Doritos for breakfast? Only if they’re Cool Ranch!

29 03 2012

When I was thirteen, way back in November of 1997, (side note: remember Hanson? Good times.) my family was hosting Thanksgiving. Among other things, like gratitude, the warmth and love of my family, and lots of football, this meant that there was a rather large, very dead bird on our kitchen table.

It had never bothered me before, that dinner was a dead animal. But for some reason, it suddenly struck me. Perhaps because my mother insisted on calling the turkey “the carcass.” Why would anyone do that? But for some reason, she did, and my vegetarianism was born.

Something interesting happens when you become a vegetarian–meat eaters feel threatened. You might think that this is ridiculous. Who cares what anyone else eats? Yet I’m consistently surprised. When I turn down meat, I’m typically asked, after a little while, if I’m a vegetarian. I’m then asked for how long, why, do I eat fish, do I get enough protein, am I a vegan, do I miss meat, no seriously why, and other logistical concerns.  (Fifteen years, I don’t want to eat meat, no, all Americans do, don’t get between me and my cheese, seriously I don’t like meat.)

Then the questions get challenging. “But why do you think it’s ok to eat eggs?” “I bet your shoes are made with leather!” “What if the animals are treated well?” “Then why do vegetarians eat replacement meat, if they don’t like it?” To which I pretty much always have to answer, please shut up, I just want to enjoy my falafel in peace.

Obviously, this has nothing to do with social work. Right? Silly, everything does. That’s pretty much my life this blog’s thesis statement.

Participants have a way of finding out that I don’t eat meat. It comes up. It’s not something I consider relevant, but it’s also not particularly personal, and I don’t mind sharing. At Anonymous Youth Center this point was often raised when we gave the kids snacks, and they wished for burgers or chicken nuggets. At Anonymous Agency, it’s usually at agency celebrations when I don’t partake in the spare ribs, or when we’re discussing holiday traditions. It’s interesting, because my kids are often shocked and appalled. They don’t know vegetarians. They didn’t know this was even an option. What’s wrong with you, SJ?!

Not long ago, a family session wrapped up thusly:

Mom: “You ever been to the wings place down the street?”
SJ: “I actually haven’t.”
Mom: “But it’s right there!”
SJ: “It is, but I haven’t been there.”
14 y/o: “What, you too good for chicken wings?”
SJ: “Too good for…I don’t eat meat.”
10 y/o: “You’re a veterinarian?!”
13 y/o: “She’s a vegetarian, idiot.”
10 y/o: “So no chicken?”
SJ: “No. Chicken is meat.”
Mom: “What about fish?”
SJ: “Still no.”
13 y/o” “Gimme a pound, fish is gross. Crabmeat?”
SJ: “Nothing that was alive.”
14 y/o: “Oh, so it’s like that.”

I’m still not sure what it’s like.

It starts to drive me a little crazy that people I barely know, at work or elsewhere, are so concerned with what I eat. I honestly do not care if others are vegetarians or not. I have woken up on more than one occasion, while visiting family, to find that my uncle had slaughtered a goat in the night. Hey, mutton stew comes from somewhere. It doesn’t faze me.

Until it starts to.

I have no interest in converting others to vegetarianism. I don’t think parents who don’t feed their children a purely organic diet and keep only dried fruits and fresh angel tears in the house as snacks are neglectful. When I grew up, McDonald’s was a sometimes food (you couldn’t pay me to eat it now…wait you could pay me, but I wouldn’t enjoy it) and we had soda at parties. We played sports and went through normal cycles of packing on a few pounds and then growing six inches in seemingly a week. I hope I would be similar as a parent, and resist the terror of the “obesity epidemic” type stuff that prompts some parents to think this is ok. (Free social work advice: it’s not.)

But then I have my moments with my families. If you listen to NPR, you hear about “food deserts.” It’s true, there are many more options for grocery shopping in wealthier areas than there are in the Bronx. But honestly? It’s not bad. There is a major grocery store right by my office. A third of the street is taken up by bodegas, most of which sell fruit and vegetables and accept food stamps.

Every day the kids come to us after school with chips and candy. Not a twenty five cent bag. The kind you get when all your friends are coming over and you’re trying to entertain. They then leave, plotting if they have enough money for more chips and candy. I once thought I was going to have to rescue an infant because his grandmother was feeding him Windex from a bottle. It turned out it was some unnatural blue “beverage,” so I didn’t have to make a call. More toddlers than I can count eat Doritos in the office for breakfast. And then when they start day care, they don’t want to eat the oatmeal that’s provided…it’s so strange!

While it’s not good for the kids to eat this crap and develop these habits, it’s not what you’d call a risk factor, though I know some people think it should be. (For the record, I’m not one of them.) But it’s frustrating. We hear all the reasons and explanations–people don’t have access to fresh, healthy groceries in low income areas, food stamps won’t pay for some healthy items, people aren’t educated in terms of what is good for them, working-poor parents are too stressed and busy to prepare a home-cooked meal regularly, some of these things are cultural. These are certainly factors, but at some point and in many scenarios we’re just making excuses.

Is anyone surprised to hear that broccoli is healthy? I think we’re all educated on that point. Food stamps aren’t perfect, but in New York they can be used at farmer’s markets, and they do cover many healthy choices. Water is cheaper than soda, yes? Toast or cereal are fairly straightforward, and don’t require the family sitting together at the table after hours of someone slaving away. My aunt, a public health nurse, is always fighting the idea that frying everything and eschewing diet soda is a traditional Navajo way.

I don’t want to make myself any more of the crazy white lady than I already am. I don’t want this to be another thing my families think I just don’t get. There’s no way I’m going to pretend that orange soda for a four month old is just another choice. But when we’re already asking a family to do some much, getting critical over how they feed their children, the most basic way that they provide care, is just too much. All I can do is model another way, provide some other options, remember how annoying it is when people don’t mind their own damn business about how I eat, and let my heart be warmed when my girls’ group requests celery with peanut butter over pizza.

All while remembering how much joy a blue raspberry Slush Puppy brought me as an eight year old.

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14 responses

29 03 2012
CT

You’re so, right, SJ–there are so many excuses. People know fruits and vegetables are healthy. They’re also just as easy as opening a bag of chips–just open the bag of snap peas or carrots. I hear the excuse, “My kids won’t eat that.” Well, if they’re hungry enough, they will. If you give them the option of an orange or apple, they’ll pick one of those. If you say banana or snickers, well, come on–I’d pick the candy too. I think parents often just don’t want to fight over something else–there’s already so much to disagree about with family. I’m also somewhat of a non-meat-eater, and this gets all sorts of questions, maybe more than vegetarians, because I don’t have a label for my choices. I just call it smart eating. I don’t like red meat or poultry (although sometimes I partake) and I eat fish somewhat regularly. People need to put a label on it, but there isn’t one. Whatever, the point is, I agree and this is so important for children and the world’s future. Children without proper nutrition don’t develop properly (there are several brain studies on this; see http://www.upsidedownorganization.org/). This has several implications for the type of person they’ll become and their capacities for things like compassion. It’s truly amazing how nutrition can affect people–forever.

29 03 2012
jeni

I think it’s really hard to tell a family anything especially what their child should eat, but I work at a head start program with a fantastic kitchen and healthy meals. The whole point is choice, as you say. The whole point is offering options so that children can develop healthy habits and a taste for them. We also understand the importance of food and energy to a child’s day. If they’re hungry they can’t learn. Period.

My major issue with unhealthy foods is when they’re used as a reward. I saw this when I worked in a private preschool and I see it now with my head start families. Food is food. It’s what you take in to nourish you and when you start to give candy as something you get for doing something you should be doing anyhow, it sends a message. I knew a girl who would smack her mother on the back until she got skittles. I knew a little boy with his grandfather who was richer than rich and he also whined to get his daily cheeseburger which he was given immediately.

Let’s help kids get on the healthy eating bandwagon. Not that I also haven’t enjoyed a McDonald’s cheeseburger happy meal in my day…

1 04 2012
socialjerk

Yes, I’ve been hearing more and more about schools and other programs giving kids candy as a reward. I’m surprised to hear that anyone is still doing that! That’s good to hear that you guys have a good kitchen. When I worked in day care/pre-school, we had to make do with very little and gave the kids some odd choices. (Still, the biggest hit was always mandarin oranges.)

29 03 2012
jeni

Also I’ve been watching a lot of cooking networks and as it turns out fresh veggies and fruits are actually much cheaper than frozen ones. So there’s one more excuse out the window.

1 04 2012
socialjerk

Exactly. I know for myself, if I buy a bag of Oreos I’ll sit down and eat it. If I don’t have them, I won’t. That’s especially true for kids who don’t have money and can’t run out and get whatever they want. it’s about what is provided to them.

29 03 2012
More Than Greens

“I’m then asked for how long, why, do I eat fish, do I get enough protein, am I a vegan, do I miss meat, no seriously why, and other logistical concerns. (Fifteen years, I don’t want to eat meat, no, all Americans do, don’t get between me and my cheese, seriously I don’t like meat.)”

Oh, my goodness – switch “fiftteen” for “nine” and “Americans” for “Australians” and I have had that same EXACT annoying conversation countless times. Sigh…

I whole-heartedly agree with your entire post!

1 04 2012
socialjerk

We should probably start asking them really detailed questions about their eating habits. “Are you getting enough fiber? I’m concerned you might experience bowel irregularity!”

Thanks for reading 🙂

29 03 2012
AlannahRose

Another vegetarian here… I tell people I was basically vegetarian from birth (because from the earliest age I can remember, I didn’t like meat or want to eat it), but I wasn’t allowed to officially quit eating it until I was 15 or so. Especially back then (1986), I got all of those questions and I have had every possible conversation about it that you can imagine over the years. I don’t get why it’s so threatening to people, but it is. I am like you – not out to “convert” anyone, and I never bring it up – but people never stop getting defensive over it anyway!

I also grew up in a house where junk food was plentiful (we had Ding Dongs & Twinkies for breakfast) and yet I naturally gravitated towards the broccoli. I even completely gave up processed sugar for 5 years or so, of my own free will. I don’t know what planet I came from but I’m thankful!

1 04 2012
socialjerk

I was also never a big fan of meat. I ate it, but I wasn’t one to crave steaks or something. And no processed sugar for five year?! I take my veggie hat off to you 🙂

27 04 2012
AlannahRose

You shouldn’t necessarily take your hat off to me… not eating sugar for so long really messed me up when I went back to eating it! My system has never been the same. I don’t recommend it!

29 03 2012
Tracey

Hmm, wondering about the social worker and vegetarian correlation!? I’ve been vego for 7 years…and still get those boring questions at least once a week, and the smug ones about “so you still eat eggs/milk/cheese/honey?” and “don’t you have leather seats in your car?”

I sometimes answer “Well, that’s vegetarianism in a post-modern world”, which is enough to baffle anyone asking!

1 04 2012
socialjerk

Haha, yes I imagine “post-modern” would shut some people down. The smug ones are funny, because I’ve never really felt like I’m better than anyone because I don’t eat meat. Assumptions are silly…

1 04 2012
sarah

It is so hard. Personally, I’m a vegetarian, I try to grow most of my food, I believe in local and sustainable eating for the environment, animal welfare, and human welfare (the people who work in the factory farming system do not have it easy…).

But my clients, mostly middle-aged, very poor, mentally ill men… if I can get them to even go to the grocery store, even if they’re buying all prepackaged crap, full of sodium and preservatives, and cheap meat from god-knows-where full of god-knows-what, it’s a victory. I feel so hopeless when I think of the messed up food systems in our country and how hard it is for the very poor and the disabled to get decent food, and how very low on the priority list that even is for a person who can barely pay the rent and get around the city.

It’s true that eating healthy is generally cheaper than eating prepackaged stuff, but it takes a lot more knowledge, planning, and cognitive abilities in general (and this could also translate to just focus and memory which you might be short on if you’ve got a bunch of kids and no money). You can carry a candy bar in your bag for a month until you want it but if you buy a banana you need to eat it today. You can bake your own bread and it’s cheaper and healthier but even most of my friends with master’s degrees and lots of free time don’t do that, so who are we kidding?

1 04 2012
socialjerk

I imagine mental illness makes an already delicate and complicated problem like nutrition even more difficult. For the most part, I’m not talking about mentally ill adults when I’m talking about my work. (We do work with that population at times, even though they should be in a more intensive program. Oh, funding…) My thing is, if an adult wants to eat a Cadbury creme egg for dinner–um, not that I’ve ever done that–it is what it is. But when a person is responsible for children, they need to make an effort to provide better options. And when my kids are hungry, a candy bar, banana, play-doh, whatever, is not going to get carried around for a month, whatever they’re offered is getting eaten.

And baking your own bread is a lot to ask (I know I don’t do that, except when it’s soda bread, and that’s more of a cake you put butter on) but what I’m talking about here are the simple choices. The things that aren’t more complicated–buying a box of Cheerios for breakfast instead of a bag of chips. That doesn’t require more planning, and as much as we speak negatively about food stamps, they do cover a variety or easy, healthy choices.

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