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Is Healthy Food a Status Symbol?

Fresh grapes? Must be rich.Even though we Americans supposedly never eat together, never cook, never sit down for a meal, never eat anything fresh or green or antioxidant or grown locally — despite all of that, we’re sort of obsessed with food.

Exhibits A through ZZZ are all the food shows on TV, the little blogs, the big blogs, radio shows, magazines, books and cooking classes for those as young as 3. Food images and information are everywhere, just everywhere. Food itself? Well, that depends on how you define it.

For the middle-class and above, getting good food isn’t such a big problem (though since the beginning of the recession, more and more middle class families are finding themselves food insecure). But for working class, low-income and poor families, what they eat is barely considered food by the growing cadre of cook-from-scratch enthusiasts (See also: aforementioned middle- and upper-income Americans).

Food has become, more than zip code, handbags and sunglasses, jeans, or a car’s make and model, the designator of class — a social status thing, according to Adam Drewnowski, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington. Drewnowski has spent his career studying the connection between how Americans eat and social class. Now that luxury goods are available to the masses, the haves use food to distinguish themselves from the have-nots.

It’s an interesting claim, one that Lisa Miller doesn’t spend enough time looking at in her article “Divided We Eat,” in this week’s Newsweek, where she quotes Drewnowski. From the headline, we’re promised a look at the food class divide and ways to bridge the gap. Instead, we get the usual — irritating Brooklyn foodies contrasted with their low-income, bodega muffin-eating neighbors.

I don’t argue with Drewnowski that food is the new black. He’s the expert and, well, you’d have to live under a rock (or at least have long ago unsubscribed to Gwenyth Paltrow’s GOOP newsletter), not to know that, in addition to nourishing the body, food also greatly bolsters a person’s image if reference to the crisp skin on a roasted chicken is invoked just so.

But eating isn’t optional like name-brand clothing or McMansions in the suburbs. Food consumption is necessary to stay alive. So when we’re starting to see food — especially unprocessed, vitamin-rich sorts — being used to designate class, vilifying people who can and do eat well (including the self-loathing cheese snob, Miller herself) distracts us from the real questions. Questions like why something like collard greens, which used to be poor people food, are so expensive now. And what else needs to change in order to allow for lower-income Americans to prep healthy dinners for kids. We need to ask why soda is so darned cheap and not whether we should allow food stamps to purchase it. We need to ask why whole grains, lean meats and leafy greens are all over the government’s food pyramid and yet a significant part of the population couldn’t possibly afford to eat them every day.

We also need to ask this: if food is, indeed, a lifestyle and class designator, then are foodies unintentionally keeping others of lesser means from having access to it? After all, nothing says luxury and high social status like having stuff others can’t. Is a foodie-run on bitter leaves the reason for overpriced greens?

I don’t think shaming people who spend extra money or time to eat organic or locally grown or homemade food is how we should approach the discussion either. I’ve always rolled my eyes at $1,000+ handbags and also gold-dusted burgers. I also rolled my eyes at the family in Miller’s article who refused to eat grandma’s conventionally grown apples. I find good manners often trump organic fruits. In any case, those are exceptions and not trends and when invoked it just fuels class warfare, rather than the opposite.

I don’t equate farmers market produce or line-caught salmon with ostentatious displays of social capital — not always. My hope is that this current (and now more than a decade-old) obsession with food will bring attention to the gap that Miller tries to illustrate in her article. My hope is that Michelle Obama (whom she didn’t even mention!) will find success in providing better options for school lunches and fewer flashy, low-cost boxes of Pop Tarts pushed on kids. And that our excitement over backyard chickens or community garden heirloom lettuces will translate into more options at lower prices for everyone in the neighborhood, not just Miller and the irritating people she knows.

Do you think you eat like the members of your social class?

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