The Privilege of Clean Eating

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This is my garden. It’s a wild hodgepodge of plants; there are no orderly rows here. Perennial herbs and berries vie for space with annuals like lettuce, snow peas and, always, kale.

I love gardening. And I love cooking. So when I wrote up a short list of recommendations for helping to fix our dysfunctional food system at the end of my debut novel, When We Vanished, it was only natural that “grow your own food” and “learn to cook” topped the list.

I felt it was important to include these, because they are great ways to disentangle oneself from our industrial food system. And while our individual actions may not feel like they are making a significant impact, they can become powerful collectively.

But That’s Not the Whole Story…

However! I also recognize that there are larger forces at play here. Systemic issues profoundly impact the choices available to us. It’s one thing for me, a white woman who owns land and has a steady income, to extoll the benefits of home cooking and growing one’s own food. But that advice may ring hollow to the many, many people who don’t have the same privileges.

This is why I also included a plug for getting involved with groups that address these structural problems: nonprofits, food justice organizations, school food programs, food banks. Those of us who do have the privilege of being able to choose ethically sourced food should do our part to remove barriers so that others can do the same.

Because, in cultural traditions the world over, growing and cooking food can be among life’s most joyful experiences. Food binds us together, builds community, brings comfort. And yet… much of our food culture in the U.S. is bland and lifeless and super-processed. We’ve been led to believe that cooking is too much work, that food is nothing more than a collection of nutrients. This is the mindset I wanted to push back against.

But none of this occurs in a vacuum; it’s a much more complex issue than it may seem on the surface. So, in this post, I want to delve a little deeper into the way that food choices intersect with privilege (especially white privilege, but economic privilege as well).

Eating Healthy is Easy! (Except When It’s Not.)

When I was training to be a dietitian, the conventional wisdom was that it’s easy to eat healthy on a budget. All you have to do is buy in bulk, buy in season (from farmer’s markets when you can!), avoid eating out, etc. And, bonus! If you’re cooking mostly at home, it’s much easier to eat “clean” – a style of eating that focuses on fresh, whole ingredients and steers clear of the unnecessary additives found in processed foods.

I carried out that advice in my own life. There was a long stretch of years when we had two young children and had to eke out a living in an expensive city on an annual combined salary of less than $40K per year.

We worked hard to feed our children well in spite of our tiny food budget. We couldn’t shop at the co-op because it was too expensive, so settled for stocking up on staples at our local Safeway and nearby discount grocers. We’d been vegan for years, so fortunately didn’t have to purchase meat, fish, poultry or dairy, all of which are high-ticket items to source ethically. Though we didn’t have the cash flow to stock up on bulk items at Costco, we’d occasionally shop at restaurant supply stores for big bags of oats, flour, rice, and beans.

The only organic produce we bought were the items that fell into the dirty dozen. (Though, if I’m being completely honest, this was more in theory than in practice.) My dad also provided us with an annual subscription to a veggie CSA that provided weekly boxes of local produce all summer long. During the years that I had the wherewithal to garden, we’d also have produce straight from the yard. We ate out extremely rarely, cooking nearly every meal at home.

At the time, we thought our own ingenuity deserved most of the credit for making this happen. But in reality, there were many invisible supports woven into a robust safety net all around us.

The Safety Net of White Privilege

By peeling back the layers, you can see the undergrowth of white privilege that allowed us to eat well without spending a lot of money:

  • We owned our own home with a large yard, so were able to use some of that space to grow our own food. We also didn’t have to worry about sudden increases in rent eating into our food budget, or live in fear that our landlord would decide to sell the house and force us to move (which happened to many of our friends).
  • Part of the reason our income was so low was that neither of us worked full time. This allowed us to juggle childcare without having to pay anyone to watch the kids. It also gave us plenty of time at home that we could spend preparing meals (and cleaning up afterwards). Though it couldn’t really be quantified in terms of dollars, having a wealth of time was an incredibly valuable asset to us.
  • Even though we didn’t have much income to speak of, we had a comfortable cushion of generational wealth, and knew that our families could help us out if we needed it.
  • Thanks to being fluent English speakers and having innate trust that the system would look out for us, we were able to easily find and apply for low-income assistance programs such as utility discounts. Because of this, we were able to free up more money to spend on food, and didn’t have to worry about high water bills from maintaining the garden.

Honestly, it makes me a little squeamish to write all of this out. But in our current times of heightened interest in racial justice, it seems irresponsible not to outline the ways in which I, as a white person, have benefitted from these systems.

The Flip Side

The reality that many others face is quite different. Due to systemic racism, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color have the odds stacked against them in ways that I’ve never experienced. To name a few:

  • Home ownership can be extremely difficult to obtain thanks to rampant discrimination.
  • Learning about and applying to assistance programs can be very onerous, especially if English is not your first language. (Or if you have a low tolerance for bureaucracy after the system has repeatedly failed you.)
  • Working one part-time job is just not an option for many when there are mouths to feed and bills to pay (and the consequences of missing just one payment can be dire).
  • Generational wealth is not a given the way it often is for white folks.
  • For people facing exhaustion from demanding, physically strenuous jobs, as well as dealing with day-to-day impacts of racism like constant micro-aggressions and denials of your humanity, it can be extremely difficult to come home and have any energy to create a well-balanced meal from scratch.
  • “Disadvantaged” neighborhoods and people of color are often targeted by junk food and soda companies, as well as fast food chains, who aggressively market their products to these communities, sometimes using incredibly misleading tactics to make their products look like healthy choices.

What You Can Do

If you enjoy the privilege to choose to “eat clean,” and especially if you are white, please do what you can to help remove barriers so others can restore their own relationships with food. This doesn’t mean barging in with a savior complex assuming that you know the best way to fix their problems. Instead, listen to what communities need and work alongside them, using the avenues your privilege affords you to help make their vision a reality.

It’s important to note that food justice is racial justice, and focusing on dismantling racism and white supremacy is key. If it becomes easier for BIPOC folks to find well-paying jobs, if they no longer have to worry about incarceration, unstable housing, and other basic survival needs, that can free up precious time, energy, and mental space to restore food to the place where many want it to be: a source of joy and community.

So let’s keep on fighting to make things better. To paraphrase a statement I saw on a sign at a recent march: let 2020 be the year that the world ended, and we built a better one.

Your Thoughts

Have you worked out a way to make food a central part of your life despite the obstacles? Have you found some concrete ways to help with food access or food justice in your own community? Share your ideas in the comments!

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Brett Boynton

    Thank you so much for writing this. Healthy affordable food and the time to cook and enjoy it should be considered a basic human right.

  2. Leslie Suggett

    Hi Allana, Thanks for this lovely blog post! I’m currently finishing my MPH (Public Health UW) and am working on a project that focuses on affordable housing (which as you stated in your post can impact food budgets, along with other bills to pay). Combine that with my full-time job as an acupuncturist, I have heard a great many stories and made a lot of recommendations over the years about diet and lifestyle (according to Chinese Medicine). What I’m saying is that I’m living in a bubble that shares many of your concerns expressed here.
    I like that what you have written is so accessible to regular people, covers a lot of facts, and gives personal examples of how one might experience this challenge. People (I) forget, or do not even see, all the ways we are supported and lifted up in life by the systems that favor whiteness. In my studies, and my work, things have changed: a lot more listening, a lot less fixing, and speaking truth to the powerful. Lately I’ve experienced a little bit of hope that our communites might start to see how everyone benefits when we truly remove the barriers for all people to access the ‘rights & priviliges’ we take for granted.

    1. Alanna Peterson

      Thank you so much, Leslie! How awesome that you are working on your MPH (public health is SO important). And I love what you said about “more listening, less fixing, and speaking truth to the powerful.” YES!! It is very heartening to see the cultural shift currently taking place, and to watch momentum build from many different angles. Makes me hopeful that we can make some long-overdue societal changes!

  3. Justice Manha

    What a great post! I know I’m always struggling with how my agency relates to the larger structural problems you discuss here. As you mention, it’s complicated! I do like growing food and cooking but I also like eating out. Supporting Black or immigrant owned restaurants, especially during the pandemic, seems beneficial to Food Justice efforts as well. I guess I just want there to still be restaurants in this new world that we build. Restaurants that serve sustainably grown food, pay their workers well, and contribute to the economic health of the community.

    1. Alanna Peterson

      Yes, absolutely! That’s a great point that I didn’t really go into here, so thank you for bringing it up. It’s always good to make conscious choices about where we spend our away-from-home food dollars when we can. And it’s more important now than ever before to support the restaurants that we love, because you’re right, we’ve got to do our part to help them survive!

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