How food and class are connected

There’s an uncomfortable truth that I’ve encountered often in my thinking and acting (via book authorship and public speaking) on the subject of healthy food: this kind of food is usually the domain of the privileged, and not just because of the higher cost associated with it.

Easy access to fresh food is also a matter of geography (think of the “food desert” phenomenon endemic to low-income neighbourhoods, which often lack a grocery store), and is in many ways an acquired taste.

Those of us who advocate for a whole foods diet are in fact asking others to reject the comfortable, undemanding processed meals that many folks grew up eating, and their associations with home and simple childhood pleasures.

We’re also asking folks with little to no experience of from-scratch food preparation and no ancestral memory of the taste of beets, kale, turnips or chard to prepare these foods in a way that will appeal to them and their (likely suspicious) children.

No wonder foodies are often accused of arrogance and elitism.

Well-intentioned efforts to make institutional food healthier are often met with hostility and subversion—look at what happened when Jamie Oliver took on the enormous challenge of reforming the menu in British school cafeterias. He received his share of resistance from those who saw the change as an attack on their culture—in Rotherham, in the north of England, where Oliver began his cafeteria reform project, angry mums slipped burgers and fries to their kids through the school gates at noon in protest.

An acquaintance of mine who lives in a rural community in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley faced much the same backlash when she began volunteering in the cafeteria of the elementary school her kids attended. Shocked by the daily fare of hot dogs, processed cheese, and canned everything, she suggested making the occasional pot of homemade soup or casserole with local ingredients and offered some of her own tasty recipes (she cooks professionally). Her ideas were met with impassive silence, and she soon gave up, sensing a major clash of food cultures brewing and not wanting to alienate her children from their friends’ home and school food rituals. She now sends them with packed lunches.  

As a food writer and speaker about organic gardening and home canning, I always wonder how I can introduce the concept of whole foods to those unfamiliar with the concept without coming across as preachy and smug.

One way to do this is to be open about my fondness for the occasional canned or boxed indulgence: the comfort of Thermos-warm Chunky soup at lunch, the pure joy of Oreo cookies.

When I feel self-righteous hearing about the ignorance of someone who threw away the broccoli tops and cooked the stems, I remind myself of my student days at the University of Toronto when I lived close to the bustling streets of Chinatown, and my walks through the marketplace there. There were fruits and vegetables I had never seen, labelled in a language I could not read. I really wanted to ask someone, “Do you eat the top or the bottom of that thing? Raw or cooked?” but I felt shy and out of the loop, as well as completely non-functional in Cantonese and Mandarin, so I sadly never got to try any of the tasty-looking produce there.

I am grateful that I had a taste of being a minority during my years in Toronto: as a white person, feeling invisible and out of it in one’s home community is an invaluable learning tool.

If that sense of being out of the loop also affects those from a different food background seeking to learn healthy food skills, we need to do everything possible to remove barriers.

To that end, Jamie Oliver has advocated the concept of recipe sharing (aka “pass it on”) in his 2008 Jamie’s Food Revolution, where readers are encouraged to sign a pledge to master one (very easily-assembled) recipe from Oliver’s book and then teach it to a few non-cooking friends. Oliver himself got his start cooking in his family’s pub, and though he has since achieved superstar chef status, he never seems to have forgotten this background.

In an age of instant gratification, the satisfaction of doing a cooking project from scratch can be a novel enough concept to get curious kids into the kitchen.

Six years ago, a friend teaching Home Economics (or whatever it’s called now) to fifteen and sixteen year olds invited me to come to her class to help make pickles. Seven months pregnant, I waddled from cutting station to station, offering encouragement to kids who had never chopped an onion (and who were slightly freaked out by the eye-watering effects of doing so: “Help! Why am I crying?”). One student looked at me with wonder when I complimented her on her chopping skills, and suggested that next fall, we should try making ketchup: “You can do that? That is so cool!”

Beyond our individual efforts to make eating whole foods the norm rather than the exception are institutionally-based initiatives like Halifax’s own Mobile Food Market. Extending a bridge into the local food desert, and spearheaded by the NS Health Authority, the Ecology Action Centre, the United Way, and other local community groups, the “food bus” brings affordably-priced fruit and vegetables to underserved areas like Fairview, Spryfield, Harrietsfield, and North and East Preston. The bus parks in a central spot at a regular time each week, and customers can climb aboard and shop for their produce.

I’m happy to see that the project website mentions “culturally appropriate foods” as part of its mandate (I’d like to know what kinds of produce fit that bill). Here’s a link to that website, with an up-to-date delivery schedule for the next two months: http://www.mobilefoodmarket.ca

With the link between good food and good health so firmly established—like the link between smoking and cancer-- any efforts to get people eating a lot more fresh, unprocessed food are worth tackling, resistance notwithstanding. I would include a tax on junk food in that effort, much the way we currently tax tobacco and alcohol. We’re never going to get a handle on this problem when we can buy a frozen processed entrée for $1.50 while a head of broccoli alone costs $4.99.

We do need to be aware that any suggested change in food culture may inevitably be perceived as an attack; our humility and willingness to acknowledge the appeal of processed food are both necessary components of the change we wish to see in how we and our communities feed ourselves.