I began watching Michael Pollan’s Cooked series on Netflix this week. The photography and videography from different locations around the globe is beautiful and inspiring. Pollan explores our connections to food and cooking as well as the earliest origins of cooking from an anthropological perspective.
In one episode, Pollan claims that when we make our own food, we eat healthier. The food industry makes tasty, highly processed food accessible and cheaper for everyone but breaks our connection to the origins of its ingredients and preparation.
This led me to think about food privilege. Who has time to make their own food? It’s a complicated question. Generally, people of means have the time to cook — really cook (not heat up a frozen dinner) — or hire someone to cook for them at home or in a restaurant.
What does this mean for people with the means and the time to cook? Unless people still live close to the sources of food, it means people eat highly-processed foods designed by the corporate food industry to maximize caloric value on the cheap.
Think about the average grocery store. The cheaper, highly processed, less nutritious foods are on the shelves in the middle aisles of the store (crackers, cookies, cereals, sugary drinks). The nutritious whole foods like fresh produce, meat and dairy at the outer edges of a grocery cost more than the products in the center of the store. The cost can be measured in money spent and in our health over a lifetime.
In urban areas, food deserts in poorer neighborhoods limit access to nutritious whole foods. Wealthier neighborhoods attract groceries and restaurants which offer higher quality food because the people in these neighborhoods can afford those foods. This is true in Memphis. Where are the best and brightest of grocers opening stores in Memphis in the last ten years? In the wealthy Poplar Avenue corridor which stretches from downtown to Collierville in Shelby County. Convenience stores and fast food restaurants remain the closest food options for residents in poorer Memphis neighborhoods.
Michael Pollan asserts in Cooked that most people cannot afford the health problems that cheap, highly processed foods cause. Processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt which corporations engineer to become addictive lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. These foods and their diseases are crippling people over a lifetime starting with childhood.
Pollan suggests that we can take back control of our lives and our health by spending more time in the kitchen to prepare the foods we eat. I get it. I believe it. Cooking is one of the most joyful activities in my life. Cooking has become a creative hobby which relaxes me. I also enjoy the social connections of cooking for friends and family. Cooking my own food is healthy for my body and mind. But I also acknowledge that I have the privilege to live this way. I can afford to live this way. I am able to make the time to cook for myself and my family. Not everyone can. Income isn’t the only barrier. Working parents who make enough money to provide for their families may not have the time cook for their children. It’s hard to compete with convenience foods available to our children and families and much of it can be delivered to our doorsteps.
Pollan isn’t the first to explore the social, economic and health consequences of our relationship with food. Confronting these issues is risky. Jamie Oliver, a chef and food activist in Great Britain and elsewhere, met resistance when advocating for healthier food options for students in schools. Parents began delivering orders of junk fast food to their children and other students at a school serving Oliver’s healthier menu options saying
Theyre not even allowed out at lunchtimes to buy something they can enjoy. Food is cheaper and better at the local takeaways.
The draw of cheap food designed to wire your taste buds to more of the same is hard to resist. Oliver didn’t do himself any favors when he demonized parents for the food decisions of their children.Oliver also drew heated criticism for bashing the food choices of some of Britain’s poorest families in a radio interview about a new show when he referenced a:
“mum and kids eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive TV. It just didn’t weigh up.”
Jack Monroe indicted Oliver for his insensitivity to the realities of poverty:
Jamie’s stint on the television series Ministry of Food does not qualify him to talk about poverty. He is a poverty tourist turned self-appointed tour guide, and his comments are not only out of touch but support dangerous and damaging myths that “poor people are only poor because they spend their money on the wrong things”, rather than constrained by time, equipment, knowledge, or practicalities.
With the best intentions Jamie Oliver recognized and identified real problems with food infrastructure, but committed terrible blunders in trying to address those problems. The system for growing, raising, distributing and preparing food didn’t evolve overnight. Each generation since the mid-20th C. has become more dependent on packaged and prepared foods which are cheaper and make us sick. Through no fault of their own, whole generations of children (some living in poverty, some not) missed education at home or at school on how to prepare nutritious food in their own kitchens. Each generation is losing connections to food and the labor required to cook food. A solution to this problem must be multi-faceted and pursued without judgement of people who stand to benefit from change.
Systemic changes to our food infrastructure that increase options for good health and nutrition are needed, but what can individuals do in the meantime?
I return to Pollan’s statement. We eat healthier when we make our own food. Simple enough for me to achieve if I choose. But what about the folks who work 2-3 jobs with no time to cook, the folks who cannot afford to maintain an equipped kitchen, the folks who live on a fixed income and cannot afford costly and unprocessed meat and produce, the folks who live in food deserts with limited access to nutritious whole foods, or the folks who lack the basic knowledge of cooking?
Not everyone enjoys the privilege of cooking in the kitchen for themselves and their families.
Employers must offer full time living wages to their employees so they can afford to cook, learn to cook and make time to cook. Community leaders must partner with grocers to build and expand existing stores to increase access to nutritious food options in food deserts. The federal government must re-evaluate grain and other food subsidies for farmers to ensure that our country produces affordable nutritious foods which promote good health. We may also benefit from requiring home economics classes in public schools to ensure everyone learns the basics of cooking for themselves. Such interventions may re-establish the social connections that bring us together in the kitchen and at the dinner table and ultimately give us life itself.