Have you heard? It’s Blog Action Day! The day when bloggers all over the world come together to address a common theme dealing with a global issue. This year, the topic is poverty.
I don’t think it’s a big secret how poverty affects our health. Particularly with the economy in its current state, so many of us are struggling to get the bills paid and have anything left over, and as most of us know, eating healthy is expensive.
There are a few truisms that most people who have been on the weight-loss train for very long know. Processed foods are, generally speaking, bad; trans fats, HFCS, and preservatives are big no-nos; the best things for you are fresh fruits and veggies and lots of water. These are pretty much true no matter what plan you’re doing, with the possible exception of Atkins. Even Atkins, though, revised his plan to include more fruits and veggies.
Unfortunately, the cheap stuff is processed. It’s full of all the things we’re supposed to avoid, and very few of the things we need. I’m very blessed, at this point in my life, to be able to afford the fresh produce, lean meats, and whole grains that I need to eat healthy and clean. I can afford to go to the drugstore and get the vitamins and supplements that I know will keep my body ticking over and working like a well-oiled machine (oiled with fish oil, of course).
It wasn’t always that way. In fact, only in the past few years has it been that way. Let me tell you a story.
When I was 19, I became a single mom. At that point, I was just out of high school and attending a junior college. I lived at home, with mom, because my dad had passed away a few years previously. Mom, at that time, had nearly no marketable job skills. So we were a half-income family, at that point. I eventually left school and went to work making what I know now was a pathetic excuse for an income, but at the time seemed amazing. We could pay the rent! Sometimes, we could even afford to buy propane in the winter – that was our method of heating. When we couldn’t…well, the baby slept with me those nights. It gets very cold in Oklahoma in the winter.
We spent every dime of my income and mom’s (before she broke her ankle and couldn’t work) on the rent, utilities, and gas for the car. I worked an hour away from home, so gas was a big one, even when it was cheap. Food was the last item on the list, and it was whatever we could afford with what we had. If it hadn’t been for food stamps, that would have been nothing. As it was, it was typically Hamburger Helper (if we could afford the hamburger, that is, and we couldn’t always – Hamburger Helper without hamburger sucks, BTW), ramen noodles, and lots of beans and potatoes. I don’t recall ever entering the produce section of the store. Thanks to WIC (don’t know about WIC? Check it out here) we had milk, eggs, and cheese, and cereal. Yeah. Cereal. Sugary, processed cereal. Cause that’s what kids need. (Note – WIC’s food list has changed enormously since then – bear in mind this was 16 years ago.)
The other problem was that I was working full time and, for a while, going to school (until I started working too many hours to have time for that). So even if by some miracle we’d been able to afford to buy healthy stuff, we didn’t have time to prepare it. Mom worked full time too, making nearly nothing, but it was enough to swing the balance. So who was going to cook all this lovely whole food? When we were home, she was exhausted from being on her feet all day cleaning cabins, and I was dealing with the demands of a very energetic (and, thank God, very resilient) baby/toddler. I was trying to spend time with her and be part of her life despite being away from her nearly all day and night. I wasn’t spending time in the kitchen. I was also trying to do my part to keep the place livable, because honestly how fair is it for Mom to half-kill herself all day and then come home and pick up after me and my child?
Vitamins? Forget it. Talk about a luxury! Water? Sure, I drank water – that was one thing that, since we had a well, was free.
Later, things got a little easier, even though Mom was disabled, (remember that broken ankle? Turns out a lot of hospitals don’t provide very good care when you don’t have insurance and it healed….well, I could say “badly”, but that’s a pale reflection of the truth) because I was making a little better money, and something called “child support” entered our lives. Not a lot better, but a little. Enough that we didn’t have food stamps any more. Man, was that an improvement! (I was glad to be off them, because even at 19 I had more pride than was good for me, but it actually made our situation worse.) But thanks to the child support, I could now afford things like soda, cheetohs and canned ravioli. Wow, healthy. And expensive by our standards – but still a lot cheaper than produce.
Oh, and while we’re at it – what did I feed my child? I’m so glad you asked! Why, the aforementioned sugary cereal, cheetohs, and ramen noodles, of course! Plenty of healthy sugar, salt and empty carbs. Yum, yum! Oh, come on, don’t look at me like that. I got her fruit roll-ups and gummy snacks, too – that’s healthy, right?
[I know, I’m getting a little bitchy. That’s because I hate to remember that. I know for a fact that my elder daughter’s horrible food habits now are a direct and immediate result of what she learned to eat then. And looking back, I know that I probably could have found a way to feed her better, even within our nonexistent budget. I’m wallowing a bit in mommy-guilt here, so I’ll need a moment.]
And that’s where education comes in. I wish to God someone had sat me down and shown me an illustration of exactly what these things were doing to her body. I wish that I had been taught, preferably during pregnancy if not before, about the effects of these things on a child’s development. Sure, some of it nobody knew then – but some of it we did. But while there are assistance programs, and the government does make sure you have access to some food, they’re not doing a lot to educate you about what food you should be eating.
So there’s a sort of three-pronged problem, there. No money to buy the healthy stuff, no time (when you’re living hand-to-mouth) to prepare it, and no real understanding of what you should be eating, even if you can solve the first two issues. (Oh, and let’s not forget that most people who are living this way are so exhausted and emotionally broken by their lives that they don’t really think much about their health. If they’re healthy enough to work, that’s all they have the energy to care about.)
How do you fix this? I wish I had the answer. I do have suggestions, but I can’t tell you if they’re sufficient or even practicable.
First, we need to educate people, and we need to do a better job of it. This food group/food pyramid crap isn’t even beginning to cut the mustard. And it shouldn’t be limited to kids in schools. Recipients of federal or state aid need to be provided with educational tools to help them make the most of that aid. They need to be taught that it does make a difference far beyond your weight – because honestly, when you’re struggling to keep a roof over your head – forget about clothing, you’re just hoping for hand-me-downs – the last thing you’re thinking of is the circumference of your thighs.
Federal and state aid programs need to be more geared toward healthy foods. I don’t know that there’s a lot you can do to make them easier and quicker to prepare, unfortunately, but for God’s sake, can we not arrange for produce vouchers? Can we not specify whole-grain breads on food lists? Can we not make vitamins part of the list? (They may be, by now, I’m not sure. If so, scratch that one.)
And I’ll tell you another thing that scares me. At the last debate, both candidates were talking about cutting entitlement programs, including (of course) Medicaid and other low-income assistance. I do understand the need to cut spending. I do understand that there are things that will have to change. But I was horrified and angered to hear McCain say “freeze spending across the board (including and especially entitlement programs) except for critical things like defense spending.”
Sending our troops overseas to die protecting foreign oil interests is critical. Keeping our people alive and healthy is not.
That sort of says it all. I don’t know what you do with that. Clearly, taking care of our people isn’t going to start at the top, so I guess it’s going to have to start at the bottom, with us. And really, isn’t that how it’s been all along?
So here’s my suggestion for anyone reading this: Today, make some contribution, however small. Find a local food pantry and make a donation, and make it healthy. Since we normally have to stick to non-perishables, donate whole wheat flour instead of white. Donate low-sodium or salt-free canned vegetables, and low-sugar canned fruit. It’s not as good as fresh, but it’s better than the standard version. Donate things that aren’t cheap. Yeah, it’s going to be a few dollars out of your own pocket, but you can afford it better than the people who are turning to that food pantry because they have no other choice.
While you’re at it, see if you have a place locally that does something like this. If so, support it. Think about giving money, instead of just leftover canned foods. Think about donating time, if you have it. For instance, do you know a single mom who’s trying to take better care of herself? Could you maybe offer to babysit while she walks in the evenings? I’m not asking anyone to undergo hardship, but do what you can. And yeah, I’m talking to myself here, as much as anyone else.
I’m not rich, but I’m a lot better off than I used to be, and God knows I remember what it was like. So, as Edward Everett Hale said:
I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
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