A Philosopher's Blog

Eating in America

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 22, 2010
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During this holiday season it is natural to think of food. While America is supposed to be the land of plenty, about 17% of Americans are food insecure. That is, they sometimes run out of food. About 6% of Americans have very low food security-meaning that they often run out of food.

The main cause for food insecurity is, obviously enough, a lack of money: the food runs out when the money runs out. While some of this could be attributed to poor management of money, most cases would tend to involve simply not having enough money to secure enough food.

While I have never been poor in the true sense of the term, I did live on a very limited income in graduate school. I was careful with my money, but a meager TA salary only goes so far. I never had  a car and generally did not even have a phone. I never starved, but I did subsist on such things as Ramen noodles, pasta, rice-puffs and what I could scarf at university events. At the end of the month, I’d sometimes be down to eating bread and peanut butter. As such, I have a great deal of empathy for folks who live with food insecurity.

As the economy continues to limp along, we can expect even more people to end up being food insecure. While the government does provide support (1 in 7 Americans receive food stamps), state support only goes so far. I do know that everyone has stories about how they see “those food stamp” people buying cigarettes and booze, but most people on food stamps seem to be buying food. In any case, even if folks are misusing the system, my main concern is with the fact that so many people are food insecure due to poverty.

At this point, someone is no doubt thinking something like this: “hey, I see on the news all the time that Americans are obese! How can there be so many people who are food insecure when there are so many fatties? Poor fatties, too! I mean, go to Wal Mart!”

This does raise an important point. On the face of it, we seem to be involved in some sort of paradox: we have obese people who are also food insecure. However, a little consideration dissolves the apparent paradox.

One factor is this: cheap foods are often very high in calories.  For example, last week I bought a name brand cake mix for $1.97 and a can of frosting for about $2. Hence, people who are short on money will tend to buy cheap foods and these will tend to be high calorie foods and this will put them at risk of obesity.

There are also other health concerns. Unfortunately, being high in calories is not the same thing as being good food. After all, a bag of sugar is high in calories, but having a bowl of sugar for each meal would not be healthy eating. healthy foods, such as lean meats and fresh produce, tend to be more expensive than the cheap, high calorie foods. As such, people who are food insecure tend to not only be lacking in food but also lacking in good nutrition.

One reason why high calorie foods are cheaper is because of government subsidies. For example, big corn growers are heavily supported by Uncle Sam and this means that high fructose corn syrup is very cheap. As such, it tends to end up in a lot of cheap foods. Ironically, the same government that subsidizes unhealthy foods also works hard to educate people about healthy eating.

As I see it, the subsidies should not go to food that is not very healthy. Rather, it would make more moral and practical sense for the state to subsidize nutritional food. After all, if we are going to spend money to make food cheaper, it should be for food that will be good for people. Otherwise, federal money is being spent in a way that contributes to poor health-which then costs the people even more money. By subsidizing healthy food, everyone could be happy: the big food companies get to stay at the public trough and people get to eat better.

Another factor is that foods that taste good to people tend to be those loaded with sugars and fats. These are high in calories and hence tend to contribute to obesity. For example, people like junk food and fast food because they taste good, although they are bad for you. These foods are, in fact, designed to be highly appealing.  People with more income still buy junk-but they can also buy better food as well. While I like junk as much as the next person (probably more), it does seem reasonable to push food companies towards designing junk that is actually not junk. That way people would at least get some nutritional benefit from the junk food.

A third factor is food education. Most people do not really understand how to eat well (or exercise) and this would tend to be even more likely in the case of people with lower incomes. After all, they would be less likely to have received education in nutrition and be less likely to keep up with current findings. Of course, even if someone with a low income knew a great deal about nutrition, the high cost of good food would remain a significant factor. While food education can certainly be improved (and has improved), making healthy food more affordable would do far more.

A final factor is, of course, the matter of choice. When I was living on a very limited income in grad school, I was careful to pick the healthiest foods I could afford. I never got obese (of course, training for marathons really helped with that). I would like to think that people would eat better if they could afford it, but maybe this is not the case. Of course, I suppose it would be better to have people who are obese on nutritional diets rather than people who are obese on crappy diets.

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  1. Eating in America | Cheap Healthy Foods said, on December 22, 2010 at 8:40 am

    [...] While food education can certainly be improved (and has improved), making healthy food more … low cost health foods – Google Blog Search This entry was posted in Cheap Recipe Ideas and tagged America, eating. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

  2. erik said, on December 22, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Ah, the aroma of ramen noodles wafting through the grad dorm hallways.

    I just wish government would get its grubby hands out of our children’s food and their schools. First they take their minds, then their religiion, then their politics, then their tastebuds, then their underwear. When I was a kid in first grade, my mom packed a lunch for me. By second grade I was able to do it myself after she left for work. My school didn’t have a cafeteria. Boo, hoo. Oops, forgot that now we send the kid to school with his own lunch . If everyone else would just step up to the patriotic plate and do the same thing, we would’t need cafeterias, etc. etc.

    Where in the Constitution is there any mention of a school lunch program? Oh, that’s right. Congress passed an act.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 22, 2010 at 1:14 pm

      I brought my own lunch because the cafeteria food was horrible. They served peanut butter soup one time. Peanut butter mixed with milk.

      However, there are kids whose families are very low income. While some might be tempted to call their parents lazy or stupid for failing to be, for example, doctors who pull down $250K, this is not the fault of the children. In such cases, the state should step up to protect the children from the threat of malnutrition by providing healthy school lunches.

      Of course, I am a sucker for helping people. I’ve had (and have) friends who were (are) worse off than me and I have always had a place at the table for them. Hmm, maybe I really am a socialist. :)

  3. T. J. Babson said, on December 22, 2010 at 9:28 am

    Part of the problem is that the dietary advice being peddled by the government for the last 20 years is turning out to be wrong:

    It’s a confusing message. For years we’ve been fed the line that eating fat would make us fat and lead to chronic illnesses. “Dietary fat used to be public enemy No. 1,” says Dr. Edward Saltzman, associate professor of nutrition and medicine at Tufts University. “Now a growing and convincing body of science is pointing the finger at carbs, especially those containing refined flour and sugar.”

    http://www.latimes.com/health/la-he-carbs-20101220,0,5464425.story?track=rss&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+latimes/features/health+%28L.A.+Times+-+Health%29

    • erik said, on December 22, 2010 at 10:27 am

      Government could have sat on its hands. Done nothing. Many advocate that approach. But government’s been going on scientific conclusions. But there’s a “problem” with science. Scientists reach conclusions–not absolute answers. The conclusions can be very convincing. They may even be as correct as correct will ever be. But dammmit, other scientists may come along and prove the first scientists wrong. It’s that aspect of the science method that prompts us to wisely, or stupidly, ignore warnings of climate change.

      But that’s how the scientific method works. And I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Without science, we’d have to accept the egg association’s word that eggs are the perfect food. Or take it on faith that Wheaties is the Breakfast of Champions. Or truly believe that by consuming peanut butter cups you’ll keep your arteries clean. But the free market would clean all those issues up for sure.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 22, 2010 at 1:16 pm

      That is a problem. While I am not a food expert, eating a variety of foods seems like a good option. Overdoing or over-avoiding one category (well, aside from junk food) seems like it would tend to be problematic.

    • magus71 said, on December 23, 2010 at 12:25 am

      Yeah, I’ve had many arguments with people on this very blog about that. But of course eating meat is not politically correct so I was drown out by screaming vegans.

  4. WTP said, on December 22, 2010 at 10:32 am

    The larger part of the problem with people not having enough money to buy food (not that I completely accept that argument) is that when people do have money, they waste it. As an engineer I make a decent salary as does a coworker of mine whose wife works at the same call center as my wife. Now at this call center, the vast majority of the worker bees make about $10-$15/hr. Not a lot of money. And yet nearly every one of these people buys their lunch in the cafeteria and from what I’ve been told, eat at McDonalds, BK, etc. frequently for dinner. Meanwhile, both of our wives, who could certainly spend their disposable income on a hot lunch if they so desired, brown-bag it every day. We don’t have a poverty/hunger problem in this country, we have an ignorance problem.

    I would be willing to bet that there are a number of people out there (maybe as high as 6%) who come from families that have been taken care of from cradle to grave, who never learned how to make a sandwich.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 22, 2010 at 1:19 pm

      There are people who do run short because of bad management. When I was in grad school, I knew people who would blow money eating out, then start mooching when they ran out. However, to assume that most people just blow their money would be too quick. I know from my own experience that even with careful management, a small paycheck won’t make it all the way to the end of the month.

      Now, it would be great if everyone actually made enough money and were merely wasting it. In that case, the fix would be teaching proper financial management and trying to train people to become habituated to that behavior.

      • WTP said, on December 22, 2010 at 1:54 pm

        I know from my own experience and from the experience of my depression-era parents that a small paycheck can go farther than the vast majority of the so-called elite think it will.

        I know from my actual work experience, augmented by my study of economics, that regulation may make things less dangerous, but it definitely makes things more expensive.

        I think the effort (e.g. money) would be better spent teaching people to be responsible for themselves and stop telling them that they are helpless. They would also be much better served if certain types of people would stop pushing class warfare zero-sum-game idiocy and do more to showcase how people throughout this country’s history have bettered their lives and, more importantly, their children’s lives through their own individual efforts. They tell me I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

        • erik said, on December 22, 2010 at 5:20 pm

          And so many times that’s the crucial balance isn’t it: safety v. expense? Do we want safe food or cheap food? Safe cars or inexpensive cars? You can only go so far in training people to detect unsafe foods on the store shelves. Regulations (expensive ones) help to make the food at your local grocer and your local restaurant safer. Perfectly safe? Of course not. Safe enough to justify the expense? Let the free market decide. If the populace clamors at the gates shouting “Down with those damn regulations. I want my cheap, dangerous spinach! And the increased medical costs that may accompany it.” likely, in the current political climate, we can get our dangerous food back.

          • kernunos said, on December 23, 2010 at 7:29 pm

            the funny thing is that cheaper foods are usually less dangerous, well imediate health wise anyway. Doritos, Ramen, water etc are really very cheap and loaded with calories. Of course there are long term side effects. Eating healthy is rather expensive by comparison and it looks a slight bit more dangerous.

            • erik said, on December 24, 2010 at 12:31 am

              Like the spinach, lettuce, carrots, tomatoes at the local (cheap) salad bar?
              Eating healthful food could be very expensive and much more dangerous if there were not effective regulations in place to assure safety.

              http://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/qa_ecoli_sickness.htm

              You can read this article and say, “Oh this is merely a governmental agency trying to justify its existence.”

              Who cares.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 23, 2010 at 3:49 pm

          Sure, paychecks can be stretched. When I was in grad school, I was able to forage university events. I also would have gone hunting and fishing, if I didn’t live in a city with toxic rivers.

          Many poor folks are hard workers who do the best they can with what they got. Sometimes, like with my family (my grandparents on my dad’s side never got past 8th grade) people can get out of poverty. But, if it was just a matter of being responsible, then we’d have far less poor. Or, do you think that most/all poor people are poor because they are irresponsible?

          • kernunos said, on December 23, 2010 at 7:33 pm

            Hunting and fishing? Turkey permit in Maine costs $20.00 and that does not count your yearly hunting license(how much does a prepared turkey cost in the store?), oh and a fishing permit is seperate. You better have plenty of time to hunt and fish to make it worth while unless you plan on poaching.

            • kernunos said, on December 24, 2010 at 3:41 pm

              Regulations and taxes have made hunting and fishing in Maine more expensive than buying the food from the store. Then you have all the work of preparing the food. Putting food on the table with hunting and fishing to save money is becoming a myth also.

          • WTP said, on December 23, 2010 at 11:26 pm

            “But, if it was just a matter of being responsible, then we’d have far less poor. ”
            – What, are you saying we are living in an age of heightened responsibility? Judgment call, but I definitely disagree.

            “Or, do you think that most/all poor people are poor because they are irresponsible?”
            – Yes. Either they themselves or their parents. Ignorance of the meaning of responsibility. More true today than ever before. That is much more the problem than anything else.

    • erik said, on December 22, 2010 at 1:49 pm

      You’ve “been told” that “nearly every one of these people buys their lunch in the cafeteria”? At that call center they’ve got someone keeping track of that kind of thing? Are your wives (you and coworker) at the call center “worker bees” or management or level or above? Are they the ones who observe the eating and spending habits of the “worker bees” perhaps? Are the “worker bees” all married to working spouses? Or are some of them or nearly every one of them single? Compared to you and your coworker, how well paid are the working spouses of the working bees that are married? That is, how does the combined salary of the “worker bee” couple compare to the combined salary that you and your wife earn?

      Just trying to get some important perspective that is missing in your post. Inquiring minds need to know.

      • WTP said, on December 22, 2010 at 2:51 pm

        OK, erik, this is definitely the last time I will respond to your presumptuous little argumentative blatherings. As much as I find the epithet of “troll” to be grossly over used on the ‘net, you cause me to reconsider that perception. I initially gave up on you back on the TSA thread when you whined about my “misrepresenting” your argument by changing “panties” to “diapers” or some such useless eye-roll-inducing childishness.

        Now to answer your questions for the last time. I know these things because I have been told them by both my wife and my coworker. My wife and my coworker’s wife were/are both worker bees. Neither of them were or are in management positions. In fact, my wife was contracting with them and was let go when the demand dropped this past summer. Many of these workers are single. Many with children at home. Many live with their parents, and not by choice. Some are working their way through college, though many of those are just wasting their time and not taking serious classes. They’re supplementing student loans, etc. for no valuable purpose. I have personally met some of these people. It saddens me that some of them are stuck in this mind set, as they are only hurting themselves. I have hope that some will eventually get a clue, in fact I’m certain that many of them will. The only thing holding them back is a warped perspective of reality. No one, from our educational system, legal system, or moral systems (what little are left) has expected anything more than just the barest minimum out of these people and consequently they are too afraid and confused to take on the real world. This gets covered up often times by a charming, yet false sense of self-esteem and/or bravado.

        Most of your questions are easily answerable by yourself with an ounce of common sense, lacking though it may be. To even ask some of them implies a sneer about privilege, so since you ask about perspective, let me give you a little bit of where I come from. Both of my parents were depression-era people. My mother’s father was a roofer. He died young leaving three grade school children to be raised by my grandmother. The boys did what they could and learned to be useful taking any jobs they could find. Of course there weren’t the ridiculous barriers to entering the work force like there are today, especially for 12 year olds. My grandmother used her sewing skills to take in whatever jobs she could. She taught my mother and the two of them worked together making clothes for neighbors (my mother made her own wedding dress) , etc. They moved the boys into one bedroom, my mother slept in her mother’s room, and they took in boarders to help pay the rent. And boarders were a risky option during the depression, in many ways. Just when they were getting back on their feet, the war came and took both sons away. Only one came back.

        My father’s father was a coal miner and farmer. They were saving money to try to buy the farm on which they rented, but lost 70% of their savings when the town bank collapsed. They were fortunate in that they had larger family to spread the work opportunities around and more relatives in the area that they supported and provided support to, when necessary. Then the war came and my father left for three years. In his later years I was honored to hear the REAL war stories. W.T. Sherman only knew the half of it. These people gave me my sense of understanding of what people can do in the most dire of circumstances. Four years of college tried to beat it out of me, but as I watched reality hit many of my friends, I came to reconsider my reconsidering. Does that give you enough perspective? There’s of course much more to the story but no matter what else I can relate, you will read into it what you want anyway. Not to mention that I’m squatting here and most of this is not my place to say.

        As for any of your questions that I didn’t answer, I’ll leave it to your imagination what you can do with them. So save your petty arguments and your so-called inquiring mind for others who choose to tolerate your gadfly, belligerent attitude. My new policy is don’t feed the troll.

        Mike, I apologize for the long rant, but…ah, screw it….

        • erik said, on December 22, 2010 at 5:11 pm

          Thanks,WTP. I’ll promise to ask even more impertinent questions next time you make statements that you expect to be accepted simply because you’re WTP and I’m not. Why should you feel offended that I want some verification? Some proof? Without knowing whether your wife is a “worker bee”, I was rightly left assuming that you may have little respect for the “worker bees” of the world. What proof did you provide to the contrary? For that matter, why should I even accept the “biographical” litany you subsequently provide? Methinks, you have protested too much.

  5. magus71 said, on December 23, 2010 at 12:30 am

    The idea that people can’t eat well in America because they’re too poor is proposterous. And most people know that a bag of Doritos is not healthy for them.

    When I had little money, I could get by on a carton of eggs, some apples and oatmeal, cottage cheese, beer and coffee.

    Like WTP said, you can make a little money go a long way if you want to.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 23, 2010 at 3:51 pm

      Well, glad to hear that there is no problem with hunger in America. Are there still poor people?

      • kernunos said, on December 23, 2010 at 7:39 pm

        I grew up as poor as they come and I don’t ever remember being hungry. Single mom hooked on drugs from time to time and everyone else in the family was poor so there was no helping hands there. We were poor and we were fed. I make decent money now and I eat out maybe once a month…..maybe. I think life is just way to easy for people here and it is part of the human condition to complain. Now if there are parents not feeding their children properly because they would rather gamble, have butts, have boooze etc in place of the food well that is another issue.

      • WTP said, on December 23, 2010 at 11:39 pm

        Mike, there will always be hungry and poor people. Given the chance to shirk responsibility, many will do so.

        “Are there still poor people”…Which fallacy are you using here? As long as there are poor people (see above) there will be those who will use those people to justify their grab for power. Do you deny this? As long as there are people who use others’ weaknesses to justify their own self-serving power grabs, people such as myself will object. The best say to minimize this endless cycle that I can see, is to expect people to take responsibility for themselves. I have found that when formerly poor people start to grasp this, they understand that they have far more power over their own lives than they ever imagined possible.

      • magus71 said, on December 24, 2010 at 12:19 am

        I grew up poor. Very poor. Most of my life really. The times I was hungry was when I blew my lunch money on coin-operated video games.

        I’m not against helping people, Mike, so don’t go down that road. My point is, and I see it everyday in the Army, people make willfully bad decisions and than the system runs in to help. The person never changes their habits one bit. I’m for teaching men to fish, not just given them frozen fish sticks. See, I grew up without a real mentor in my life, so it took me about 27 years to figure it out. I don’t blame anyone for my failures. I screwed uyp when I was young.

        How about this: If you are poor, don’t buy cigarrettes, booze, scratch tickets , cable tv, or a cell phone.

        People are not eating at McDonalds because they’re poor; they’r eating their becaus ethey love Big Macs and french fries more than they love their health.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 25, 2010 at 3:09 pm

          I agree that people who are hungry or failing because of their own poor choices are not morally entitled to our help. My moral concern is for people, mostly children, who are victims.

          There is also the question of why people are poor.

  6. Alice said, on December 23, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    One thing that could help food stamp redemption is reporting what was purchased. Currently, the grocers *know* but don’t supply this information to the government programs that review the purchases. If they were required to report there could be better monitoring of what was being purchased.

    • kernunos said, on December 23, 2010 at 7:48 pm

      One of the tricks around here is to buy cases of water with stamps, go out of the store, dump the water out and then return the empties for cigarettes or booze. I wonder if they get hungry after they run out of stamps. I knew another woman who was getting food stamps in 5 different social security numbers. She would trade the stamps in at a friend’s store 2 for 1 on cash. Then their was my ex girlfriend’s family where 4 of them were getting SSI for claiming learning disabilities. It is pretty easy to fake not being able to read. The worst thing is the lack of shame and humilty I find with all of these examples. Often bragging of their exploits at ripping off the government.

      • erik said, on December 24, 2010 at 12:46 am

        Interesting. And yet there’s Jim Webb whose Utopian view prompts him to write something like

        “Fairness will happen, and bitterness will fade away.”

        Really? Would you agree with Webb’s statement applied to the kind of world you’ve just described?

        Without rules, there would be no society to speak of. With rules there are going to be people creative and non-creative people who break them or take advantage of them, be they Wall Street traders or food stamp cheats.

        The rules and programs that have as their proclaimed purpose helping the weakest among us, to me, are more important and useful
        rules and programs than those that protect Wall Street moguls.

  7. magus71 said, on December 24, 2010 at 12:11 am

    In all my time in law enforecment, i never found one person who was starving and had no way of getting food. This is a myth, just like the health care thing.

    I did however, find many, many, people who drank and toked their health and lives away, depleting our sytem and destroying their families.

    Personal responsibility cures a lot of ills, Mike. And nature’s way of setting things right is a thing called pain.

  8. magus71 said, on December 24, 2010 at 2:32 am

    So MIke, are saying that this decision will make the US Military a better killing machine?

    You simply cannot deny that openly gay males sleeping in close-quaters with non-gay males will create problems that did not exist before. And being gay is a culture; one that does not mix with military culture. watch and see.

    Not to mention that approximately 20% of gay males are HIV positive. The Army allows HIV positive Soldiers to remain in the Army, but they cannot be deployed to combat zones. So, not only will the military have to pick up the tab for a high number of ill Soldiers, those Soldiers will not be able to contribute on the battlefiled.

    Being gay is more than just whom you choose to sleep with. It is literally a life-style and a fetish that defines the modern gay person’s ethos and being. And I simply need no more “sensitivity training.” I just want to go to work, go home, drink beer, and be with my family while miantaining my own beliefs.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 25, 2010 at 3:04 pm

      Well, considering the quality of some people who got the boot and their skill sets, then yes. Unless, of course, the change causes people of high caliber to leave or not enlist.

      I don’t think that there is a monolithic gay culture. Yes, gay folks often see themselves as having a common agenda on some issues, but that is not the same thing as a gay culture. However, I’m not an expert in this field so I’ll have to defer to the sociologists and anthropologists who study this.

      As far as HIV goes, straight folks also have that as well. If HIV is a serious problem, then the military can adopt new policies to address these matters. After all, repealing DADT does not (as of yet) mandate that the military become a support service for folks with HIV.

  9. T. J. Babson said, on December 25, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    This Drew Cary video is great.

    To hear the Lou Dobbses and Bill O’Reillys of the world–not to mention politicians ranging from Ron Paul to Hillary Clinton–the middle class of America (however you define that term) has never had it so tough. Between credit squeezes, out-of-control immigration, rising costs of education and health care and everything else, it’s all darkness out there for those of us who are neither millionaires nor welfare cases, right?

    In “Living Large,” Drew Carey and reason.tv examine the plight of the American middle class. What do they find? Click on the image above to find out.

    http://reason.tv/video/show/living-large


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