Skip to content

Poverty in America: the privilege of food accessibility

September 23, 2010

I have my first “real” post up at Gender Across Borders! Starting in September, I will be contributing monthly columns about body acceptance.

Decisions about food aren’t always clearcut.
Click image for link.

Recently, at an Americorps training I was asked to describe poverty in America. I heard answers like “lack of access to basic needs”, “unequal opportunity” and “social stigma”. I currently work with a mentoring program for ex-offenders, and am getting a more intimate perspective on living in poverty in the United States. Although I agree with all the descriptors above, I keep coming back to the idea that what poverty really means is being told, repeatedly, that you don’t know how to make the best decisions for your life and your family.

As a body acceptance advocate, I see the regulation of the poor’s life choices as an assault on body sovereignty. The incarcerated are an extreme case.  Their control of their own bodies is limited to the few hygiene products they are given (a toothbrush, comb and toilet-paper), their pick of the 2800 calories of food they are offered a day, and possibly their rooming situation. As they reenter society this bodily control is loosened but not removed. The right of low-income mothers to have children is frequently debated. The myth of the “welfare queen” runs rampant. Applying for, and getting, jobs means “looking the part”. And Jill at Happy Bodies beliefs about correlations between Food Assistance and obesity:

1. “Poor people are ignorant about nutrition.” (Extra points for a poor-Black-woman-who-fed-her-baby-Cheetos story.)

2. “I used to work at a grocery store, and everyone on foodstamps was obese and only bought Doritos and Coke.”

3. “I only make $X a week, and I cook all organic meals and freeze them!”

The obvious subtext is, naturally, poor people (especially poor people of color) are fat, lazy, and stupid.

People absolutely love to tell others what they should and should not be eating. Even I slip up when I tell my friends not to diet or to eat that cookie they’ve been ogling. But in case of individuals living in poverty, it takes on an incredibly judgmental tone. Let’s take a moment to really think about privilege and food. In evaluating the success of the mentees in our program, we use Ellyn Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs:

Note: Having “Instrumental Food” means that a person is “in a position to consider choosing food for instrumental reasons: to achieve a desired physical, cognitive, or spiritual outcome”

It’s a huge privilege to be able to be able to choose food that is instrumental. For many, enough food is a struggle. Food Assistance is difficult to apply for. Depending on your state, even minimal savings for times of emergency, or children’s education can disqualify you. Access to a Food Bank is not always consistent or manageable. In a society that considers calories the enemy, those living in poverty have an entirely different relationship with food, where more calories is the goal. When you’re money is limited, and there is a family to feed, dieting is a privilege.

I still feel the crushing weight of the pressure to be thin, but imagine fighting against that beauty ideal, and trying to stay positive about your body, without access to the food, time, and health care to even make these choices about your body.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jill permalink
    September 23, 2010 4:54 PM

    “I keep coming back to the idea that what poverty really means is being told, repeatedly, that you don’t know how to make the best decisions for your life and your family.”

    Exactly. And I think another layer is that making “the best decisions for your life and your family” is really the expectation that you will exert extraordinary effort and sacrifice anything that doesn’t contribute to your absolute immediate physical existence so that wealthier people do not have to “waste” their precious resources on you.

  2. October 1, 2010 10:26 AM

    I just wrote on someone else’s blog about how I felt that the obsession with food in our culture is very self-indulgent.

    “I don’t think people realize how self-indulgent talking about weight, food points, etc, really is. There are huge communities of people that don’t even have the opportunity to even know what this food obsession is all about, because they live in proverty and despair. I think once we realize that the way we live and the way we view food is a manmade creation, then you could see that either you can buy into what we have been taught, or you could choose to create your own paradigm regarding food and health.

    I try to think of women around the world who are suffering on a daily basis due to oppression when I feel guilty for have a chai tea latte for the fifth day in a row. Give me a break!!!

    I think that we go through stages of letting go and growing beyond the limitations that society puts on us. We, on a daily basis, live out the rules. We have a choice. This is where our power lies. I am all for taking responsibility for my life! ”

    I have often thought that our society’s mentality is very immature, and I mean this in the most respectful way. I find our obession with food and weight is one of the markers of this immaturity. These obsessions become very self-focused, and how can you think beyond yourself, if all you can think about is the donut you can’t have. I am very blessed that I have enought money on a regular basis to provide food for my family, but at the same time I am well aware that this is not the case for every mother around the world. I probably could go on, but I will leave off by saying that I agree with everything that you have said. Thanks for posting a wonderful article. It is great to read somebody who is like-minded.



  1. Five for Friday :: 1 Oct 2010 | Nourishing the Soul - A forum on body image and the effects of eating disorders

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: