Let them Eat (big agriculture supermarket) Carrots!: Classism and Food Politics in Canada

Today’s daily bout of fail comes from The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s major daily newspapers. Margaret Wente is one of their top columnists and she almost never fails to make me exceptionally angry. If you’re a Canadian into progressive politics, you will almost undoubtedly have heard of her. She’s the one who said that women don’t blog (politics), that Canadian Aboriginals were “savages” before the white man came, that global warming and climate change are unproven claims, and a entire host of other similar, rather infuriating claims. Her Wednesday morning column was not particularly different from all of these others. It was based on inaccurate information, exaggerated claims and classism. Pure, simple, ragingly cruel classism. To illustrate this painful example of privilege, all one needs to do is read Wente’s very first line. It asks whether or not poor people should be allowed to eat the same food as rich people.

Let Them Eat Carrots! can be summed up as thus: good food is wasted on poor people who are silly and stupid. Sound harsh? Well, Wente isn’t much less blunt than I just was. Her argument centres on the problems she perceives arising out of a new trend of food distribution. In Ontario, some food activists are advocating that low income individuals be given vouchers that would be redeemable at local farmers’ markets. Others are suggesting that farms could donate their “subpar” produce (anything not deemed perfect/pretty enough to be sold) to food banks. According to Wente, this is ridiculous and an example of how the left wingers of Canada are going too far along their path of so-called social justice. Why, might you ask, is it a bad thing that fresh, local food be made available to some of the most vulnerable of our society? Wente states that farmers’ markets are overpriced, the grocery store is one of the greatest inventions of humankind, and poor people aren’t going to magically abandon their love of pop and chips because they are purposely making the choice to eat bad food.

Wente Myth #1: Locally grown food is expensive and lacking in any real benefits.

My first problem with Wente is a common concern that I have with her columns. The information she uses often seems sourced from angry commenters on the internet. I believe that Wente lives in Toronto, a city of which I do not have much experience with, however, I have shopped farmers’ markets in three different provinces and in both large and small cities. The common element among all of them was that the food was fresh, delicious and very cheap. In fact, I often shopped the markets because I couldn’t afford the prices at the mainstream grocery stores. I am sure there are specialty markets that exist that sell expensive designer organic food. However, most markets do not fit that description. Most markets are compilations of small producers who are often too small to sell through the large distributors. Sometimes they simply prefer this local approach.

Regardless, the markets I have been to have been friendlier, both economically and socially. Sometimes there is less selection than at your local supermarket, however, most of the time I found the variety at the markets was more interesting. Grocery stores have a tendency of letting produce sit so long that the benefit of having mangos all year round is rather diminished. Furthermore, very few of my grocery stores sell wild meats such as deer or bison. I cannot guarantee that their “green” chicken is humanely and traditionally raised. My grocery store never sells rhubarb, rarely stocks beets or turnip and fresh bannock is a foreign concept within its walls.

Farmers’ markets connect us with our communities. They get us outside, walking, talking, and interacting with other people. I used to love going to the market on Saturday mornings in my home town when I was a child. There were musicians and artists, sometimes even plays. I met other children while my mom visited with friends. We got to know the different sellers, most of who had sold at the market for years upon years. We were introduced to community farming initiatives (Gasp! Growing our own food?! Blasphemous!). It was a delightful morning spent gathering healthy food and inspiring healthy minds and communities.

Do I buy everything at my markets? Well, Canada isn’t known for its small scale rice production or tofu. I still use grocery stores, but I also use markets. I benefit from being able to shop at both.

Wente Myth #2: Supermarkets are the pinnacle of food distribution. Moving towards other methods of food distribution would be stupid.

The supermarket, to Wente, is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. You have all sorts of foods available all the time in an easy to get format. If you want to make dinner, all you need to do is head off to your closest grocery store and buy what you need regardless of whether it is summer or winter. There are endless healthy options. Truly, these stores are places of wonderment and amazement.

Except not all grocery stores are equal. Some have better food than others. Differing opening hours will affect different types of workers. Prices vary. Quality varies. Selection varies. Availability varies. Not every neighbourhood has a massive Loblaws.

Beyond all of these potential problems, Wente believes that modern agriculture is the reason as to why we can have such dense, healthy populations. Regardless of whether or not this is the case or whether or not organic, small scale productions could feed the world, it must be realised that our food system is fragile. It stretches around the globe and depends on continuous, uninterrupted links to maintain operation. Would it hurt for humanity to explore other methods of production? Our modern agriculture kills people all over the world. Pesticides poison human beings living too close to modern fields. Modern techniques introduced to areas without thought given to their ecological needs have destroyed the land and starved communities.

The fully stocked supermarket causes terrible consequences throughout the entire globe, in the developing world and in the industrialised communities the developed world chooses to ignore. What is so wrong about wanting to push for change? To try different techniques that are less invasive, less destructive and less deadly? My grandmother may not have been able to buy bananas every day in her grocery store, but she was indirectly responsible for less pain and suffering than I am guilty of. I have more choices, more options, but at what cost?

Wente Myth #3: Poor people choose bad food. Ergo, they are stupid and lazy.

This particular Wente myth had me most enraged. Choice is a fickle, difficult word because the constraints around individual choices are often forgotten. Why didn’t that single mother buy something better for her children than Kraft Dinner? Why does that poor looking person have soda in their grocery cart? She’s fat and unkempt and there isn’t a single fresh vegetable in her basket. RAGE! Rage against the inappropriate choices of other people! These are common “observations” made about people living in poverty, however, how much of a choice do they really have in regards to their food options? Below I have put together a short, inexhaustive list of why people need to shut up with their judgements and just learn to help their communities. Shame will never magically solve hunger and health issues anywhere in the world.

1. Education

Cooking is not an inherent talent. I really wish it was, but you have to learn. I am almost 24 years old and it was only within the past year that I have really started to learn how to cook. Sure, most people can feed themselves, but very few of the people I know regularly make a pot of soup from scratch. Or any recipe from the base ingredients. Or know what to do with half the vegetables and spices you can find at your local grocery store. Yet, to save money, low income people are told to cook from scratch! If they cook and make brilliantly healthy food from raw ingredients, all will be well in their lives.

Cooking, however, is a skill that has been largely cut out of our school programmes because we assume that students need more time to learn Math, English and Science. I’m an academic, so I can’t say that I disagree with the importance of traditional education, however, despite the fact that I could be a brilliant physicist or a witty journalist, I need to know how to feed myself. We also assume that children will learn how to cook at home, but parents are ever busier or may not even know how to cook themselves. Meals are often not prepared when children are around and are instead tossed in a crock pot in the morning or put together while the kid is at zer after-school programmes.

We also no longer truly understand nutrition. Magazines, news articles and television spots are constantly shouting out to us new and improved diets. You can’t eat carbs, fat or sugar. You should eat only cabbage except for the days that you should eat large amounts of beef. Drinking maple syrup cleanses you. Fruit juice is great. Fruit juice will kill your children. Building a nutritional recipe foundation when the world can’t even decide what is healthy anymore is an exceptionally difficult task.

If you have money, cooking can be a hobby. You have the ability to not worry about making errors or wasting supplies. You have the time to practice and experiment. If you are poor, you might have none of the above. You need food that is guaranteed to work, is quick and is cheap. Wasting food in failed experiments means less food for you and more hunger. A frozen pizza almost never fails. Neither does a box of KD. And both are cheap.

2. Access to Cooking Tools and Supplies

To be able to cook, you need the tools. This includes pots, pans, utensils, stoves, refrigerators, electricity, ingredients, water and a variety of other things. For your average middle class person in Canada, these items are just part of everyday life. If you need a new pot, you go out and buy one. If you need a spice, you buy a jar. If your stove breaks, you have it fixed.

If you are poor, you cannot guarantee you will have access to any of the above. When I was a teen, the electricity and gas were cut off at my house. How does one cook when one can’t warm anything up or keep anything cool? You get creative, but you certainly cannot make impressive healthy masterpieces for every meal on a throw-away charcoal BBQ for several months (as was my mother’s solution in this case). And we were lucky enough to have a place for a BBQ. What would we have done if we had lived in an apartment with no accessible yard? I have a friend who moved into an apartment without a stove or oven, and her fridge is mini-bar sized. How is she supposed to cook amazingly healthy meals when she can’t even afford to get a hot plate and all she has is a microwave? She can’t freeze healthy ingredients bought cheaply in the summer. She can barely fit a jug of milk and a head of broccoli in her fridge. What if you are renting a room and don’t have access to a kitchen? What do you do if you are homeless?

Being poor means that you might not have access to even the most basic elements needed for cooking. Sometimes frozen dinners are your only option. Sometimes you have to go out and buy cheap fast food because you have no place to cook and no place to store food. These are not choices; they necessary decisions one makes to avoid starvation.

3. Transportation

Another common suggestion given to low income people is that they should just price check and shop around for the best deals. This first assumes that you have the time to travel to grocery stores potentially on the opposite ends of your city. This also assumes that you have affordable transit. I tend to live in downtown cores since I can find cheap rentals that are close enough to my work/school that I do not have to buy transit passes. I rely on walking to keep my costs down. If I want to head out to a Wal-Mart or a bigger grocery store, I need to take the bus. A return ticket on the bus costs 6.50$ in my city. That could easily be a significant portion of someone’s grocery budget. What happens if more than one person needs to go (buying in bulk means carting heavy things back and you can’t just leave children at home alone)? Transportation becomes particularly important if you cannot access the basic necessities in your neighbourhood, yet many public transport systems are inadequate or too expensive to rely on. This effects food choices extensively and has nothing to do with bad choices on the part of the individual. Again, choices are constrained by our environments and our economic power as individuals. I want to save money by buying cheaper groceries, but it costs too much and can take up hours of my time just to do so. The cost-benefit analysis can easily tilt towards making due with whatever food is available nearby and this is a rational choice. However, it’s a choice that people shouldn’t have to make.

4. Time

Even if you do know how to cook, you might simply not have the time or energy to spend on a meal. Often the counter to this is that everyone can throw something together quickly and easily. Sandwiches, basic pastas, eggs. Many foods are simple.

However, I have worked the type of job that grinds you to the absolute ground. The type that has you running for weeks in a row with no days off and erratic hours. Sometimes you can barely get home, let alone make a meal or shop for ingredients. I ate a lot of microwaveable food that year because I was too exhausted to consider anything else. And unfortunately for me, the food made me even more ill and weak, leading to a continuing loop of exhaustion. I was young and I didn’t have kids. What if you add children into the picture? Spouses? Elders that you are caring for? Food allergies and other special nutritional needs? What if you are disabled? What if you are ill? Not everyone has the same capacity as an able-bodied, financially well-off individual.

5. Costs

Cooking requires ingredients. If you are strapped for cash, do you buy twenty dollars of spices (that would be about 3 ½ jars of spice at my neighbourhood supermarket), or twenty dollars of substantial food? In order to cook, you need all the basics. However, buying all the basics at once can be pricy. Building up your pantry can take time. Not all ingredients are non-perishable. Fresh fruits, vegetables and meats can cost an extraordinary amount of money. Even frozen and canned foods are increasing in price year by year. What might seem like a cheap meal requires that a person have built up the necessary kitchen capacity before it can actually be judged as cheap.

6. Sacrifice

There is a very common attitude that low income people need to be saints of deprivation. They must buy only the minimum amount of food that they need to survive and to hell with all treats or luxury items. If they buy pop or chips, they are immoral, weak, uneducated or just plain stupid. They should be shunned and guilted into buying good, cheap, essential food. Tasteless food, uncreative food, food that is meant purely for fuel.

If you live in poverty, every cent you make should go towards bringing yourself up to an acceptable income level so that you can be “normal”. If middle class office workers can skip their take-out lunches and save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a year in order to take a vacation to some tropical beach, why can’t a minimum wage worker do the same and transform their below poverty income into a middle class one? It is hard not to miss how the logic fails with this comparison.

While saving and being thrifty are important skills and goals when one is working with a limited income, the occasional treat is perfectly acceptable. Poor people are allowed to eat a wide range of food. Rich people don’t have a monopoly on mangos and artisan cheese. The purchase of an occasional steak will not cause a low income person to personally cause tax contributions to increase. Furthermore, amazingly enough, poor people can budget and could very well be buying within their means when they are being judged in grocery store line-ups.

Besides, what makes it any more moral for someone with a middle class income to drop money on a spontaneous meal out, a new piece of clothing, drinks on the weekend, or any other purchase that isn’t going towards their direct survival? Why is it that individuals living in poverty must be monitored, judged and kept from daring to enjoy their lives through even the simplest thing as a chocolate bar? Why should poor people eat different food than rich people?

Wrapping Things Up

In conclusion, Margaret Wente, your article was atrocious. Will trying to encourage local food sourcing solve the problems of hunger in Canada? No, not by a long shot. Will it harm people who are poor? Access to more food that is cheaper and often healthier doesn’t seem to be a losing combo to me. Nor does empowering communities to work together to improve their lives as a whole. No one single change will ever help us solve poverty in Canada, but small steps will bring us ever closer to a more just, equitable society.

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2 thoughts on “Let them Eat (big agriculture supermarket) Carrots!: Classism and Food Politics in Canada

  1. Ah, Margaret Wente, so lovely to hear from you once again.

    I think that there is definitely a very popular trend of blaming obese people for being too lazy and stupid to take care of themselves. It doesn’t surprise me that AND THEY ARE POOR can now join this illustrious lexicon.

    I think supermarkets are a great convenience, but there’s certainly some questions we have to be asking about producing that much processed food on such a massive scale. Obesity epidemic aside, there’s pollution and waste concerns, there’s genetic modification of our food, and OH YES, food related health scares (remember listeriosis, Canada?)

    Tl;dr: Yes, Wente, encouraging people to buy locally at their farmer’s market would not be beneficial at all. Thank you.

    • Yes! There is nothing wrong with celebrating human achievements, except nothing can be entirely positive. Supermarkets, though convenient, are equally as problematic in many ways, as you state. And yet somehow change is SCARY and WRONG. Mostly scary, and why would be voluntarily undertake scary things? (Or inconvenient things…)

      I wonder what good old Wente has to say for community farming or CSAs…

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