Sunday, September 07, 2014

Hungry People in our Country

Food insecurity -- that is, lack of access to adequate food because of too little money and other resources -- has declined ever-so-slightly in the past few years, according to a study released last week by the USDA.
"In 2013, 85.7 percent of U.S. households were food secure throughout the year. The remaining 14.3 percent (17.5 million households) were food insecure. Food-insecure households (those with low and very low food security) had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources. The change from 2012 (14.5 percent) was not statistically significant; however, the cumulative decline from 2011 (14.9 percent) was statistically significant."
Children suffer greatly when their families are food insecure, obviously. Approximately 10% of households with children, 3.8 million households, suffered from food insecurity at some time during the year (unchanged from 2011 through 2013).

I try to empathize with the families who suffer this way. I am a privileged person; it's very difficult for me to imagine what it means to be food insecure. Even the types of food articles I read obstruct my view of what it means to be so poor. It's common to read that many health problems -- particularly obesity -- would be reduced if more people cooked at home.

What does such advice mean to people who can't buy enough food? I consider this statistic from the study: "The typical food-secure household spent 30 percent more for food than the typical food-insecure household of the same size and composition, including food purchased with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (formerly the Food Stamp Program)."

Illustration from "The Joy of Cooking?"
One entirely different article that I read recently emphasizes how well-meaning pundits who suggest home cooking as a remedy are blind to the real problems of others. "The Joy of Cooking?" by Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott, and Joslyn Brenton is based on interviews with "150 black, white, and Latina mothers from all walks of life" and on close observations of 12 working-class and poor families. The authors stressed this: "something that often gets overlooked: cooking is fraught." (I learned of this article here.)

"The Joy of Cooking?" provides a large number of detailed examples about the difficulties that poor mothers (yes, it's almost always mothers) face in trying to comply with the message "that good parents—and in particular, good mothers—cook for their families."

The authors documented that many very poor families lack adequate kitchen equipment or supplies of decent foods. They described working poor families who worked several jobs, rarely found enough time to cook and eat together or to shop frequently, and though they had basic foods, often couldn't afford the recommended healthier foods like fruit and vegetables. For example, Leanne worked for a fast food corporation "in an urban area that lacked reliable public transportation. Sometimes, Leanne would take a taxi to work only to find out that business was slow and she was not needed. At other times, she was asked to work late. Because of this, Leanne and her family had no set meal time: cooking and eating were often catch-as-catch-can."

The poorest family they described was "a poor black mother who was currently separated from her husband, she was living with her daughter and two grandchildren in a cockroach- and flea-infested hotel room with two double beds. They prepared all of their food in a small microwave, rinsing their utensils in the bathroom sink."

But even several of the study's better-off working families with decent homes had high anxiety about cooking, about their children who didn't like the recommended foods, and who experienced a sense of frustration at "the gap between the romanticized version of cooking and the realities of their lives."

I've read a variety of histories of American ways to cope with poverty and food insecurity. I don't think we are doing very well! I was wondering if the Settlement House movement of that began in the late 19th century as a way to help very poor immigrant families managed to address some of the same problems. They taught cooking skills and basic nutrition as it was then seen to immigrant women and their daughters (at that time no one even questioned that women did the family's food preparation). They did seem to assume that their students had kitchens at home. Maybe they were condescending to their clients, and surely they had no respect for ethnic foodways -- but I wonder if they had a better idea?

The Settlement House movement still exists a little bit, I gather. For example, a program called "Cooking for Healthy Communities" is sponsored by United Neighborhood Houses and The Children’s Aid Society in New York. The program "is training cooks from UNH member agencies in nutrition and healthy meal preparation, focusing on cooking with fresh, whole ingredients. Thirty programs from 17 settlement houses participated in the first training program, including cooks from senior centers, child care centers, homeless shelters, and HIV/AIDS service programs. By helping cooks to prepare healthier meals, the project has built community capacity to prevent diet-related diseases in City neighborhoods at greatest risk."

My grasp of the whole situation is limited, but my goal is to develop more empathy, to go beyond the well-meaning articles and advice that neglects many impoverished families' reality. To quote "The Joy of Cooking?" about the widespread emphasis on cooking that isn't really helpful to many who lack time, money, and other resources:
"In the fight to combat rising obesity rates, modern-day food gurus advocate a return to the kitchen. Michael Pollan, author of Cooked, and America’s most influential 'foodie-intellectual,' tells us that the path to reforming the food system 'passes right through the kitchen.” New York Times’ food columnist Mark Bittman agrees, saying the goal should be 'to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden.' Magazines such as Good Housekeeping and television personalities like Rachael Ray offer practical cooking advice to get Americans into the kitchen, publishing recipes for 30-minute meals and meals that can be made in the slow-cooker. First lady Michelle Obama has also been influential in popularizing public health messages that emphasize the role that mothers play when it comes to helping children make healthy choices."
How sad that for many this is an impossible dream.

1 comment:

~~louise~~ said...

Hi Mae,
Another thought provoking post you have shared with us today.

I sometimes get frustrated with myself for not taking more of an active part in helping with the "food insecurity" that lives in many of the neighborhoods here in PA. I can only imagine what it is like in the rest of the country.

Although I consider myself rather "privileged" also, it wasn't always that way. I was a single mother for a very long time raising two children and barely making ends meet. Thankfully, my family made sure my children didn't go hungry but they offered little help other than making me learn the important lessons of life. Such is not always the case in many households who just can't dig out of the hole. It was a long hard journey so I am more than empathetic. However, perhaps not because I do very little I think even with all that I do:) Thank you so much for sharing this post, Mae...Sorry to get carried away:)