I never expected my last experiment of eating on $3.30/day for 200 days to reach as wide an audience as it did in my latest blog post on Stuff, with republication on Daily Mail Australia and response blog posts on the Pantograph Punch and The Kiwi Blog. 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, the wording choices and phrases I used were far from ideal, and allowed for many different interpretations of the post – hence I felt a follow-up post was necessary.
Firstly, the expression “tasting poverty”, while intended as a play on words implying how I experienced a tiny aspect of the life of poverty (food being one small aspect, and even then I had weekends off), came across to many as having experienced true material poverty when I definitely have not. I retract this statement and acknowledge how privileged I have been with the opportunities provided to me; for living in New Zealand (a huge privilege we all have here), for my family, for my education, and for thousands of people who have heavily influenced my life positively.
As for the diet, I agree with those who pointed out my diet was far from ideal, especially the minimal fruit & vegetables when compared to the NZ Heart Foundation’s Healthy Heart visual food guide, though the point to demonstrate here was that I lived on an OK diet balanced with exercise where I remained healthy and ensured I wouldn’t develop micronutrient deficiencies through my limited fruit & veges (these were unfortunately cropped out of the header photo which didn’t help). For a more thorough assessment of the price of healthy food vs 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 many 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 amongst many other factors.
I think many critics of the post held views I agree with however, expressing that poverty was so much more than my basic experiment, in that the real difficulty is the lack of security and control about what will happen next, the family dynamics such as those looking after children, the employment status such as working 2-3 jobs just to get by – and many more, all of which are genuine issues that I’ve never experienced being in a privileged position. My argument here is that by isolating out the cost of food component as I did in my experiment, we would be able 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(s), where optimising the family’s diet (fairly) takes a back seat to keeping the family afloat, and 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 those where binge drinking, family violence or dietary preferences to junk food are the primary cause, in which case monetary support wouldn’t be particularly helpful, and interventions targeting these specific behaviours may be more effective, just as has been done with smoking successfully in New Zealand.
To give examples of such interventions, these include limiting marketing of junk foods to children, taxing junk foods (arguably the most important as seen by tobacco taxation, though the logistic/mechanics of this are challenging) and even marketing campaigns towards making eating healthy/at home as “cool” as fast food can be – New Zealand in particular is famous for its effective culture-changing ads in this regard, whether it’s the “Legend” Anti-Drink Driving Campaign or the celebrity-filled Smoking – Not Our Future Campaign.
In isolating the monetary aspect through my experiment to show money is not the major determinant, as has previously been written about here, I argue that our focus can be directed into areas which would be highest yield in improving our nutrition; of which 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” vs. “the terrible environment” at fault for our problems (both of which can be tempting assumptions to make), it is important to appreciate the complexity of these situations as a combination of many factors. In isolating the relation between money and diet through my experiment, I specifically argue that we can potentially improve our nutrition with other higher yield social interventions than direct food handouts/breakfast programs.
One small concept that will by no means alone solve poverty, though in isolating and examining each factor individually, we can start making some sense of the complexity, in order to engage in healthy debate to move our nation forward beyond the current divide.