Below are some excerpts from Katherine Leonard Turner’s book How The Other Half Ate. I have been saying these things for years and I was excited to read it laid out so clearly by an historian. Each day I come to understand a little bit more … that when it comes to eating healthful food, class matters.
Individual preferences about what to eat were always constrained by material circumstances, and especially so for people with difficult lives and fewer choices. That is to say, class mattered. But when people – and especially those who sought to offer solutions to problems related to food – talked about food, they preferred to avoid class issues.
Home food production represented capital and labor, and it helped distinguish between those who were comfortable and those who were poorer.
Proponents of “alternative food” encourage us to turn our yards into vegetable gardens, as the wives of coal miners did; but cultivating our gardens will be a choice rather than a necessity. As part of a trend that reaches back to the counterculture of the 1960s, they urge home cooks to make food rather than buy it: they suggest we bake bread, roll pasta, simmer sauces, and whisk dressings, or at least buy them premade from local artisans rather than from huge, faceless industries. Advocates of the old-fashioned style argue that food grown close to home and processed in the home is cheaper, better for our health, better for the environment, and better tasting. Some even suggest that home-produced food will help stave off disease and obesity. And many Americans of all classes have taken a step back from industrial food by cultivating gardens, buying from farmers’ markets, or cooking dinner at home more often.
It is, however, possible to romanticize home food production as a solution to today’s food problems. The Progressives often advised poor people to save money by cooking at home without a full appreciation of the costs. The women who found time to raise vegetables, make preserves, and bake bread may have done so with great enjoyment and satisfaction, or they might simply have been exhausted. As everyone who has had to feed himself or herself when tired, busy, or broke knows, cooking is work. It has become immeasurably lighter through the use of modern kitchens, tool, and utilities, and the greater availability of ingredients, but it is still work – and work that usually falls on women’s shoulders. There is a class dimension at work too. Working class people face real obstacles to home cooking, not to mention more laborious home food production. They work long hours and have little time to work the “second shift.” They might not have easy access to retailers of fresh food. Working-class people are disproportionately single parents rather than married or partnered, and thus bear a heavier burden with fewer resources. Simply advising people to save money and their health by cooking at home does not take into account the difficulties of doing so.
Finally, advocating home food production, or small-scale local and organic food production, as a corrective to the problems of industrialized food runs the risk of transferring responsibility from society or industry back onto the individual, relying on consumer “choice” that obscures inequality. The idea of eating locally has developed in counterpoint to a complex global food system that is based on inequality. As Susanne Freidberg points out in her history of freshness, eating locally is easier in some locales than in others. People in wealthy areas, with plenty of personal and community resources, have access to fresher, more sustainable, organic, tastier food; people in poorer communities must get what the system produces most cheaply. Just as it was at the turn of the twentieth century, the ability to produce food at home is sometimes out of reach for those who need it most. Everyone should have access to safe and sustainable food, not just those who can afford to raise it themselves.
As the Progressives realized, food problems cross class lines and affect us all. Food insecurity, poor nutrition, unsafe food, and unsustainable practices are social problems, not just individual ones.
If we want to improve the food we eat, we will have to think seriously about class. We will have to stop focusing so intently on individual choices and think about the structural factors that create choices – and ask whether we all have the same opportunities and means to eat well.