Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Whole Foods and Ignoring the Ailments of the Poor

I accidentally stumbled on an article called Surviving Whole Foods on Huffington Post.  It overall gave me a chuckle: I've been to Whole Foods maybe once or twice in my life, when I was canvassing for what many have described as a "liberal sweatshop" (hyperbolic but they're well known for labor rights violations) that shall not be named but may or may not be recognized by other people who worked there.  I would pretty solidly agree that Whole Foods is kind of a hellhole, and that said, I identify with most of what this author is trying to express.

There is a bothersome thing within it, though, that I'd like to talk about.  It comes from this statement here:
Ever notice that you don't meet poor people with special diet needs? A gluten intolerant house cleaner? A cab driver with Candida? Candida is what I call a rich, white person problem. You know you've really made it in this world when you get Candida.  
Now, the point here is (if I'm interpreting right) that niche foods (like wheat-free breads, dairy-free cheese, and so forth) are... well, fucking expensive.  Since marketing basically makes it seem as though restricted diets basically involve removing one shitty thing and replacing it with something meant to kind of look and maybe taste vaguely like that shitty thing, the overall perception is that these diets are inherently expensive.

Does this mean poor people don't have dietary intolerances or "candida" (which as far as I can tell is just a neo-hippie alternative-health way of saying "yeast infection")?  No.  It means that they're less likely to be diagnosed with them due to lack of reliable healthcare, less likely to have the income to experiment with diet if they aren't in dire need to, more likely to have a different baseline for what "feels" healthy than a wealthier person, more likely to play the acute-medical-expenses-versus-long-term-maintenance gamble, and perhaps most importantly, less likely to rely on foods specifically marketed for their particular dietary needs.

I mean, there are lots of gluten-free or mostly-gluten-free foods in the cheap section of the supermarket.  It's a huge mistake to assume "gluten-free" means "I spend a small fortune on Udi's products every week."  When I started my own dietary experiments I had zero income other than food stamps and gifts... it's possible to do these things poor, but you're not going to do them in the stereotypical Whole Foods way.  The same can be said for any so-called "premium" diet.  The wealthy way of handling it gets the marketing attention, so people assume it's automatically expensive.  The people who get by without eating bread at all don't get the media attention because it's not marketable to wealthy people.  So we don't hear about it and we assume these conditions are manufactured by wealthy hypochondriacs.  In some ways they are.  But it's not nearly that simple.

Are dietary restrictions such as these particularly common in the poor?  Not as far as I can tell, in part because of the other points I've brought up.  That gamble between long-term raised expenses and acute medical bills makes perfect sense, especially when we're talking about something like yeast infections, the expense it takes to go on one of those neo-hippie candida vitamin and diet regimens might not outweigh the benefit of not having the option of grabbing a relatively inexpensive over-the-counter drug if you do happen to get it... or you just pray it doesn't happen.  And hell, you might not even know.  My first trip to a doctor after years of being poor and uninsured revealed that I had a raging infection that I was entirely unaware of because that was my baseline and I was under the impression it was "normal" to feel that way.  The gut pain I get from whole wheat was also something I thought was just "normal."

So I can sympathize with the sentiments expressed toward the people of Whole Foods and establishments like it, but that doesn't change the fact that there's a major assumption about the supposed robustness of the poor with regard to dietary intolerances and illnesses in contrast to the so-called-manufactured diseases of the wealthy.

And this is a problem, because it's a symptom of a wider acceptance of the lack of healthcare and dietary choices available to the poor more than it is a sign of wealthy arrogance and health stress (although the latter two may certainly be true).  That's where we need to be careful when we talk about subjects like this.  It's much too easy (and ableist) to just dismiss things experienced by a lot of people just because we only hear about them in the media through the mouths of the wealthy.