I have for some obscure bureaucratic reason recently become eligible for free lunch in my building – at one time limited to the Assisted Living folks, it’s been expanded to any of us who live here. Because of my unexpected hospital stay, and my equally unexpected tripling of prescription costs in the last couple of months (from 10% of my income to 35% of my income, to be precise) I am taking advantage of it. I stopped having any money in the bank at all in the middle of the month. It’s a donated meal a day or none at all.
This leads me to ponder the fact that there’s not only a politics of food in this country, but a politics of eating.
When I had a middle class income (professor, grant writer, etc) and was married to someone who directed the elections for our state, I of course donated my time to various charities and causes, one of which was the free community meal at the local senior center, available to anyone in the neighborhood. (Possibly it was funded precisely the same way my current lunch was funded.) I wiped tables, served meals, helped clean up afterwards, chatted with people who were eating alone.
What I did NOT do was eat the food. I couldn’t stand it. Vegetables were cooked to a uniform olive green. Meat was neither the shape nor size of any known animal part. Gravies were rich and salty, but obviously came from cans and boxes, rather than meat juices. Fruits were canned and scarce.
At first, when there was far too much left over, I would yield to the arguments of the food provider in charge and take some home to feed my family. That didn’t work out well. None of us would eat it. If our growing boy had been willing to, we would have saved a lot of money, but he just made faces, even when I left it around for snacks. He was used to non-processed food for meals, and processed food for treats. This was neither. Since I couldn’t find anyone to give it to, I quit taking it so it wouldn’t “go to waste.” Perhaps it was recycled to shelters. I hoped so.
Now similar food is my one guaranteed meal a day. It tastes much better without the choice. Today, for example, I had some slices of pressed turkey on a piece of fluffy white bread with gravy on the top: a “hot turkey sandwich.” On the side were thoroughly cooked peas with bits of onion in them, and a scoop of reconstituted mashed potatoes with more gravy; salad was several pieces of canned fruit, and there was jello with a white pouffe in the middle unlikely to be whipped cream. It resembled nothing I’ve ever fed my family. I was hungry. It was good.
I cannot fault the nutritionist who plans this. While heavy on the carbs and light on the vitamins, the food technically fits the old fashioned known facts of what people need; it’s a bit pre-pyramid, let alone plate, but vegetables, protein, fruit, and starch all make an appearance. There’s always a dessert, and it’s bland enough to fit many American palates, but occasionally (once a month) they get adventurous and offer something like “chop suey.” It’s cheap, filling, and varied. A lot of the people eating it find it delicious, because it fits the kind of food they’ve eaten all their lives.
The problem is that I was hospitalized for congestive heart failure, which requires a low salt diet. I had understood that the lunch corresponded to “low salt,” for the very logical reason that it was served to assisted living people, who have specific criteria for their nutritional needs. However, I checked yesterday, and found out that the “low salt” happens about twice a month with an entrée substitute, such as bratwurst replaced by (flaked and formed) turkey. So it’s fairly high sodium.
My doc told me yesterday that chf is one of the most expensive diseases going, though it’s easily prevented, primarily by diet and a bit by meds.
But special diets are not a consideration one can have in serving cheap food to masses. Even low salt diets require low salt origins, and when buys chicken “cutlets” by the enormous bag full, you’re limited to whatever that processor thought should go into a chicken cutlet. As most of the readers here know, that usually means chemicals and salt, which are cheaper than actual food in making it appetizing. Cheap fat is also common, so there’s unlikely to be a speck of olive oil and highly likely to be trans fats and GMO oil. So no low salt, no low fat, and most significant (to me) almost no raw foods at all. “Salads” are iceberg lettuce. Fruits are mostly canned, although there is an apple, orange or banana about once a week. Milk is always provided, and it’s 1% milk fat, period. Butter is provided (this is Minnesota, after all) in a little container, and it’s always salted. Salad dressings are just what you would get in any fast food place: a metal envelope containing chemicals, spices, corn syrup, and buttermilk.
So part of the health of the people in my building, not good comparable to the national “average” (ie middle class and upper class health) can be easily explained by the stingy nature of charity. We pay to keep people alive, and not eating cat food, and that’s important; Republicans wouldn’t even do that. But we don’t want to pay enough for them to actually thrive or live like the rest of us – oops, I mean the rest of you. I don’t know many Democrats who actually want to know the details of the food the government gives, as listed above. I do know a lot of Democrats who would be annoyed at my writing this – why am I complaining about my free lunch?
I have options, because my community is not in this building. They have land, and will let me grow things on it if I’m physically able. They share their bounties of kosher-slaughtered, grass-fed beef, fresh raw milk, and cage free chickens with me occasionally. I own a car and know nutritional options from many countries; in spring and summer here there are farmers’ markets where greens and then other vegetables appear at excellent prices. I can borrow a corner of a friend’s freezer and keep the extras there for the winter. So I am NOT complaining about the lunch; it feeds me now, and though my doctor has told me to stop eating it, she has also told me what to do if I must (spoon off all the gravy, rinse the vegetables and reheat, provide my own entrée with a can of beans, etc.)
But I am complaining about the indifference of Democrats in power to the limits of their own empathy. To care enough to make sure people don’t starve is a theoretical caring. My religion and my family upbringing always had the assumption that anything we had would be shared: let the one who is hungry, come eat. My mother and father would have been appalled at the thought that a guest at our table would have to settle for the least desirable and for the leftovers. Yet too much of what one eats is actually a gift to wealthy corporations: sell us barely edible food, and we will feed it to barely surviving people, expanding profit and relieving our consciences.
Just don’t expect us to eat that stuff.
Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 9:26 AM PT: So many of the comments make it clear that this community -- whom I consider my online neighbors -- contains many people themselves struggling to get food on the table. I hope those interested in the ideas I write about read their comments and think what it means that our community -- which on the surface is mostly composed of the college-educated, mature, American adults the media assumes are NOT "the poor" in fact have so many stories which reflect the true face of hunger in America.
July 14, 2014 (Bastille Day)
A month after I wrote this, my doctor became concerned and told me to stop eating the free meal because it was wrecking my already-fragile health. So went back to blowing a lot of money on food every month, but at least it wasn't killing me.