Amid all of the celebrations of the holiday season it sure is easy to overindulge and to gain those few–oh excuse me for a moment–my dilemma is tugging at my sleeve. Sorry, it seems to be interrupting me to say something about property. Property? Puberty? You know, despite its omnipresence in my life, I don’t even understand my own dilemma sometimes.
It is like when my son was little and (prematurely) learning to talk, he would get so frustrated when his word was misinterpreted. When I would repeat the statement to make sure I had heard it correctly, like, “You want some bed?”, he could only surmise that his mother must be severely limited and he would implore the heavens for some relief. Who on earth he would beg says, “I want some bed”, and even if they did, why would they say that when standing in the kitchen after nap time? What part of “bread” does my mother not get?
My dilemma is reacting the same way now. So, with a deep breath, I will take its sweet little face between my hands and ask it to calm down and try to tell me again. Oh, I get it now. Poverty. My dilemma is asking me if I could please not write about holiday eating, but instead about poverty.
Oh, poverty. “Right now?” I ask, in the midst of this season of tinsel-tinged holiday cheer? Yes, it replies. Write about it on this darkest day of the year when we most crave the light to illuminate all that should be revealed. “Can you just try?” it says in that adorable little voice. “About poverty and nutrition?”
What do I know about this topic and what credentials do I have to write about it? Well, I do work in a Federally Qualified Health Center that serves the economically poor–the uninsured, the underinsured, those who sit at the bottom of the economic ladder, those lacking in many of the resources that others easily possess. And, I do educate on nutrition. Yet, I am still nervous to presume that I have the right to tread here. My own perceptions are actually a bit blurry.
Though every day I am deeply privileged to have my clients share the stories–somewhat intimate–of some parts of the realities of their lives, I cannot claim to really know what their impoverishment feels like. And, though yes, the majority of my clients are poor, some poorer than others–they all mainly go to sleep with some roof over their head and some food in their tummies. Furthermore, they possess a richness that nourishes and inspires me as well–whether it be of spirit, honesty, feeling, fortitude, resilience, wisdom, story-telling, family and community connection, self-reflection, humility or appreciation.
Yet, I am still perplexed, so I look back at my dilemma and ask, “But, don’t people already know about poverty and nutrition? That it is complicated but it has something to do with the cheapest (hunger-slaying) food often being the least healthy; the battered economy; governmental food subsidies; food deserts; reliance on convenience and processed foods; income inequality; the history of supplemental and commodity food programs and the lack of a just and sustainable food system?
And, haven’t I already discussed things like food addiction and the impact of excessive sugar-sweetened beverages on emotional and physical health? And, I probably have already ranted about even bigger, more amorphous issues like lack of breastfeeding, TV advertising, health disparities, a stress-based society and may I now even add environmental toxins and gun violence which disproportionately affects our poorer neighborhoods–and how I believe all these things affect our bodies and who we are as eaters.
My dilemma nods and whispers, “Well, is there anything else you’d like to add?” I sigh. Maybe it is on to something. There are many disparaging assumptions made regarding how the poor feed themselves. Maybe what I can do for today is to shed some light on how poverty in modern-day America infringes upon the hunting, gathering, and metabolic fundamentals required for normal human nutrition–a process that has become quite enigmatic for many, but more profoundly for those who must often do with very limited resources. In the daily conversations that I have about this elusive, ill-defined quest for proper eating–oft imagined as being as simple to prescribe as popping a pill–I am perpetually filtering many realities that are probably rather obscure.
So, here it is. Most of my clients would like to eat better. They would–but there are numerous hindrances. Many are tired. Very tired. Those who work, often work very exhausting types of jobs. Many of them–the home health aides, the certified nursing assistants, the truck drivers, the cleaners, the warehouse stockers, and even the retail workers–work variable hours, often with overnight shifts which distress the natural circadian rhythms and thereby the sleep and eating patterns. Those who don’t work are often depressed or in chronic pain. Food provides easy relief. They live in neighborhoods where people get shot and murdered. They forget how to use and move their bodies. Many over their lifetimes have cared for so many others that self-care is just an amusing oxymoron. Often, just the physical requirements that cooking entails become difficult.
Additionally, when money is tight for food, so commonly it is for all the things associated with food preparation and eating. This includes appliances like stoves, ovens, dishwashers, refrigerators, and freezers–and even the kitchen table and chairs. Some of my clients live in accommodations where not all of these are provided or where they are not properly working. Some only have a microwave to cook their food. Some live in settings where they have to share a kitchen with random roommates. Some people keep food in their bedrooms to prevent others from eating it. Those who live in group programs have no control over the type of food that is provided.
And, then there are the even smaller things like a set of good knives, measuring cups and spoons, pots and pans, a blender, a cutting board, a steamer or a food processor. For many a modern cook, one could not imagine even basic food preparation without most of these accouterments, if not even more. Yet, for some, these are downright luxuries. Just recently, I did a display on winter squashes to promote these nutritionally blessed, fiber-dense and delicious denizens of the food kingdom–but even so, I was cognizant that unless one buys them pre-cut and frozen these pretty gourds demand a whack of a proper, well-sharpened knife to reveal their inner gifts.
Each person has their own circumstances. Though I must serve my clients quickly and effectively I have to obtain some information before I venture in with suggestions. I cannot assess for all of the above. I must pry for information with the utmost gentleness and respect to get a quick sense of where we are starting from. Depending on the person, sometimes it is obvious, sometimes not. The foods that are now commonly touted to be required for a healthy diet, I sometimes must ask permission to utter. I say things like olive oil, brown rice, walnuts, almond milk, and on a good day, quinoa, preceded by “may I?” and followed by “thank-you.” What might seem like a molehill of a price differential could quite truly be a mountain.
Thankfully, there is usually space for an appropriate conversation about food and eating when the context is understood and appreciated. And, fortunately too, the realm of health-giving foods contains some low-cost and readily available options. My clients are glad to be reminded of them. Usually, they learned of them from their grandmothers as well. But, most importantly is when that light goes on that says that they are worthy of nourishing themselves in the best way that they possibly can. That they matter. Then this abstract matter of nutrition begins to make some sense.
So, I guess, my main observation is that bottom line, despite our economic differences, we are foremost eaters–doing the best we can with what we know and what we have at the moment. And, that somewhere, somehow, it is always about love. I look back at my dilemma for some confirmation. Oh well. It has fallen fast asleep.
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Read below on the new My Plate Invitational
In health, Elyn
My Plate: In honor of the New Year, I invite you to submit a photo of your own beautiful plate to be placed in the rotation along with the My Plate Haikus. My Plate (your plates) will offer a prettier and more personal representation of the MyPlate put forth by the USDA as a model of how Americans should feed themselves–which replaced the MyPyramid. I can’t wait to see your plate. It can portray whatever nourishment, pleasant eating, or mealtime means to you. It can contain a meal you have prepared or been lovingly served, a depiction of feeding, or just some beautiful dishware. My Plate Haikus always welcome too.
You may include it in a comment or submit to email@example.com/Subject Line: My Plate Photo