Home-cooked structuralism

Ah, the good old days of home-cooking and, wait, in heels? Really?

Ah, the good old days of home-cooking and, wait, in heels? Really?

I really enjoyed reading this piece last Friday while eating a bowl of microwaved stir-fry before work at around 3:00 p.m because unintended irony or something.

Sarah Kliff interviews Sarah Bowen, one of the authors of a qualitative study that followed some 200 middle and working-class families as they struggled to prepare home-cooked meals every week. The proverbial foil for the results — nearly all faced challenges with logistics and nutrition — is the routine commentary about the supposed need to rediscover the social and health (read; anti-obesity) benefits of cooking your family a wholesome meal every day.

As the study authors show, though, families are still cooking at home and the choices surrounding their meals are often constrained by time and taste. The latter is a challenge for middle-class families attempting to broaden the palets of children, and more a matter of bulk buying for the working-class. It’s the former that raises similar issues to Mullainathan et. al.’s work on how resource scarcity affects everyone, or the idea that constraints (time, money, etc) funnel our choices.

However, not all choices are equal, and the class obstacles here really are a difference of kind. I don’t want to diminish middle-class families by broadsiding their concerns with #firstworldproblems on introducing food diversity, because privilege shouldn’t preclude the legitimacy in confronting your very real challenges, but in the case of poorer families money, time, and transportation imposes a much more severe scarcity tax on cooking options.

That is, when your primary concern is whether you have enough grub in the first place the scarcity tax is probably too steep to believe that (while recognized as laudable) healthy and socially-valuable food consumption is an achievable goal.

The poor and working class moms were less likely to talk about ideal meals in that way. A few mentioned organics, but they generally said that they couldn’t afford organic food or that organic food was for rich people. I remember one mom who said that she had heard something about organic and why to eat organic, but that she made it go in one ear and out the other because she didn’t have the money. In general, poor moms were focused on making sure their families got enough to eat, but they also talked about trying to give their families good or healthy food.

Of course none of this happens in a vacuum, and being the good sociologists that they are the researchers discuss these findings in the larger context of how those restrictions are introduced (emphasis mine):

We weren’t surprised that money was an issue for the poorer families. A lot has been written on how healthy ingredients are more expensive, so that was one issue. In addition, a lot of the poorer families didn’t have reliable transportation, so they would only shop once a month. They wouldn’t buy very much fresh produce at all, because it goes bad quickly.

Some of the families didn’t have a kitchen table, or enough chairs for everyone, or lacked basic kitchen utensils, so that was another obstacle. When we hear about how we all need home-cooked meals, there are a lot of assumptions of what that looks like.

[…]

Most people would agree that it sounds nice to slow down and enjoy a home cooked meal. But just telling people to do a better job doesn’t really address all these bigger issues that affect families’ abilities to make these meals. These are things that range from food access, to where the grocery store is located, to wages, to having jobs with predictable hours. If this is important that people be able to eat home-cooked, healthy meals, we have to think about what we need to do to get there.

Right, because at the end of the day this is about the big picture. So if your assumptions about home-cooked meals for low-income families resemble anything other than the reality of the socioeconomic structure in which they’re cooked then you’re thinking about it incorrectly. And if your ideal meal is anything along the lines of artisanal cooking then you’re probably excluding, as Rich Yeselson notes, most of the working class. Indeed, when some of your family subjects don’t even “have a kitchen table, or enough chairs for everyone, or […] basic kitchen utensils” then it’s probably not for a lack of principled willpower that organic kale chips are not on the grocery list.

While Bowen mentions several approaches to making it easier for folks to do better, it’s difficult to envision any (or even all of them combined) coming close to addressing these bigger issues. For that you have to start talking about jobs with a living wage, or my drainpipe-dream of a basic income guarantee. Until then let’s just agree to not make home-cooking the next DWYL phenomenon, and understand that for many folks cooking at home is about surviving — not necessarily surviving well.

 

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