Recently I was part of a conversation on Facebook about the concept of fat tax/junk food tax/whatever you want to call it. The current food being demonised is sugar, and this particular conversation was about a proposed sugar tax in New Zealand, but I’m pretty sure that wherever you are has had something similar in the not too distant past.
A lot of the conversation centred on how taxing any particular food is over-intervention by the government, however it ended up in the territory of possible ways to get people to eat “healthier”. As always, there’s a faint air of moralisation around even the most well meaning conversation about improving people’s general eating habits – the old binaries of fresh/processed, healthy/unhealthy, junk-fast/”real” are ever present, as though food is somehow either all good or all bad, which no food ever is. Foods have varying levels of usefulness/nutrition/substance to every person. Not to mention that food has absolutely no moral value at all. It is not good or bad, it is just food.
Repeatedly the suggestion was that we need to “educate” people about food, where it comes from and what it’s value is. The implication was that it was poor people in particular that need this education.
I believe that people already understand food. Let me give you an example.
As I walk to catch the train each morning to go to work, I pass a Dominos pizza franchise. The other day I noticed a poster in their window for a meat-lover pizza. The calorie count was in a font twice the size of the price of the actual pizza. A third of the page was taken up with the calorie count. It is deemed more important to tell people how many calories are in a pizza than the price of that pizza. Who actually thinks that anyone who is likely to buy a meat-lover pizza is either ignorant or cares about the calorie count? Either you’re buying it because it’s dirt cheap and will fill the bellies of your hungry family, or you just want a greasy pizza and don’t give a flying fuck about how many calories are in it. You could put the calories in big scary jaggedy font with flames coming out of it saying that you’ll go to hell for eating it, and people would still buy it, because they want it, or because they have no other option that suits their needs.
I really do have a problem with the whole “We need to educate people about food” thing. Particularly when it’s aimed at poor people, who are statistically the biggest consumers of fast/processed food. This is because fast/processed food is CHEAP. The attitude that poor people need to be educated about food reeks of classism and almost always comes from those with the privilege of being able to afford tertiary education.
Honestly, poor people know about food and it’s value, better than any affluent person ever will. As someone who has lived through extreme poverty, I can tell you, you know EVERY single iota about the thing you’re spending the tiny bit of money you have on. You spend your whole life bargaining against yourself for how to get the most filling, calorie loaded food that will last the longest for the least amount of money possible. Poor people aren’t ignorant, they’re poor. They’re not choosing fast food because they don’t know any better, they’re choosing it because it’s cheap, easy, filling and available.
Then there is the belief that fat people are ignorant about food, that we don’t know which foods are “good” for us and which are “bad” (again, using scare quotes because food has no moral value – it is neither good nor bad). I am a very fat woman. I can tell you the approximate calorie count of pretty much any food out there. I can also tell you how many Weight Watchers points it is, whether or not it is allowed on the Atkins diet, what carbs are in it, how many grams of fat, and in most cases, what it’s key ingredients are. I have been forcefully “educated” about food since I was about 5 years old, and I am now 42. I have spent decades calculating every little fact about food because I have spent decades dieting and with fucked up disordered eating habits. I bet I am not in the minority of fat people who have been forcefully “educated” about food their whole lives too.
Fat people are the least ignorant people about the nutritional information of food.
Poor people are the least ignorant people about the nutritional information about food.
Both groups of people (and often they intersect), have HAD to know this information out of necessity.
Want to help people eat more nutritious, fresh food? Make it cheap. Pay people a living wage. Make sure that they learn the skills needed to procure and prepare fresh foods, right from school level. Ensure that they have the time that it takes to actually procure and prepare fresh food. If you’ve worked a 16 hour day just to cover your rent and bills, you don’t have time to shop for prepare vegetables. You have kids you have hardly seen, who are hungry, and very little money to feed them, you need something quick, hot and filling available now.
Think poor people need to be aware of the conditions of production? HELL NO, they ARE the conditions of production. They’re the ones working split shifts in factories prepping frozen meals. They’re the ones working in fast food restaurants for minimum wage. They’re the ones working shitty jobs at weird hours to pay the bills. They’re the ones labouring on farms for less and less pay as the supermarkets cut back the price of produce on them. THEY KNOW.
Want to help change the way food is consumed? Legislate so that food processing companies have to pay a fair rate for produce. Legislate so that supermarkets have to pay a fair rate for produce. Legislate so that food producers have to pay their workers a fair living wage and employ them in reasonable conditions so that they can go home and shop and cook for their families.
The whole fresh/healthy food movement is rampant with patronising attitudes towards people who are the most aware of the problems with fast food, but with the least means to do anything to rectify it.