Living paycheck to paycheck, on Wonderbread and ramen

I found this post on the NYT Health blog “Well”, by Tara Parker-Pope (when did the NYT switch to a blogging model? am I just oblivious?) Anyway, the post was mildly intriguing. But then I started reading the comments, and man, they just pissed me off.

The gist of the post is that some nutritional scientists demonstrated that, calorie for calorie, junk food is substantally more affordable than healthy food, especially fresh produce. This supports the premise that the obesity epidemic in this country – which disproportionately affects the poor – is at least partially due to the fact that the poor can’t afford to eat as well as the rest of us. (Other possible reasons include lack of education about nutrition, lack of time to prepare food from scratch, lack of access to quality grocery stores. . . need I go on?)

The annoying thing is that at least half of the comments are by people crying foul and calling the study junk science, because they, personally, are able to eat healthfully and affordably by doing such things as. . . .making large batches of lentil stew! Uh, yeah. The fact that you enjoy living on lentil stew means that junk food is really more expensive than it appeared to the researchers! Or something!

This is an example of a fallacy that simply must have a formal name, though I don’t know what it is: disbelief in the results of scientific research because the implications conflict with personal experience.

First, the validity of the science is independent of its political or social implications. Secondly, your personal experience, while no doubt extremely important to you, don’t mean diddly when addressing populations in bulk (no pun intended).

To balance the anecdote about living healthfully on the cheap by making bohemian lentil stew, I have a story about how my mom (a working single mother) used to serve instant (generic) gravy on (generic) Wonderbread when our money ran out. It wasn’t because she didn’t value health – this is the woman who didn’t let me eat sweetened cereal until I was 12 – but because she knew white bread was an extremely economical source of calories in a pinch. Why didn’t she make organic lentil stew by buying in bulk from Whole Foods? I know this is hard to believe, but we didn’t own a car, and there was only one supermarket in our town – hardly a Whole Foods. (Before you even start. . . no, there were no buses!) Given our impoverished state, did we eat at McDonalds? Rarely – because it was too expensive!

What is your immediate, knee-jerk reaction to that paragraph? Disbelief? Then I bet you’ve never lived in the middle of the country.

Believe it or not, there were and are large swaths of America without Whole Foods, public transportation, internet, cell phone service, Target, bagels, sushi, or farmer’s markets. Yet in my time living on the coasts, first left, then right, I have consistently run across something I call the Coastal Fallacy. This is a bizarre set of blinkers which compels people to deny the possibility of American lifestyles outside their realm of experience. They simply can’t imagine towns like the one where I grew up, because there aren’t any towns like that near them. It drives me absolutely crazy – except at cocktail parties, when I can make good use of the shock value in remarks like “my entire family has lived (or does live) in mobile homes,” or “I never met a Jewish person until college.” If you expect to understand this country as a whole, you need to accept that some parts of it are very different than what you’re used to, and that your personal experience does not define the opportunities available to others.

Tragically, most of the comments on the NYT post show minimal understanding of nutrition, science, or how the poorer half lives. And the commenters who give a location all seem to be, ahem, living on the coasts. But I was impressed by this comment, from msd:

One thing the posters here haven’t commented on is the feeling of psychological deprivation that comes with long-term poverty and how that contributes to poor food choices. It’s easy to live on rice and beans if you’re a grad student or a middle-class person going through a rough financial time. It’s another thing if someone feels they are part of a permanent underclass. It’s no wonder chronically poor people console themselves with of sweet and starchy mass-produced food. It’s the only way they can experience abundance.

That may not be scientifically supported, but it sure rings true, doesn’t it?

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8 Responses to Living paycheck to paycheck, on Wonderbread and ramen

  1. mdvlist says:

    It’s also hard to believe that there are Americans who still buy into the idea that there is a single American way of life (you know, that thing that the terrorists are supposedly attacking). My in-laws had some old friends visiting them in Japan, retirees from the Midwest whom they hadn’t seen in ages– these people spoke comparatively about everything they saw as if their experience were representative of “America,” and as if the supremacy of the American way were a given. Finally, as my mom-in-law was driving this couple to the airport, she braved up enough to observe that living in another country made it easier to understand why the rest of the world might resent America’s condescension. The pat reply: “Well, they could live like us if they wanted to.” How dated/totally ignorant does that sound? And who is “us?!” There are so many things to be said about the implications of that exchange, I just won’t bother to go on.

  2. cicada says:

    “Who is us??” Indeed. That is such an excellent question. . . I’m lucky that something about my Pacific Northwest accent makes people in Europe think I’m Canadian, so I don’t get lumped in with the stereotypical “American tourist.” You’re quite right that tunnel vision exists all over the country. . . I just find that when I’m at home, people seem to know perfectly well the coasts are radically different – and vocally express their consternation that I would choose to live here.

  3. Laura says:

    It goes both ways. I have been living in coastal AL for the past 3 years having grown up in Northern CA. I went to grad school in MS. Having to constantly defend my home state (and “liberal” beliefs because I was a recipient of school lunches and other public assistance programs) has been very wearing.

    I’ve tried hard to be open to people’s ideas and explain _why_ I believe in certain things (like why should a person’s race be included in an anecdote about them when it has nothing to do with the story?), but it seems that people here are, for the most part, still so close-minded that it would be very easy to shrug my shoulders and just lump them all as ignorant racists.

    Oh, and if the NYT is only now just reporting that junk food is cheaper than health food, then they’re way behind.

  4. cicada says:

    Laura, given the number of people commenting on the NYT blog who say junk food ISN’T cheaper than health food, I think the NYT would be doing everyone a service by repeating the message until it gets through. :)

  5. rhett says:

    Are we lumping fast food with junk food? Just curious.

    I know as an individual living very lean in a traditionally expensive area, I have a hard time getting fresh fruits/veggies. Why should I plunk down $4 for some cherry tomatoes when I can get a slice of pizza for $2?

    When shopping I stick to canned soup ,rice/beans and PB&J. I try to stick to “natural” peanut butter (i.e. ground up peanuts) and 12 grain bread, but I’m sure it’s a terrible diet.

  6. Annie says:

    There was a documentary on PBS a while back about this topic, focusing on Burlington, VT, near where I grew up, and where there’s plenty of money and plenty of poverty. There was a food shelter featured that got donations of day-old bread from a fancy bakery, and no one would take it. Similarly, when planning started for a co-op in the downtown area, where there was no other grocery store, people had to fight for Wonder Bread to be sold there. I’m not sure what all that means, but I get it. Like the enlightened commenter said, it’s something about comfort. I grew up on a farm in a tiny, poor town, and we were certainly poor, but lucky enough to get good food from our livestock and garden. It was a real treat when we went to the bread outlet to get expired doughnuts for the pigs. I live in New York now and I think I mention at least once a week that I grew up on a farm.

  7. RedMolly says:

    Great, thought-provoking post. As a resident of possibly the food-snobbiest city in the US (Portland, OR), it drives me crazy to hear these elitist attitudes.

    It’s as if people don’t realize that even if lentils (beans, whatever) are a pound-for-pound inexpensive food, you still need a lot of potentially expensive resources to turn dry lentils (beans, whatever) into edible stew. Would YOU enjoy eating plain dry lentils boiled in water? No? Do you think they would taste better with additional ingredients like, oh, fresh greens, sweet potatoes, chicken broth, seasonings, all those things that make your “cheap” lentil stew suddenly exponentially more expensive?

    And after a day on your feet at a minimum-wage job, sometimes the last thing you want to do is come home and schlep lentils anyway. Much easier to give in to the siren song of the ramen, or the McD’s dollar menu.

  8. cicada says:

    love Portland, but oh yeah – VERY pricey food there. And I think people often fail to understand that if you can’t afford the wine, Calphalon and chanterelles, cuisine is not nearly as much fun. My family had a number of “cheap” recipes that worked better with generic ingredients and substitutes, for our tougher months – because you CAN’T cook a lot of good food on the cheap. Somehow, I didn’t find making potato chip and tuna casserole to be an enjoyable experience after working all night at the pea freezing plant (which, incidentally, is why I can no longer stand peas)

    Oh for the days of personal garden plots and fresh veggies. . .

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