Saturday, December 4, 2010

Food and Class in America

I'm interested in the locavore food movement, and agree with the principles of the slow food movement: think about where your food comes from, and how both the food sources and those who grow and pick the food are treated.

Finding, buying, and/or growing the freshest seasonal foods, however, can be both expensive and time-consuming. Because it takes time and money to be a foodie, the locavore and related foodie movements are class movements as well. Newsweek's November 29 cover article, "Divided We Eat," by Lisa Miller, explores the class divisions that food can create.

"Food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say - social class," epidemiologist Adam Drewnowski told Miller. "It used to be clothing and fashion, but no longer, now that 'luxury' has become affordable and available to all." Since the cost of nutritious food is rising faster than the cost of unhealthy food, wrote Miller, the poor often can't afford to eat healthy food. Wealthier (and subsequently healthier) families can.

It's clear from some of the content in the Newsweek article that some people are far more concerned about the quality of what they eat each day than about what - or whether - others in their community eat. Eating locally, for example, might be both high-status and tasty, but it doesn't solve the fundamental problems of our flawed food system.

The legislation that expands the FDA's powers to inspect food that passed in the Senate this week, on the other hand, might bring about more profound changes. The new legislation would let the FDA recall food, better access records at places where food is produced, increase the frequency of inspections of food facilities, and inspect a wider range of imported foods, explained Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post ("Senate approves bill to require foodmakers to find ways to prevent contamination").

An overhaul of school lunch funding is also working its way through Congress now. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act would expand school lunch funding, increase the number of children who are eligible for the program, and encourage using local food sources for the lunches. The act would also encourage schools to create schoolyard gardens.

Class divisions have real consequences on people's lives. Analyses of health and life expectancy by neighborhood, such as one that a local county public health department conducted earlier this year, make it clear that where you can afford to live affects how long and how well you live. Health, wealth, and class are all related. Expanding access to safe and healthy food might help narrow the health gap between different classes, and perhaps budge some class divisions as well.

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