On the one hand, I have been excited to see the various mayors of cities taking on the challenge of limiting their food budget to what someone on food benefits would receive. It’s a valuable lesson for them in how people actually do (barely) live. Then on the other hand, the more I think about it (and a sharp comment from my friend Ronia when I praised Cory Booker for trying this), the more uncomfortable I become with the idea.
Privilege is a very odd thing, and having a lot of education about nutrition and food will give anyone a boost on this challenge that many who are in these poor situations do not have. We do not easily teach about nutrition and food and how to obtain such inexpensively. As I alluded to in my last post, despite the fact that my mother does know quite a bit about nutrition and has even taken courses on it, when my family was barely keeping a roof over our heads and without electricity, our meals were crackers, tomato sauce, and later ramen, when a friend lent us a grill on which we could heat water.
Sustained lack of access to decent food creates a despair that is not quite tangible within just a week’s time, which is part of what makes this challenge almost meaningless in the long-run. It gets a basic idea across of how difficult living with very limited means is, but gives no insight into the longer term effects it has on either the morale or day-to-day functioning of individuals: decreased energy, a desperation that often threatens to choke a person up with tears or quiet rage, and poor decision making based on the short-term solution of getting any type of food into your stomach.
What really starts to annoy me about this entire affair is that we don’t actually listen to the people living on these food benefits as to what their needs are. Instead, we must discount them until some affluent person comes by, tries the challenge, and validates their lived experience. You see, they might actually be too ignorant to actually know what they need. It is this mind-boggling classism that continues to bog down our society, even in very subtle ways.
Of course, this continues to be an issue that we, as a country, refuse to acknowledge when we only talk about building the middle-class, never mentioning how we will help the poor, whose resources are very rarely enough to get them out of their situations these days. Food is just one of the many resources to which they have a more limited access, and to which we have a very odd attitude.
This is purely anecdotal, but when I worked at Whole Foods, I was quite often surprised (and enraged) when a customer would snark at someone when they were using their LINK card to shop at Whole Foods. As if it was a waste of their money to obtain fresh produce that they could not necessarily obtain on the south side of Chicago. Even when people do attempt to make more nutritious decisions, there is a class of people who see that as people stepping beyond what they should have, as if poor people should have to eat whatever is available, instead of being able to make decisions.
Which is not to say that I necessarily fault people like Cory Booker, who are trying to make a difference in some small way. I would instead like to see him attempt this food budget for a longer period of time so that he can better understand the trials that are actually present, where time starts eating away at the fact that he does have an easy out when he decides he quits the challenge. He has a built-in hope that many people simply do not have access to in any way. For me, it just underlines how we disrespect a large, and increasing, swath of people just because of their economic status (even when we say we are trying to help them).