My $3.30 daily food budget experiment didn't reflect true poverty
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I never expected my experiment of eating on $3.30 a day for 200 days to reach as wide an audience as after my Stuff Nation submission. This large audience allowed for a comprehensive amount of feedback, which provided plenty of opportunity for reflection.
While I believe my core point of it being possible to eat an OK diet on a small budget still stands, some of the words and phrases I used were far from ideal and allowed for many different interpretations of the post. Hence, I felt a follow-up was necessary.
Firstly, the expression "tasting poverty", which I used on my blog post, was intended as a play on words indicating how I experienced a tiny aspect of poverty, but it came across to many as claiming to have experienced true material poverty. I haven’t. I retract this statement and acknowledge how privileged I have been with the opportunities provided to me; for living in New Zealand, for my family, for my education, and for thousands of people who have positively influenced my life.
As for the diet, I agree with those who pointed out my diet was far from ideal, especially the minimal fruit and vegetable intake compared to The National Heart Foundation of New Zealand's 'Healthy Heart' visual food guide. However, the point I was trying to demonstrate was that I lived on an OK diet, where I remained healthy and ensured I wouldn’t develop micronutrient deficiencies through my limited fruit and vegetables.
For a more thorough assessment of the price of healthy food compared with junk food in a less extreme fashion than my experiment, this piece by Richard Meadows does a good job of 'mythbusting' the cost of healthy eating.
The final area of conflict was around the use of the word "culture", which means different things to different people, and defining this would have been tremendously useful. In using the word "culture", I essentially meant everything that contributes to diet other than the physical cost of food. This includes all of the social determinants of health (housing, education, income etc.), the accessibility of junk food in poorer areas and people’s eating habits/preferences among many other factors.
Many critics of the submission held views I agree with, saying that poverty is so much more than my basic experiment. The real difficulties include: a lack of security and control about what will happen next; family dynamics for those looking after children; employment pressures, such as working two or three jobs to get by; and many more. They are all genuine issues that I’ve never experienced in my privileged position. My argument here is that by isolating the cost of the food component, as I did in my experiment, it would be possible to focus on the rest.
There are of course certain situations, such as a single parent looking after a family on a minimum-wage job or jobs, where optimising the family’s diet takes a back seat to keeping the family afloat. In this situation, adding money/material goods will help solve the problem, though the root of this problem is far larger and would only be treating the symptoms.
This is in contrast to the situations where binge drinking, family violence or dietary preferences to junk food are the primary causes. In these cases, monetary support wouldn’t be particularly helpful. Interventions targeting these specific behaviours may be more effective, just as has been done with smoking in New Zealand.
Examples of such possible interventions include: limiting the marketing of junk foods to children, taxing junk foods (though the logistic/mechanics of this are truly challenging), and marketing campaigns making healthy eating seem as ‘cool’ as fast food. New Zealand is famous for its effective culture-changing ads in this regard, such as the “Legend” anti-drink driving campaign or the celebrity-filled "Smoking Not Our Future" campaign.
My experiment isolated the monetary component to show money was not the major determinant, as has previously been written about here. I argue that our focus can be directed into areas that would better improve our nutrition; direct food handouts may not be the best fix.
To conclude, I would like to end this as it began. While we are often split as a nation on whether it’s "lazy bludgers" or "the terrible environment" at fault for our problems, it is important to appreciate the complexity of these situations as a combination of many factors. After isolating the relation between money and diet through my experiment, I specifically argue that we can potentially improve our nutrition with social interventions that are higher yielding than direct food handouts/breakfast programs.
This is one small concept that will by no means solve poverty on its own. Yet, in isolating and examining each factor individually, we can start making some sense of the complexities, which is necessary to engage in healthy debate and move our nation beyond its current divide.