06/15/2009 06:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Breadline USA Part Two

A new movie hit theaters this past weekend: Food, Inc. Want to know why so much of the food we eat is so bad for us, who benefits from industrial agriculture and who suffers, this is the movie to watch. For people concerned about what goes into their daily meals, and how they can carve out more healthy niches in era in which processed foods, and vast-scale farming seem all-triumphant, this is the ideal companion flick to Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma.

For decades we've let industrial agriculture and its first cousin - the all-in-one supermarket -- reshape our dining habits, our snacking habits, our food shopping methods, and our spending priorities. We've gotten used to only having to spend five-to-ten percent of our income on food; we've gotten accustomed to being able to buy whatever kinds of food we want, whenever we want it, without regard for limitations imposed by weather or season. We've accepted the notion that we can grow more and more, using fertilizer-intense techniques, genetically engineered crops and so on. And, if we thought about these changes at all, we tended to assume they were all cost-free.

In the last few years, however, food-poisoning and contamination scares have rocked the industry; the public has gotten uneasy about shoddy labeling and the prevalence of genetically modified foods within our food system; and books such as Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation as well as Pollan's book have educated us about the collateral damage inflicted by our current model.

The Omnivore's Dilemma expresses this angst about food production systems wonderfully. But to my mind it misses half of the dilemma; it's not just about what sorts of food to put in one's body. The more basic dilemma for America's millions of working poor families, and the one that I chronicle in my book Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It, is simply how to buy enough food. In an era in which over thirty million Americans are surviving on food stamps, millions more are poor enough for food stamps but not enrolled, and millions more still are deemed not poor enough for government aid but are today surviving only on the largesse of food bank and food pantry charity, that is the central nutritional challenge that can no longer be ignored.

Until that problem's tackled, inevitably people are going to seek out cheap, high-calorie foods, be they junk or fast food, genetically modified, or simply disguised, processed, corn products. And that's going to keep the downward spiral going.

While researching my book and interviewing people around the country about their experiences with hunger, or what the government somewhat euphemistically terms "low food security," I spent two months living on the budget of a median-income McDonalds' worker. My intent was to get a better feel for how people toward the bottom of the economic pyramid make do food-wise, to really understand what compromises they have to make (pay for medicine, or buy food for the kids, skip a utility bill or end up on the food pantry line toward the end of the pay cycle, and so on) and what anxieties they have to cope with on a daily basis.

A McDonalds' median-income worker last year was making $8.23 per hour, considerably above the federal minimum wage. In other words, that worker should have been able to survive with little difficulty. But that wasn't what I found. When basic bills are taken care of (rent for a cheap one-bedroom or studio apartment say, car payments, unavoidable medical bills), that worker ends up with only about the same to spend on food each week as someone on food stamps. If one or two things go wrong (gas prices rise sharply, a prescription has to be filled, a car tire blows out and needs to be replaced), very quickly that worker finds himself with less disposable income for food than does someone on food stamps. Not surprisingly, often-times they go for the cheapest, most filling food, which usually means either junk food or fast food. They run up credit card debts just to avoid going hungry. And, eventually, they either start skipping meals or falling back on food pantries to tide them over those last few days of the pay cycle when the fridge is bare and the next pay check is not yet due.

While on my budget, I allowed myself access to a very good, and cheap, farmers' market outside town one week, and then denied myself that access the week following. When I drove out to the farmers' market, for eleven dollars and change I got enough fresh fruit and vegetables to last me a week. But that involved me a) having a car, and b) having money for gas to drive out to the market and enough time to do so. In other words, it was a food-shopping choice that few poor people in reality have.

And so, the week following I tweaked my conditions, assumed I could only buy food at stores I could walk to or quickly take public transport to, and then, for the sake of argument also assumed I was living in an impoverished neighborhood without decent supermarkets. All these are conditions that generally hold for large swathes of America's poor and near-poor today.

At the corner store I ended up in, the first thing I found was that there was almost no fresh produce. Instead of fresh fruit, I had to get cans; instead of fresh vegetables, again, I could either buy cans or, in the case of potatoes, an instant-mash mix. The second thing I found was that to buy the equivalent processed and canned supplies that I'd gotten fresh from the farmers' market, I had to spend nearly twenty dollars.

Which brings me back to the "how to feed oneself" version of the omnivore's dilemma. Being poor in twenty first century America makes you more likely to have very little choice but to eat badly, and more likely to have to pay through the nose for the privilege of eating badly. That's a crazy, unsustainable, reality, but it's one faced by tens of millions of people around the country these days.

I'm glad a slew of movies and books are shining a spotlight on all the hidden corners and crevices of our out-of-control food production system. Now let's also shine that light on poverty and the interconnected conditions that have driven so many onto breadlines and into that murky world of euphemisms politely referred to as "low food security."