Years ago, as a volunteer for a local food bank, I handed out a lot of Uncrustables. Uncrustables, for the uninitiated, are a hybrid of a sandwich and a Hot Pocket. They’re kept frozen and filled with something that resembles peanut butter and jelly but upon turning over the package, it’s clear that this is not a particularly nutritious meal.
With as much added sugar as a handful of M&Ms and just 5 percent of a person’s daily recommended protein, Uncrustables are a soft, sweet metaphor for how we feed the marginalized among us.
It’s neither revolutionary nor controversial to state that people living in extreme poverty face a massive shortage of healthy food options. Since cash assistance was all but eliminated by welfare reform efforts in the 1990s, folks living on the margins have had to rely on businesses, social service providers and government agencies to make many of their nutritional decisions for them.
Food banks get what’s donated. Providers get what’s cheap. And convenience stores stock what food stamp users buy. Often, people buy what’s fast, cheap and tastes good — a recipe for preservatives, high sodium and added sugar.
In short, an Uncrustable.
When one of the most overused pieces of advice that we give to poor people — eat out less often! Cook food at home! — is literally impossible for a family with no stove, no electricity or no kitchen at all, we’re left with a void. How else do we talk about food security and affordability if we can’t rely on wholesome ideas of home-cooked meals? So we just don’t talk about it at all.
Nutritional needs are easy to ignore, especially when stereotypes about what poor nutrition looks like can cloud the reality. Racist, sexist, ableist and classist distinctions about what “health” looks like contribute to our lack of action.
So let’s be clear: A person can be malnourished and not thin. A person can be malnourished and not hungry.
Some service providers are making this a focus; the Rainier Valley Food Bank, which emphasizes food justice, not just security, works with local growers and partners to help low-income folks get food that’s nutrient-dense and accessible.
Healthy food is a human right — and one that we’re not providing. We can’t stop at getting people fed. We have to ensure that they’re fed well.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is the interim Editor at Real Change. She is a writer and policy consultant. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, Salon, Fast Company and Vice. View previous Access Denied columns.
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