As Michele Washington walks into a McDonald's in Harlem on a recent evening, exhausted from a two-hour commute and eager for an inexpensive meal, her seven-year-old son, Monty, breaks into a chant that has become a regular soundtrack.
"Three things, three dollars," Monty says rhythmically, reciting his mother's rules of engagement at this ubiquitous outpost of cheap and plentiful calories. "Three things, three dollars. Mommy, give me three things."
While Monty dashes toward the counter, continuing his mantra, his mother trails behind, cringing. In the three years since she lost her full-time job, Washington, 33, has surrendered so much: her own home with its cherished kitchen; her car; her sense of sovereignty. Now, her son's chant reminds her of another element lost to diminished economic fortunes -- her commitment to healthy eating.
"It's kind of embarrassing when your seven-year-old has his own rhyme about the Mickey D's' dollar menu," says Washington. "This is not a mother of the year moment."
Like millions of Americans who have suffered declines in their living standards as the jobless rate has climbed, Washington has found herself eating less-nutritious fare for the simple reason that quality food tends to cost more and take more time to prepare. Three or four nights a week, she and her son now complete a day spent shuttling between her part-time job, his school and her sister's cramped apartment -- their long-term "temporary" home -- with dinner at a fast-food restaurant that caters to their craving for immediate calories at rock-bottom prices. She has put on more pounds than she is willing to discuss.
Some 4.5 million Americans are eating less-healthy food this year than they were a year ago, according to a Gallup Poll released in June, a trend that appears to go hand in hand with diminished spending power. Americans spent slightly less money on all types of food in 2009 than they did in 2008, the latest year for which data is available, according to Census data. At the same time, average annual spending on fresh fruits and vegetables also declined.
The trend appears particularly pronounced for African Americans like Washington, given that the black unemployment rate now sits at 16.2 percent, compared to 9.2 percent for Americans overall.
While the factors that contribute to a change in diet are complex, many experts see a direct economic force at play in the recent shift away from fruits and vegetables and the apparent embrace of sugary and fast foods. Paychecks are scarce, while the costs of gasoline have been rising. Housing costs tend to be fixed, but food tends to be treated as discretionary, allowing people to save money by substituting cheap calories for more expensive yet healthier goods like fruits and vegetables.
The economic anxieties of the times also appear to be contributing to the trend, by inviting Americans to take refuge in a traditional source of comfort -- fattening, salty and sweet foods.
"In times of stress or distress, our bodies are quite simply hardwired to seek out high-energy sources of food," says David Schlundt, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University, who specializes in behavioral medicine. "How did our earliest ancestors know what a high-energy source of food was? Well, quite simply if it tasted sweet or had a lot of fat, it was very satisfying. Today, it just so happens that fatty, sugary foods also tend to be cheap."
Sample the American conversation about food, and poor people are often described as if they are stupid, foolishly opting for unhealthy foods over more wholesome options, while absorbing the attendant health problems associated with obesity, from heart trouble to diabetes. But poor people tend to eat high calorie, salty and sweet foods not out of ignorance, but in an accommodation with economic necessity, say experts.
"Foods with high calories tend to be cheaper," says Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Obesity Research at the University of Washington in Seattle. "It's really not irrational that a person with a tiny income is going to be more concerned with feeling full than how many anti-oxidants that they get. If you want to feel full and not go hungry, you would logically focus on foods that give you the most calories per dollar, not nutrients per dollar."
Washington, herself a college graduate, needs no academic theory to explain her own frequent dependence on McDonald's and other such eateries.
"I'm a single mother with a part-time job and full-time bills," she says. "I'm trying to make do, and do what I can. Doing that isn't necessarily a happy experience."
THE ROAD TO McDONALD's
In Southern California, Brian Murphy, 37, finds himself making a consistent trade-off that he knows is taking a toll on his body.
African American, Murphy is a freelance videographer whose calendar used to be filled with shoots for major television shows, including "Larry King Live." But in the last three years, his business has suffered, cutting his income in half and forcing him to scramble for what work there is.
Murphy now takes jobs no matter what time they begin and regardless of how much driving they require -- never mind the legendary traffic of greater Los Angeles. On a recent day, his first stop requires a two-hour drive from his home in Long Beach to downtown Los Angles to shoot the "Tavis Smiley Show" for a local station. Then he endures another two-hour drive to a speculative meeting in Malibu that only might turn into a job. With little time to spare and even less inclination to spend, he stops at fast-food outlets four times on this day.
He describes himself as a healthy person, one who appreciates quality food. He still runs regularly, five miles each outing, some three or four days per week. But the salads he favors have become aspirational, replaced by burgers and greasy Tex-Mex.
If business were better, Murphy would buy more groceries, plan and prepare more meals, he says. But living on a lot less money requires finesse. Murphy's rent isn't flexible. The essential tools of his trade -– which Murphy says includes his $120-a-month iPhone -– must be paid. So he skimps where he can, bypassing the salad places for the cheap calories of fast food.
"I pinch my pennies," he says.
On a recent day, he pulls into a restaurant with fresh salads, but then changes his mind, his plan scotched by a simple calculation and the ubiquity of fast food.
"I actually stood in line and thought about buying a $12 salad, but then I decided no," he recalls. "Why do that when I can get a $3 chicken taco across the street?"
For Michele Washington, the beginning of what has become a full-blown nutritional regress began in November 2008, when she was still living in Atlanta and working full time in marketing at a custom kitchen contractor. Her employer cut most of its sales staff to part time, and then let many employees go. Six managers, including Washington, saw their hours cut to part time while their responsibilities were expanded. Her annual salary dropped from about $67,000 to about $42,000.
Washington stuck it out, continuing to work more than 40 hours a week, as she drove around the sprawl that is greater Atlanta, seeking to expand sales. She hoped that by going the extra mile for the cabinet company in its time of need, she would keep her job.
At home –- a three-bedroom house in the suburbs -- she tried to stick to the family's routine even as her income declined. She had traditionally tried to serve what she calls "soul food the healthy way," meaning greens seasoned with less fat and more pepper and biscuits made with less lard; fresh food over processed; home-cooked meals instead of fast food. She assiduously avoided high-sodium foods, with a painful legacy much on her mind: Her mother died at 61 years of age, succumbing to complications from high blood pressure and diabetes.
"I've always cooked," Washington says. "I like to cook. Plus, I had my dream kitchen in that house. So when I was working, even when things got really stressful, I would come home and make Monty a complete dinner. That was always our little special time."
While Washington cooked, Monty would often sit on a kitchen stool at the granite counter and tell her about his day, or work through an easy-reader book aloud. She hoped the routine would help Monty expand his vocabulary. She also hoped that the ritual of preparing a meal as valued family time would reinforce healthier eating habits.
But by May 2009, Washington was out of a job, looking for work and trying to figure out how long she could stay in her own home without a job. She exhausted most of her savings. She sold her car, an Acura. She fell behind on her mortgage, and her house slid into foreclosure.
In September, her sister convinced her to move to New York, where they grew up. That way, they could share her one-bedroom apartment and divide the expenses. Washington gratefully accepted, thinking New York might be an easier place to find a job.
After a three-month search, she landed a part-time job at a day care center. But getting there entailed a bus ride and then a subway ride, for an annual salary of only $27,000.
"We don't eat off the dollar menu just because Monty loves the fries," she says.
When Washington talks about what her sister has done for her and Monty, her voice cracks. She takes a deep breath. They would be homeless without her sister, she says.
But living together isn't always easy. Their apartment is about 650 square feet –- this for two adults and a growing boy.
The remnants of her cherished Atlanta home sit in boxes strewn across the floor, holding pots and pans, books and tchotchkes. She is holding on to them as she clings to the vision of finding a full-time job, one that pays enough for her own home, with a kitchen big enough to return to healthier eating.
For now, the thought of fishing the pots and pans out of the boxes to try to forge a meal in a cramped kitchen holds little appeal. Most nights, she is so exhausted by her day, and often so discouraged by her fruitless search for full-time work, that she and Monty eat out –- usually hamburgers or cheap Chinese food.
Once it's their turn at the McDonald's counter, Monty wants the value meal burger, but his mother insists on the chicken sandwich -– a nominal nod in the healthier direction. He wants a sundae, but she orders him a yogurt parfait with fruit and granola. Washington relents when Monty can't chose between a soda and fries: He gets both. Washington orders the same. The bill does not reach $10.
"I'm well aware that I'm saving money now that I might pay in medical bills later," Washington says.
She worries that her son -– high-energy by nature -– is eating foods that will make it hard for him to sit still in school come fall, interfering with the formative years of his education.
"I worry that his teachers will decide that he's a 'problem child,' and put him on some track that doesn't include college," she says.
AMID RECESSION, HUNGER SPREADS
That Washington and Murphy can afford to frequent any restaurant –- even a fast-food outlet –- puts them ahead of many people whose diets have been assailed by the economic downturn.
In New York City, food pantries and soup kitchens have seen growing numbers of people arriving at their doors. The Food Bank for New York, a non-profit, served about 1.3 million people in 2007. By the end of last year, that number had climbed to about 1.4 million.
"We've never seen that kind of increase –- 100,000 people –- in that short of a period of time," says Carlos Rodriguez, a vice president at The Food Bank for New York City. "The population we see is really struggling."
Cognizant that a thriftier approach to grocery shopping can be a turn away from healthier eating, the Food Bank of New York distributes fresh fruit and vegetables to its clients.
At a food pantry on 116th Street in Harlem, the distribution is set up like a grocery store, complete with shopping carts and signs describing the nutritional value of different staples like brown rice and canned green beans. Clients are given points to spend like money. Foods that are higher in fiber, lower in fat, and more nutritious overall cost less.
"I don't believe that the vast majority of poor people voluntarily choose to eat food that is not nutritious," Rodriguez says. "They basically have a lack of access to affordable and nutritious food, then develop a habit of eating that way. They are put in a position where they have to make tough choices and then stick with what they know. That's why we're trying to create a culture of healthy eating, because we are all creatures of habit."
Some experts complain that the very concept of healthy eating in the United States tends to be served up as a rarefied experience defined by expensive produce of exotic provenance -– berries picked by hand; fish caught a certain way; greens with foreign names.
Even the nation's new food guidelines, adopted this summer, suggest eating fresh several times per week and feature salmon fillets in promotional materials. That can be intimidating for poor- and moderate-income people, says Drewnowski, the University of Washington obesity expert.
"I'd like to see some canned tuna or mackerel and sardines on display," he says. "Really, this new system is no different than the others. It's well intentioned but does not take economics into account."
Michele Washington is fond of Michelle Obama and her work around healthy eating and exercise. She admires that the First Lady prominently added a vegetable garden to the White House grounds.
"I love the idea of being a mom that plants a garden with my son, who cooks every day and makes it healthy or just dances in the living room after dinner," said Washington. "I love that idea. I'd love that life."
But from her cramped New York apartment, with her kitchen implements in boxes awaiting a move that is dependent upon a full-time job, that vision seems part of another world.
Tonight, like most nights, the dinner menu features Monty's three things.
After dinner, Washington generally puts her son in front of the television or leaves him to a book. She takes her place in front of a computer, continuing her pursuit of a full-time job.
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