Thinking about food and privilege

This article, Check your food privilege, came across my newsfeed recently and it got me thinking about food and privilege and my own history of food choices.

Carrie Salum writes, “I believe eating consciously and according to your own convictions is important. But also, eating “clean” is a unique privilege only a few specific groups of people can subscribe to.

So, can we acknowledge that the way we want to eat is not always the way we are able to eat? And before we start spouting the science behind it or quoting from the latest Netflix documentary/TED Talk, can we just acknowledge that eating according to your convictions is a privilege?”

When I meet with nutritionists to talk about making better food choices (now that’s privilege) I often announce proudly that I don’t eat fast food. But really it’s not something I should be proud about. I’ve never really liked the standard drive thru fare. Pizza? Now that’s a different matter.

I suspect my own dislike of fast food isn’t about healthy eating, really. It’s that I didn’t grow up eating fast food. My parents are British and we emigrated to Canada in the late 60s when I was very young. While meals may have been dull there wasn’t much fast food around. My parents were also bakers and they were dismissive and disdainful of North American food. I learned to say “artificial preservatives” at the age of four. My father taught me to say it to explain why I didn’t like ketchup. Precocious brat.

I did like commercial white bread and packaged baked goods. (The Canadian equivalent of the Twinkie was the Vachon cake, forbidden in my house.) My love of puffy white bread stayed with me. I even wrote about it here in a piece called An Ode to Hotel Toast in Philosophers on Holiday. POH was an actual, paper, pre-internet zine that was mailed around.

When I was in Grade Five  MacDonalds opened in Saint John, New Brunswick I begged to be taken for a burger. But they came with ketchup and pickles (no “you choose” then) and I thought they were awful. Because teenagers ate there on Friday nights after the teen skate (I was such a Canadian youth) I learned to like the fries, the milkshakes and the fried fish sandwiches instead.


Luckily my home town of Bedford, Nova Scotia had a less commercial, more local, alternative, The Chickenburger. For a few years after becoming a vegetarian chicken burgers from the Chicken burger remained a guilty pleasure.

For 70 years, The Chickenburger has been a destination for families and friends alike. Today, the historical landmark remains a community icon. It is also heralded as a Canadian gem, being the oldest drive-in diner in Canada.

From the beginning, The Chickenburger was built on quality and little has changed since its humble beginnings. The same chicken recipe crafted in 1940 is still used to ensure customers keep coming back for the same great taste. The commitment to quality products complimented by excellent customer service is the foundation on which The Chickenburger was built and still maintains. The founder and matriarch, Mrs. Innes, affectionately known to locals as, ‘The Chickenburger Lady’ was an integral part of quality control and her high standards will always be upheld.

Now I’m a vegetarian so there’s little at the standard fast food restaurant I can eat anyway. I’ll blog more later about other ways that my upbringing affected my food choices, about why growing up with less means there is always milk in my fridge now. It’s a real mark of privilege to never run out of milk, or if you do, to have it not be for reasons of how much money you have at hand.

And I’m not endorsing the sentiment in the image below–that all hate of fast food is really hate of poor people masked as virtuous eating–but I do think our attitudes to food are complicated than they seem at first blush.

What’s your attitude to fast food? Where did that attitude come from? What’s your story?


7 thoughts on “Thinking about food and privilege

  1. I’m especially interested to hear more about how your upbringing has affected your food choices. I’ve had to think about that a lot recently–I feel more virtuous for not drinking soda or coffee on a regular basis, but that’s really just because I grew up not drinking either.

    Choosing to eat fast food can also mean that you’ve just prioritized something above food–right now, I eat fast food more than I would like, because I’ve chosen to prioritize school and work over having time to prepare my own food.

    So you’re right–our food attitudes are almost always more complicated than they initially seem to be.

  2. I wrote about my Canadian childhood and onward, how we were fed at home as a poor family of 6 children, with immigrant Chinese parents.

    In the 1960’s -1970’s, to our parents, fast food was seen as EXPENSIVE. yea. There was actually less junk food fast food choices. My diet of traditional healthy Chinese home cooked meals, resonated with ******my blog readers and several commenters, had similar experiences in North American childhood. They were also poor and with Asian immigrant parents.

    From a coping perspective, if the Asian parent (usually mother) only knows primarily traditional cooking, then that’s what they do and become very creative, frugal in their home cooked meals on a tight budget for several children.

    We saw junk food … more expensive “privilege” by having such food only for special occasions..birthday, Christmas, etc. candy, ice cream, chips, etc.

    However my parents jointly became very aware of fattening/rich/too sugary, etc. food. But they had zero interest in buying premade, frozen food. It was just culturally “different” (stroganoff?) to them and expensive for a family of 6.

    My mother made her own hamburgers. Sometimes she tried putting in abit of oatmeal or wholewheat flour to bind it together, along with egg. MacDonald’s wasn’t as cheap as it is now.

    We happily binged as a family every summer when we went to Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition, travelling from Waterloo, Ont. 🙂 So parents very wisely allowed us to eat junk food at certain times, and divided up as I said 1 coke for 2 children, etc.

    I personally feel incredibly lucky to have had a mother who stuck to her food preparation guns. and with my father, they gracefully limited our fast food intake by simply not buying it with the excuse it was too expensive.

  3. I feel someone who doesn’t have children. Hence, I have lots of time to cook whatever I please (which most of time pleases my partner who cooks also).

    However in observing my sisters who have children, they rarely seem introduce much fast food or premade storebought dinners, but still probably more exposure for their children, than we had as children long ago. I know they work hard to prepare reasonably healthy meals with indulgences here and there. To me, that’s the best way to go.

  4. Growing up we mainly ate at home, but Friday nights were Kentucky fried chicken, Chinese take out or pizza. Sunday after church was McDonald’s.

    As we got older Friday night was usually a restaurant.

    I grew up in a very Canadian upper middle class home. I can’t say I ever wanted for anything.

    I have gone back and forth with my thoughts on prepackaged and fast food. I think there is nothing wrong with a quick meal. I prefer a rotisserie chicken, but will happily feed my kids KFC. Sometimes Th fast food choice can be better than something home made. Even McDonald’s has ok choices. There burgers are just burgers.

    my family is also an upper middle class family.

    I am celiac. I can’t eat much fast food. And now I’m experimenting with a Ayurvedic vegetarian diet.

    I would say my personal food choices are a result of privilege. I have the time and funds to eat however I want, and so I can be picky.

    I have never had a time when food of all sorts wasn’t available. I, sure my thoughts would be different if I had.

  5. I’ve grown up with immense privilege around food. I literally never have to eat anything that doesn’t appeal to me, and although times were lean when my mother was in graduate school, I never went to bed hungry. I had early work experience with families from all strata (in a hospital environment), though, so I was lucky to get my consciousness raised promptly about how much (or little) decision latitude people can have in these matters.

    It’s actually strangeto me that anyone would think food choices are *not* complicated. Between the regional variations in available foods and preferred preparations (not to mention what is considered a delicacy), and the very common conflations of food and eating with family, ritual, and values (from social standing to whether you are hospitable, and beyond), it seems that food is fully and firmly about much more than fueling the body or obtaining appropriate nutrition. Is it any wonder that we as a society have polarized responses to heavily engineered foods that are supported by massive marketing juggernauts?

  6. This is a really critical topic to discuss around things like school lunches; for some kids, that cafeteria meal is their most substantial one of the day. But there are a couple trade-offs being made: cost, and nutrition– what well-fed folks think of as a “healthy meal” might not be what meets the kids’ needs. (Obesity panic! Give those kids some iceberg lettuce! Etc.)

  7. My food choices began in life and continue to be influenced partially by cultural tradition and in the past, by childhood poverty. My father was a restaurant cook in a small town Chinese restaurant in Ontario. So he knew what was being put into restaurant food and that also influenced how he supported my mother in healthy cooking.

    I mentioned earlier about some sisters who are also mothers. They have paid jobs outside t home and also husbands who share the cooking/child rearing so they are just as busy as the mothers reading this blog. None of them have nannies to help. For certain their lives are different than our mother, who was a full-time housewife and 6 children (which had its own demands).

    I agree children will sneak off and trade food for fast food or discard part of their less liked lunch, etc. But it’s how meals are presented to children daily. True when one is poor, as a child, I was made aware there weren’t much options beyond what was put on the dinner table.

    We were also given a tour of the back restaurant kitchen as children where my father worked. How many children see this for real?? the vats of oil, piles of deep fried food, piles of other prepared food, vats of sweet sauce. Given the heat in those restaurants, we then understood clearly how hard our father worked to prepare the food (and earn money)….even in our child opinion, it wasn’t always a food dish, we would choose top choice.

    Our tv watching was limited as children. TV broke down several times, so it only got fixed a few months later. So our exposure to fast food commercials, etc. got interrupted. 😉

    I support having some fast food occasionally several times per month, since something that is forbidden fruit, appears even more tempting to children.

    One of the things I don’t see much anymore in grocery stores, are children in their early teens and up, accompanying a parent to go grocery shopping. That’s where I learned a lot about how to assess fresh food on grocery shelves, understand certain ingredients that had to be purchased to make a meal, and budgeting by following my mother along. All my siblings were each requested to accompany a parent when their time was freed up and to also help with carrying out the grocery bags, etc.

    As children we used to informally look at newspaper grocery flyer ads and volunteer for our mother info. on certain food specials of the wk. (not fast food). We loved reading the newspaper in general. All this developed in our family organically and informally.

    Not saying it doesn’t prevent children from leaning too heavily on fast food/convenience food later…but I am a firm believer, if children are given consistent good food choices for several years in life…they will remember. They will. And when they need to correct themselves as adults.

    My mother has Gr. 10 level education. She didn’t finish high school in China. But her gift of reasonably healthy meals has been very long lasting on all her now adult children in their physical health and now the next generation, grandchildren.

    Thank all parents (or yourselves) who work hard at this for the lst 20 years of life for children.

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