On Food and Class: the Healthy Diet as Privilege

After reading an older post about the food that comes out of our kitchen, CF asked me a very insightful question:  “Why do you think that a vegan diet is so unusual in a trailer park?”

I took what CF said to mean why was I assuming that people who live in trailer parks don’t eat vegan diets?  To answer that I had to look at why I became a vegan and what factors allow me to do so in a healthy way.   I became a vegan for health reasons, but the factors that allow me to eat the way I do have a lot to do with social class, income, and education.  And so, here we are, about to dive into another reflection!

It is my belief that in this country a healthy diet is a privilege.  I don’t like it, and I think it’s ridiculous that healthy food isn’t more abundant, but that’s the way things appear to work around here.  If you have enough money, or the right kind of job, you get: health care, proper housing and education, and healthy food.

We’ve all seen the Dollar Menu commercials for McDonald’s, and we’ve all been tempted by the over-sized “snack” packages of chips in the checkout aisle for a mere $0.99!!  So it’s evident that bad food is cheap.  Really cheap.  So if you’re down and out, and it’s time to buy some food, are you going to spend the money to buy some nice organic greens and veggies, grains, and some tempeh?  Or are you going to buy the $1 burger that will fill you up ’till the next meal?  When money’s tight, the decision seems already made.

So the first reason I feel safe in assuming that most people in my neighborhood aren’t vegans is money.  (And I’m not exactly making it hand over fist myself, but I also don’t have kids…and many of my neighbors do.) If you search for it, there are lots of articles and reports (I’ve even heard some recently on NPR) about low-income neighborhoods only having convenience stores nearby, and not grocery stores where residents could buy fresh, healthy food. So it’s not just affordability; it’s also access. But that comes back to money again, because 1) people living in low-income neighborhoods can’t afford to travel to the grocery stores and 2) the grocery stores won’t come to those neighborhoods because they won’t make money. Case in point: the grocery store right behind my very own trailer court recently closed. They weren’t making enough money. I didn’t shop there because the prices were too high…but then, I can afford to drive into town for the big grocery stores.

The second reason I feel safe in assuming that most people around here aren’t vegans is education. And I don’t necessarily mean that the people around here don’t have educations. (And I certainly don’t mean that they are dumb.) Some may very well have been good students in school and may have gotten a high school diploma. Some might even have college degrees; I don’t want to make assumptions. BUT I’m guessing that many of them don’t have the luxury to spend time reading about nutrition, mulling over what they’ve read and how to apply it to their own diets, and then relearn how to think about their food and how to cook in order to accommodate this new way of thinking. I’m guessing that most of my neighbors are not educated in nutrition in the way that I have tried to educate myself. And perhaps some of them lack the critical thinking skills honed later in one’s education to begin to question what our nation has often been told about food and what’s “healthy.”

This sort of brings me to my other reason for thinking that many of my neighbors are not vegans: time. It takes time to learn about, adjust to, and apply all this new information about health and food. It takes time even to just decide if it’s right for one’s own lifestyle, body, and diet.

I’ve often said that I came to be a vegan because I currently have the luxury of a steady (and disposable) income, higher education, and time. In other words, I’m privileged. And even if I hadn’t decided being vegan was best for me and just decided to eat a really healthy (fresh, whole foods) diet that included animal products, those decisions, that access to food, and the food itself would still come from privilege. And that’s just sad. It makes me so sad that health comes from privilege. Shouldn’t we all be able to be healthy?

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About Cathy G Gilbert

I am veggie-loving, community college professor who lives, teaches, and writes in Central IL.
This entry was posted in Reflections. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to On Food and Class: the Healthy Diet as Privilege

  1. Stigma is not nice says:

    I agree with you on so many things in this post.

    I would also like to add that another factor can be family history. People tend to emulate what their parents did/do (even if they don’t mean to). My mother always read about health and nutrition (I have been a vegetarian, a localvore and am now in the traditional foods camp). I do the same and am continually learning. I have friends who’s parents fed them foods that came from a box or can all their lives and that is the only way they know how to feed their family now. It is generational.

    Mind you we are low income so it is often hard for me to put my education into action but I do my best. Right now we are looking at renting to own a double wide in a trailer park (which is what brought me here) and I am trying to decide if it will work for us. I am willing to bet if we do move there I will be the only person in the park fermenting veggies, joining a CSA (or gardening), rendering my own lard, making cheese/yogurt, and drying my own herbs and jerky 😉 No big deal, no matter where we live we are always the weird homeschooling hippie family.

    • Yes! Family history is a big part of it. I know that I was unable to really act on what I was learning until I was out of my parents home–because my father could not believe that I could get enough protein without eating meat 🙂

      Thanks for reading and good luck as you investigate joining the trailer court world!

  2. Julie Fraser says:

    Wow. Interesting post and response! I was also thinking about how years ago, meat was what showed you were upper class not veggies, potatoes and bread (all organic as I’m talking pre-chemicals). Back then, though, there wasn’t the highly processed junk food either.

    J

  3. Paula says:

    In one of Kathleen Norris’ books (Dakota), she talks about jello as a symbol of wealth in the history of that area. Maybe it applies to a lot of places. The rise of gelatinous desserts and salads came with the ability to afford a refrigerator . . . . and electricity. If you could produce a jello salad, you had made it, in a way. I sometimes wonder if that’s the explanation for my mother’s obsession with jello salads (she grew up in a huge family that was pretty poor) — sometimes at the expense of healthy vegetables. Of course, now everyone has a refrigerator, and jello, ever popular, is cheap. . . . . Don’t quite know where I’m going with this, but I ponder this illustration from time to time. And it’s so true, as a rule, the healthiest, freshest foods are more expensive. This conversation has brought up many good points in regard to privilege, access, education in regard to food & cooking, and habits.

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