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Join the informed, opinionated journalists of The Times' editorial staff in lively discussions at our blog Ed Cetera.

September 10, 2009 at 5:19 AM

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Civil Disagreement: Are the poor to blame for the way they eat?

Posted by Lynne Varner

Civil disagreements, with Lynne Varner and Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times editorial board, is a weekly feature of the Ed Cetera blog. Here Bruce and Lynne discuss whether healthy eating is more difficult for the poor.

Lynne Varner, left, and Bruce Ramsey

Lynne Varner: Bruce: Did you read Whole Food CEO, John Mackey's piece in the Wall Street Journal on healthcare reform? Threats to boycott the high-end grocery chain have been among the outraged responses.

His take on tort reform and portability are unassailable. But when Mackey argues that many of our health-care problems are self-inflicted and easily avoided with a diet consisting of "plant-based, nutrient dense and low-fat" foods I started to see red.

We yuppies love to tell people to eat healthier. But we ignore the challenge for the poor embodied in this advice. Good nutrition costs money. We can preach that a kid ought to pick an apple over a bag of chips or when at a fast-food restaurant the salad over the "dollar menu." But people for whom money is a scarce commodity will always choose the cheapest and most filling option.

A family cooking on a hot plate because they can't afford gas doesn't have the same options so many of us do. When money is tight, the poor are more likely to eliminate fruit and vegetables and stock up on rice or potatoes, things that aren't very nutritional but will stretch and fill stomachs.

The American Heart Association urges Americans to cut their sugar intake but go to any inner-city convenience store and sugary items outnumber healthy ones. Most people get that added sugars are implicated in a number of poor health conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure and risk factors for heart disease and stroke, but the poor may be hard-pressed to change their diets.

Bruce Ramsey replies: Lynne, I look at our headline, "Are the Poor to Blame for the Way They Eat?," and I think, "Yes. Every adult is to blame for the way he eats, unless he's in prison."

I hear sometimes that poor people eat burgers, chips, etc. because it's cheaper than eating healthy food--in other words, that they'd rather be eating broccoli, arugula and brown rice, but they're stuck with hot dogs from the 7-Eleven.

I used to work in a 7-Eleven, and I saw what people on food stamps bought. It was the same junk everyone else bought, and not because it was cheap. Potato chips aren't cheap. They're convenient. Most of us buy them sometimes as snacks. But people who eat potato chips and microwave burritos as a substitute for a home-cooked meal are doing it because they don't want to take the trouble to cook. And that's a lazy way to live.

What's cheap is to go to a supermarket (not Whole Foods) and buy a 10-pound bag of potatoes, a big bag of rice, a bag of onions, a 5-pound bag of (small) red delicious or golden delicious apples, smaller bags of pinto beans, lentils, split peas, etc., and whatever fruit or vegetables are in season and on sale. If you pay attention you can get great deals on hamburger, whole chickens and sometimes even on coho salmon, and you can cook a decent meal. Generally you can fill up for less than at a fast-food restaurant because you aren't paying for the labor to cook your meal and clean up your mess.

A final comment: Here is a piece about people in Britain who are really at the bottom--far below the working poor. The piece starts out about criminals and addicts, who are a subset of the poor, but if you follow it, it broadens to a fascinating portrait of whole neighborhoods where the people are on welfare and have been for a long time. In such places, the custom among native-born Britons--white and black--is not to cook at all. It's not even to eat meals together. It is an entire lifestyle of convenience food.

Such are the choices people make. Are the poor to blame for what they eat? Yes, mainly. So are the rest of us.

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