Grocery Item #1: Erase the Stigma of Poverty


Income disparities affect your food choices. That’s no secret.

I know this, but I found out just how true this is while coming up with my own budget. I want to know how much I can expect to spend on food a month if I want to get my basic needs met and feel satisfied. Naturally, being very low income by the time I leave, I will be doing most of my shopping at Dollar Tree. I’m okay with that. I like that I can get so much for so cheap and for the most part, I like what they offer. If I want something frozen, fresh, or anything else not offered there, I will have some money left over to go to a grocery store.

This is how you live on a low budget.

I suggested this to my mother, because she is always complaining about money. She said to me was that she didn’t want me eating junk and she didn’t want people thinking she couldn’t afford anything better.

On a totally different but somewhat related topic foodwise, there is this fad in the treatment of psychological disorders in children called attachment therapy. Its primary targets are adopted, foster, minority, and disabled children. For a more in-depth discussion of it, I recommend Advocates for Children in Therapy, but I will sum it up here.

The goal of this quack therapy is to force children to attach to new caregivers through trauma bonding, i.e. Stockholm Syndrome. The idea is that if you abuse the children, they will react and thereby release their anger that is preventing them from attaching to the new parents. The current parents will then literally treat them like babies and re-enact stages of child development in the hope that the child’s memories that that time period will be erased.

A number of abuse tactics are used in this so-called therapy, but some of them include isolation, excessive and pointless chores, the demonization of children, and poor diet. The theory is that these children, because of their laziness, nastiness, and overall worthlessness, will have to get used to lives of shoveling manure and living on stale bread and tomato soup.

What I noticed about these behaviors is the attitude that underlies them, namely that some diets and lifestyles are fit only for worthless people and that some people deserve no better. Menial labor and “junk” food are just punishment for the crime of being a person that society deems worthless.

If you look at the allowable diet for victims of attachment therapy-subsisting totally on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or cold chicken soup-it is clearly inadequate. I am not trying to redefine this diet as something healthful or that poor people should be proud of. It’s not. My point is that there is a reason that food like this is considered punishment for wrongdoing that has little to do with actual nutrition.

Going back to my mother’s comment about being ashamed of shopping at Dollar Tree for groceries, foods like the foods seen at DT are considered low-status. Only slovenly people at them, or at best, poor people trapped in the evil food system that only educated liberals can rescue them from. Neither is an enviable classification and neither is one that identifies me as a low-income person. Anyway, the reason these foods are so attractive to AT parents as punishment is, again, not because of the nutrition, but because of the low status these foods occupy as cheap processed garbage, fit only for poor people that can only work menial jobs like shoveling manure.

Big Liberty wrote a brilliant post, ‘The Conflation of Poor and Fat,’ about food access and poverty. I personally agree with her. There is no real evidence that the food consumed by poor people is directly related to, or causes, disease or obesity in those populations. I agree that such an argument is potentially classist. I have felt it all too keenly. I, and others, agree that the more important, and very much ignored, factors that contribute to health disparities in poor people include stigma and access to health care.

Let’s go back to attachment therapy for a minute. I have read a number of criticisms of attachment therapy, one of which stands out in my mind because of her comments about the diet offered. Her concern was not so much that the diet was calorically inadequate or that it had too few protein or other nutrients. It wasn’t that the food was cold, badly prepared, and was designed to confer inferior status on the child. No, her most stinging criticism was that it didn’t include fresh fruits and vegetables!

Yeah, people need fruits and vegetables, but that is NOT whatsoever my biggest conern with this diet. My biggest concern is A) not enough calories and B) the psychological abuse that it entails. But no, hers was the it didn’t contain the “right” (read high status) foods. Plain fruits and vegetables aren’t enough either. No, they had to be FRESH, by golly! Talk about having screwed up priorities!

If the children were maintained on this type of limited, extreme low- calories diet, but it contained whole grains, fruits, and veggies, would she be complaining about that? If these children endure physical and psychological problems later in life, which they inevitably will, will she blame the PB&J? Or will she have the foresight to realize that, whatever the specifics of her diet, the more pressing issues for these children are calories, history of abuse, and access to medical care?

“Attachment therapy” foods are low status because of the people that eat them. Many of these people will also be fat, immigrants, or otherwise stigmatized people, which further reduces the desirability of that status symbol. This is part of the reason why, I think, certain foods are associated with fat people living in poverty.

Are all foods equally nutritious? No. They don’t all contain the same number of calories, the same number of nutrients, or the same amount of each nutrient. Yes, some methods of food preparation are better. Not all dyes and chemicals are safe to use in food, for example, and you need to follow certain procedures while canning in order to avoid botulism. Processed or unprocessed, organic or not, food tends to taste better and be in better condition when it spends less time on the shelf. Can these all impact health? yes.

My point here is that food choices tend to occur alongside factors such as low income, less health care, and membership in stigmatized groups of people. It is these confounding factors that may very well adversely impact health, not the food choices themselves. When poor fat people present with health problems, should we assume that their diet of processed foods is the culprit? Or is their station in life to blame?

What poses the greater danger to people’s health from eating processed foods? The foods themselves or the way society views you for having to buy them?

No, I don’t oppose making WIC vouchers redeemable at farmers’ markets. I don’t opposed allowing people on food stamps to buy haddock. It’s food, it’s harmless, and why shouldn’t they be able to do that?

My concern is:

How much is our desire for better food choices informed by science, economics, and the actual needs and wants of poor people? How much is it is the subconscious desire to avoid the stigma of poverty?

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