Cheap Food and Privilege
Cheap Food and Privilege
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)
It is an established fact that we can grow enough food on Earth to eliminate hunger. The issue is distribution of food, not the production of food. The issue of distribution is undermined by capitalism and political power struggles that play out in the economics of the daily life of the poor via food. I have recently begun to realize that I had a lot of food issues growing up as a kid, and also as an adult. From institutional food in protective custody, to foster families’ food, to being told to diet as a girl, to dry milk at the end of the month, free lunches and food stamps, I have begun to realize my relationship with food has been different than most American middle class folks based on class.
I had a friend who went to Russia back in the 1990’s. She told me a story that amazed me. She said she went into a store in Russia, hungry, and there was nothing on the shelves but these foil wrapped fish packets. She didn’t feel like fish in foil, and decided to wait until something else was available. As she walked around, she said everywhere, on every corner, people were voraciously eating these foil packets of fish. As hours crept by, she began to realize that was the only food coming into that village store that day. The next day she realized she had to buy the fish or go hungry. That story shocked me. I had never contemplated something like that. As an American with stocked store shelves, fast food joints and commercials for food on TV every few minutes, the idea of that kind of living situation around food shocked me and made me think outside the perameters I had previously been thinking within. I had seen American hunger, but that was a new breed of hunger for me to think about.
I saw a statistic quoted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently that said Americans spend 7.4% of their total personal expenditures on food. Wow. That is crazy. I guess if you made $5000 a month, that would mean less than $500 a month for food for a family, and I guess that is believable. But if you make say, $1000 a month, a minimum wage full time salary, that is less than $100 a month for food. That is ridiculous. That makes no sense.
I was looking at the statistics because I am sure it is true that Americans spend less on food than others do due to capitalist and corporate exploitation. The stats provided said that the percentages of total expenditures spent on food for different countries were these: India 51.3%, South Africa 24.5%, Norway 19.8%, Italy 17.2%, France 14.8%, Canada 10.3% and US 7.4%. With the exploitation of farm workers, among other things, the prices for food remain unsustainably low in America. It is clear that Americans are eating cheap food on the backs of someone else’s hunger.
But what is up with those stats about Americans spending only 7.4% of their spending income on food? I have seen the same nonsense with stats from the government saying that most people spend 30% of their income on rent. Are they joking? In what world? Let’s take a welfare mom now or any time in the last 20 years. The welfare payment for a mom and one kid in the Pacific NW is about $440 a month. There are almost no apartments with one bedroom available at those price ranges in Seattle, Portland or Eugene, and two bedrooms is what middle class people have with their kids. If a welfare mom is lucky enough to find an apartment with one bedroom she can afford, it usually takes her entire welfare check to pay it. That leaves nothing for utility payments, bus fare, school lunches, field trips and club fees, clothing, toilet paper, etc. I can honestly say that in the entire time I was a low income parent, I never once paid 30% of my income as rent. The lowest I ever paid in rent as a mom with kid was 75% of my income, and that was rare. Very often I literally paid 98% of my monthly income to rent. And food stamps never covered a month’s worth of food. Not when I was a kid with my mom. Not when I was a mom.
What makes the American government skew its own statistics in such a way as to make it seem that Americans spend only $7.50 per $100 on food? Going out to eat at a restaurant with two people once is more than 20%, not 7.5% and add that into the fast food, lattes, and food at home, and I have trouble believing those numbers. I guess if you throw in the high rents as expenses that it ends up that low, but it seems weird to me. I know to make it seem they have less unemployment the US government just makes it harder to get unemployment benefits. They base the number of unemployed on how many get unemployment insurance, not on employment. So if they want lower numbers of unemployed, they simply pay less people unemployment insurance benefits. It is actually THAT simple! Knowing that makes me suspicious of the numbers saying people normally spend 30% of their income on housing and 7.4% of their income on food. Well, that and having life experience that says that is not true.
I never thought that much about food, but in the last year, as I wrote different articles I began to see how many times food was used as a weapon on me as a kid. When you are in child protection institutions, you are fed, as innocent children victims of child abuse, in a manner that resembles prison. You line up, your food is slop, it is served on weird pastel colored plastic plates that are identical. We were lined up outside in the cold in the dark for breakfast like prisoners. I did not want to eat in there and I only remember lining up in the cold and the inside of the cafeteria, but I do not even remember eating the food in there when I was in places like that.
I remember one Easter we had no food and only had a bag of jelly beans. My mom and I ate jelly beans for 3 days, right there in Los Angeles, in 1966. Yes, we had family. I had aunts, uncles and grandparents and we ate only jelly beans, in hunger, for days, due to pride and shame on my mom’s part, I suppose. Or perhaps due to my mom’s family using food as a weapon on her for getting divorced. I have hated Easter ever since and do not like jelly beans. Sometimes school hot lunches were my only meal. My mom was a speed addict and would sleep for days on end at a time, leaving me alone as a young child often. I hated school lunch because every time, they lined up those who were getting hot lunches, then made those of us with free lunch tickets go somewhere else so we stood out as welfare kids and the other kids knew to shame us. So I got hot food at school from free lunches but it had a price.
In high school, I lived with a sick stepmother who did all kinds of things to me around food. It was really weird. I remember having to go away from home to eat. I remember once I was about 15, and my stepsisters were 13 and about 10. My stepmom came into the kitchen as the three of us were making hot chocolate one night. You could see the tension in the room as soon as she entered. Like a classic stepmom, she scolded, “Who is making this hot chocolate?” And yes, I was the oldest, and I had actually initiated it, but all of a sudden my youngest stepsister, who was only about 10, blurts out, “I am making hot chocolate” to which my stepmom said, “Oh” and left. It was amazing to me that my 10 year old sister knew, unspokenly, how to stop that situation from getting ugly and it was to say that she was making food, not Kirsten. That same stepmom used to do really weird things like shove, grind and smear food into my face in front of others if I ever dared say I did not prefer some one item of food. I remember actually sneaking food into my bedroom and hiding it as a teen so that I would not be hungry as my stepmom guarded the kitchen in a weird way.
I think food is used in politics a lot. A Rob Brezsny song says, “2-4-6-8, organize and smash the state, kick the ass of the ruling class, push em back, push em back, wayyy back! Use the food as a weapon, use the medicine as a weapon…” Yes, it seems food and medicine ARE used as weapons. It is really weird to realize how many times food has been used as a political weapon on me, starting in childhood.
As a kid, we had food stamps, thus had little food at the end of every month. Most people I knew around us in my preteens were also on food stamps. The kids got really creative with ways to find edible food from food bank leftovers, and I remember it would have been too embarrassing to invite a middle class friend over and have them see our dried milk. But my poor friends, they also were struggling with hunger at the end of the month, so we did not have to talk about powdered milk, etc. It was assumed and understood.
My kid was not free from hunger either. He knows what a food bank is like. He was punished as a kid for my poverty, as I was punished for my mom's poverty. He jokes you can find cool things like Teenage Ninja Turtle Fruit Rolls from 1993 at food banks now. Another person who was poor as a kid calls food bank food, “vintage food.” I remember I would go to my middle class friends’ houses and their moms were in the kitchen cooking dinner and their refrigerator had things like celery sticks in glasses of water and we were offered French bread with butter, etc. They had actual scheduled meals, daily. My mom was passed out in the other room and we had a molding can of Spaghetti-o’s as the only food in the house. It got to be embarrassing, if not shameful, to ever bring anyone home.
Not until recently have I realized how often food was used as a weapon, a class weapon, on me as a kid. I was sometimes punished for having a poor mom, other times I was punished simply for being alive, and needing someone to feed me in some state institution at age 8. I have rarely been allowed housing with land for gardening, but I have gardened every place I was allowed to where I lived. And I did not grow flowers, I grew FOOD.
Last year I tried to have a pea patch/community garden. The other gardeners were all very well off financially and they did not do things like plant seeds. Every single plot all of a sudden was filled one day with starts from local stores. So, when my plot was the only one with actual dirt, waiting for seeds to sprout, the other gardeners walked over my seeds, unplanting them. They let their dogs play in my plot. I put up ropes and even signs, trying to make it clear this was a planted plot. But even the woman in the plot next to mine just kept walking on my planted rows of dirt to weed her garden, and nothing I could do would stop it. I finally gave up after replanting 3 times, and I had given up food money to buy the seeds. What was most sickening to me is I was trying to grow FOOD. Most of these folks grew FLOWERS and then even told me they had gardens and flowerbeds at their homes too! I was there because I was hungry, poor and lived in an apartment with no garden. I was stunned how mindless these “gardeners” were. To them, gardening is buying starts and planting them. To me, gardening is raising seeds in soil. It breaks my heart that food is such a weird class issue. Kids go hungry all over all the time and there is no reason for it but political weaponry. It is stunning that by this time in civilization, people are still so malnourished. It is shameful, actually, to all humanity, that hunger is still an issue. It could be eliminated overnight if capitalists gave up their greed.