We navigated the never-ending hallways of power-walking nurses and blinking machines looking for our friend, a neighbor from the Cabrini-Green rowhouses. He was about to be discharged after spending nearly a week in the hospital for issues related to his kidneys. As we entered the room, our friend in his late 30’s was in good spirits, talking about all the lifestyle changes he was going to make in order to improve his health. A heavy drinker and smoker, we were skeptical of his commitment to this new plan. However, as he spoke, we could discern an almost tragic earnestness to be healthy that was coupled with an obvious lack of education and resources to carry out this plan.The doctors had left written instructions as to what our friend could and could not consume, and we read the list so as to coach him and encourage him. The guidelines on the “could-not” list: “Fast foods, restaurant foods, canned foods and highly processed foods should all be avoided.” This, in a nutshell, explains the poor-man’s diet. Beyond the discipline it takes to avoid a chocolate sundae, this diet was going to force our friend into a completely foreign world. In short, following this diet would be like telling a vegan they had to swear off vegetables and legumes.
“I just have to eat a lot of salad and pasta,” he said, optimistic of his abilities to avoid this food and highlighting the only two foods on the “good” list he even recognized. We explained that the pasta had to have sauce that wasn’t from a can (tomatoes were on the “avoid” list too), and that salads didn’t count if they were drowning in ranch dressing. We suggested trying olive oil for both.
“You can eat olive oil without cooking it?” Our friend was stunned and a little disgusted. There was a lot of work to be done. By the end of the conversation, his swearing off alcohol turned to a one-week vacation of it, and his food list turned into a suggestion sheet he would give to his girlfriend in hopes she’d follow it.
At Brothers and Sisters of Love, we spend a significant amount of time watching doctors give health instructions that fall on deaf ears for patients in poverty. We watch our friends not take their high-blood pressure pills with regularity because they decided to spend that money on food, rent, or heating bills. We watch them talk about managing their diabetes while simultaneously drinking a pop or lemonade, super-sized, completely unaware of the contradiction. Or we hear the common phrase: “I quit drinking. Now I just have wine and beer.”
The diets consumed by the poor are slowly poisoning them, and they have neither the finances, the education, nor the desire to do much about it. Imagine feeling sluggish and ill constantly, and then persevering through the struggles we assume the poor can escape.
The goal of survival is to consume calories to make it to the next day and curb hunger. The fastest, densest, cheapest way to consume calories often means high-fructose corn syrup, heavy preservatives, high sodium meats and meat mixtures, and fried foods. A bag of Doritos and a Coke will go farther than an avocado or whole-grain bread. Money cannot be wasted on things like fruits and salads that leave the poor hungry.
Furthermore, no one is going to pass up any free food—a girlfriend or mother cooking their special fried pork chops with their heart-clogging version of potatoes, a social event drinking with friends, or a fast-food or pizza spread at a community event.
Nutrition is an often overlooked part of privilege. Healthcare, just like other systems, is built around giving guidelines and rules for the middle and upper classes. Without knowing the poor, doctors remain befuddled, unable to counsel them in a way where the poor can execute their advice. The poor will not take the doctor’s advice and will continue to eat the food they enjoy. And without access to decent, nutritious food, the poor will not maintain the health needed for a quality life.
Megan Cottam, BSL
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