Poor Mothers Do Not Have The Luxury Of Considering The Nutritional Value Of Food

Photographed by Anna Jay.
The following is an extract from Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power by Lola Olufemi, an exploration of how feminism got hijacked as a commodity up for purchase, and how it must be reclaimed as a vital tool for fighting back against injustice. Looking at everything from state violence against women to the fight for reproductive justice, transmisogyny and gendered Islamophobia, this book shows that the struggle for gendered liberation can change the world for everybody when we refuse to think of it solely as women's work.
On the commute home from work, mothers across the country are already thinking about what to make for dinner. For the poorest women, often this thought process is filled with anxiety.
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They do not have the luxury of considering nutritional value: of mulling over and picking the foods that might be best for their child’s development or health. The demands on their body and time mean they can only think about what will fill their stomachs. Maybe they’re counting coins, maybe they are thinking about how best to utilise the last can of beans from the food bank. Nearly half of single parents in the UK – working or unemployed – live in relative poverty. The poorest women are trapped in low paid, insecure work often without benefits or security; every area of their lives and their children’s lives are affected.

If you are poor or have ever been poor, you understand that food is about much more than what you eat. It is the difference between women able to buy fresh produce straight from a supplier and women who skip meals to ensure that their kids do not go hungry. Research by the Food Foundation found that 4 million children in the UK live in households that would struggle to afford to buy enough fruit, vegetables and fish to meet ‘official’ nutrition guidelines. While it is right to question the purpose of ‘nutritional guidelines’ and to understand that health is a complex, shifting and ever-changing idea, inequalities in access to different kinds of food are stark. Low-income households are more likely to be concentrated in inner-city areas inhabited by black people and people of colour. The fast-food shops that line the corners of inner city areas are political agents. The differences in air quality, road safety and the number of open and accessible green spaces in each borough are not merely a matter of chance. When feminists proclaim that poorer women have a lower quality of life, they mean that just by virtue of where they live, they are already more likely to die prematurely. When we begin to think about food outside the realm of what we as individuals ‘choose’ to put in our bodies and instead consider the political factors that shape which foods we can access, it becomes clear that food is a feminist issue.

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Often, single parent households headed by women are demonised for the rise in childhood obesity rates – this fatphobic narrative scolds mothers for the lack of attention to their children’s diets. News and media outlets drum up a moral panic about children getting fat – reaffirming the idea that to be fat is to be wrong just by virtue of existing. The association between fatness and lazy parenting makes clear that the former should be avoided at all costs. It signals to fat women and girls that their bodies exist as evidence of lack of education, due diligence and care. But the government focus on ‘lowering obesity’ does little to address the way that poverty limits our nutritional choices. A feminist approach to food recognises that the aim is not to eradicate fatness, but to undo the conditions that cause a disparity in our access to different kinds of food. Nobody has a monopoly on what is healthy. To pretend as if there were a single received wisdom about what a ‘healthy’ diet or lifestyle is, is to completely ignore how relative the concept of health is.
The conditions that we live in affect everything: from what we eat, to how we prepare it to how we present it. Living in a deeply oppressive society robs us of the ability to think about food as nourishment. To be nourished means to be brimful, satisfied and to treat our bodies with loving-kindness. Nourishment is the opposite of policing and gatekeeping. Nourishment rejects any attempt to blame us for our bodies, to shame us for what we look like or the food we eat. Nourishment rejects dieting. Nourishment is a feminist project because for too long, women’s bodies and what they consume have been monitored. Women are blamed if their children eat too much or too little, if they eat the wrong kind of food or if they stop eating altogether. Food is something we need to survive, but all of the pleasure of food – of making meals, of sharing them with the ones we love – is tainted by surroundings that dictate that food is fuel and fuel keeps us going, ensuring that we can work and continue to be productive. ‘Food as fuel’ leads to diets based on necessity: stripped back, bland meals packed with protein, consumed quickly and without ceremony. This keeps many women trapped in a cycle of eating, but never tasting.
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Body positivity mantras inform us that we should view food not as the enemy, but as a source of energy because it makes our body do things. We should be grateful that food makes our arms, legs and brains work. But this mantra falls short by treating action as the only positive outcome of consumption. It rests on the idea that we should be grateful for food not just because it exists, but because of what it does for our bodies. It treats bodies as if they were merely vehicles for action and not ambivalent, changing houses for the things that make us human. Rethinking the relationship between our bodies and the food we eat means rejecting the logic of functionality. Because of the way our societies are built, our bodies fail us all the time, so does the food we eat.
What if our bodies are chronically ill? What if food does not give us energy? What if the food we eat makes us sick? What if our bodies turn against us? What if they get us killed? In a different world, we might eat for the sake of eating: smell, taste, touch and really take time to get to know our ingredients. Feminism is interested in finding new ways to make our lives worth living and while things like food and fashion have often been dismissed as frivolous, they are modes of expression. One day, we might be freer to use food to tell stories about ourselves: our cultures, histories, and memories. A liberated future means a future predicated on pleasure: more love, more good meals shared together in new and exciting ways. But in order to achieve this, there must be a wholesale rethinking of food: from identifying the unjust labour practices that produce ingredients, the labour that is involved in preparing food and the role of food production in climate catastrophe. Across the world, women’s lives are implicated in food production and distribution in life-threatening and exploitative ways. If food is a feminist issue, the fight is not just about what our meals should taste like.
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