bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Something doesn’t add-up with “Doing the Math” or: Food insecurity from a place of privilege

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Photo Credit: Food Banks Canada

I used to be a fan of things like Do the Math. These challenges where public figures (especially those in government) had to live on budgets akin to those on social assistance, or on food bank donations, seemed like a great eye opener. It was good for the mayor to understand that people are hungry. For those living in poverty, adequate calories are often unattainable, let alone healthy meals. While I’m not entirely opposed to such challenges, I’m no longer enthusiastically on board.

 

These challenges have been happening for years. And what benefit have they had? The politicians and do-gooders have experienced first-hand, for a week, that living in poverty sucks. They say, “wow, social assistance, disability, part-time minimum wage… is not enough money to put adequate nutritious food in our bellies.” And then??? Nothing. Nothing has changed as a result of these challenges. People are still going to the food banks and still going hungry. If these challenges resulted in actual change to our social supports then I’d be all for them. But they don’t, they’re not, and they won’t. And frankly, it’s kind of starting to piss me off that people can be so privileged that they can choose to follow a low/no budget diet for a week. In addition, I’ve always wondered if the food hampers they’re given take food away from those truly in need.

 

Let’s not even take into consideration the living standards that those in poverty often endure, couch surfing, unsafe and unpleasant apartments, sleeping in cars, homeless shelters, park benches. These poor politicians suffer through meetings, fighting to stay awake because they only ate a can of beans all day. Try working several physically demanding jobs and not having a car to get to them. I could go on and on. And yes, I come from a place of privilege, so maybe it’s not my place to have this rant. I know what it’s like to worry if the rent cheque’s going to clear, but I’m fortunate enough to have family to spot me money to make the bills and to be able to eat well.

 

If we’re going to continue doing these low-budget style challenges then the participants should at least donate any money saved on food to a local food bank, shelter, or another poverty-related organization, such as End Poverty Now.


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Don’t let them eat KD; only the best for the poor

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I had a mixed reaction reading this article about a food bank rejecting “unhealthy” food items last week. Of course, I think that they should reject opened packages and half-eaten items. It’s extremely insulting that anyone would “donate” things like a package of opened pepperoni sticks to the food bank. A donation box is not synonymous with a garbage can. However, removing items such as Kraft dinner or candy is not right.

 

It’s understandable that the food bank staffer(s) doing this think that people relying on food banks deserve to have healthy food. I’m sure that this culling of donations is done with the best of intentions. However, it’s not the place of the food bank staff to decide what food items are suitable for patrons. They should certainly remove any potentially hazardous expired, damaged, or opened items. They should not remove items based on perceived nutritional shortcomings.

 

Everyone, including those in need, are deserving of a treat now and then. The food bank patrons can decide whether or not they wish to take a package of Swedish Berries. That’s not a decision to be made by anyone else. Removing these items in advance (and what’s being done with them? Are they just being pitched?) reeks of elitism. Also, considering that most donation boxes are only able to accept non-perishable food items, this leaves limited donation options. People who are donating may not be wealthy either, but they may be able to afford an extra box of Kraft Dinner to donate when it goes on special.

 

Another problem with the proclamation that food bank patrons deserve healthy food is that many people to not have the facilities or abilities to cook even basic meals at home. Do you know what to do with a turnip? A can of chickpeas? (Okay, I know that you’re not the masses). Many people don’t. Donating many of these items to food banks simply leads to more waste. I don’t want to discourage you from donating these things. Unfortunately, the reality is that these are often the last items to go.

 

If you really want to make a donation that will help, donate money or time to your local food bank or community kitchen.


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The true cost of healthy eating

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I’ve ranted about the problem with the over-simplification of food insecurity before but I’d like to expand on that rant. Someone recently shared a link to a recipe for Spicy Tuna Guacamole Bowls on Budget Bites. I thought that they looked yummy so I bookmarked the recipe. The recipe does look great, and I do plan to make it, but I have an issue with the costing.

 

The cost for each ingredient is based on the quantity used in the recipe. Obviously, most ingredients cannot be purchased in such exacting amounts. Thus, the cost presented for the recipe is not an accurate reflection of what the meal actually costs to make. Yes, you may already have some of the ingredients in your pantry, but let’s assume that you don’t.

 

I priced out the ingredients needed for the recipe at my local grocery store. It may not be the least expensive place to shop but we also need to bear in mind that if you are food insecure you may not have a car, or the time, to afford the luxury of shopping around. In cases where there was more than one option available I selected the least expensive item. Here is my costing:

 

Brown rice: $3.99

Cucumber: $.99 (this is not the lovely English cuke, but the kind with the skin you need to peel and the tough seeds because the English cuke was $2.99!)

Frozen shelled edamame: $3.69

Carrots: $2.89 (there were no loose carrots so I had to buy a whole bag even though the recipe only called for one)

2 cans of chunk light tuna: $3.58

Container of guacamole: $4.69 (In this case, an avocado would have been cheaper at $.99, on special, so we’ll go with that option.)

Cilantro: $2.49

Sriracha: $4.99

GRAND TOTAL: $23.61, or $5.90 per serving.

 

That’s not a bad price for a meal but it’s a far cry from the “$7.45 recipe / $1.86 serving” stated on the website.

 

Out of curiousity, I decided to go back an price out the Bittman infographic that prompted the original rant.

 

Romaine lettuce: $3.99

Potatoes: $1.89 (these were available singly so I weighed four of them)

Lemon: $.79

Whole wheat bread: $2.69 (I cringed to choose the cheap “whole wheat” not “whole grain wheat” variety. I also question the inclusion of this in the meal. Potatoes should suffice as a starch.)

Chicken: $14.30 (ouch!)

Milk: $2.28 (for one litre)

Olive Oil: $5.99 (This was the smallest, most affordable option. Fortunately, it was available in extra virgin.)

Salt: $1.99

Pepper: $5.19

GRAND TOTAL: $39.11, or $9.78 per serving.

 

Bittman had this meal priced at $13.78 total.

 

While many people will have some staples in their pantries, others will not, and these items will need to be replaced at some point. It’s also important to note that there is the hidden cost of labour incurred when preparing meals at home. The time spent grocery shopping and cooking and washing dishes is all time for which you are not being paid. It is time that would be saved by picking up a fast food meal.

 

This is not intended to discourage you from eating healthy and cooking meals at home. For those of us who are not food insecure, cooking for yourself (and your family) is probably the single most important thing that you can do for your health. It can also be a great way to bond with family members or housemates and involving children in food prep encourages them to enjoy new foods. With planning and budgeting, healthy home cooked meals are attainable by most of us. However, for those of us who are struggling to make ends meet, and for whom time and calories may outweigh cooking and nutrition, these calculations of meal costs are erroneous.


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More on fat tax

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Recent research showed that a combination of factors was best at discouraging purchasing of “junk” foods. It also showed that, on their own, cheaper healthy options, anti-obesity advertising, and healthy food advertising were ineffective at dissuading “customers” from purchasing the junk food. However, increasing the price of the “junk” by 20% was persuasion enough for customers to select the healthier options.

While an interesting result, there are a number of problems with applying these findings in the real world. The research was done with participants in a laboratory. Thus, their economical means and purchasing behaviours may not have been representative of how they would act in “reality”. Also, were participants representative of the population? I worry the most about the impact of jacking up prices on “junk” food on those who are experiencing food insecurity. Increasing the cost of these foods may cause more harm than good.

In addition, as mentioned in the article we’ve already seen the failure of the “fat tax” in Denmark. Why would we think that increasing the price of “junk” food would be any more effective in North America? And who will decide what foods are healthy and what foods are unhealthy and deserving of taxation. I’ve seen granola bars that were not permitted under school nutrition policies that (in my opinion) were healthier than those that were permitted. The ones that were permitted contained chocolate chips. The ones that weren’t contained almonds, causing the fat content to be too high to meet criteria! Research is always evolving and even within the dietetic world there isn’t consensus on some matters. Some dietitians would rule out butter in favour of margarine. Some would be okay with added sugars, while others would eschew them. Most would say that all foods are okay, with some being everyday foods and others being occasional foods.

Also, what would happen with the increased revenue from “junk” foods? Would it go to the food industry? Would it go to the government? Or would it go to subsidise vegetables and fruits or create community food initiatives?

Yes, this research provides some insight into human behaviour. However, I’m not sure that it’s all that useful of a weapon in the war against obesity.


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The argument against school box lunch police

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A school in Ontario has decided to ban students from eating “junk” food on school property. This means that any student sent to school with a chocolate bar or other banned food will be asked to take it home with them to consume. Unfortunately, there’s no list of criteria, or banned foods, available online. The principal does say that there will be some exceptions around holidays and while chocolate bars are a no-no, granola bars are fine. Sigh. There are a few issues I have with this policy. No, I am not concerned about the Nanny State. Honestly, considering our inability to care for ourselves properly as a society I think that we would all benefit from a little nannying.

My primary concern is the seeming lack of understanding of food insecurity. No matter how many celebrity chefs will publicly state that healthy eating is cheaper than eating “junk” there are still going to be a disproportionate number of food insecure families relying on packaged, processed foods. This is partially because of the perception that healthy food is expensive, and in some cases this is true. It’s also because food insecurity is a complex issue. Many people lack food skills to prepare healthy meals and snacks for their families. There may also be a lack of access to kitchen tools and appliances necessary for the preparation of many healthy options. There may also be a lack of time available to prepare healthy snacks, or a means to transport fresh vegetables home from the grocery store. To ban children from bringing “junk” food to school is an act of privilege which will only serve to ostracize children from less privileged families.

My second concern is with how this ban might affect eating habits later in life. Teaching children that some foods are forbidden, but then sending them home to eat them could potentially contribute to disordered eating later in life. While I don’t support the sale of nutritionally void foods at schools – schools should be providing children with the best possible nutrition for learning and growth and should not be turning a profit from selling them “junk” – I don’t think that policing lunch boxes is healthy. Imagine being a 6 year-old child sent to school with a cookie and being told you weren’t allowed to eat it at school. What lesson is this instilling? Is it teaching the child to make healthy choices. I don’t think so. I think it’s instilling a sense of shame and promoting “secret” eating. Children are extremely impressionable and this is when we should be ensuring that they develop lifelong healthy relationships with food.

My final concern is more with the practicality of implementing this policy. Who is going to be responsible for searching students’ lunches, backpacks, coat pockets for contraband? How much time will this take away from the ever deteriorating curriculum? How will it be decided which foods fit and which foods are banished? As many granola bars are essentially chocolate bars in disguise as health food is there really much point in implementing a ban on chocolate bars but allowing granola bars? What about home-made treats? How will the teacher (or other food policer) know if a muffin is healthy or essentially an un-iced cupcake?

I really do think that we need to be feeding children better diets and teaching them to enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods. However, I don’t think that policing children’s lunches is going to do anything to achieve these objectives. In fact, I think it’s liable to do more harm than good.