Watch What You Eat

60. We think of eating as intimate, private, personal. Most of us don’t like to have others watch us eat, and it makes us uncomfortable when they do. Politicians give up any sense of privacy when it comes to eating. Every public mouthful will be photographed, as if the fate of the free world depends on it, and it’s never a pretty sight.

But watching others eat involves more than snapping silly photos of politicians trying to eat corndogs at the Iowa State Fair. Some folks make moral and ethical judgments based on the food that others eat. Omnivores mock the pretentiousness of vegans and vegetarians. Vegans and vegetarians in turn accuse bloodthirsty omnivores of eating Bambi. A skinny mom may criticize every forkful that goes into her daughter’s mouth: “A second on the lips; a lifetime on the hips.” Health nuts may dominate dinner conversations with condemnations of your food choices, and then rummage through your garbage to see if your food includes GMOs.

We often have people watching what we eat. So maybe it’s no surprise that watching the eating habits of others was also part of the grisly process that brought enslaved people to the New World. Much of what we know about the eating habits of Africans during our colonial period comes from the observations of slave traders. They not only had to estimate the amount of food that would be needed to keep the enslaved alive during the infamous Middle Passage, but also to determine what kinds of food to bring along, i.e., what food the slaves would eat. (Jessica B. Harris  gives a good summary.)

After all, every culture has its dietary taboos. Americans are generally horrified at the prospect of eating insects, larvae, dogs, or horses, even though these are enjoyed by other cultures, and, as in the case of insects, may even form an essential part of the diet. So too, the various African nations had their own taboos and preferences.

Slave traders had a financial stake in encouraging their human cargo to eat, however minimally. Half-starved slaves wouldn’t bring as much money at auction. When the winds were unfavorable and the voyages took longer than expected, it was not unknown for captains to feed the slaves the crew’s rations. The enslaved were worth money, and in a pinch, they could be trained to sail the ship. No one had any such investment tied up in the sailors, who could be replaced at the next port.

Depending on where the enslaved came from, their core diet might be corn, yams, or rice. On ship, that would be supplemented by British fava beans (”horse beans”), salt pork, fish, and palm oil, all in various stages of decomposition. Partially because of the foods themselves, but also because of the preparation methods available and the need to limit rations, Stephanie E. Smallwood says that rations on the voyage were not intended to “support health but rather simply to provide subsistence” on an “intake of nutritionally empty calories.”

All of this depended on close observation: The enslaved sometimes went on hunger strikes and had to be forced to eat. When they were brought up from the cramped lower decks to eat on the main deck, they were guarded by armed sailors, out of fear that the enslaved would seize that moment to try to overpower the crew and take control of the ship. So they had to be watched.


Of course, this obsession with watching what and how the enslaved ate increased by several orders of magnitude once they were sold off to homes, businesses, and plantations. Slaveholders saw rations as an expense reducing their profits, but they also wanted a public posture of paternal benevolence, maintaining that their enslaved workers were somehow well-fed. Even in 2016, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly tried to claim that the enslaved people who built the White House were well-fed. But that’s a story for another time.

For Now…Fast-forward to 1976. Ronald Reagan was running for the Republican nomination against the sitting President, Gerald Ford. Since the 1930s, conservatives had been campaigning against the “New Deal” programs of the Roosevelt Administration. The federal government had tried various food support programs. Then in 1964, the Food Stamp program (now known as SNAP–the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) was passed as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”

Even though most Food Stamp recipients were (and are) white children, many conservative Republicans chose to racialize the issue, making it sound as though middle-class whites had to pay taxes so that “shiftless and lazy” blacks could eat without having to work. This was part of what Ian Haney López has called “dog whistle politics,” i.e., racial appeals in code language. It was part of the so-called “Southern strategy” for luring white voters to the Republican camp. Goldwater had stumbled onto it by default in the 1964 election, then Nixon embraced it explicitly in 1968 and 1972.


Food support remains a favorite target of right-wing social media, often steeped in racism

Then it was Reagan’s turn. While campaigning in the South in 1976, Reagan talked about “you” standing in line at the grocery, waiting to buy hamburger, while a “strapping young buck” uses food stamps to “buy a T-bone steak.” Reagan was criticized for his overtly race-baiting language, and in the northern states, he changed the “strapping young buck” to “some young fellow,” but the underlying appeal, the dog whistle, remained the same.

Note that Reagan’s appeal was purely anecdotal. In 2017, this would fall into the category of “alternative facts.” Reagan never presented any actual evidence that the Food Stamp program was rife with fraud, mainly because it’s not there. In fact, even with the increase in SNAP participation generated by the Great Recession, over the last 15 years the fraud rate in the program has dropped from 4% to 1%.

Instead, Reagan was inviting his followers to observe: Keep track of who is buying what with their food stamps. Monitor those food stamp rations carefully, and take it upon yourself to make sure that the moochers (Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent”) aren’t living too high on the hog with “your” money.

This has become an article of faith in conservative theology. In 2013, for instance, Fox News produced an interview with an annoying California surfer dude purportedly on food support while refusing to get a job. It was over-the-top ridiculous, and appeared to be pure fiction, but for many, it was merely a dramatization of what they already believed.


In 2015, the state legislatures took up the call. Most notoriously, in Wisconsin, Missouri, and Maine, bills were introduced to limit the kinds of food that people on SNAP are allowed to buy, even though it was unlikely that the USDA would give the states a waiver to override federal regulations.

For instance, Missouri state representative Rick Brattin claimed anecdotal evidence of his own in pushing for HB 813. He told the Washington Post, “I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs with their EBT cards. When I can’t afford it on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either” (my italics).

It’s possible that Brattin does in fact spend a lot of time doing the family grocery shopping, so we won’t question the veracity of his observation. The bill he introduced in response would have prevented Missouri SNAP users to buy “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.”

In Wisconsin, AB 177 was passed. It made a special point of going after shellfish. “Under the proposal, people couldn’t buy crab, lobster or other shellfish with food stamps and would have to spend two-thirds of their benefits on produce, beef, pork, poultry, potatoes, dairy products or food available under the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.”

In Maine, SP 195, a bill supported by the Governor, sought to ban a list of items including iced tea, vitamins, dietary substitutes, candy and confections, and “prepared food.“ Never mind that some fried chicken from the Walmart deli might be a pretty good, economical meal for a poor family. One state official complained, “Multiple Red Bulls in one purchase, Rock Star energy drinks, 1-pound bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and 3 gallons of Hershey’s Ice Cream in one purchase…. We have all seen these types of purchases occur – and it’s unacceptable.” (my italics)


Once again, the appeal is to anecdotal evidence, based on purported observations of what groceries other people are buying. In fact, in social media, there’s an entire sub-category of mean-spirited comedy devoted to photos ridiculing poor and/or fat folks buying groceries, usually at Walmart. Someone is watching what you eat, and how you pay for it.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and fretting about the food choices of poor folks also comes from “public health advocates” on both the left and right. These folks observe that poor people are fat, and of course, they think fat people are icky. So their solution is to restrict the types of food that poor folks can buy with their SNAP money. Poor people are thought to be too stupid to know the difference between “junk” food and “healthy” food, and so they must wait for the experts to decide what is “best” for them.

But random, unscientific observations are by definition unreliable. We may indeed see a purchase, but not the context. We have no idea of the multitude of other choices the buyer has already made. The one fact we do know with certainty is that the buyer on food support doesn’t have much to work with. The modern ration is controlled by the amount of money allowed. In 2015, the maximum monthly SNAP benefit for a family of four was $649, or $5.40 per person, per day. There’s just not a lot of money available for extravagant junk food feasts.


As the USDA chart above shows, poor folks eat about the same as rich folk. The poor just have to do it more cheaply, spending only about 40% as much. They’re not on a steady diet of Twinkies.

Many politicians and celebrities have tried the “Food Stamp Challenge,” trying to live on a typical $29 per week benefit. In 2015, Gwyneth Paltrow tried it, and published a photo of her shopping trip:


Any nutritionist would be thrilled by the choices here. In 2012, Fox News personality Sean Hannity  declared that the poor can easily survive on a diet of beans and rice. Well, I suppose. After all, for many decades, the enslaved survived on a ration of cornmeal and salt pork. What’s the difference?

But Ms. Paltrow gave up the challenge after four days, perhaps because vitamins gleaned from “healthy” foods cannot replace missing calories. One observer calculated that the food shown above would provide only about 1000 calories a day. That would make for a great crash diet, but it’s less than two-thirds of what even a sedentary woman requires for normal functioning. It would be, technically-speaking, a starvation diet.

In short, the idea that people are using food support so they can graze all day on bon-bons while they sit in front of the TV watching cartoons is refuted by the very economics of SNAP. Of course, that doesn’t deter others from indulging their deepest paranoid fantasies. Any time someone sees someone else in the grocery line buying a food item that the observer finds objectionable, another call goes out to cut the program. Meanwhile, we don’t see the other 99% who have to improvise, scrimp, and wonder how to get by

Under legal slavery, slaveholders and traders alike kept a close eye on what the enslaved were eating, and were constantly meddling, seeking to control, define, and limit choices. That’s why a fundamental part of freedom includes the right to choose your food, even if you make “bad” choices from time to time.

Parents may try to instill positive food habits in their children, but at some point, wise parents step back and let their kids make their own choices. Why? Because we know instinctively that freedom and dignity require it. That same dignity of choice should be secured for the elderly, women, children, and others who must rely from time to time on the governmental nutritional safety net to survive. People receiving assistance are not slaves. Watching what others eat, especially within the tightly-limited budget imposed by SNAP, is simply none of our business.


Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

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