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 Please excuse any out-of-date links, as I am no longer updating this blog on a regular basis.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, July 5, 2009

Lead a Meal-time Revolution

The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research released a policy brief recently that suggests that parents' eating habits play a significant role in teen obesity.

The study, titled Teen Dietary Habits Related to Those of Parents, found that adolescents are more likely to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day if their parents do. Contrarily, teens whose parents eat fast food or drink soda are more likely to do the same.

The study also pointed to very poor food environments in low-income areas as a major concern.

Read an abridged version of the findings here.

The overall theme of this study to me was that our environments have a major impact on what we eat. Bad food habits in family kitchens will lead us to bad food choices for all of the individuals in that family. And, if our neighborhood food culture centers around the liquor store on the corner we're probably not going to eat too well either. I am not surprised that this UCLA study has found that the eating habits of individuals, especially children and teens, are affected by the food environments that surround them.

I know I have found that I eat differently depending on who I am with and what type of environment I'm in. I also know that I have absorbed a great deal of information and social conditioning about food from my parents and my social network over the years. In my case most of this has been positive, luckily. But, if you are a 14 year old boy living in South Central Los Angeles this is likely not the case.

More likely you've been fed a lot of fast food by a mother who is struggling, alone, to hold down two jobs and feed you something, anything, when dinnertime rolls around. You probably haven't developed much of a taste for vegetables over the years, and you certainly don't know how to cook some of the weird stuff that shows up in that Farmers' Market that cropped up in your neighborhood last year. Most days after school you and your friends hit up the hot dog lady with the push cart of crackling greasy sausages outside your school. Maybe you go to the Mini-mart (which is the only place to buy food in walking distance of your house) to get chips or Coca-Cola. Even if your mom did pack you an organic apple for an after school snack, you'd be laughed at if you passed on Hot Cheetos to eat it.

Bad food environments and habits don't only exist in low-income urban areas, though. While poverty and obesity are very strongly linked, overweight and poor diet are problems that transcend class in America. Honestly, we're all pretty fat, and most of us aren't eating too well, weather we are poor or rich.

I grew up in a place very different from the food deserts in South Central that I often focus on in this blog. I grew up in a semi-rural, upper-class Connecticut town. While most of the food information I absorbed as a child was relatively positive, there were certainly some problems. I was greatly influenced by a culture of overeating in my house and among my peers. To this day I am still trying to get my portion sizes under control.

I was a child that grew up with a wealth of processed after school snacks - Fruit by the Foot! Pop-Tarts! Handi-Snacks! Dunk-a-roos! Those rolls of slice-and-bake cookies (we always just ate the dough and gave up on baking cookies). In the teenage years it was restaurants. My family and friends and I would go out to dinner pretty often, and we would eat until we were stuffed. Everyone would admit that they were very full, but we'd order a dessert to split anyway. Then we'd all moan and laugh about how overly-full we were; sometimes it was downright physically uncomfortable but totally socially acceptable. In the morning we'd all head to the gym or hit the trails to run off that 600 calorie dinner of Chilean sea bass on couscous followed by a "famous" flour-less chocolate cake. Next weekend, we'd do it again.

There was always this weird glut and guilt thing going on in my childhood food environment. No one was obese really, but there was a back-and-forth between habitual overeating and strict dieting. The concept of smaller controlled portions as a lifestyle wasn't really there. Instead of eating until I wasn't hungry anymore and then putting my fork down, I learned to eat until the food was gone or I was going to burst. I learned to eat too much and feel really guilty about food. Granted, urban food deserts are certainly more of a struggle, but my experience illustrates that even in upper-class rural Connecticut we absorb the bad food habits present in our environment.

This UCLA study gives me some real hope though. If people are so significanly impacted by the eating habits of those around them, then one individual's shift to a healthy diet can have a real impact in their social circle. (Enter Michael Jackson with "Man in the Mirror: "If you want to make the world a better place take a look at yourself and make that change..." - see previous post.)

I have heard many people tell me that they think it is stupid or futile to be a vegetarian or eat locally/healthfully themselves, because the problem of our food system is so big that one person's dietary choices make no real difference. They say that we need to change the way we farm and produce food, not the way we eat as individuals. That is too small and it doesn't matter. I think this is bogus. And, I think its a cop out for people who want to sound informed but don't want to deal with changing their diet. If that statement aliented you, I am sorry. But, that is the way I feel.

The UCLA study only makes me feel more strongly about this. Our eating habits have a major influence on how those around us eat. Think about how many people each of us interact with every day at home, school, and work. Every day we eat at least 3 meals, and in most cases we do that in the company of other people. So, every day we have 3 chances to lead by example and to open up the dialoge about food and the significance of what we eat.

Should every meal be a soap box lecture about sustainable food and healthy diet? Of course not. But, does one person's general eating habits have a major impact on their community? Yes. Is it lame to say that you keep eating meat and highly processed foods because your diet is insignificant in the grand scheme of things? Yes. Sorry. It is.

Personally, this study is pretty strong evidence that it is important for me to stick to my previous pledge to eat locally and sustainably more often. I am also going to make a real effort to break free of that over-eating culture I grew up with, especially now that I am more aware of how much it affects the people I eat with.


  1. One night a week I spend in a home not my own... and I find my diet changes DRAMATICALLY due to environment. They stock soda, usually diet, something my house never has. They are eating an Atkins diet, something I don't endorse in my own house. They often eat out, and thus I often eat out with them, something I don't afford in my own environment. The effort required to eat my usual when taken out of my private environment is incredible. My cultural upbringing for one labels it horrendously rude to be finicky when in another's house. But even at a good friend/family's home where you're invited to make your own, if their larder does not include the kinds of foods your home diet thrives on, it's going to be hard to maintain eating habits. This is even more true when your home eating habits are being reformed in an effort to alter prior, less healthy behaviors. The temptation of soda and junk food is incredibly hard in social settings where it's not the primary option. If even one person in the environment is sticking to unhealthy habits, it's an even steeper uphill climb for those in the house trying to form healthy habits.

  2. I totally agree with you that its bogus when people say their lifestyle and eating habits don't matter in the grand scheme... every little bit matters and that's part of the reason I became a vegetarian. Slowly meat began to become less and less a part of my diet and to be honest I love animals. I go crazy when I visit a petting zoo so it seemed extremely hypocritical for me to eat meat all the while touting animals are the bestest!

    I would become a vegan but seriously I love greek yogurt and cheese entirely too much (hey we all have vices). Anywho... your mention of healthy habits reminded me of this article I read a few days ago:

    you might have to copy and paste the link into your browser. Your thoughts? Reading the comments on both sparkpeople and AOL's message board people seem to have simplistic answers to this problem but really don't examine the obesity epidemic and socioeconomic status. I think some readers hit the nail on the head but of course some just don't get it and are clueless.

  3. I figure that if I choose to take a helathy vegetarian snack to a party it always gives people the option to eat it. If I buy into the peer pressure to take something that isn't healthy, they don't.

    I've been to events at a local program for inner city children where my neighbor took egg sandwiches and I thought she was crazy because there were so many cookies and cakes and chips. But the kids went for the egg sandwiches right off the bat and didn't really eat the other stuff. She told me later that they get so much junk food donated to them but they really want real food that has some value to it (they probably don't think of it that way but when they see the table, the sandwiches appeal to them).

    I'm at my sister's this weekend and there is a tremendous amount of food everywhere. I'm having a hard time not eating some of everything. There are at least two people here who cannot walk through the dining room without eating something. It's mostly all not that bad for us but there is just too much!!

    Thanks for the link to my kale post!!

  4. Stacey - I find your reflections super interesting. I totally relate. This past weekend I was in Santa Barbara with a group of friends that eats very well. I found I really followed their example. But, when I'm with a group that tends to over-indulge in less healthy fare, I often tip that way. Trying to get better at standing my ground and leading my own "dinner table revolution", and I really relate to your experience.

    5dollars - The egg sandwich story is great. I wonder if the kids are gravitating towards the healthier food from an awareness that it is good from them or from a more subconscious physical yearning for food with substance. The way health education is in our schools and communities right now... probably the second option!