Life Stories, Food & Drinks, Life

I grew up poor, and still struggle to eat like a “normal” person

I had never even seen an avocado at my public school or at home, and for good reason: they’re expensive!

As a lower-middle-class kid, I arrived at college without ever having eaten an avocado.

I didn’t think it was a big deal at first, but soon I realized that compared to many of my wealthier peers, my palate was severely limited. As a teacher supporting two kids without child support, my mom worked hard to make sure that my brother and I never felt like we were lacking, but that didn’t erase the fact that her income was much smaller than what my foodie classmates’ parents made.

In a New York Times op-ed published this February, I read about Caitlin Daniel’s study of Boston parents who were interviewed about getting their kids to try new foods. I read the op-ed just as I was beginning to examine my dislike of a number of foods that I can’t recall encountering as a child. My girlfriend was frustrated that the relatively obscure fruits and vegetables that were a normal part of her childhood were foods that I either hadn’t tried or didn’t enjoy.

Daniel writes about this phenomenon in her op-ed: “The problem isn’t poor children. According to psychologists, most children treat new foods with trepidation. Often, they accept novel offerings only after eight to fifteen attempts.” Many parents can’t afford to expose their children to an expensive new food until they like it, and so, a child’s dietary constraints are often informed by the family’s budgetary constraints. Articles by magazines like Parenting encourage parents of picky eaters to get fancy with preparation, which also requires extra time and money—two resources in short supply for poorer families. Daniel writes about a working-class mother from the Boston area who worries about wasting food by offering it over and over again: “This mother faces an uncomfortable choice: She can experiment and risk an empty cupboard, or she can make her food last by serving what her son likes, even if it’s not the healthiest and even if she feels guilty about it.”

That mother reminded me of my own; I remember refusing to eat salad as a toddler, and I remember her choice to not push the issue with me. It wasn’t until high school, when friends of mine brought salads to the cafeteria, that I taught myself to like it for social reasons. The same goes for avocado. I had never even seen an avocado at my public school or at home, and for good reason: they’re expensive! The budgetary constraints of poor and working-class families like mine create harsh limitations in the grocery store: “The lowest quintile spends more than 60 percent of its budget on the basics — housing, utilities, transportation, and home-cooked food — while the rich spend less than 45 percent,” according to a report by Think Progress.

When food expenses account for a large portion of your budget, wasting food is not an option.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 19.2 percent of households in the country are“food insecure,” meaning that “at times during the year, these households were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.” If parents are uncertain of their ability to obtain any food for their families, how are they supposed to also ensure that their children are trying new foods? Financial insecurity is closely tied to food insecurity, which has disruptive effects on children and their eating habits.

In my own lower-middle-class childhood home, it was utterly unreasonable to spend several dollars on a single avocado—something my mother had never tried in her lower-middle-class childhood home, either—just for the sake of exposing me to a new food. Certain foods were simply not a part of our class culture. Just as generational poverty exists, so might generational picky eating. Lisa Miller comments for Newsweek: “modern America is a place of extremes, and what you eat for dinner has become the definitive marker of social status; as the distance between rich and poor continues to grow, the freshest, most nutritious foods have become luxury goods that only some can afford.”

When we think about access to food in America, we often move the conversation toward our country’s obesity epidemic. Yes, it’s true that childhood rates of obesity are on the rise, but so is the cost of groceries. The USDA reported in July that the monthly cost of groceries for a family of 4 (two adults, two children between the ages of 6 and 11) runs at least $639.60, for the thriftiest of families. As LZ Granderson writes for CNN, class politics are at play in every American grocery store: “we are forced to decide between what’s good for our kids and what we can afford to feed them.”

Food reflects traditions of ethnicity and race, but we need to recognize how it reflects class cultures as well. We judge and overanalyze the eating habits of low-income folks, but we seldom discuss the very real constraints on poor families who do not have the means to expose their children to healthier, rarer varieties of produce. In seeking to understand the role of my socioeconomic status in my own upbringing, I didn’t initially turn to my eating habits—and yet, I can see now that my exposure to Pizza Hut before my exposure to quinoa is not happenstance.

Now, I’m a giant fan of avocados.

I’m grateful to my girlfriend for exposing me to new foods. I’m also grateful for her understanding of why I’m hesitant to try some of the foods I haven’t been exposed to in the past. Avocados were a conversation-starter: they brought me closer to my girlfriend by showing us a way to date across class difference.