Satter suggests that there are several concerns for food before we get to nutritional value; basically, that there be food available at all, that it's acceptable to eat, and that we can get it when we want it. After that, one can consider whether it's familiar and finally, the uses one has for it -- besides, presumably, relieving the desperate cravings of one’s body.
When we talk about hunger, in the U.S. or elsewhere, we're talking about satisfying that craving ‘way before we can talk about whether we want to eat the food. The U.S. has a large amount of people privileged enough to only worry about food in terms of the top of the pyramid – the luxury of comparing nutritional values in its selection.(1)
In my previous diary entry, I talked about the recipients’ experience of U.S. food policy -- what I and my neighbors receive as a free lunch. I told how middle class eaters wouldn't touch food the working class poor ate enthusiastically. Judgments on the poor eating food which the middle class wouldn’t, and refusing to eat food that more privileged persons take for granted, are at the heart of food policy. As Ami puts it, "Often, it’s flat out said that poor people need to be policed into eating healthy." In short, government and its willing owners constitute an Evil Mom or Abusive Dad living inside most food policy: "I said it's good for you. Eat it or go hungry."
All eating is emotional eating, says Michelle the Fat Nutritionist. Such a comment of course goes against most current thinking on how to diet, where one is advised to be wary of emotions which lead to overeating. But if we consider the anthropological knowledge that every culture integrates food deeply into its customs and ceremonies, it's impossible not to agree that every human being has a relationship with food which must be taken into account when building successful policy.
My neighbor upstairs won't eat yogurt or Vietnamese spring rolls. She might eat those if literally starving, but not otherwise. They're not inside her cultural experience, and she does not consider them edible. I, on the other hand, find them delicious, and part of my cooking repertoire, but will not touch Cool Whip, which so far as I can tell is the main component of her specialty treats, which she makes for family holidays regularly.
Since it's the middle and upper classes which decide what constitutes edible, I suspect my tastes are more in line with those in power than hers. However, hers are more typical among those who need food assistance than mine. Her fondness for deep-fried chicken and beef liver, not to mention fully-cooked vegetables, is not going to change because other foods are offered her for free.
It's worth (more than) mentioning that any expectations for appropriate food are deeply entangled with racism. Quite aside from the relation between poverty and color, cultural background determines edibility. I grew up in Hawaii, and at the time I ate school lunches, a good third or more of them reflected the predominantly Asian population. As a result, I'd rather have teriyaki and rice for lunch, and don't care much for the standardized "American" foods. But on the Mainland, teriyaki would only be available on Exotic Days, just as Tom Kha Gai and Bun Thit might be... or wouldn't be. A friend of mine from Singapore I often ate dinner with on campus cast imprecations on meals that never, ever had any spice. She could go through a quarter bottle of tabasco at a sitting, trying to make the food edible for her. Some Latino foods of the Cal-Mex variety are being integrated into the menus, just as Italian-American foods have been integrated previously. "Cabbage-eaters" and "garlic-eaters" are no longer obvious insults to throw at immigrants. Food standards change because assimilation works both ways, but nonetheless, those most accustomed to different cultural standards are most predictably oppressed by what constitutes the norm.
Going along with cultural experience, however, is simple nutrition, which actually may work a little differently than nutritionists generally thought 40 years ago. Fat is important both as nutrition and because it helps make people feel full; not meat, but factory farmed meat, is most closely identified with multiple disease factors; full fat dairy offers nutrition skim millk simply doesn't; the kind of food you eat determines metabolizing far more than its calories; and so forth. If this new research is correct, and there's no reason to believe otherwise, it explains why diets which cut fat and calories have an approximately 95% failure rate. If it's not, we still have a 95% failure rate and fat children.
Standards of obesity are also questionable. There is new evidence which show less illness and longer lives among people whose body weight is currently defined as "overweight" by as much by bmp. In other words, pudgy people are arguably healthier than people who are not overweight. (Which begs another question: if weight is a standard of health, shouldn't people currently classified as of ideal weight be classified as underweight, and the longest living have the pejorative "overweight" taken off and labeled at "ideal weight"?) Even people classified as significantly obese have certain advantages: for example, women in this category are less subject to calcium loss, and therefore are less prone to bone fractures when they age.
This country is so fat-phobic that it will not look at fat in men and women as beneficial in certain circumstances. This increases antagonism to obese people the way many Americans are secretly phobic concerning disability, and therefore discrimination against this group. At one time, obesity was admired as an attribute of the rich; it's only recently that it became worse than skin color as a mark of unacceptability.
When Michelle Obama, whose family is dieted to celebrity perfection, and who is served her meals prepared by a private chef, set about her activities, she accepted the received view that we have an obesity epidemic in this country. A more neutral stance would have been that we have an epidemic of unfit people. Phrasing it as an obesity epidemic particularly focused on the poor, who are far more likely to be fat. (Though cause and effect are complex. Fat people don't get the good jobs, good jobs provide more food choices, etc.)
But for the president's wife to run a national campaign to say that we have an epidemic of lower life expectancy among the poor than other industrialized nations would not be politically popular among donors, since it would focus on the privilege of the very people who were running the campaign. Hence, obesity becomes the problem -- other people's problem, not a systemic problem, which can be solved by improving the lives of individuals with a little government help.
Policy always depends on the problem. In this case, the goal of eliminating obesity begs the question: is obesity the problem? There are a lot more indicators which say that poisonous agriculture, corners-cutting food processing and corporate greed are the problems, and obesity one of the results, but that would require a severe and direct evaluation of how corporate greed exploits people's hunger and damages their bodies. Not exactly the issue the Obamas (or the Clintons, or the Gores, or any Democrat with a good corporate donor list) would want to explore.
With the assumption that obesity is the problem, there is a simple solution: children should lose weight. The cause is unhealthy food; give them healthy food, as designated not to threaten agribusiness, and give them less of it, through lower calorie meals. "Unhealthy" is defined as too many treats, including the sort of treat which has been prepared for thousands of years, rather than processes deliberately destroying the nature of food in the name of profit.
The Obama program was approved in 2010. A couple of years later, the requirements for school nutrition were quietly eased. They were unpopular with both parents and children, because, as the Medical Daily reported a few weeks ago, the lunch requirements left the children "unsatisfied and hungry."
In short, we have a policy designed and implemented by "professionals" to feed children with "obesity problems," which did in fact fulfill some of the children's needs, but primarily benefited white collar workers who live off grants, and the corporations which could sell frankenfood as long as it fit the calorie guidelines. (Not all the food had to be fresh produce; that was simply one goal.) The kids -- the hungry ones, who needed food -- were given what the government thought they should want. In the process, they and their families were stigmatized for being fat; for being part of the "obesity epidemic."
It doesn't have to be that way. We can try to hire the sort of Democratic representatives who in fact understand that asking poor people what they want and need might lead to better policy results. We can design policies based on the real problem, which is that corporations target services for the poor as just another marketing niche. We can focus on a value where everyone literally has a place at the table, and is served the same kind of food. If standards were written for school food that ignored calories and only required that all of it be real -- vegetables and fruits, frozen in the summer without additives and prepared the way it's traditionally been prepared in homes, minimally processed -- with a 10% added reward if it were grown within, say, 200 miles of where it was bought and served -- it would, at the very least, make it up to the middle of Satter's pyramid, and most likely farther.
It ought to go without saying, but doesn't, that the best guarantee of edible food which satisfies hunger and contributes to ongoing health -- a far more practical goal than "ending obesity" while continuing to pile on poisonous foodish substances like high fructose corn syrup -- policy should be designed and implemented by people who will not profit from it. As long as the majority of representatives on boards will financially benefit from certain outcomes, the recommendations are suspect. The same is true for elected officials whose campaign funding is dependent on donations from profiteers.
But more specific policy, and how to muzzle the greedy and go back to thinking about citizens and their right to govern, will have to wait for another day.(2) Just pause, next time you make yourself a snack, and ponder: who else wants one?
While you're at it, remember: some of those who do are going to bed hungry --and are members of this very site. Read their comments from my last post -- and try to figure out one thing additional you're going to do to see our neighbors get what they need too.
(!) There are probably still higher levels on this pyramid; for example, status. Eating rare steak is higher status than eating well-done steak; eating Thai food higher status than eating hamburgers (but only if you’re not Thai) and so forth.
(2) There's a bibliography of sorts below the bug, if you're interested -- even if the word "policy" sends you running screaming, the articles are worth reading on their own, especially the first.
Ami's Guide to Food Privilege
Maybe the best summary of classism in food self-righteousness I've ever read; short, readable, and reality-based. Favorite line: "There’s another side to the Rich vs. Poor food problem. Often, it’s flat out said that poor people need to be policed into eating healthy. And by healthy, you mean whatever the various corporate food lobbies have forced congress to accept as science".
“Hierarchy of Food Needs” by Ellen Satter
Quite a brilliant breakdown of considerations toward eating. Every person involved with food policy should be intimately acquainted with this chart (think Maslow’s hier-archy of needs translated specifically to nutrition). To me, seems obvious that policy concerning food in America is a site of struggle among the bottom three, with accepta-ble food and ongoing source of food currently winning.
If only poor people understood nutrition!", by Michelle
A well-considered discussion of the classism inherent in assuming poor people are ignorant or incompetent to take care of their hunger because they buy the "wrong" foods.
“Romanticizing the Poor,” by Aneel Karnani
Stanford Review article questions the received assumption that poor people can be educated into making better choices, advocating instead for larger government involvement.
“Healthy Eating Index,” USDA 1995
Obviously out of date, but provides some interesting stats which could be brought up to date. One interesting point: female-headed households in particular are healthier than male-headed households. Predictable stat where healthy eating increases with income.
Child Nutrition Act: Key provisions.
Worth looking at to see exactly what went into the child nutrition act policy. Fundamentally, lots to pay people to explore nutritional improvement and some to actually do it. Favorite part: elimination of paperwork to prove need. Everyone eats. For school nutrition, well worth considering that, just because family is well off, doesn’t mean kids are eating well. And here is a follow-up which shows problematical assumptions.