Thursday, August 29, 2013

Opinion: Jamie Oliver vs. George Orwell

Warning: Person reflections ahead.

One of the reasons I became a dietitian was so that I could help people sort through this mess of information about what's good and what's not so good for us to eat.  I have mentioned before that I grew up in a religious tradition (Mennonite) that actually emphaszied helping our fellow human beings, and one of the ways we were to help others was to combat hunger.  (We had Matthew 25:35 beaten into our heads.  A lot. "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.").  And like every good Mennonite, I owned/inherited a copy of the More with Less Cookbook which emphasized using less of the world's resources while cooking tasty healthy food for yourself and your family.

Side bar: Even though I identify as a Secular Humanist, I still try to help others and combat poor nutrition.  I still have a copy of my More with Less Cookbook because (even though my copy is from the 1970's) because it still has some tasty recipes for people on a budget (that I can modify for my own gluten-free/dairy free plan).

Of course, once I actually started working, I realized that not everyone wanted to hear my knight in shining armor, particularly since I work in a situation where I get a lot of "mandatory patients." As in the main reason they are grumpily sitting in my office is that "My doctor says I'm fat/diabetic/have high cholesterol," which is very different than "I want to eat better because I have [insert problem here.]"  And since most of my patients, both mandatory and those that are willing, are working from a fixed income, so I also have people who don't feel they can change because they don't feel they can afford what recommendations I make.  I'll admit I did spend some time pouting about people not wanting my help, but eventually I realized I had to get over myself and figure out what kind of solutions we could work out together (which is easy to say in writing, and takes a lot of listening and trial and error to do).

I was reflecting this after a friend had posted a fervent hope for Jamie Oliver to shut up with this accompanying article: Jamie Oliver Bemoans Chips, Cheese, and giant TVs of Modern day Poverty.  I blushed, because I actually remember having a lot of similar thoughts when I first started working, and was glad that I was/will never be famous enough to be that patronizing in public.  Of course, the internet has responded, with the overlying message of you don't know what real poverty is, and another extremely well read friend pointed me to this piece written in 1937 by George Orwell: The Road to Wigan Pier.    These particular passages jumped out at me:

"The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes--an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food."

and

"When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let's have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we'll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don't nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man's opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread."

Other patients of mine have expressed similar things in that sometimes cigarettes, store bought cookies, Cheetos, etc, are all they have left.  And then there was another patient who said, and I am paraphrasing, "Life's a shit sandwich, and every day you've gotta take another bite" and that essentially you need something to either dull the taste, sweeten the taste, or help you temporarily forget that you are in fact eating a shit sandwich.

So how does one fulfill a desire to help someone improve their health without becoming a Jamie Oliver?  I don't have any easy answers, but I can share what has helped me so far, and what I have shared with the students/interns I have taken on over the years:

1) Remember that the person who found your blog, came to your "cooking on a budget class," is sitting in front of you, or came to you as a community leader/teacher, is a human being and treat them with dignity.

2) You have to accept that not everybody wants your help, particularly other adults who don't want to be in a position of being "told what to do" in the first place. 

3) Avoid phrases like "I understand," because you probably don't.  You can use phrases like "so what I hear you saying is....."

4) Recognize that your idea of what constitutes a good life (Or making that shit sandwich easier to eat) is not going to be the other person's idea of what is a good life. 

5) Don't assume that the person wants your help or help from any kind of social services.  Asking upfront about "What can I help you with today?" can give the person that opportunity to say "Yes, I need to know how I am suppossed to eat a diabetic diet I live at the Salvation Army" or even "Fuck your do gooder ass!"

6) If the person does want advice/help, find out what they are willing to do and not willing to do so that the person can take advantage of your expertise.  For example, one of my patients will not give up his cigarettes.  He's a grownup, and a smart grownup who is perfectly aware of how much money he is spending on cigarrettes and why smoking is bad for him.  He's also on disability and the cigarettes dull the taste of the shit sandwich.  He will, however, try new recipes that make the most out of his limited income, drink water and/or unsweet tea so he doesn't have to spend money on sugar substitutes, etc.  I get to congratulate him on his 25 pound weight loss (25 more to go!) and his vastly improved blood sugar/blood pressure readings.

7) There will always be people who want to take advantage of your time or resources, social services, etc.  You will get frustrated, but find a way to take out your frustration in a healthy way.  Otherwise, you will find your sense of compassion tapped out and you won't be available for those that really need  you.

8) Advocate for ways to change the world around you as far as helping people have better access to food or other resources, hopefully ones that are based on reason.  If what you are doing isn't producing good results, find another way.

Take home message--combatting hunger is complicated.  Approach it with humility.


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