Over at Half Sigma, a discussion on two different types of poverty.

Apparently, if you live in Europe or the US/Canada, being poor makes you fat and malnourished.
But if you live in India, or Africa, or South America, or so on, being poor makes you thin and malnourished.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and state that in the “developed” countries of the world, much of the problem is simply with the fact that individual people no longer – to the large extent – know how to cook and, further, have the desire to do so. I’ll admit I am as guilty of this as the next guy; I tend to eat prepackaged meals (canned soup, canned noodle dishes, frozen pizzas) more times during the week than I make my own meals. Making my own meals is reserved for occasions when I have a female guest (they seem to love finding out that yes, guys can cook and cook well) or during the weekends when I’m not reaching home tired and wanting to relax.

The reality is, of course, that some of the prepackaged foods I eat are clearly not as good for me as if I made something vaguely equivalent from scratch. Just about everything is likely to be higher in sodium than it needs to be, though being a borderline supertaster, I tend to want more salt to counteract the bitterness in certain foods that other people miss, unless I’m in a mood for something bitter.

At the same time, however, the “western” diet has changed over the past few decades. At one time, “pure meat” – that is to say, a chicken leg, or steak, or burger – was something people had 2-3 times per week. Lunch counter food looking back 4 decades or more was much fresher and less unhealthy as well. To what degree HFCS causes troubles, or the overabundance of Gluten as cheap filler, I can’t say, except that HFCS was barely noticed back then, and didn’t even get to “GRAS” (“generally recognized as safe”) status by the US FDA until 1976.

At the same time, poor neighborhoods tend to lack healthy options. Comparing “poor” and “middle class” neighborhood grocer’s produce aisle, for instance, will give one a remarkable perspective: there are two versions of one particular chain that I tend to go by on a regular basis. The first, in the midst of the “poor zone” surrounding one side of Southern Tech, devotes less than 1/20 of the store’s floor space to produce, and what they do have tends to be wilted or otherwise unappetizing. On the other hand, the “flagship” version, a few miles south of my house, devotes approximately 1/8 of their floor space to produce and tends to have very fresh, clean and appetizing produce for purchase. Given that produce is listed for the same price at each store, I find myself wondering how much of the difference is because the poor around Southern Tech don’t buy it (and so it sits around and wilts), and how much of it came off the truck half-wilted as the “last pick” from the delivery truck.

It’s also true that the number of fast-food restaurants and crappy little corner stores increases with poor neighborhoods. So by the same token, the neighborhood grocery’s produce is unappealing, the Popeye’s Chicken just outside the tenement door smells really good, and why walk the four blocks to the neighborhood grocery when you can buy (for a suitable markup) the same can of Chef Boyardee Overstuffed Ravioli at the corner store on your own block?

As well as that, neighbor-on-neighbor crime is up in those neighborhoods. Why try to go somewhere, even a local little park or a walk along the canal, when you’re likely to have someone try to mug you just for being outdoors?

The impact of mostly-sedentary jobs (when the poor are actually working) isn’t to be underestimated, either. In western nations, the poor are likely to be working “minimum wage” jobs. For a little exercise, perhaps stocking shelves, but they may equally be working in the neighborhood fast-food restaurants, or sitting the counter at the corner store/gas station, or any number of “sit in your butt and watch this” type of jobs. By contrast, the poor in developed nations are walking more to get where they go, and tending to do more physical types of jobs.

Circling back around – when I was in school, there was a requirement that students “choose” between either “home economics”, or a couple other optional courses. Because the other optional courses didn’t interest me, I wound up as one of the 4 boys taking home ec that semester (they wouldn’t let us do wood shop until 8th grade, which I did take when I could). Even looking at the course back then, it was rather a joke; there were 4 weeks of sewing that wound up creating one plush football, 4 weeks of “this is how you make a budget” (which most of the kids failed at), and four weeks of “meal planning” out of which 80% of the class wrote up exactly the same weekly plan based on the very few things they’d been taught to make. Since the home ec room had stoves but we weren’t allowed to turn the gas on to use them, “cooking” was rather pointless, and the most appetizing thing the class ever created were peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. As I was given to understand, by the time my brother and sister went through that school, home ec was shut down entirely.

By comparison, looking back a few decades, it was expected that most households – and most individuals – knew how to cook, at least enough to survive. The basics of making a soup, making a sandwich, grilling, baking, broiling… as far as the middle and poor classes were concerned, at least, they were necessary life skills. In an age when one can stock up the freezer with “hungry man” dinners (or even “lean cuisine”, which are anything but), why would one bother to learn to really cook? The phenomenon of the stay-at-home wife also offers at least some option for a leaner, healthier diet inasmuch as having someone who (a) has the time to be at home preparing a meal and (b) handles food preparation and meal planning regularly, definitely was going to do wonders for keeping some of the nastier stuff out of a waistline.

Category: Elsewhere, Market

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12 Responses to Cooking For Poor People

  1. Nanani says:

    Wow. My high school had home ec as an option (I never took it) but the “how to make a budget” class was non-optional in first year high school. It was a half-semester with the other half being typing.

    Where I live now, though, it’s generally assumed that men can’t cook at all, and younger generations (anyone under 40) can barely cook regardless of gender.
    Not sure how income levels factors in.

  2. trumwill says:

    In western nations, the poor are likely to be working “minimum wage” jobs. For a little exercise, perhaps stocking shelves, but they may equally be working in the neighborhood fast-food restaurants, or sitting the counter at the corner store/gas station, or any number of “sit in your butt and watch this” type of jobs.

    While this is true compared to the Indians, it’s worth noting here, though, is that the jobs of the poor in the US is generally less sedentary than those up the economic food chain. They are also more likely to walk more places for lack of a car.

    Ultimately, though, I think that this gets lost for the same reason that exercise has not been shown to be particularly effective at weight loss. Exercise, standing all day, walking around and carrying stuff, make you hungry. So you tend to eat back the calories you burn off.

  3. Mike Hunt says:

    When you mentioned cooking for female guests, I thought that Clancy was VERY open minded until I noticed who the author was. 😉

    Just as an aside, I’m surprised you couldn’t take wood shop until eighth grade. From fifth through eighth grades, it was mandatory for all students to take one quarter of cooking, one quarter of sewing, and two quarters of wood shop. In fifth grade it was one period a week; after that it was two consecutive periods per week, to allow for more time-consuming activities. Then, in high school, those classes became electives.

  4. web says:


    Welcome to Melleorki Public. “Wood Shop” consisted of an entire semester before we were allowed to actually make three cuts (drill holes actually) to a piece of wood and insert pegs to turn it into a picture frame holder. We were at the epicenter of what eventually became “OMG we are so terrified of being sued for a skinned knee that we better tie them to their desks during the day” syndrome.

  5. web says:


    Heartily agreed about the fact that junk “snack” food, or even snack food in general, is far too easy to come by in most western workplaces. I’ve noticed that if I wait about an hour after doing something strenuous, I don’t overeat nearly as much as if I’m fresh off of exercise.

  6. trumwill says:

    Wood shop was first available in my school district in the 7th grade. Before that, electives in general are kept to a minimum. I don’t even think art and theater are available below the 7th.

  7. Kirk says:

    I stopped by the grocery store for a few items, and was absolutely shocked at how many people were there–and how much food they were buying. Some of these people had entire cartfulls of frozen dinners.

    It was the first of the month. I’m guessing that’s when those food-stamp cards get recharged? A lot of the people there that night were kind of greasy and nasty-looking; they sure didn’t look like the people I’d see the other 29 days of the month.

    And I don’t recall seeing much in the way of vegetables in their carts.

  8. web says:


    yes, the “food stamp cards” given out these days recharge at the beginning of the month.

    Personally I tend to use a lot of canned vegetables, mostly because I can buy them in bulk (canned corn, canned green beans, etc).

    I have the feeling I’d do better if I had a larger freezer. Situation right now, sharing half of a freezer with the renter, doesn’t make it as easy to make a big pot of stew and freeze 2/3 of it for thawing and eating later.

  9. trumwill says:

    There’s a KFC near where Clancy used to work in Sierra by a Tribal Reservation. The staffing would very by which week of the month it was. The first week it would be fully staffed because everyone just got their cards refueled. By the last week, they would just close up because nobody had any money left.

  10. web says:


    that doesn’t surprise me. The KFC by Melleorki Golf Club (approx. 2 miles away and near to a predominantly section 8-filled set of apartment complexes) was much the same way.

  11. stone says:

    I don’t know, I think my weight gain is correlated with my cooking skills.

    Also my drinking skills.

  12. Maria says:

    It’s harder to cook from scratch and the working poor would obviously rather just veg out with a frozen dinner after a hard day’s work (and usually, a long commute.)

    The non-working poor have no excuses, except maybe if they live in the inner-city where the closest food outlets are convenience stores (but even then, you can find SOME decent food at convenience stores.)

    When I was poor I survived on oranges (they were something like 10 pounds for five dollars), wheat toast, eggs (cheap protein) and spaghetti with meat sauce. Turned out to be a pretty good diet.

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