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Social Justice

Food insecurity and narratives of “health”

Updated April 5, 2023
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A few months ago, a friend I’ve made on TikTok messaged me about how difficult it is to do intuitive eating when you’re food insecure. To protect her identity, I’ll call her Anna. She lives in “a small community of wonderful humans” in Alberta. With a gobsmacking 20% of the population facing food insecurity, Anna lives in the province that is both the richest and the most food insecure.

Anna’s entire community, she writes, has significant barriers to accessing food. Even back at the end of August, when she first discussed this with me, “a softball size head of limp iceberg lettuce [was] $8.” I didn’t have the heart to ask her what the price was up to now. “No one can survive like that, and, as a result, many of us (in this disgustingly wealthy province), HAVE to skip meals. This anxiety drives binges and can be a serious [disordered eating] trigger for so many people.”

Reading Anna’s notes was a gut punch to someone like me who preaches intuitive eating, a practice that is literally impossible without the psychological security of a fridge full of food that can be accessed any time. How can you develop a relaxed relationship with eating when you’re not sure where your next meal is coming from? Or when you feel like you have to hoard what you have? When food restriction is built in to the fabric of your life, the conditions for bingeing are right there alongside you, too. (There’s a bitter joke in here somewhere that I can’t quite tease out—something along the lines of “preoccupation with food: is it the poverty or is it the eating disorder? You be the judge!”)

She continued:

“The gap between the haves and the have-nots is getting wider every day… My situation is, by no means, unique. I have multiple university degrees, in a stable, long term relationship with someone who works incredibly hard. Neither of us have any family to “help” us, and, quite often we have been forced to choose between food – i have dietary needs that must be met for me to function, which means that I can’t eat what is included in the food bank hampers. I can’t afford a gym membership, or even a membership to the local rec centre, and I can’t work, or the government will stop providing me the $900 that they have decided should be sufficient for me to live off of per month for 100% of my expenses & I get more than most. So, unlike the depression years, I don’t even have rations to rely on.

Personal account from “Anna”

Anna’s point here is about this thing we call “health,” something we often talk about as though it is a steady state of being we can simply arrive at through “eating right” and exercise.” Sometimes we pay lip service to the social determinants of health—things like housing, social bonds, employment, and yes, food insecurity. But all too often, “health” is characterized as something that is entirely in control of an individual person (hello to the entirety of the popular discourse about fat bodies). So what is it that any reasonable person could counsel Anna on about her health? What are the variables that are actually within her control?

Which brings us to The Discourse about food prices and access. The worst aspects of the mainstream coverage around food security includes well-intentioned but patronizing advice about all the wonderful things you can do with a bag of cheap-ass lentils. The latest in this genre of articles was this annoying-ass one on the CBC website from last week, a piece which has the obligatory “you can get your protein from beans or eggs” paragraphs tacked on towards the end. That shit chaps my hide because it reveals such an ignorance about the ways people relate to their food. Legumes and eggs are eaten in countless countries around the world; people know they’re cheap and versatile. Lack of awareness is not an issue. Rather, it’s that when people get to the point where they can’t afford to buy meat, the question isn’t entirely “well, what am I going to eat?” (although it is partly that, obviously). It’s also “what am I going to eat that’s tasty?” and “this situation makes me so anxious, what can I eat that would be comforting?” and “what are my kids going to not reject?”

Well, you know what’s fuckin’ tasty, comforting and kids don’t often reject? Processed food. But of course, OOOOH PROCESSED FOOD IS THE DEVIL AWOOOOGA. Honestly, positioning processed food as the opposite of “healthy” food is one of the biggest hills I am prepared to die on. Some nights, I prepare a dinner entirely comprised of processed food, and it’s awesome. Tonight it was spaghetti (processed wheat) and sauce from a jar (tomatoes and shit processed in a factory). The other night, it was squash ravioli from Costco (no doubt crafted by a Kirkland Signature Robot), breaded vegetarian “chicken” nuggets (muy, muy processed), and a bag of salad with a processed packet of croutons and dressing. It was glorious. Everything slid out easily from their packages and were assembled in no more than 10 minutes. What a joy and a privilege to be able to access tasty, nutritious, and yes, processed food, to feed my family.

But seriously, societal-level hypervigilance around “good” food versus “bad” food? That shit doesn’t serve anyone’s health.

The other reason why that CBC piece bugged me is because it kept conflating a lack of access to food with a lack of access to “healthy” food. Well, which is it? Are the negative health outcomes that stem from food insecurity about the quality of the food that’s accessed, or about the (lack of) volume? Or are they about the stress (“allostatic load,” to be fancy) associated with it, or some other variable? 

Before talking to Anna about the issue, I would have said that, in the context of food insecurity, “healthy” food is the food that you can actually get your hands on. Isn’t it the case that having any food at all, when you’re food insecure, is healthy, given that access to any food will keep you alive—which is the minimum requirement for health? For example, I’m sure an apple has a higher nutritional profile than a plastic cup of applesauce, but on the other hand, the applesauce is going to last longer on the shelf of a food bank, and it’s ultimately going to offer the person eating it some fibre and fuel.

Then again, as Anna said, what’s available at the food bank actually doesn’t support her physical needs. So maybe this perspective itself is weak, and too reliant on a “beggars can’t be choosers” attitude, which I actually don’t want to adopt. Of course people who are food insecure are as entitled to be picky as anyone who isn’t food insecure. And when you’re getting your food from a place where you don’t have much say over what you receive, maybe it becomes even more important to exercise the autonomy that you do have and reject food that just doesn’t support your individual health, or make you feel good. I’m just wary of food insecurity discourse that goes down the slippery slope from “food deserts shouldn’t exist” to “people living in poverty harm their own health by buying processed food at the dollar store” to “individual actors are to blame for their individual health.” 

For context: although the economic upheaval of the 1970s was tough on my family, and we faced a couple of financially sketchy years here and there, I was not raised in a food insecure environment. More years than not were spent in solid middle class privilege, and although there were a lot of material things that I wanted and never got, I never had to go to bed hungry.

So that’s why I’d like to leave the last words of this essay with Anna:

People our age are choosing “van life”, simply so that they can eat. I’d be lying if I said that we haven’t given it a considerable amount of thought. I gave SERIOUS consideration to living in a tent at a “free campground”, despite how dangerous- mentally, emotionally, physically, etc etc. – it would be for no other reason than, at least I could afford to eat, which would allow me to take the meds I need to survive without getting sick to my stomach, which would let me actually sleep, which would dramatically improve my mental & physical health….. see what I mean?? Chronic illness is only increasing (Long Covid on top of everything else), mental health issues & eating disorders are on the rise. Cost of living is becoming unmanageable. The cost of housing, assuming that you can find somewhere, is unmanageable for “dual income, no kid” families.

The cycle is, literally, impossible to exit.”

Personal account from anna