«Nicolas Larchet École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales Abstract The problem of changing food habits has once again become a major public ...»
Mohamed‘s store is stuffed with a large variety of foods stacked on two shelves surrounded by fortress-like beverage coolers:26 one can find staple foods like bread, rice, pasta and breakfast cereals, but also some fresh foods like milk, eggs, cheese and ham. There is a small kitchen in the back, serving hot food to carry out: fried chicken and seafood, hamburgers, hot sandwiches, corn bread, spaghetti and meatballs are on the menu. There is some fruit, mainly apples and oranges, placed in a cooler on top of piles of cheese, butter and ham, but nobody pays much attention to them. Where vegetables are available in cans there is no fresh equivalent on the shelves; however very occasionally some customers who lack an ingredient at home will come to the store and ask the cook for an onion, a tomato or a bell pepper that she will get from the walk-in cooler.
Cigarettes set apart, three kinds of products make up most of sales: sweet drinks, snacks and hot food from the kitchen. ―Big Hug‖ is one of the top-selling drinks: for only 50 cents, the barrel-shaped 16ounce bottle is a great thirst-quencher. While there is no real juice in it, different fruit flavors are available, such as fruit punch, blue raspberry, orange and grape. The most popular snacks are Cheetos corn chips, often bought in threes as a single dollar will buy three little bags that would otherwise retail for 38 cents each. Among favorites, one can also notice Hershey‘s chocolate bars and Little Debbie‘s pastries. In the kitchen, chicken and seafood platters (that is, fried catfish) are the most popular items on the menu. Both are served on top of large-cut fries in a polystyrene container.
Those items can be grouped into three characteristics. First of all, they are all quite cheap—cheaper than most of the food to be prepared at home, if one takes into accounts transportation to the nearest supermarket, shopping and preparation times as costs. For instance the generously-portioned chicken platter (―5 wings or 5 legs with fries or salad‖) costs US$4.59 with a drink offered, which is also cheaper than the fast food franchise next door where menus cost at least US$6. Second, these goods fall into some criteria of convenience: they are all readily available, do not require any preparation, and are easily eaten with the fingers as soon as one leaves the store—a few customers choose to eat inside the store, while other prefer to sit on the stairs of an apartment complex across the street. Third and finally, they all correspond to what one might call ―comfort food,‖ that is to say high-calorie, energydense rewarding foods, being rich in fats, sugar or salt—a feature known to food scientists as ―palatability,‖ and to the common man as ―tastiness.‖ Some items are even branded to evoke a sense of security and nostalgia: this is conspicuous in the packaging of Little Debbie‘s snacks, with their bold, rounded typefaces calling for ―honey buns‖ or ―marshmallow treats,‖ or in the name of the sweet drink ―Big Hug.‖ So why does virtually nobody buy apples? Apples are both cheap (50 cents each) and readily available but do not fall into the ―comfort food‖ category. Foods rich in fats are not only a source of hedonic reward, they are also the most economical type of foods, that is to say the most calorific for each dollar spent (Darmon et al. 2002; Drewnoski 2004): on a limited budget, the decision to buy potato chips instead of an apple is thus a rational one. Furthermore, the taste for ―comfort food‖ can be seen as a product of class structure, like those ―proletarian hunger-killers‖ defined by anthropologist Sidney Mintz to characterize products such as sugar, coffee, rum and tobacco that became popular among British laborers in the nineteenth century, delivering quick energy, stimulus to greater effort and respite from reality (Mintz 1979: 60).27 Could one imagine better ―hunger-killers‖ than carbonated soft drinks, with their high sugar content and their stomach-filling properties due to carbonation?
Still, there is much more than a direct income effect that can account for the poor‘s consumption practices.28 One can talk here about an effect of ―compensatory consumption,‖ as defined by David Caplovitz in his study of low-income families in New York City in the 1960s to express the meaning of mass consumption for those who ―have little opportunity to base their self-respect and the respect
granted them by others on occupational, educational, or other accomplishments‖ (Caplovitz 1963:
180), reflecting the pattern of ―conspicuous consumption‖ that Veblen (1899) described as symbolizing the superiority of the upper classes. George Orwell used a similar metaphor in discussing food habits of the unemployed in 1930s Great Britain, pointing to the need for unemployment to be ―constantly palliated‖ by cheap, pleasant foods that had to denote abundance and the sense of ease one does not get in other aspects of life (Orwell 1958 : 96).
Among examples of this behavior is a young mother picking her boy up after school who buys eight bars of Hershey‘s chocolate at once—hardly an economically-driven decision. Another day, a seventyyear-old man buys two bags of ice with food stamps. Even if he has no freezer at home, as might be the case, this would still appear to the casual observer as an irresponsible use of money—after all, the food stamp program was designed to alleviate hunger and malnutrition, and ice is certainly not a necessity of life. However, this act can also be seen as a social statement, an affirmation of status and
achievement despite all appearances, echoing Janet Fitchen‘s observations:
When a poor person buys a steak, she or he is committing a symbolic inversion, performing an action associated with the rich and acquiring a food appropriate only to the rich. If the poor person gets the steak with food stamps rather than with cash, the purchase further violates what is thought to be appropriate … It mocks our sense of societal order that demands separation of rich and poor. (Fitchen 1988: 330) Consumers are not the passive recipients of market forces: they engage with products in creative ways, investing them with meanings and purposes that can challenge the social order (de Certeau 1984 ).29 Neither are they the powerless victims of a conspiracy to poison them: the store‘s customers do know that some of their eating habits are not healthy, and for the most part do not need to be educated about it. One of them is a young mother, a regular who comes in almost every day to buy two bottles of cola; that day she goes to the counter with a selection of donuts, buns and rolls. She confesses to Mohamed: ―I‘m getting a bunch of junk,‖ awaiting his answer to free her of her guilt. On another day, James, an obese unemployed man goes to the kitchen table with his chicken platter and liberally adds more salt to his fries. Arriving on the scene, Neshia screams: ―Oh! That‘s too much salt!
You want a blood pressure test? You‘re gonna die!,‖ to which James answers, laughing: ―That‘s how I want to leave!‖ This provocative statement can be seen as the embodiment of a Keynesian ethos, as a way to say: ―In the long run, we are all dead.‖ Such unwillingness to defer gratification is common among those who have little to expect from the future and thus have no incentive to subordinate present desires to future desires (Bourdieu 1984 : 180).
Ostentatious Displays of Desired Wealth Compensatory consumption is at work in areas other than food: it is a defining feature of the customers‘ ―presentation of self‖ (Goffman 1959). Playing with appearances, customers use a whole array of strategies to better their social status in the eyes of others: the minority who own a car may hang their keys on their belt or dramatically put them on the counter when they pay, in everyone‘s view;30 women ostensibly carry their mobile phone, turning it into a fashion accessory among glittering earrings, necklaces, bracelets or sunglasses; an ex-nurse, currently unemployed, still wears her scrubs, and a jobless janitor even keeps his CB radio on; some customers wear their clothes with the price tag on, as to affirm that they have the means to buy those items. Such compensatory practices have been repeatedly observed by students of the American ghetto. Ulf Hannerz made similar observations on concern with clothing in a 1960s ghetto in Washington DC, referring after Erving Goffman to ―impression management‖ and ―exaggerated claims‖ (Hannerz 1969: 80–4), while in Elliot Liebow‘s Tally’s Corner, the group referred to as ―streetcorner men‖ devise a ―shadow system of values‖ where ―failures are rationalized into phantom successes and weaknesses magically transformed into strengths‖ (Liebow 1967: 214).
A minority of customers may resort to intimidation in asserting their economic power. One evening, a leaving customer warns Mohamed: ―You‘ve got a crowd coming!‖ A woman enters the store, followed by eight children and two men, wearing dreadlocks and long white shirts.31 The children start to mix up the merchandise and put their hands into jars of candy, while the woman shouts at them to stop and wait outside, to no avail. Mohamed stoically watches the scene, without saying a word, but when the woman goes to the counter with all kind of snacks and candies, he asks her to recount her money. She looks at him defiantly and shouts: ―You want to check me? I got a thousand dollars on me, do you think I care?,‖ pulling out a wad of 100 dollar bills from her jacket front pocket that she violently puts down on the counter.
Of course, customers do not all measure social value against the same scale. Some may claim loftier, future-oriented interests, as demonstrated in the following example of a woman working for a nonprofit human services agency, discussing with Mohamed the virtues of fruits and vegetables (and sex)
in maintaining a good look:
This is also the case with a short middle-aged man, who declines to take a disposable bag for his
shopping. Mohamed says to him, visibly inspired by our frequent sociological conversations:
For others, claims of social value often focus on statements of comfort and abundance in food choices, or on ostentatious displays of (desired) wealth in clothing behaviors. But these strategies are mostly unconscious if not repressed: in order not to lose face, customers will not recognize that their tastes and the way they present themselves ultimately depend on their economic deprivation. Thus, what could be seen as a mark of social stigma can be reclaimed as an act of cultural pride, as illustrated by the following example.
Calvin is a forty-something man with an ever-present cap and a sharp moustache, living across the street from the store in a subsidized apartment paid for by Catholic Charities. Having spent some time in jail he stayed jobless for a while, before finding work as a dishwasher in a fashionable restaurant on a neighboring avenue; from time to time, Mohamed also pays him to do menial tasks, like cleaning and stacking the shelves. One evening, he comes to the store and buys a white and red checkered cap matching his shirt, cheerfully telling Mohamed he needs it for a date. The next day when he comes in, Mohamed asks him how his date went, and why he still has the price tag on his cap—to which Calvin answers defensively: ―It‘s a black thing, you won‘t get it!,‖ as if racial consciousness was the only way to reclaim one‘s shattered sense of social value.
Conclusion: Social Reasons and Moral Judgments The contemporary food reform movement derives some of its appeal from a noble, democratic premise: that poor communities across the nation are trapped against their will in ―unhealthy‖ eating habits, and that increasing access to affordable, ―healthy‖ foods would free them from this injustice.
Acknowledging the lack of participation of low-income black customers to initiatives aiming to increase fresh food access in their neighborhoods, I decided to pursue my investigation into a convenience store catering to this clientele. There, the customers‘ tastes for high-calorie, ―comfort‖ foods appeared to be determined partly by cost constraints (for instance when buying hot food from the kitchen), while in other situations, the same customer‘s purchases seemed removed from any economic consideration (when buying chocolate, ice or other ―luxuries‖). This apparent contradiction can be resolved by bringing food consumption back into its social context, putting it in relation to other practices: visible in food and clothes preferences but also in attitudes toward work, the dominant pattern of interactions within the store‘s customers appeared to be based on a concern for social respectability, objectified in the form of ostentatious, compensatory consumption practices. In return, the sense of belonging to a distinct ethnic group with its peculiar way of life seemed to legitimate and reinforce compensatory practices that could otherwise be interpreted as a mark of social stigma.
Finally, if at times concerns for health and the environment were brought to the surface, the values embodied in the food reform movement appeared on the whole to be a world away from the customers‘ experiences.32 By assuming that the urban poor would eat more fresh produce if only it were more accessible to them, food reformers may project their own desires onto others, ―outsiders‖ to the mainstream producing their own autonomous system of values.33 Contrary to a reiterated claim made by social scientists, community activists, health professionals and other authorities, there does not seem to be an unmet demand for fresh fruits and vegetables in this city‘s poor black neighborhoods. This does not mean that the customers‘ tastes are the result of a deliberate choice. As I have argued in this paper, they can be explained, at least partly, by objective social conditions.34 Therefore, as others have suggested, improving economic instead of physical access to fresh food might be a better strategy to deal with the obesity epidemic (Drewnowski et al. 2012; Jiao et al. 2012).