman living alone may not), and convert the store itself to a fish and chip shop. Which, because people like the convenience of a reasonably priced, filling hot meal on their doorstep, is wildly popular.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Again, this presupposes that you have garden space, or can find an allotment plot

      Yes, this is one of my biggest problems when people talk about gardening.

      Basically, though I live in a cute little formerly-Victorian-residential part of the city, I’m an apartment-dweller and have no patch of earth to call my own. I doubt my superintendent would be very thrilled if I tilled up the back yard of our building.

      A lot of people in apartments don’t even have balcony space to grow a couple of tomatoes.

      1. Lisa Avatar

        You, my dear girl, are genius. I wish you could hear my exclamations of joy as I read this post.

        You’ve articulated why Jamie Oliver irks me so. He encapsulates the whole elitist framed as compassion food movement. I grew up on food stamps and food pantry donations which meant a lot of dayglo mac and cheese and canned beans. When my dad did have work, we ate canned soup and if it was a special holiday, we added Spam.

        If someone like Jamie Oliver had come into our home to “help” us make better food choices, I bet my dad would have kicked him out on his sanctimonius arse while I clapped.

    2. Chris Gregory Avatar
      Chris Gregory

      My parents were quite poor when I was very little, so we always had a garden. But I lived in rural Australia, and this was the early seventies. There were no supermarkets, food was generally much more expensive, and even a housing block in the suburbs had enough room for a substantial garden if people wanted to grow one.

      But times change. Refrigerated transport and the whole supermarket infrastructure made a much wider variety of fresh fruit and vegetables easily affordable (while we may have grown our own corn, growing up I never saw mushrooms or asparagus or even pineapple that didn’t come from a can). More and more people live in urban environments, and where I live now (in Melbourne, Australia) many of the single blocks are being converted into housing for two or more separate families, leaving no room for gardens at all.

      We have a situation where owning and maintaining your own garden has become a status symbol, indicating that you have both the time and money (as well as space) to grow one. To adequately sustain a family entirely on home grown produce would be enormously expensive and impractical, *which is the whole point*. It’s not about self-sufficiency, or health, or anything like that. It’s just another form of conspicuous consumption (Thorstein Veblen wrote about exactly this sort of stuff over a hundred years ago). Pick up a copy of ‘Theory of the Leisure Class’. It’s probably a bit heavy-going, but it’s also very funny.

  37. […] 5, because I seriously need to study some chemistry! And I keep getting distracted by interesting discussions and comments and […]

  38. Christine Avatar

    I don’t make the pies (or anything else) myself. They’re square, pre-packaged “fried pies” much like McDonald’s sells. I can get them 3/$1 at Aldi in apple or cherry. (My late father just loved those things so I thought they’d probably be a hit with other men, too.) I don’t do any bulk buying because that would usually mean more outlay up front than I can spare in any given month. But between Aldi, WalMart and Dollar Tree, I’m not so sure that there would be much appreciable savings anyway. I’m buying almost all “house brands,” not national brands, so everything is about as cheap as it’s going to get, I think. I run across a lot of the same guys (they have their “territories,” it seems), so I’d love to mix things up and find other sources protein to give them some variety. So far, though, I haven’t found anything yet that fits all my criteria and/or won’t skyrocket the per-meal cost.

  39. Christine Avatar

    By the way, my cost breakdown looks something like this:
    1 box (8 – 10 count) drink powder mix-in sticks – $1 from Dollar Tree
    8 cans Vienna Sausages @.40 can – $3.20 from Aldi
    1 8-count package peanut butter crackers – $2 from WalMart
    8 “fried pies” @.33/ea – $2.66 from Aldi
    8 bottles of water ($4/24) – $1.36

    Total: $10.42 + tax for 8 “meals”
    (I don’t count the cost of napkins or Handi-wipes, which I usually appropriate from fast-food restaurants.)

  40. Jen Avatar

    Thanks for this post. Having once been poor (although I am not now), I know the agony of trying to feed children when having even more than one roll of toilet paper on hand at a time felt like a luxury. I remember one day opening my cupboard to find that literally the only item of food that I had was a box of grape jello. Didn’t matter that I lived half a mile from a fresh produce stand. Didn’t matter that I had a refrigerator, stove, a tv and a car. Education, the proximity of nutritious food, and even the means to get to the store made absolutely no difference. Because if you don’t have money you can’t by food (any of it). So grape jello it was… and some fast food chicken nuggets would have been infinitely more nutritious for my kids at that time.
    And incidentally, the less food I had, the more I would consume in one sitting. Every meal felt like the last one. The poorer I was, the more I ate when I did get food. (and yeah, it was usually stuff like noodles and expired packaged foods from a nearby discount store) . This was a survival mechanism, not a matter of education or lack of nutritional knowledge.
    I am no longer poor, but spent just long enough in those shoes to understand just why a poor person is more likely to be obese than a wealthy or middle class one. The “we need to teach them” attitude has always perplexed me. Teach them what? How to select and prepare food they don’t have? That would be like trying to teach someone to fly a plane … but locking him out of the cockpit first.

  41. hsofia Avatar

    @Christine – thank you for the break down! I will be using it.

  42. […] 16, 2010 · Leave a Comment The Fat Nutritionist has a great post about the (incorrect) assumptions society makes about the impoverished and obesity.  I have tried […]

  43. Lisa Avatar

    Thank you for this post and for the link to the Atlantic article, which I found so valuable as well.

  44. Chandelle Avatar

    I’ve been reading your site for some time, and I love it. I feel compelled to comment because when I graduate in June I’ll be “one of those” nutritionists wanting to work with the poor.

    My family lived on food stamps for years after we had kids. I learned how to eat healthy on a food stamp budget. I went for nutrient-dense carbs with calorie-dense fats and proteins. It wasn’t easy, but I made it work. In the end our meal costs ran about $1 a meal for each person, using whole foods.

    I decided to go into nutrition because I wanted to share what I’d learned with other people living on food stamps and government assistance. It’s not because I think poor people are stupid or uneducated. As a poor person I was very aware of what we were eating and where the good stuff was. I taught myself to cook after starting out with absolutely no skills; I learned how to ferment food, to can (with a borrowed canner and $.25 cans from the thrift store), to dry food in the sun, and to freeze food. I learned to buy cheap staples – beans, rice, lentils – in bulk whenever we got a little extra cash or whenever they were on sale. I never lived in a space where I could grow my own food. I could never afford the implements to grow my own food, even if I did have the space. But our family never ended up at the food bank. We made that food stamp card stretch as far as it could go on nutrient-dense foods.

    I doubt I’ll ever work with homeless people, who indeed have very different needs and opportunities from the average family on food stamps. A nutritionist is well-nigh useless for someone eating only occasionally from the allotted once-a-month trip to the various food banks in our area. But I do believe that it’s possible to eat reasonably well on food stamps – provided that other obstacles are overcome, as mentioned. I’d really like to get community garden space available to people on food stamps and not just for socialites dabbling in a trendy ancient art. Our local homeless shelter has a garden where residents can learn a skill that is very desirable in our rural farm area and also reap the benefit of food they’ve grown for themselves. Studies demonstrate the benefits of getting gardens onto school-grounds, the improvement of children’s temperament and grades when they can work outside and eat vegetables that they’ve grown. The farmer’s market where we used to live began accepting food stamps two years ago. Every farmer’s market is different, but the vegetables and fruits available at that market were far cheaper than anything available in a grocery store. These are incremental changes on the local level, not sweeping changes in class and opinion, but I have to believe that they’ve mattered, at least a little bit, for the people on the receiving end.

    I don’t doubt the limitations or the obstacles – I’ve educated myself in them as best I can, and I’ve lived them myself – but I still think there’s good work to be done. You know, one of the most frequent comments I hear when I tell people what I want to do with my degree is “Poor people don’t care about eating healthy.” And I know that’s bullshit, because I was a poor person, living on government assistance, wanting to eat healthy, and I had to teach myself because nobody gave a shit about teaching me how to spot deals, which foods were both nutrient-dense and calorie-dense, how to pair foods for optimum nutrition. I KNOW the limitations, but I also believe that there’s something to be done, working hand-in-hand with people on food stamps.

    Maybe everything I’ve said has simply affirmed the opinions here, that nutritionists are the stupid ones, blissfully unaware of what people in poverty must endure. I just wanted to share my experience and intentions.

    All that being said! I make these same arguments myself to Pollanites. Right now the big buzz is about grass-fed beef, pastured eggs, raw milk from local cows, wild-caught fish. Grass-fed beef for more than $10 a pound. Pastured eggs for $5 a dozen. Milk for $6 a gallon. Wild-caught fish for $17 a pound. More options for the rich. When I object, the most recent suggestion I heard was, “But you can buy it in bulk! Half a cow is only $600! That will feed a family for a year!” I also hear, “Anyone can have backyard chickens, and then the eggs are free!” I can’t think of any time during my years on food stamps when I would have had $600 at one time, or when the prospect of saving money didn’t elicit a bitter laugh. And if we can’t even get our kids to the doctor or get well-woman checks for ourselves, why would I spend that kind of money on something as pedestrian as beef? And since when is it free to buy, house, and feed chickens, or any other animal? I admit, the ignorance is shocking.

    Thanks for listening.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I learned how to eat healthy on a food stamp budget. I went for nutrient-dense carbs with calorie-dense fats and proteins. It wasn’t easy, but I made it work. In the end our meal costs ran about $1 a meal for each person, using whole foods.

      I decided to go into nutrition because I wanted to share what I’d learned with other people living on food stamps and government assistance. It’s not because I think poor people are stupid or uneducated.

      I think this is fabulous, and that you’re the best person for the job.

    2. kristinc Avatar

      In case anyone wants a breakdown on how raising chickens is NOT a plan for cheap eggs (you know, for the next time someone is monumentally clueless enough to make the argument) here you go. I raised Australorp hens for 3 years.

      The chickens themselves cost about $5 each as young chicks. They need to be housed indoors for about 2 months, and they chirp constantly, make copious amounts of poo, scratch their bedding everywhere and need to have their house cleaned out daily, also they are very tempting to young children in the house and will be able to fly out of an enclosure without a “lid” by about 2 weeks old. They also need a heat lamp for most of their indoor time.

      When they move outdoors they’ll need an enclosure that dogs and raccoons can’t get into. They DO fly, yes even if you clip their wings, so that enclosure will have to be at least 6 feet tall or have a roof to it. They rapidly destroy anything living in their pen, reducing it to bare earth, and combined with their wet, slippery feces that bare earth will become a mucky disgusting quagmire that stinks. So you’ll need bedding; straw or hay or shavings, and a surprising amount of it, on an ongoing basis. And time and the bodily ability to spread that bedding. And the ability to go out and catch your hens when, not if, they get out, and let me tell you neighbors are not happy with the talent a full-grown laying hen has for devastating flowerbeds and lawns in unbelievably short order.

      For all of this, you get about a dozen eggs a week from 2 hens. For the first year, that is. After that, the number of eggs they lay goes downhill a little at a time until a 3-year-old hen is laying maybe a couple eggs per week. Oh, and not in the winter, because the less daylight there is the less they lay, so all winter only count on maybe 3 eggs per week, but the cost of caring for them stays the same.

      Notice I didn’t even mention food, because my hens ate exclusively table scraps and weeds from the yard that I threw to them. If your family doesn’t have plentiful food, table scraps may be thin on the ground and even if you can afford layer feed, access to it, like access to bedding, is awfully tricky if you’re not in a rural area.

      And if you get fined for your chickens, well, those eggs just got even more expensive.

      I miss my hens terribly but there’s no question that they were a privileged HOBBY, not a way to sustain my family.

      1. Michelle Avatar

        And I can buy a dozen eggs at my grocery store for $1.29 Canadian.

        You’d have to reeeeally love chickens. Or live in a place where you can’t access decently-priced eggs.

  45. […] förklarar hon i inlägget If poor people only understood nutrition! med hjälp av Ellyn Satter’s hierarki för matbehov. Den är alltså byggd utifrån Maslovs […]

  46. Ladidah Avatar

    This is a great essay. I think in many ways, the food/size discussions directed at poor people tend to be the 2000s-2010s version of various moral panics regarding poor people and our insufficient moral fiber, values and practices. The culture of dependency? The Moynihan report and the “sickness of Black families”? The “unable to care for their children”? The overpopulation cries going back hundreds of years? The “crack baby epidemic”? What is new, exactly about THE FAT POOR PEOPLE WHO JUST WON’T EAT RIGHT?

    And meanwhile, those at the top keep benefitting from the existence of poverty and poor people, while directing the ire of not only those in the middle (who also live with exploitation) but also the poor, at themselves, their “irresponsibility,” “lifestyle,” “lack of personal responsibility,” et al.

  47. littlem Avatar

    “do we teach them how to budget?”

    In that googlebooks search, I think there’s a lot that jumps out, probably not consciously placed in there, that underscores your thesis right there.

    P.S. You’re tipped on Jezebel. I’ll run back and see if I can find the link.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I saw that. Also from Feministe, Shakesville, Pandagon and Reddit. The traffic is terrifying.

      I probably won’t be writing again until it dies down somewhat.

  48. […] good food, or even food at all, or have limited access to food. (Go read the Fat Nutritionist on eating while poor.) You might work a shitty job with weird hours or you don’t trust your oven to not explode or […]

  49. […] the issue is the behavior not the body size in and of itself. Why the behavior is there is a complex issue. I don’t pretend to have all the answers for making more nutritious food available to all of […]

  50. […] I won’t claim it comes down to personal responsibility; that’s too facile a solution. In a country riddled with food deserts, where soda is cheaper than water in some areas, it’s insulting to ignore how time and socio-economic factors play into our diets. Healthy eating can suck it when you’re just trying to keep your kids alive. […]

  51. […] I won’t claim it comes down to personal responsibility; that’s too facile a solution. In a country riddled with food deserts, where soda is cheaper than water in some areas, it’s insulting to ignore how time and socio-economic factors play into our diets. Healthy eating can suck it when you’re just trying to keep your kids alive. […]

  52. Tracy Avatar

    You want people to eat better? Give them enough money, a place for cooking and storage, and access to a decent variety of food.

    YES! YES! A THOUSAND TIMES YES! I might also add time and energy to the list, not that there’s any good way of providing those, but ye gods everybody’s got times without the mental effort to think about food, let alone cook it (or just go to the store for something fresh instead of eating whatever’s around whether it’s what you want or not, regardless of whether it’s something the experts approve of).

    Also, at first I thought your Google Books link was to this chapter here and when it wasn’t I just had to post the link because that’s how I roll. Geekishly.

  53. […] If only poor people understood nutrition! | The Fat Nutritionist The idea is that, before we worry about nutrition (i.e., “instrumental food”) we’ve first got to HAVE food. Enough of it. Consistently. And it’s got to be acceptable to us (which, for some people, might mean not coming from the garbage, or meeting certain standards of preparation) and it’s got to taste reasonably good. A little variety is nice, too. (tags: food class health) […]

  54. S Avatar

    This article is the sanest examination of the problem of poverty, nutrition, and food choices that I’ve seen in a long, long time.

  55. Marie Avatar

    And again, I have to disagree with this whole less money hoopla. Unless you’re completely destituted and living under a bridge you can make a tiny budget work and still eat well. I know because I am a puertorican raised on Food Stamps (when they literally Food Stamps). I think EDUCATION and WILL is the key. On the public project I lived at, some nutritionists were given courses to housewives/head of households on how to budget, best foods to buy on those budgets, recipes, storing, etc. My mother was feeding us on will amount to be $120 dollars on today’s dollars. We never went hungry, we weren’t underweight/nor overweight and our bill of health was excellent (family of five). What we ate? rice, legumes, inexpensive cuts of meat/poultry/fish, canned veggies, powdered milk, oats, eggs, etc etc.
    I am what some people here will call a Pollanite, but I don’t/cannot buy all organic/fresh. I do abide to the cook from scratch mantra taught to me by my mother and it shows. I do not “diet” and I mantain a healthy weight even as a sufferer of PCOS.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      People’s situations and motivations to pursue a healthy diet (for various values of “healthy”) differ. It may not have been your particular experience, but that doesn’t mean other people don’t have very good reasons for not pursuing nutrition in the same way. I ask that we respect that here.

      People also tend to assume that those living under a bridge, or who are far more destitute than the average lower-middle class family, are some kind of anomaly bordering on nonexistent.

      If you lived in my neighbourhood, you would not feel this way. My closest neighbours border on homelessness, and many of them are frankly homeless. I am aware that, at any time, their situation could also be mine. I have been so close to that situation that it’s scary, and I am just an average person in most ways. I am not some special case whose homelessness could have been blamed on some specific individual characteristic — and neither are many homeless people “special cases.”

      That keeps me very aware of not just the money struggles of feeding onself, but the practicalities and access to facilities that go into that.

      Very real, powerful systemic factors are at work that largely determine who has housing and access to food. Individual efforts, when they’re up against such huge institutionalized disadvantages, can seem ridiculously ineffective. You have to reach a certain baseline of access (a roof over your head; a kitchen; a grocery store; a basic amount of time, energy, and skill) before those individual efforts mean a damn thing.

      To say that it is just a matter of individual will is completely marginalizing to, and blaming of, those who don’t have even what little you had, growing up. And there are plenty of people who don’t.

      It’s not just about money. It’s about access and opportunity, too.

  56. Marie Avatar

    I am sorry, again, it is about education. You can make 70k a year and have the bill of health of an anemic.
    Being poor… 5 dollars to spend on food today, what to get? What to get? Either 3 for $1 Ramen packets (from which you will have to be feed on at least 2 packets daily just to curb your hunger in a very mediocre way…you’ll be starving at night, believe me) or I dunno: 1 box of pasta for 89 cents, 1 pound of ground meat for 99 cents a pound, 3 cans of tomatoes for 99 cents at Dollar Tree and 3 cans of corn for 99 cents. You’ll be able to properly feed a family of five twice with that dish.
    It sounds cliche but knowledge is power. I saw that while I was growing up. I saw how my mom was able to raise healthy children on 100 dollars a month.
    I didn’t have to live in your neighborhood. I saw poverty every day, I was raised on food stamps -as I said before-, my family comes from a slum, they suffered from intestinal parasites, they suffered from pernicious anemia and for more that a year my family -both sides- were homeless. You know what saved us? Education. Education to know how to budget, education to know to feed our families and not being sick, education period. But getting knowledge is also a case of being open-minded as therein lies personal responsibility. Money can buy a lot of shit, but won’t make you free.
    Like they say in my country: Don’t give me the fish, teach me how to fish.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I agree that knowledge is power. But you have to have access to that knowledge, and the means to use it, before you can do anything with it.

      I am not saying that education is not part of the overall picture; I am saying that education, alone, is not enough.

  57. Adrienne Avatar

    Excellent article!

    I teach a class on food budgeting (how to feed your family on food stamps) and have had to change my lesson plan several times when my students explained why my ‘simple solution’ won’t really work for them. I’ve had to set up community resources for transportation, equipment, bulk-sharing, storage, and childcare because not everyone has the things I take for granted from my middle-class priviledge.

    I tell my students “buy a 20lb bag of rice from the chinese market, it’s cheaper’ and I hear:
    I can’t transport a bag that big
    I don’t have space to store that
    I have mice in my house
    I can’t afford that up-front
    Others in my house will steal my food
    I don’t have a pot to cook that in
    I don’t have a stove
    I don’t have anything to measure with
    I have no safe water
    My kids won’t eat that
    I can’t cook safely with all the chaos (meth fumes, domestic disputes, close quarters)
    I’m too tired to cook when I get home

    So who is the ignorant and uneducated one here? Them? Or me?

    1. Jeff Avatar

      > I tell my students “buy a 20lb bag of rice from the chinese market, it’s cheaper’ and I hear:
      > I can’t transport a bag that big

      A Chinese market not near a bus station? Buy a smaller bag. Get together with a friend and split the big bag.

      > I don’t have space to store that

      Get rid of more things. Or any of the above.

      > I have mice in my house

      Contact your landlord. If he or she fails to respond, contact the local housing authority.

      > I can’t afford that up-front

      Follow one of the first suggestions.

      > Others in my house will steal my food

      Buy the smaller bag and take it with you every day.

      > I don’t have a pot to cook that in

      $1 at Goodwill will likely buy you a pot sufficient for anything you need to do.

      > I don’t have a stove

      Check Goodwill again. Find a propane burner.

      > I don’t have anything to measure with

      People starved to death before the advent of accurate measuring devices? Guess. You will get a feel for it eventually.

      > I have no safe water

      If they live anywhere in America and make this claim, they are lying. There is *no* municipality in America where you cannot obtain clean drinking and cooking water for your family.

      > My kids won’t eat that

      They’ll eat anything, eventually.

      > I can’t cook safely with all the chaos (meth fumes, domestic disputes, close quarters)

      Buy a propane stove and take it outside.

      > I’m too tired to cook when I get home

      Cook before you leave for the day and refrigerate it. Or just stop focusing on the negative and cook when you’re hungry enough.

      1. Michelle Avatar

        Awesome. You have solved poverty.

        Good job!

      2. Ross Kennedy Avatar
        Ross Kennedy

        That’s hilarious. No more excuses!!!

      3. Paul Avatar

        There is *no* municipality in America where you cannot obtain clean drinking and cooking water for your family.

        Except, say, Crestwood Illinois where the water was tainted with toxic chemicals for over 20 years, the local government covered it up, and cancer rates in that town shot up. Yep, it’s all hooey!

        (I know this is a closed end of the thread Michelle, but this was too easy not to knock down.)

        1. Michelle Avatar

          Thank you for chiming in.

          I’d also like to add: Walkerton, Ontario. People died. Charming!

  58. […] I won’t claim it comes down to personal responsibility; that’s too facile a solution. In a country riddled with food deserts, where soda is cheaper than water in some areas, it’s insulting to ignore how time and socio-economic factors play into our diets. Healthy eating can suck it when you’re just trying to keep your kids alive. […]

  59. Marie Avatar

    Them. :)
    The only excuse that I thing is reasonable is this one “I can’t cook safely with all the chaos (meth fumes, domestic disputes, close quarters)” and then closest second one “I don’t have a stove” (and even a 10-15 dollar burner will fix that).
    But I said it, education and will(power) is the key.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I think you mean well, Marie, but you’re also in danger of sounding totally uncompassionate here.

      Would you like to take a shot at convincing me otherwise?

      1. Renatus Avatar

        I notice that Jeff’s solution assumes that poor people have easy bus access, money for a bus ticket, bus service where they live at all, charity shops near enough to get to if there are any in the place they live, access to and enough money for propane (!), their own outdoors space, and enough indoors space of their own to store things. Oh, and that they’re healthy and able-bodied at the very least.

        FWIW Michelle, this formerly that poor (and still rather poor) person wouldn’t have and doesn’t feel patronized by your post in the least.

    2. KellyK Avatar

      What? Every single one of those is an impediment to that solution. Some might be more easily dealt with than others. (For example, roommates might be easier than mice to convince not to take your food.)

      I’m curious how you think someone in that situation would cook rice without clean water or would keep a 20-lb bag from being eaten by mice and attracting more mice. Any solution I can think of costs money, possibly enough to offset the usefulness of getting the big cheap bag of rice in the first place.

      I wouldn’t trust a Brita pitcher on unsafe water unless I could get a sample of the filtered water tested, and replacement filters aren’t cheap. Neither is bottled water.

      I’d wager that someone with mice in their house already has traps out and wouldn’t recommend getting a cat to someone who is having trouble feeding their family. Getting an exterminator is apt to be pricey.

  60. Marie Avatar

    What solution? I told you already, education and willpower is the answer. The way it was done when I was growing up. No access to clean water? What does it have? Bilharzia? (Google it, it is a super fun parasite) Hell, that was the shit my family dealt with and they still cooked their food.
    I may sound uncompassionate, but it is just that I have little patience for fools who like to victimize themselves. I said it once and I’ll repeat it, this is not some crazy solution I came with, this is the way I was raised. This was my reality. I come from a poor -very poor- upbringing and that’s the way we dealt. When there’s a will there’s a way. The rest is lame excuses.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      This sounds an awful lot like “I did it, so can you!”

      I’m glad you found your way out, sincerely. You’ve obviously dealt with a lot of hardships and practiced amazing resourcefulness. But that’s not going to stop me from thinking that systemic changes are in order, or make me believe that education and a little gumption is all it takes to solve all the problems for all the poor people in the world, nor am I going to start blaming the victims of those systemic problems for their own fate.

      People vary. People have different circumstances and different capacities to cope. Even poor people.

  61. Marie Avatar

    PD. BTW, you can keep mice out of your dry goods by keeping them inside empty lard buckets or some cracker cans. That’s the way my momma did it. :)

  62. Marie Avatar

    Sorry, dude, but you think victimization of poor people is empowering? You think a poor person feels better when a middle-class person tells them “Oh you poor person, poor you, sure you can’t!”. It is actually find most of this “poor poor people” agendas very patronizing. Unless you are somebody’s slave or a child, you have your own fate in your hands. The rest is just lame excuses.

    1. Teaspoon Avatar

      Michelle does not seem to be saying, “Oh you poor person, poor you, sure you can’t.” She seems to be saying, “Holy fuck, society has put a lot of unnecessary obstacles in front of the poor and then turns around and blames the poor for trying to find the best way to work around those obstacles. That ain’t right.”

      1. Michelle Avatar

        Thank you. This is pretty much what I believe, though I’m sure I’ve expressed it imperfectly, and in a biased manner, for the sake of rhetorical impact.


        My favourite saying applies here, as always: Reality Is Complex.

    2. Michelle Avatar

      I am not trying to victimize or disempower anyone.

      But it seems, to me, far more common to encounter the kind of bootstrapping I-did-it-so-can-you rhetoric you’re engaging in, because it is a far more comforting thing for the richer among us to believe in, than to think that YEAH — some people’s lives really are that difficult. And maybe we should all pitch in a little to do something about it.

      Do I think poor people (for the entire range of “poor”) are helpless? No. Not by any mean. Humans can be incredibly resourceful, and we’re all programmed with a will to survive. But do I think some circumstances exist wherein it is unfair and uncompassionate to just say “BUCK UP AND DIG YERSELF OUT, CHAMP”?


      I’m trying to inject a little compassion into the discourse here. Not everything I write can cover every nuance of every topic — I can only hope to add one voice (mine) to the overall cacophony.

      It’s bound to be somewhat biased; I never said it wasn’t. But it’s mine.

      ETA: “You think a poor person feels better when a middle-class person tells them “Oh you poor person, poor you, sure you can’t!”.

      I’d like to point out that I live below the poverty line, and have done for a while now. So please don’t make assumptions about anyone else’s income or social status here.

      1. Arwen Avatar

        I am trying not to swear, here.

        I also was raised well under the poverty line by a single mom, and yes, my Momma was creative at making nutrition work and every other bloody thing work out, too.

        Note. There were things we didn’t deal with: racism, mental illness, addiction, physical illness. There were resources we had: a farming history, literacy, my mom’s own informal education at the knee of her family, a sense of confidence in her own competence, socialism enough that we could find cheap rent and have doctors, and the energy and physical ability/constitution to work and go to school and rent a garden plot and put food by and bake and bike with her tow mechanism to where the specials were and generally kick ass at life. My mom wasn’t a housewife – she worked, went to University full time, and sustenance farmed, cooked from scratch, and made us clothes. She was scared out of her head the whole time and it caught up with her later: but she also had the privilege of seeing it wasn’t forever.

        (What my mom sacrificed was sleep, yeah? That’s not healthy, either.)

        People with moms like us should get down on their knees and thank our mothers for their abilities and privileges, and we should be happy for life putting us in a place where they could do their miracles – but deciding this grants us the right to be smug about other people who are struggling is disgusting. No two poor people are exactly the same or have the same situation; the middle class person can suck at carpentry or cooking and it’s a trait, but when the poor person does it it’s a personal failure?


        Sure, education and resources and help are never a bad thing. They give people more to work with.

        But “My Momma did X” doesn’t mean anything; it’s self-satisfaction, no more.

  63. Marie Avatar

    “It is actually find most of this “poor poor people” agendas very patronizing.” —> I actually find most of this “poor poor people” agendas very patronizing.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      And I don’t blame you. But that’s genuinely not what I’m trying to do here.

      I’m sure I’ve worded my post here simplistically enough that it could come off that way — that’s one flaw of my writing style. And that’s why I appreciate some contrarian nuance being added here by experienced commenters.

      At the same time, however, we risk going too far in the other direction and back into simplicity by insisting that the solution to poverty is a black-or-white solution (either “individual effort/education” or “social sponsorship.”)

      I sincerely believe it’s a mixture of the two, and I never said differently in either my post or the comments I’ve added to it.

  64. Jeff Avatar


    You seem to be framing your argument entirely around ‘destitute’ rather than ‘poor’. Poor is a huge range of individuals and circumstances. There are a tremendous many people of class ‘poor’ who exercise poor judgment in purchasing and preparing food. This is reflective and formative of their poor education and environment.

    In other words, there are plenty of people who would be helped by targeted PSAs and programs to educate them in nutrition, as well as how to purchase and prepare food for their family.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I have no doubt education is useful for some people. I never said it wasn’t.

      But it, alone, is not enough.

      And I think I’ve stated this about 7,000 times now in this comments section. It’s getting a bit tiresome. I’m going to start cutting and pasting my previous comments every time someone brings up this same point again.

      This is more than a single blog post. We have very involved discussions in the comment section of this blog. I would suggest you read them. Especially before coming in here and posting a comment with a fighty-sounding Seriously? at its start.

      In addition to being a very involved comments section, it’s a very civil one. You risk sounding boorish when you come in with something like this.

  65. Kaia Avatar

    Because you need something positive in this comment field (granted, there may be some further up, I only read the bottom which was OMG NEGATIVE), I just want to say one thing.

    As somebody who has been so poor that I lived for weeks on end on nothing but rice and peanut sauce (cheap – peanutbutter, water, soy sauce, spices) I can say that, um, yes. Sometimes you literally CAN’T afford fresh or even frozen produce, and towards the end of that particular monetary draught you literally dream of vegetables and fruit, of juice and potatoes and other healthy stuff, but you have to wait until you have money. Well, it’s either that or writing a bad check, and that is never a good solution.

    Also, when I lived in the U.S. I was seriously bothered by how expensive vegetables are, especially compared to less nutritious alternatives. Pointing that out is not victimising. It’s the truth.

    Thanks, Michelle, for writing such an awesome blog.

  66. Marina Avatar

    I do love Michael Pollan and Alice Waters and that whole movement, and I do try to espouse that philosophy to the best of my ability. But I fully acknowledge that I do so because I can. I think that Pollan, et al, have an important message that needs to be heard by the people who can put it into action. It’s the wealthy and upper-middle class who have the time, money, and resources to back large social movements — often, the people who benefit most directly from those changes are too busy trying to meet their most basic needs to be able to fight for themselves and others in their position.

    I honestly don’t think that Michael Pollan is writing for the people who live in food deserts. I think he is fully aware that they don’t have the same choices he (and other privileged folks) has access to. He does acknowledge that our system is so fucked up that the unhealthiest food choices are the rational choices because of cost, access, etc. His message is meant for the people who have the dollars to vote with; for the people with the education, access and means to make a difference.

    I think about this a lot because I’m a Personal Chef in New York City. I went to culinary school at the Natural Gourmet, and I cook for very wealthy people. For them, having a Personal Chef is really a luxury — they could have the time and the means to learn to cook for themselves, but choose not to. I think about food access — how buying a variety of vegetables and good-quality proteins should be a viable option for all people. But, then, I think about this: let’s say that by some miracle, nutrient-dense whole foods were suddenly easily available to people of all income levels, but nothing else in our social system changed. Low-income families now have all this nutritious food that still needs to be cooked. Now what? Who’s going to cook that food? The heads of these households still probably work two (maybe even three) jobs just to pay their rent and utilities, and have some food in the refrigerator. When I was in culinary school and working full time, I was lucky to find the energy to cook for myself once a week. Cook for one person. Once a week. I was going to a health-supportive cooking school at the time, and I started eating more poorly than I ate prior to starting the program simply because cooking really good, nutritious food for myself was too taxing in addition to having to work full time and going to school (school to learn how to cook health-supportive, healing foods). It’s a truly systemic issue and education is just a small fraction of solution.

    Thanks, Michelle, for this post.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      His message is meant for the people who have the dollars to vote with; for the people with the education, access and means to make a difference.

      I agree, and I have absolutely no doubt that Pollan intends this, and understands the differences, etc. I actually respect a lot of what the guy has to say, though I take a few pot shots at him here and there (what can I say? Big game is more fun to hunt.)

      What’s bothered me, and inspired posts like this one, is the way in which a lot of his readers misinterpret and then misapply his message. It often comes out in the form of moralizing about food, in the first place, and then attempting to apply certain precepts to people who aren’t operating in the same context, with the same privileges and resources. I don’t necessarily think Pollan himself is doing this (though some would argue he is), but I also think we have a smidgen of responsibility for how our messages are likely to be interpreted. (I’ve certainly been held to account for the “Framing” of certain posts on Metafilter — and also here — that apparently caused readers to think I meant something different from what I did. Words are hard. And they mean things.)

      It may not be what he ever intended to happen — and I can totally sympathize with one’s message being taken out of context or misapplied. But I do like to talk about those (mis)interpretations and try to muddle through them.

      Anyway, thank you so much for your considered comment.

  67. Chris Gregory Avatar
    Chris Gregory

    I don’t think there’s any basis to the idea that poor people make worse food choices than rich people. The only studies I know of have found no significant difference in levels of nutrition across the board (richer families just enjoy a greater variety). Poor people don’t need to be ‘educated’ about food choices because they eat just as well as anybody else.

    But manipulating food prices by retarding their prodution and increasing their cost benefits the same people who advocate spending more money on food. Higher markups means greater profits. It disadvantages the poor, obviously, so people like Michael Pollan are needed to rationalise it as a moral and ethical imperative and not just blatant self-interest (which is how imperialism has always worked).

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Oh thank god. Someone who can beat the pedants at their own game.

      Potential commenters from Metafilter: I leave you in Chris’ capable hands. I’m going to do something enjoyable with my day off.

    2. Michelle Avatar

      Oh, also — do you have a good bibliography or list of references laying around? Because I would love to read some of the literature you make reference to. Or well-sourced popular books. Give me your recommendations.

      1. Chris Gregory Avatar
        Chris Gregory

        I think that all you need to do is read Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 1, and replace every instance of the word ‘sex’ with the word ‘food’. If Foucault were still alive, I’m convinced he’d be writing about food politics.

        I’ve been writing about food and bioethics since the early nineties, I guess, and back then if you said to people that food was a very political issue they’d look at you blankly. Now everybody talks about food politics, of course, but not in the way I meant (or hoped).

        Probably the classic texts on taste and class are Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (which you can download on Gutenberg) and Pierre Bordieu’s Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste (which is coming out in a cheap new edition in the next few weeks). I find Veblen hysterically funny, but for most people it’s a slog. There’s also a great book about the history of the environmental movement, which was traditionally associated with efforts to manipulate food prices to benefit landowners over the peasants, called Green Imperialism (written by Richard H. Grove) which is a monster slog and also expensive…

        I think you can get a lot from fiction, actually. Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinensen is the most conspicuous example. And then there’s books about food which aren’t cookbooks that are opposed to the sorts of values that someone like Michael Pollan espouses. Outlaw Cook by John Thorne is a good one. Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste. Trader Vic wrote some great books as well, which were sort of cookbooks but were sort of philosophy as well.

        What it gets down to is this: until the early seventies, when people had only limited access to food beyond what was required for subsistence, they ate what they liked, what they enjoyed. But that’s a personal criteria, a matter of taste. People like Foucault would argue that society controls individuals by exerting control over their bodies, by deciding for them what they do and how they act. And there are various groups who have interests in controlling what people eat and how much, and they exert their own influence.

        By making what should be a matter of personal taste into a public health issue, the various interests can fight over who gets the spoils. At the moment there are people like Michael Pollan who are doing a good job of mobilising middle-class interests, which is expensive food sold with large markups by small businesses. Historically, this is pretty much how you end up with a fascist state: middle-class revolution driven by moral panic and pecuniary self-interest.

        So people no longer eat for pleasure, they eat to be ‘healthy’, health being defined by outside forces with pecuniary and ideological interests. Pleasure is the enemy: how you can control people if they just do what feels good? Pleasure has to be denied.

        Health at any size and intuitive eating are positive forces because they stress the independence of the individual over the interests of the state, which is democracy in a nutshell, the pursuit of happiness and all that self-evident stuff. Michael Pollan hates freedom, it’s as simple as that.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          I think that all you need to do is read Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 1, and replace every instance of the word ’sex’ with the word ‘food’.

          I lol’d.

          Michael Pollan hates freedom, it’s as simple as that.

          I lol’d x 2.

          But seriously, thanks for the advice.

          1. Chris Gregory Avatar
            Chris Gregory

            I actually felt obliged to read that Defending Food fucking piece of crap book. I’ve read a lot of books about food, and this is the only one that didn’t make me feel hungry even once. And since he claims he’s defending the pleasure of eating it was quite an achievement.

            I’ve been meaning to write up a series of short pieces, one a day for each of his seven or eight food rules and then finishing with a rule of my own. Maybe I’ll get to it this week.

          2. Michelle Avatar

            Please do.

            Also: I checked David Kessler’s book out from the library, and I tried, oh God I tried so hard to read it. It sat on the back of my toilet for two weeks. Then it had to go back.

        2. Michelle Avatar

          WAIT WAIT WAIT are you saying…

          Oh you said John THORNE. For a second I thought you said that John Zorn wrote a cookbook. And I was going to buy it.

          1. Chris Gregory Avatar
            Chris Gregory

            Maybe a Jewish cookbook with randomly improvised ingredients?

            Which reminds me, the Bible says you shouldn’t eat anything with a cloven hoof, and we’re just cooking up a wild camel stew. There’s been a surge in feral camel numbers up near Alice Springs and an enterprising Halal butcher talked the government into letting them slaughter wild camels for commercial sale. It’s very exciting…I’ve had hump meat before, but there’s really nowhere (in the first world) you can get wild, flavourful old slow-twitch muscle like this anymore, unless you’ve killed it yourself. The colour is amazing, almost purple.

          2. Michelle Avatar

            mmmm myoglobin

          3. Chris Gregory Avatar
            Chris Gregory

            I do wonder how they kill it so that it’s halal. Camels are evil things at the best of times, and they can’t sedate them or shock them. But at the same time, if the muscles are stressed there’s higher proportions of lactic acid in the meat, which doesn’t taste good. I’m going to have to ask the butcher next time I’m there.

    3. Alfonso Avatar

      So, wait: Michael Pollan is somehow making some money on the side every time you buy over-priced so-called “health foods”? This is delusional, at best.

      Your argument that healthy food is more expensive on purpose and that Pollan is somehow just another cog in that huge profit-generating machine we know as the health food market relies on the presumption that what the industry sells under the “health food” moniker is the same thing that Pollan calls “real food”. This I could understand if it came from someone who read a mediocre blurb on the back of a book somewhere, but from someone who claims to have read In Defense of Food, it surprises me. Both in his writings and on interviews, Pollan is —in my opinion— very adamant about distinguishing foods labeled as “health foods” (the kind that cost you three times as much as their presumably less healthy counterparts, and is ridden with lab-developed ingredients) from “real food” (the kind that grows in the ground and is gathered out of healthy, well-fed animals; the kind that isn’t processed in unnatural and unnecessary ways).

      This difference seems to have eluded you for reasons I cannot fathom. But they are not important. Just know that you kinda missed the point there, OK? Real foods are not more expensive as a general rule. My wife and I spend approximately $28 more per month on food than what the state would give us if we were to apply (and be eligible) for food stamps. Yet we manage to eat beef from grass-fed cows and bison, eggs and meat from free-range hens, clean greens from organic growers, non-homogenized milk, and lots and lots of grains. We also make our own yogurt and are looking into homemade butter, as well as homemade cat food. By our current calculations, these additions to our homemade roster will help us reduce our food budget. If circumstances ever forced us to depend on food stamps, we may have to eliminate a organic greens and vegetables, perhaps buy regular (homogenized, ultra pasteurized) milk and rely on more grains for protein to limit our meat consumption, but we’d still be avoiding processed foods laced with high-fructose corn syrup and a lot of other unnatural substances.

      What I do find way more important about your argument, though, is your particular mention of Brillat-Savarin, an outspoken defender of home-cooking who advocated for a low-carbohydrate diet as a means to address obesity, a health topic he dedicated quite a deal of time and energy into researching and writing about. In fact, I dare say that, were Brillat-Savarin to live today to experience modern-day food consumption in the US, he would agree with Pollan: the excess sugars, flavor-enhancing substances and preservatives used to make the expensive “health food” we all see at every supermarket are quite possibly the very worst ingredients we could ever subject our bodies to. I think he’d also agree with Pollan’s insistence on eating whole foods that haven’t been tampered with.

      One thing he did have, that Pollan lacks, is a romantic flair for describing food. Brillat-Savarin captured in prose the beauty and joy of eating good food in ways that can only be described as poetic. And perhaps it is Pollan’s more clinical, journalistic tone that puts you off. Judging by your comments on this post, you seem to be the kind of person who enjoys food fully (as do I) and I think I can understand why Pollan’s writing may seem boring to you, especially in comparison with a writer the caliber of Brillat-Savarin. But you seem to have allowed your dislike of Pollan’s writing style to get in the way of understanding what he is trying to communicate.

      Finally, I fail to comprehend the “Michael Pollan hates freedom” bit. It’s amusing and great fodder for the kind of nice little mindless quotes that people not inclined towards critical thinking will eat up like a bag of Doritos, but really, it makes no sense at all. Michael Pollan does not want you to stop eating bad food. He wants you to know what is in your food, so that if you’re gonna harm your body, at least you will do it knowingly. Because when laboratory-made products are labeled as a “health food” in packaging designed to make you feel like you’re making a good, healthy choice for you and your family, it is empowering to inform people what effects these faux ingredients have on our bodies. That is all he, and many others like him, are offering: information. And nothing —NOTHING— is more conducive to freedom than the propagation of information. Your argument suggests that personal choice is hindered by the information Pollan has to offer, that “democracy in a nutshell” is best described as misinformed people led to believe what the food industry wants to pass off as food. If the food manufacturer’s claims (the information they provide) is conducive to this democratic system, why is the information offered by Pollan oppressive?

      In the end, it is only information. Do with it what you will. But arguing that more information and more perspective are somehow not conducive to a better democracy is a fallacy.

      1. Chris Gregory Avatar
        Chris Gregory

        Uh. Okay. Brillat-Savarin didn’t defend home cooking. There was only home cooking back then. He wanted cooking to be treated as a science. I’m guessing he’d have preferred Harold Bloom to Michael Pollan, who devoted a good half of his Defence book misrepresenting anyone with any understanding of food chemistry as an agent of the Devil. I didn’t mention ‘health food’, I said that people eat food for perceived health benefit over pleasure. You’ll have to define words like ‘natural’ and ‘real’ and ‘fake’ or ‘faux’ for them to be useful or meaningful in any context (Pollan doesn’t either). Pollan makes money from what he does, which is reinforcing prejudices, mostly, through poorly researched claims (he even cites himself in his bibliogaphy), bigotry, fear-mongering and generally inciting moral panic. You might consider it philosophy; to me it’s just another quack diet book.

        Michael Pollan states, quite emphatically: pay more, eat less. I don’t see how I am misinterpreting him.

        1. Chris Gregory Avatar
          Chris Gregory

          I meant Harold McGee, of course, not Harold Bloom, who I always confuse for some reason.

        2. Alfonso Avatar

          Are we to understand that Brillat-Savarin lived in a world free of restaurants? Wow.

          I’m genuinely impressed by your sheer lack of reading comprehension. Pollan criticizes food science, sure, but not for understanding food chemistry. He very clearly states that his problem with food science in the western world is its reductionist view of food. Food is reduced to nothing more than nutrients, period. And with this view of “food is nothing more than the sum of its chemical parts” is how the industry has been able to sell us on the idea that they can come up with better foods in a laboratory than nature can produce on its own.

          I don’t understand what your problem with Pollan is. I’ve read other posts of yours elsewhere, and it seems like you have a vendetta against this guy. But all he’s saying is that so-called health foods are unhealthy, and that we should concentrate on eating foods that are naturally grown. Your affirmation that poor people need to have the definition of “natural” and “real” spelled out for them is a perfect example of your inherent underestimation of a whole economic class based on the perceived notion that “poor” somehow equals “defenseless idiots who wouldn’t know any better even if you tell them better”.

          Do yourself a favor: Go to Whole Foods one day, and check out the center aisles. You’ll see plenty of obviously-not-poor-nor-middle-class people buying processed “health foods” developed in labs where they are laced with extra nutrients in unnatural ways, so they can load up on anti-oxidants or omega 3 fatty acids or whatever the latest reductionist craze is. Does the fact that they actually have the money to burn on that crap somehow give them a nutritional advantage? Seriously. It’s like you insist on ignoring the simplicity of Pollan’s argument: None of that processed shit is healthy. Are you angry because only “the rich” get to pollute their bodies with this stuff?

          As for the “pay more, eat less” fallacy you described, it is a classic example of pulling a bite-size quote out of its context and blowing it up into a heavily distorted version of itself. Since we started choosing meat from grass-fed mammals and free-range hens, we do spend more per unit, yet we need less of it. After a few months of experimenting with quantities and how our bodies and minds were responding to them, we realized that in reality we’re spending about as much money as we used to spend when we ate industrial meats, we simply require less of it.

          Why do we require less of it? In part because the wholesome nature of these meats truly translates into a more efficient use of its nutrients (thus, one’s body actually responding very well to lower quantities of it), and partly because we’re also consuming our proteins through other, less-expensive means (chick peas, quinoa, yogurt, lentils and legumes in general, as well as eggs and milk). Therein lies the gist of the argument: you pay more per unit, yet eat less because your body requires less.

          I don’t expect you to understand this, though. Your inclination towards the misleadingly-named “intuitive eating” would suggest that you can’t fathom the idea of letting your “intuition” be influenced by any kind of reasoning that might make you think more about the food you eat. It’s as if your “intuition” wasn’t being influenced by the world around you. Please. Real intuitive eating is: You’re hungry, you go out and find whatever you can to eat, like a mushroom, or a fruit, or —if you’re lucky— a small rabbit you can share with your family, bring it home and make the best of it. There is no such thing as unadultered intuition in the western world. Not when food is available in packages designed to appeal to certain sensibilities, and multiple media (such as this blog) discussing our consumption of food. Your “intuition” is not just yours, it is the product of the world you live in, and when you “intuitively” crave that Twinkie, that’s the industry and their chemicals talking, not your intuition.

          So, of course, it would make sense for you to so adamantly reject an idea that suggests that you may be harming your body unknowingly, or that education about the food we consume will help us —ALL of us, poor, middle class, rich— make better choices. Because an educated decision is not an “intuitive decision”.

          Soylent green is people, dude. Didn’t you hear?

          1. Chris Gregory Avatar
            Chris Gregory

            At this point I suspect that Michael Pollan’s book is the only book you’ve ever read. Again, at this point, I’d have to ask you to explain how a food can be made of anything other than nutrients. I’d need to know how food that is ‘naturally grown’ is qualitatively different to, presumably, ‘unnaturally grown’ products made of, presumably ‘nutrient simulations’. I’d need to know why food cannot be understood through a knowledge of organic chemistry, and what you propose is a better, or more reliable systemic approach.

            I haven’t taken ‘Pay more, eat less’ out of context. He’s used the phrase repeatedly. Somehow I am not allowed to make specific references, because you say that constitutes taking him out of context. What is the context? If we bother to look at any of his actual claims (which I’m quite happy to do), they stand up about as well as the more coherent sections of Erik von Daniken’s ‘Chariot of the Gods?’

            I’m not kidding. He refers to Ancel Keyes as the father of the lipid theory, which he says a couple of times was proposed in 1950. If that’s true then Ancel Keyes had a time machine, because the lipid hypothesis was proposed exactly one hundred years earlier, in 1850. That’s the level of research – half-arsed factoids poorly understood. And I’m afraid, Alfonso, that you’re like the blind leading the blind.

          2. Alfonso Avatar

            Did you just name-drop von Däniken? First Focault, now this. When do you bring Kafka or L. Ron Hubbard into your web of incoherences. Do you sit and read the incoherent stuff you spew, or is it more of a stream of consciousness thing that you just write down in haste and then publish regardless of what BS came out?

            Again: I’ve never said that “food cannot be understood through a knowledge of organic chemistry” and —in fact— I heard Pollan address just such an accusation on numerous television interviews. The point isn’t that it can’t be understood, the point is that currently we don’t wholly understand food and how our bodies use it.

            If we do, if the current reductionist dogma that has been the basis of how the US has fed itself for over half a century is accurate, then how come we have diet-related diseases today that we never would have imagined fifty, sixty years ago? How come Americans are heavier today than they were in the forties? It’s not just because of reductionist nutritionism, of course. There’s also the culture of excess that has characterized post-WWII America. But if all this reductionist theory is so correct, and we understand food as well as you imply, why-oh-why are people getting sicker? If everything is so cut and dry and explained perfectly to us, why do people who spend their time, energy and money on following these rules fail not just at getting healthier, but at even maintaining their already excessive weight?

            You’re all over the place, man. On the one hand, you criticize Pollan for supposedly telling people that they should spend more money on what the industry calls “health foods”, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. On the other hand, you defend the authority with which the industry tells us that they know how to engineer better foods than nature could possibly provide, the very same authority with which they then try to tells us to spend more money on “fat-free” and “diet” food products. It’s either one or the other, man. You can’t eat your cake and have it too.

            Again (part deux): Pollan does not say that we mustn’t know what our food is made of. What he does repeat over and over is that we don’t necessarily have to be experts in food science to have a complete and healthy diet. Thus, his “system” if you want to call it that: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. It makes sense. Until relatively recently, humans had spent millenia eating real food that they scavenged, not a whole lot of it, and mostly? Yup: Plants. So our bodies are best suited to that kind of diet. (There are exceptions to this, of course, like the Inuit, who pretty much eat meat all of the time and have very limited access to plants (a few berries, some weeds). But they don’t eat what Kraft Foods calls “whale”; they don’t consume a “walrus-like product”. They go out, kill and eat the real thing.)

            Of course, someone who dares call himself an “intuitive eater” while completely ignoring the myriad cultural, corporate and media influences that shape what he calls his “intuition” can’t be expected to pay much attention to common sense. In fact, it goes very well with your apparently absolute faith in what science currently has to offer. (Ironic, since science is —by its very nature— never absolute, always questioning itself and always looking to prove itself wrong, in the pursuit of a better understanding of the world around us. A humility your rejection of any kind of questioning disregards completely.) You, sir, are blind to your own condition. And for arrogance, nothing beats the pot calling the kettle black.

          3. Michelle Avatar

            I appreciate the content of your comment, but on top of it, you’re being abrasive and rude. Stop it.

          4. Chris Gregory Avatar
            Chris Gregory

            I told you Michelle, he’s Mr. Garrison from South Park.

          5. Alfonso Avatar

            At this point I suspect that Michael Pollan’s book is the only book you’ve ever read.

            And I’m afraid, Alfonso, that you’re like the blind leading the blind.

            I’m only responding with equal cynicism, lady. You seem to enjoy it when he gets snarky with his faux-scholar sass, yet take issue when I respond in a less cutesy but equally snarky manner?

            So much for open discussion.

            And Mr. Gregory: I’ll gladly take your willing ignorance of the discussion at hand (limiting yourself to a self-serving elementary school-worthy mocking) as indication that you simply have nothing else to offer this discussion. Not that you offered much to begin with, other than a few names to drop and quotes to misinterpret.

            Have a great week, everybody!

          6. Michelle Avatar

            Is there a reason I should know about why you and Marie are posting from the same IP address?

          7. Marie Avatar

            Yes, we are a two headed being.

          8. Alfonso Avatar

            Perhaps a scanned copy of our marriage license is in order?

          9. Michelle Avatar

            Wow, what a dickish response to an eminently fair question. Banned. Both of you.

  68. Bird Avatar

    I count myself so lucky now that I can afford to do things like buy produce at the farmers market, choose organic options, and set aside enough money to go in with some friends on a bison so I can have good meat in my freezer. I grew up in a family where I took that for granted, but in my early 20s, I learned too well what it’s like to go hungry. I have a career and a financial cushion now, but I still live in fear of ever being in that place again.

    I remember walking 45 minutes each way to my minimum wage job because I couldn’t afford to buy groceries if I bought a bus pass. My food for the day might be a bowl of rice with a handful of frozen veggies and maybe some tuna, or possibly a peanut butter sandwich. I was supporting myself and an alcoholic abuser, paying the rent and the bills because he inevitably would drink his share of the rent away. And yes, I know there are people who will say I should have left him–I challenge those people to do that in a strange city with nowhere to go, to admit to yourself that maybe what’s happening to you is actually really messed up and go to a shelter, or even to figure out even how to untangle the fear from the love that I somehow felt. I was poor, hungry, scared, and young. I had no money and no way out that I could see. I certainly didn’t have a garden plot or even a balcony to grow food for myself. I had a kitchen, but that’s not much use if there’s no food in it.

    So yeah. I would like to tell people who say you should just pull yourself together and make it happen to go to hell, or maybe that they learn what it is to live with perpetual, gnawing hunger, not just for one day, but for days on end. You can’t even think straight, you can’t see anything beyond getting something in your stomach, and you don’t think about nutritional content when you’re just trying to stay alive.

    And I knew what good nutrition was. I grew up with parents who cooked and learned to make meals for the family, and my grandmother was a nurse who was very keen on good nutrition. All of that meant precisely nothing in the face of hunger, when all you want is anything to eat at all.

  69. […] why Ellyn Satter (yes, her again) created the Hierarchy of Food Needs. Which looks like this: If only poor people understood nutrition! | The Fat Nutritionist __________________ Don't tell the world your problems – half of them don't care, the other half […]

  70. Marie Avatar

    I guess the only way to get the real-food message across to some people is if the speaker was: a woman, a feminist, not slim and from a Third World country?
    Enter Vandana Shiva. Google and listen. Cheap food is not cheap. Why? Because it is not food and it is not cheap to the rest of the world (just developed countries get the “benefits” of this charade).

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I guess the only way to get the real-food message across to some people is if the speaker was: a woman, a feminist, not slim and from a Third World country?

      Wait, what?

      And to assume that I disagree with the “real food” message is pretty patronizing. I never said I didn’t agree with parts of it. But I am saying there is a certain context here that seems to be underconsidered.

      And wow, “some people.” Just wow.

      This thread is getting very thread-shitty despite my attempts at keeping it…not thread-shitty.

      1. Marie Avatar

        What’s wrong with “some people”. It’s some, because it is not all. It is people because last I checked I am talking -or writing- to people, right?

      2. Marie Avatar

        BTW, the thing is when I read your posts, they have two major general points: 1) anything that is edible is food (it is not, it doesn’t matter what that ad says. Boost is not food. Rice and beans, a poor person staple diet, IS.), 2) some kind of beef with Pollan (be it that he is a man, thin, from a privileged background, he used the phrase “obesity epidemic” somewhere in his discourse?). Hence, I presented you with Vandana Shiva, because it seems that you decided to shoot (or shot?) the previous messenger.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          For the record: I don’t actually hate Michael Pollan. My posts, while responding to one or two of his points, should make that pretty clear.

          Your tone, the entire way through, has been pretty insufferable, and you’ve repeatedly defended Pollan as though the very *mention* of his name constitutes an attack. Conflating my opinion with Chris Gregory’s is pretty annoying to me. I like the guy, but Jesus, I’ve also told him to knock shit off in the past. The difference is, he respected my wishes.

          I actually enjoy a good argument, and I encourage them here. But entering someone else’s space, guns blazing, is never a good way to do things. Try diplomacy next time, and you’re more likely to be given a hearing.

          But I’m afraid you’ve struck out with me.

  71. Kate Avatar

    Great article. I was so pleased when my farmer’s market (within walking distance of many poorer neighborhoods and within a bus ride to even more) started accepting food stamps, Senior Bucks and WIC.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      That’s awesome. I wish more of them did this.


  72. Michelle Avatar

    This thread has now been linked on Reddit, Metafilter, Digg, and StumbleUpon.

    We’ve thrashed our way through the issue a dozen different ways in the 150+ comments here. And shit’s starting to get abusive. I like a lively debate — check out any of my other threads. But this place is intended to be more of a salon du muse, and less of a mud-wrasslin’ pit.

    If anyone’s got something to say to continue the conversation, go ahead and blog about it and trackback. I might even link you in a separate post if it’s interesting.

    But I’m going to close this down now cause it’s getting messy.

  73. […] that a “sin tax” is therefore the way to go. Great. That should really help poor people get the calories they need to function and survive. WHY do these people always assume that the ideal that we should all be […]

  74. […] a fat person and see someone who may be poor or disabled. we look at a fat person and think, “if only they would *educate* themselves. if only they would eat less and move more. if only they had some willpower.” we look at a […]

  75. […] was getting so ravenous for energy-dense stuff later in the day that what I was eating wasn’t very well balanced, either. It turned into a definite food insecurity situation, for somewhat unusual reasons. (It was […]

  76. […] If only poor people understood nutrition! Why educating poor people about nutrition doesn’t make you a saint. […]

  77. […] Michelle at The Fat Nutritionist writes, sometimes when a person chooses to eat nutritionally deficient or fattening foods, it is […]

  78. […] Michelle at The Fat Nutritionist writes, sometimes when a person chooses to eat nutritionally deficient or fattening foods, it is […]

  79. […] hearty hat tip to lady blog Jezebel for reminding me of this amazing blog post by Michelle, a.k.a. the Fat Nutritionist, about poor people and nutrition. It’s an oldie (in […]

  80. […] for some time now — Racialicious, Jezebel, and Change.org have all riffed on a post by the Fat Nutritionist that seeks to explain why many fat people eat less-than-healthy food, and why poor people are so […]

  81. […] am not an ethical food fanatic as you might understand such. Those in this movement often shame, disparage, and offer little assistance to those in less privileged socioeconomic spheres (I also get tired of all the obesity concern-trolling too). However the ethical food […]

  82. […] recently read this post about the treatment of the overweight poor by (previously unknown to me) blogger Michelle Allison, […]

  83. […] 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. […]

  84. […] that allow for the cheap production of high-fructose corn syrup, but I rather like Michelle of The Fat Nutritionist’s analysis of the link between poverty and obesity that utilizes Satter’s hierarchy of food needs.  […]

  85. […] that allow for the cheap production of high-fructose corn syrup, but I rather like Michelle of The Fat Nutritionist’s analysis of the link between poverty and obesity that utilizes Satter’s hierarchy of food needs.  […]

  86. […] Finally, this is one of my favourite posts by The Fat Nutritionist, also worthy of your time: If only poor people understood nutrition! […]

  87. […] or die.”). It recognizes that there are more important things than optimal nutrition (no, really, there are), and tells us it’s ok to honor those as […]