About this Blog

Welcome! Thanks for checking out On Food Stamps.

I created this blog in 2009 when I began working at the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank. My work at this organization opened my eyes to food justice issues in America, and I had a strong desire to better understand the difficulties many people face when trying to access healthy food on a limited budget. So, I embarked on my own Food Stamp Challenge, living on $31/week as a vegan. I used this blog to chronicle my experience.

While my Food Stamp Challenge project has come to an end, you can see what I learned from it by reading the Greatest Hits posts linked to the right side of the page. Please excuse any out-of-date links, as I am no longer updating this blog on a regular basis.

Stay Hungry,


Sunday, May 24, 2009

1 pancake

I had a friend from college in town this weekend, and I was very happy that I had an extra $9 or so left this week to spend while meeting with her. When we got to the diner, which was charming and cheap, I ordered a coffee for the first time since starting this project. Even the cheapest entrees were really all out of my price range, so I looked to the section of the menu with "sides". Sure enough, there were several items under $2. Side of bacon. Side of fruit. One egg. One pancake.

In the midst of my excitement about being out in a restaurant, having a bit of money to spend, and seeing an old friend, I quickly ordered 1 pancake when the waitress came over and returned to my conversation, trying not to notice how weird I felt ordering so little food. When the plate arrived and the single fluffy pancake was placed before me, I realized that I had completely broken the vegan rule by ordering that pancake. Not only was there a huge pad of butter melting quickly atop the pancake, but pancakes are also made with milk AND eggs. Nice one, Julie. Some vegan you are.

I was actually quite embarrassed. How could I have ordered a pancake when I completely know that it isn't vegan fare?

I think it was because I ordered it on auto pilot. I didn't think about it. I was excited, it was great to be out, and I was distracted. With my mind somewhere else I had reverted right back to my typical diet, which does allow pancakes. When I am not doing the On Food Stamps challenge I am a vegetarian. I have been a vegetarian since I was about ten years old, and I have become very used to my normal restaurant ordering habits. When I look at a menu in a restaurant, I automatically rule out many of the items on the menu. I zero in on those that are vegetarian, look at the prices, and I order whichever suits my taste and budget the most. I don't even think about it any more, I just do it. So, as soon as I got into an exciting and distracting situation, I went right back to my usual diet. Once the food came, I realized it wasn't within my diet, but by then it was too late. I didn't want to waste food, I was hungry, and I ate it. I felt guilty and stupid the entire time I was eating it.

I find it interesting how easy it was for me to slip back into an old eating habit by mistake, and I think this is a valuable lesson. My auto-pilot error really illustrated to me how hard eating habits can be to break. I am sure that everyone has certain go-to foods and certain always-avoid foods according to their tastes and dietary restrictions. Just as it is a challenge for me to remember that eggs, butter, and dairy are now in the always-avoid category, so is it very difficult for someone who is used to eating high fat, salt, or sugar foods to start consistently avoiding their old favorites. Adjusting my diet means remembering new rules and finding new foods that I can make peace with in lieu of my normal favorites. It also means eating according to strict rules when no one else around me is. Besides my friend and I, there were 6 people at the table, and all of them ordered entrees. I felt strange ordering just 1 pancake, and even that turned out to be illegal on my new diet.

I placed my order quickly and without thinking too much, but there was certainly a subtle spotlight on me. In the pause after I ordered, I almost felt the need to explain to everyone at the table why I was only ordering 1 pancake. In my case, that would mean explaining about this Blog, and I would likely get lots of congratulations and positive feedback from my peers.

In the case of someone trying only to get healthy and lose weight, the feedback would be different. In fact, if the table mates are family members or friends who also have some weight to lose, the feedback could be downright negative. When you know you have to make a change in your life but are finding it very difficult to admit or act on, it can be threatening, unnerving, and unpleasant to see friends or family members make the same change in their own life. For example, if you and your husband have always overeaten or indulged in unhealthy foods together, your mutual indulgence has always served as validation. "I know my doctor says I have high cholesterol, and I shouldn't be eating these eggs and bacon. But, its ok, my husband's doctor says the same thing and look at him. He's chowing down. If he can, I can." When we eat food that we know we should be ashamed of eating, we make it easier for the people around us to eat food they are ashamed of eating as well. While the severity of the act is different, I think the psychology of unhealthy eating is similar to that of crime committed by a group. It is always easier to engage in bad behavior when the other people around you are doing it too.

Now, blow that up. If it is easier for us to indulge bad eating habits when our friends and family members do, it is even easier for us to indulge them when we perceive that huge tracts of our communities do. I would argue that one of the strongest influences in that regard is food advertisement. Food producers and manufacturers can send powerful social messages to us about what is and is not ok to eat, simply by showing us images of other people eating. Those hot models popping Pepsis at a pool party offer the same kind of validation as a spouse who orders a bacon cheese burger despite their high cholesterol, making you feel it is ok for you to do that too.

What would happen if we really amped up Public Service Announcements in our cities to support healthy eating choices? What if we created a culture where there was actually social pressure not to eat bad food? Where it was publicly frowned upon to consume unhealthy things? I wonder how much easier it would be to make healthy lifestyle changes.

I can think of one example right away where our social priorities have shifted on an issue in this way. When my mother was my age, it was completely socially acceptable, totally encouraged, to work on getting very very tan in the summer. In my own generation, we all know that getting sunburned is bad for us. When I get a sunburn, my friends don't praise me. They look at me admonishing and say, "Hey, you should really be careful. Its not good to get so burned. You'll get skin cancer that way." What if we got to a point where we encouraged each other to eat well instead of enabling each other to make bad food choices?

The social dynamics of eating are powerful. In a situation where unhealthy eating is a group activity -within a family, a neighborhood, or a nation- it can be very difficult for individuals to step up to the plate and make a positive diet changes, since doing so would affect everyone involved. I have devoted some time to this topic, because I consider social pressures and norms surrounding eating to be a major barrier in the quest for a healthy, affordable, and sustainable diet.

Luckily, I did not have to battle a food environment that wrought with emotion or consequences today, but it is something to consider. This time around, my downfall was due to my own error, not social pressure. I am new to being a vegan, and I slipped up. When the food arrived I was not excited; I felt defeated. I was upset at my failure and barely able to enjoy my food because of it. I had been trying to follow one new and difficult set of rules - those of a tight money budget - and I forgot all about the other set - no butter, eggs, or milk. I really understand now how frustrating and discouraging drastic diet changes can be.

1 comment:

  1. Everyday I get more drawn into this blog!
    It truly is difficult to break old habits and I know I absolutely tend to simplify things but as an outsider looking into someone else's plight I definitely have a a unique perspective now... what you're doing is totally commendable but I wonder why didn't you share your gaffe with your commrades? Have you shared this ongoing experiment with anyone?