You are (‘nt) What You Eat

(Market in Miami)

As I was standing in the kitchen this afternoon picking kale and chopping vegetables I began to think about what food REALLY means to me. I’m an avid foodie; meaning I love food, love cooking food and love knowing how food is made. I also love knowing where my food comes from. These concepts seem simple but for many people the idea of attaining these pleasure just isn’t feasible. Let me be more specific, many Americans have no clue what real food tastes like, where their food comes from and how it was made. Food matters. What we put into our body matters. Now…I’m not going to go into some long explanation as to why we should all eat organic or why we should all remove processed foods from out diets; that just isn’t practical for most people. We do live in a busy world full of mis-perceptions about food and healthy eating. I’m not interesting in preaching or giving a lecture. What I am interested in is challenging us all to start considering some basic questions:

1. What is my (and my families) relationship with food?
2. Where does my food come from?
3. What influences my food choices?

My answers to those questions are constantly evolving, so should yours.

I grew up on welfare. I remember going to the store with a pack of food stamps and a Link card once those hit the streets of Chicago. The corner store only had so many options, most tasted good but were bad for my body. I ate a bag or two of Flaming Hot chips everyday. My mother tried her best to keep vegetables and fruit in our lives, but choices still had to be made. Until she started working my mom cooked regularly because she had the time. But money was still tight. When I ate at family members homes food choices were also made. Money was even tighter. On any given Saturday during a summer in Chicago there could be 10-15 kids at my aunts house. So what did she do?  She put on a pot of hot dogs or made us sandwiches. She didn’t have the time or the money to make an elaborate meal for all of us kids. There was a corner store or a candy lady nearby where we would buy potato chips and cookies. So between that and what she made we had our afternoon meals. Dinner, now dinners were a lot more well rounded on holidays and Sunday’s. My immediate family has its roots in Mississippi and most of our food didn’t stray too far for the typical Southern cuisine. Looking back I know there were a lot of issues with the food culture, what we had access to and how that affected our lives. Almost every Aunt and Uncle on my Fathers side of the family has diabetes or high blood pressure. That’s just not a coincidence.

African American families disproportionately live in areas with poor food options. We also have a cultural tradition which includes VERY tasty but not always the most healthy style of cooking. However looking at back to our Southern and African roots our diets have drastically changed. Go to almost any predominately Black (or Latino) community in America and you will see plenty fast food restaurants, “corner stores” and MAYBE a full service grocery store. I have a habit of looking in other peoples carts in the grocery store (yea…I’m nosey) and I usually see more food from the inside aisles than the outside aisles.

People say “You are what you eat.” Well low-income people in urban areas often eat a lot of fast/fried/processed food and also consume high amounts of sugar. What does that make them? I say it makes them people experiencing food injustice. According to the White House and the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” Initiative, 1 in 3 American children are overweight or obese. The Office of Minority Health reported in 2007 that 4 out of 5 African American women are overweight or obese. For me it isn’t about aesthetics, it’s about living or dying. Not every person who meets the government criteria for being overweight is unhealthy. However the odds are against us and our children. Who knows someone (or is someone) who thinks chubby babies and children are just cute?

I’ll pose a couple more questions. Who’s dying of heart disease at higher rates than any other group in America? Who’s receiving the most diagnoses of high risk cancer than any other group in America? What group has the highest rates of diabetes?

Something is wrong here. I argue that food is political. Many choices we make about food aren’t entirely our own. Food is not grown and sourced the way it was even 50 years ago. Farms are fewer and larger. Our meat and dairy products come from fewer places. How we sweeten and flavor our food has even changed. Food lobbyists have a large presence on Capitol Hill. Whether its the corn industry or the beef industry, they are all in the ears of those who make legislative decisions about the food that ends up on your plate. Did you know that our government (hence our tax dollars) subsidized over $75 BILLION dollars to the corn industry between 1995 and 2009? Where does all that corn end up? On your plate in its various forms of course.

Everyone should have access to healthy and affordable food. Healthy food full of nutrients and good flavor should not just for those who can afford to shop at Whole Foods. Everyone should be able to learn what this means as well.

Just like any behavior how we eat and what we eat is learned. As I got older I started making more informed choices about my food. I also now noticed that my Mom buys different food and makes different food choices. So does a lot of my family. I stopped eating pork and beef in college. One time during a trip back home I learned that my cousins decided to do the same. But some habits die hard. Some habits refuse to die because of institutional barriers. Food justice is important to me and should be important to everyone who eats food in America. What ends up in your body isn’t JUST based on decisions of your own (unless you grow everything you eat), but it can become a more informed choice. Communities across the country are deciding to have more say in what they eat by starting community gardens, participating in food co-ops and demanding healthier choices in local grocery stores. Not all is lost, but there is still much to be gained.