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 Please excuse any out-of-date links, as I am no longer updating this blog on a regular basis.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,


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Social Ritual

I have been thinking more about that grilled cheese on Monday night and examining further why, exactly, I ate it.

Some of the reason was that I wanted the physical pleasure of eating it. Grilled cheese is a fantastic comfort food, and I hadn't had anything like it in a week. But, I think my decision to eat it was much more complicated than that.

First of all, I really wasn't even that hungry. I was in that late night state of benign neutral hunger. If you put food in front of me, sure, I would eat it because I hadn't eaten since dinner. No rumble in my stomach though, no physical drive for food at all. Simply a willingness to eat it if it were easily available.

The truth is, a large part of me actually did not want the food. I knew I was doing this blog, and I didn't want to have to pay the price for an expensive indulgence later on. I had a deep emotional conflict about weather or not to eat, and I was really leaning towards not wanting to. When my friend suggested we go eat something, I told her I would join her but that I wouldn't order anything. I insisted on this while we rode the elevator down to the restaurant all the way down the escalator, through the lobby, until we arrived at a seat with menus in front of us.

At that point something changed. I realized how awkward it would feel to sit at a table with her while she ate, and I drank water. I realized how my decision to abstain from food would likely affect her enjoyment of her own meal the entire time she was eating it. The act of eating, indulging, together while we talked about the evening was part of the ritual. As we sat there she quickly picked up on the fact that I was leaning towards getting food after all, and tried to help me rationalize the decision to eat. I think from her perspective, she imaged that I genuinely wanted the food, but that I felt guilty eating it (in this case because of the Blog). She did a fantastic job helping me convince myself to do something she thought that I wanted to do.

The curious part to me is that I really didn't want to eat the grilled cheese. I really only ate it because I felt guilty and uncomfortable about not taking part in a social food ritual. I didn't want to leave my friend to eat alone, it felt vaguely mean and overly stoic. My friend provided me with plenty of persuasive rationalizations to make me feel ok about eating something we both knew I shouldn't be eating, and I took the bate. "I'll have a grilled cheese with tomatoe, please."

I would say that this social dynamic accounts for at least 85% of my decision to eat that grilled cheese sandwich. This really made me think deeply about how the eating habits of our family, friends, and co-workers truly affect our own eating habits.

Imagine going to a public high school in a low income neighborhood in Los Angeles, where everyone goes to McDonalds or Jack In the Box after school to chow down. Everyone. All your friends. Every day. Imagine one afternoon suddenly trying to tell them that you couldn't eat anything. That you were trying to lose weight or get healthy (which can be embarrassing to admit publicly since it acknowledges out loud that you are, frankly, overweight) - that you brought your own food. Celery sticks. Right.

LAUSD just got in trouble for being much to lax about the food their students have access to in and around LA public schools. The fact that the school system got busted for poor enforcement of this junk food ban shows that at least someone is aware how much the social food environment impacts food choices.

Or, imagine that you go home after a 10 hour work day to a great home cooked meal that your wife has cooked. She prepares you this meal out of love, you eat it with gratitude and relief after a long day, but the beans were cooked in lard, the rice in lots of oil, and the salad is slathered in store bought, bottled blue cheese dressing. How would it be to tell the people you love who have prepared your food the same way for years, that they have to change their methods of preparation so that you can be healthier. Would that mean they would have to get healthier, too? What if they are resistant to that change?

Changing a diet or making better food choices is not easy.
It is awkward. It is often very, very difficult.
Food is a social ritual, and I now understand much better that breaking the cycle of unhealthy eating habits is not just about the individual, and it is not just about the price of healthy food. If an individual's social network is not 100% supportive of their change in diet, the social pressures to lapse back into old, unhealthy habits can be enormous. So large in fact, that social pressures to eat in a certain way may in some cases overshadow other food access barriers such as cost and availability.


  1. You're absolutely right; food can be very social. It's one of the reasons why when people get together everyone ends up congregating in the kitchen, even if there are plenty of seats in the living room. I recently started a healthy-eating/exercise group with my coworkers; it's so much easier to eat healthy when others around you are eating healthy foods as well. Great blog--can't wait to read more!

  2. Just out of curiosity Julie.. have you read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food?

  3. wow Julie...really impressed. the waves of thought are on their way...

  4. Natalie - I am actually in the middle of In Defense of Food. It is a great book so far. It really made me think about how many things influence what winds up on our tables, including advertising dollars and political agendas.

    If you liked that one, check out this: http://joelberg.net/
    The book is titled All You Can Eat, by Joel Berg. I already bought my copy!

  5. Thanks for the reference! Will be sure to pick up a copy.

  6. This is a great blog. I really enjoy it!

    As a part-time vegan, full-time pescetarian this information is really useful!

  7. Austin - feel free to email me your own recipe ideas. Anything vegan, cheap, and quick would be much appreciated! (Julieeflynn@gmail.com)

  8. Your social eating discussion and discovery is so important and fascinating. It's not an aspect of healthy eating that I think about much, especially in terms of budget or low income people.

  9. Hubby works in a hospital in East LA and sees folk diagnosed with diabetes struggling all the time to follow new dietary instruction despite the resistance of others in their household who don't want to have to change anything because "I'm not sick" and the like. It's brutally difficult. Lack of proper social support on these kinds of changes is the number one reason why folk don't make changes they know they need to make.

  10. Hey Stacy - Thanks for following the blog. Do you think your husband would be willing to help me develop a "diabetic friendly" diet? I want to explore than scenario in the next few weeks but am not sure what my dietary restrictions would be. What do you think?

  11. Julie -

    Hubby's expertise in in OT (lifestyle redesign, helping people form new habits, etc.) as opposed to nutrition but some basics include:

    Limit simple sugars/carbs like fruit juice, candy, high sugar peanut butters, rice, etc.
    Balance meals with complex carbs and proteins
    High fiber is good
    Eat steadily all day not in extreme feast/famine episodes (missing meals is right out)

    Try http://www.diabetes.org/food-nutrition-lifestyle/nutrition/what-can-i-eat.jsp for more detailed info.