Standing in front of shelves stocked with 10 different kinds of milk, I turned a half-gallon container around to see the list of ingredients, and squinted at it. I glanced quickly back and forth before pulling my phone out of my pocket to look up one of the ingredients, typing “carrageenan,” furrowing my eyebrows at the spelling. My concern was not if it was a safe chemical to ingest. I needed to know if it was Whole30 approved.
My decision to do the Whole30 diet was already shrouded in shame. It was less than a year since I relied on food stamps to feed me and my two young daughters. Since making the leap off government assistance, I had faced many days looking at empty cupboards and bank accounts. In barely making enough to put me over income limits, I still had to make up for the $300 I’d received in food benefits.
Foods listed in the “approved” column for the Whole30 were far from the ones I bought when I was on food stamps. That budget did not afford high-priced produce and special ingredients. Some I had never even considered buying, like ghee. I was not even sure what ghee was, but I had written it on my list.
Whole30, a form of “clean eating,” is a drastic way to eliminate sugar from your diet. Much like the paleo or ketogenic diets, it requires loads of time, expense, and commitment. I had joined a Facebook group for support. I had followed several Instagram accounts for recipe ideas. I had purged non-approved food items from my cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer. Some I gave to my neighbor, but some I threw away, ignoring the part of me who remembered days spent with hunger pangs from not having enough money for food.
On this shopping day, my cart was loaded with bunches of kale and chard; sweet potatoes, beets, turnips, and rutabaga. While reading ingredients on the bulk spices, I noticed two women with similar carts, squinting at labels in the same manner that I was. When I got to the nut milks, a “treat” for myself, the two women stood next to me, looking at different containers.
“Is vanilla extract okay?” one asked the other, and that was the final clue I needed.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Are you in the Whole30 group on Facebook?”
They smiled, said yes, and laughed a little nervously.
“I noticed we had similar shopping carts,” I tried to explain. They laughed again, maybe with a little more nervousness. I did not care. I needed to know “Is carrageenan okay?”
“Yes, I think so!” one said while the other pulled out her phone. From the depths of the Whole30 website came the answer: No, carrageenan is not Whole30 approved.
It was the middle of the day, and the store was flooded with its usual yoga-pants-wearing, fit, mostly white women carefully selecting drinks made of apple cider vinegar or fermented mushrooms and chips made of seaweed. Everything on my list seemed to be $5 or more. I had to ask another woman to help me find a bottle of amino acids made from coconuts.
By the time I got home, my guilt had reached insurmountable levels. I had just spent $167.
“Don’t you feel completely steeped in privilege doing this?” I texted a friend. She sent me the emoji-equivalent of a shrug.
From a dark place in my journalistic brain, a thought arose: I could write an article about how to make the Whole30 accessible for people on a food stamp budget! Yes! I could keep track of the money I spend! I could record how much time I need to prep for the week of food! I could make the Whole30 available to all!
Then the social justice warrior part of me stood and mentally slapped me so hard I almost physically felt the blow.
I had officially become the person I’d once despised.
Over the next few hours of carefully cutting enough root vegetables to fill a large casserole dish, cooking sausage, and marinating (and massaging!) kale to pack into individual containers to eat for the next several days, I could only think of how ridiculous even the thought of my idea was. I might as well have been Gwyneth, taking a photograph of the five limes she bought for her hashtagged week of the Food Stamp Challenge.
What’s more, I became a part of the large population of privileged individuals who tell low-income people fighting to put food on the table that healthy food is not only affordable, but easy to make. How easily I had forgotten what it felt like to work full-time for not much more than minimum wage, at a job that was physically demanding. When I worked as a maid, I kept peanut butter Cliff bars in the pockets of my cargo pants, only allowing myself a bite when I got lightheaded.
Between my daughter and me, our food choices were limited to proteins from peanut butter and hard-boiled eggs, and carbohydrates from pancakes, bread, and rice. Not only was I physically exhausted from working, a full load of online courses at the community college, and caring for my young daughter on my own, the mental exhaustion of poverty is a hidden, yet very real limiting condition, which has been proven to lessen cognitive function. I needed meals I could prepare quickly, without much thought.
My access to even (barely) attempting this diet did not only depend on my resources to afford it. I needed access to research it with a phone or the internet, mental capacity to plan, and a support group that proved vital. But the diet change would have been impossible without an accessible grocery store that carried products I needed, a car to bring them home, and a kitchen with ample supplies to cook in.
Over the course of the 19 (not 30) days I made it on the diet, I spent, on average, about $175 a week. Every few days required prep and cooking times of three to four hours. As my body went through sugar withdrawals, I became plagued with headaches and could not sleep at night. I could still work, but only because I worked at home, 3 feet from my kitchen, and could go to the fridge for a snack whenever I needed one.
For a person with limited resources, like I had been for almost a decade, even considering something that would require such an enormous amount of attention would be out of the question. I had to live, not live better. In waving around the importance of “clean” eating, we must not ignore what we’re really saying: that those who do not eat foods listed on those websites are eating “dirty” foods, which only adds to the piles of stigmas people in poverty must eat around when they sit at their dinner tables.