It’s great to see organizations like Dietitians of Canada and Food Secure Canada working to make food (and food security) an election issue. Check out FSC’s Eat Think Vote campaign to find out what they’re calling for an how you can take action.
I originally posted this back in 2012. As it’s national Hunger Week, and I must confess, I don’t know what to blog about, here it is again:
Food Insecurity is Not Simple Math
A recent study showed that healthy food is actually less expensive than “junk” food. This study eschewed the usual caloric comparison of foods for a portion-based comparison. Based on this comparison the researchers found that many healthy foods are, in fact, cheaper than their less nutritious counterparts. For example, a serving of carrots was found to be less expensive than a serving of potato chips. I agree that healthy food is not necessarily all that expensive and some options (e.g. beans, legumes, and root vegetables) can be quite economical. However, I have several major issues with this study.
Having worked with people experiencing food insecurity I know that the first concern of most of them is getting enough calories into their family members and keeping them as full as possible. So, even if this study is showing that by portion size and by edible weight, healthy foods are less expensive than unhealthy foods this is not how the majority of people who are suffering from food insecurity are thinking. They’re trying to get caloric bang for their buck. Sadly, carrots are not going to give them as many calories for their dollar as pop and hot dogs are.
Even if we accept what the study is telling us, there is a lot more to consider beyond the face-value of these foods. Many of these healthy food items are not ready to eat as is. Do you know anyone who’s going to eat onions straight-up? How about dried chickpeas? These foods require cooking skills, equipment, and additional ingredients (e.g. herbs, spices, oils, etc. to make them palatable). Many people, be they food insecure or not, are lacking in the food skills department and may not have the confidence or knowledge to cook a rutabaga. Do they have a stove to use? What about pots? Knives? Vegetable peelers? All of the additional ingredients and supplies can add a considerable amount of cost to the meal.
Another major issue when it comes to food insecurity is oral health. If your teeth are sore or missing it’s going to be mighty difficult to chow down on raw carrots and apples. Potato chips and spam are much easier to manage when you’re lacking quality teeth.
So, sure, serving for serving some fresh vegetables may be less expensive than “junk” food but food insecurity is not simple math.
It makes me so happy to see that Dietitians of Canada are taking a more active advocacy role. With the (eventually) upcoming federal election in the fall they’ve called on all federal party leaders to commit to a national strategy to reduce food insecurity and increased access to dietitian services.
If you’re interested in supporting their efforts or want to see the party responses, just click on the link above.
A few weeks ago everyone was mocking Gwyneth Paltrow’s food choices for a week-long food stamp challenge. Admittedly, they were a little ridiculous. I mean, it was nice to see that she chose things like dried beans, frozen peas, eggs, and some fresh vegetables. However, along with everyone else, I thought “seven limes??!“. Unless she got an amazing deal on those limes they seem like a nutritionally foolish expense. I saw some people posting their superior $29 selections. When Gwyneth failed to last more than four days on the challenge it seemed like everyone was more than a little gleeful. I saw others bragging about their success.
As much as we all like to take pleasure in Gwyn’s failures, I think that we may have lost the point. The point of this food stamp challenge is to show people how difficult it is to survive on such a limited food budget. To that end, it’s a good thing that Gwyneth failed. If she had happily lived on that little food budget then that would mean that all people living on food stamps should be able to contentedly survive on $29 of food a week.
Regardless of the choices that Gwyneth made, there’s little room for pleasure or flavour in such a meagre food budget. Note that there was no money for cooking oil, condiments, spices, or staples like flour and sugar. No coffee, tea, no chocolate! It’s nigh on impossible for someone to feed a family a basic nutritious diet when they are forced to rely on food stamps. More important here than Gwyneth’s failure to do so is the failure of the government to provide its citizens with the means to afford healthy, palatable food.
In the news last week was an exposé of prison food in British Colombia. Allegedly, prisoners have become ill after eating food distributed to prisons from a central kitchen. Sometimes prisons have run out of food before all of the prisoners have been served, leaving inmates to go hungry. Based on the comments, it seems that most people believe that prisoners should suck it up. After all, they’re criminals and are lucky that they’re getting food from our tax dollars. How dare they ask for food that’s safe or even nutritious. Just a taste of some of the comments:
Just looked at their menus they eat better than I do! Ohh and I work and pay taxes! These bums have a lot of nerve complaining. Try working for a living, try feeding your children and being a good parent. They blame society inequality and drugs for all their problems… The reality is there’s only one person to blame the one in the mirror! Do inmates children on the outside have enough to eat? Are they warm at night? Theses looser bring children into the world and forgo their responsibility…
Don’t like the food? Don’t put yourself in a position where you may go there.
Cry me a river. A murderer complaining that his prison food is not to his liking.
I know, I know “never read the comments”… I did it for you!
I think that many people are missing the point. Everyone deserves access to safe and nutritious food. If our prisons are intended to rehabilitate people who have committed crimes (which they ostensibly are) then nutritious food is an important component of that process. A number of studies have shown that nutrition affects cognition and behaviour (1, 2, 3). I’m sure that most of us have anecdotal experiences of the effects of poor (or good) nutrition on mood and behaviour. I know that I felt pretty crappy after the weekend I survived on primarily poutine, coffee, and beer. And that was one weekend! Imagine the effect that long-term malnutrition can have on mood and behaviour. I’m not saying that prisoners should be eating gourmet meals every day. However, if we want to rehabilitate inmates and have more of them re-enter society as contributing members then we need to provide them with the tools they need to do so. Good nutrition, and the ability to prepare nutritious meals upon release, is one of these tools.