I subscribe to a number of blogs on healthy eating (real food, less processed food, anti-GMO, etc). Lately I’ve noticed that some of the blogs (either the authors or those commenting on them) are increasingly becoming antagonistic in their insistence that everyone adopt a healthier, less processed lifestyle – with little understanding of how this doesn’t actually work for everyone. One aspect of this that specifically bothers me is that so many people who are fortunate enough to be able to eat healthy foods, don’t recognize what a privilege it is – and how thankful they should be for that privilege. The attitude is very much one of “If you make it a priority, you can do it. And if you don’t prioritize it, clearly you don’t love you family enough…” or at least that’s how it can come off.
There are a number of elements that have to fall into place in order to live a less processed lifestyle, and a large number of reasons this doesn’t work for everyone. These can be broken down into money, time and availability.
Money… It has been widely written about that the least healthy, most highly processed foods are also generally the cheapest, which is a large part of why obesity levels are highest among those with the lowest incomes. At the Aldi I shop at, a generic box of macaroni and cheese costs 33 cents or so, a bag of mystery meat hotdogs costs 80 cents, a loaf of highly processed bread also costs under a dollar. In contrast, conventional meat costs several dollars a pound. Fruits and vegetables as well are more expensive than the processed foods. Quality whole grain bread is more than twice the price of the cheap stuff. And this is only getting into the conventionally grown meat, produce and grains. You try to substitute organic and you’re talking many times more than what a large chunk of people can afford.
When this is pointed out to some food bloggers and those who comment on their sites, the response is that it can be less expensive to make more food from scratch at home. This is true. However… for many people time is just as much of a commodity as money. I am lucky enough that we can afford to mostly live on one income and I can stay home with our kids. While I am still busy, I can make the time to bake my own bread, cook up a batch of dried beans, make and freeze homemade pasta sauce and fish sticks, etc. For many families, mom, dad or both are working multiple jobs just to pay basic living expenses. Many families deal with the time required to care for a special needs child or an aging relative. Many working families have to drive large distances to and from work in order to make a decent living, and just don’t have the time to make all food from scratch. Their busy lives aren’t a result of not prioritizing. They are a reality of economic survival.
Then there is the reality of availability. I live in an affluent suburb of Chicago. Nearby is a Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Marianos Fresh Market and soon to be another healthy food focused grocery store. In addition, there are a half-dozen Aldis as well as numerous traditional grocery stores both large and small… all within about 3 miles of my house. I also am fortunate to have a reliable car and money to buy gas to make it to any of these stores. In addition, I can have organic produce and meat delivered from a number of sources with varying prices. For many people who live in other areas, there is not this type of availability to healthy food options. In addition to actual food deserts where people in urban areas don’t have access to much more than a convenience store, there are other areas where there may only be one small grocery store – that doesn’t sell organic much of anything. And if they do it’s unreasonably expensive.
There is a need for a very real conversation about how to make healthy food more economically and logistically available for everyone. And it shouldn’t be the case that only those with the resources are privileged enough to choose to live a less processed, healthier lifestyle. The norm shouldn’t be GMO laden, overly processed foods that have lost much of their nutritional value in favor of profits for the monolithic companies who produce our food. But for now that is the reality. And I think those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to choose otherwise should be sure to be grateful for that opportunity – to recognize it as the privilege that it is, and stop being so judgemental of those who for varying reasons cannot make that same choice. I know that I am extremely lucky! And I need to be sure that I remember that.