Food Poverty

Catherine Shaffer ponders about the nature of poverty:

My family was also poor when I was growing up, and I, too, feel that that life is very far away, and hard to imagine and remember. Sometimes, when I’m at the store, and I’m grabbing food or impulse items with no regard to the cost, I stop and try to remember what it was like not to be able to have those things any time I wanted. Poverty is like pain. When you are not in it, it’s difficult to imagine. And when you’ve never experienced it, it’s almost impossible

In as few words as possible, I would describe poverty as the condition of being unable to fulfill your capabilities due to external constraints.

I admit it’s a tad vague. However,from the above statement I would make the following conclusions:

  1. Poverty does not have discreet start and finish points. Attempts by third parties to draw clear lines between poor and non-poor people are retro-fitting data for their own convenience.
  2. Poverty is domain specific. This means you can be poor in one area of your life and rich in others. 
  3. On a similar note, the poverty label can’t really aggregate into an all-inclusive stamp. People are merely a collection of different capabilities.
  4. Poverty doesn’t always lend itself to being measured in dollar figures.
  5. We’re all poor (or rich!) to varying degrees.

This definition has curious implications if you apply it to food.

Food poverty wouldn’t be the same thing as being under-nourished. At least not in developed countries. I know plenty of people who eat terribly but steadfastly reject outside influences to eat healthier. It’s not a problem of access or unexpressed capabilities, they just like their burgers and fries.

Food poverty also wouldn’t quite be the same thing as food insecurity…..which is a measure of people’s access to food. Lots of studies like to measure things like distance to a grocery store or the percentage of your income that goes towards groceries as a measure of “food wealth” but the definition above suggests those measurements miss the point.

For example, when I graduated college I had a 30 hr/week job that paid me $1,600 a month, no car, and I walked a mile to the grocery store every 3 days. By almost any conventional measurement I was food poor, but it was probably one of the healthies times of my life. I lived on my own and had lots of free time, so I had a lot of control over how I spent my time and made lifestyle choices with little social interference. 

Right now I’m living in Macedonia. My income from writing is probably 2-3x the national median, a grocery store is right across the street from me, and I have no set schedule. You’d think I have all the freedom I’d need to exercise my will, but I feel constrained. 

The grocery store is close, but there’s no room in the fridge to store anything, so going to the grocery store is a chore for a single meal, and the only alternatives are bakeries and pizzerias. The only food that’s provided is an unhealthy breakfast. To write I go to coffee shops, so during the day I’m always exposed to ice cream and pastries, and I have to walk past 15 kebab stands to get to a place that has healthy meal offerings. 

I have one group of friends here, and while I love them, drinking and smoking is embedded in their social habits. The overall result is I have to overcome strong lifestyle funnels to live a particular way, and on any particular day, there’s a lot of inertia to and healthy living is usually the more difficult choice.


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  1. […] funnels are hard to break out of (I’m kind of stuck in one right now, see here), but as a secondary line of defense it’s good to know what your funnel will and won’t […]

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