What did you have for lunch today?
If you’re a busy worker or student in the UK, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it was probably some form of a sandwich meal deal. Likely from a chain supermarket such as Tesco or Morrisons, or if you can drop a few extra pennies, Marks and Spencer, Boots or Waitrose. Regardless of where you pick up your sandwich (or salad), snack and drink combo, you’re very likely to be able to find something filling and pleasant with a decent nutritional value to eat and drink, for somewhere in the region of £2-£4. On a busy day at UEA, for example if I had an early seminar followed by a lunch-time work shift and a radio show to round off the afternoon, being able to dash into the student shop for a meal deal -or an even cheaper small pastry- often saved me from going hungry for hours at a time. This is familiar to many of us across the country who work long hours with short breaks, and have other commitments meaning we are unable to plan our meals in advance.
I had always assumed the ‘meal deal’ (or some cheap lunchtime food equivalent) was a pretty common thing in the more-developed world: easy and relatively cheap access to basic food containing a pretty standard, if uninspiring, nutritional value. After all, it’s not like I’m someone who prescribes to diet fads and ‘superfoods’, which are often marketed at a higher price point. This is a cheese and tomato sandwich we are talking about.
One of the most jarring realisations that I have experienced since arriving in California is that the meal deal takes on a new form here: not in the familiar salads and wraps that line the shelves of UK shops, but in the form of the fast food combo meal. While in England you’re likely to find a basic tomato sandwich, a fruit pot and a medium carton of McDonalds fries at a similar price point, in America, the amount you are able to spend on your on-the-go lunch dictates the nutritional value you will find in it. On campus here at UCLA, some of the most-frequented lunch spots include a Carl’s Jr burger chain and a Taco Bell: you can get a medium burger and fries combo with a fizzy drink for $8. And that’s an American medium, known to the rest of the world as an ‘exra large’. In the UK, the thought of an enclosed university campus with handfuls of fast food chains on it seems a bit bizarre. Furthermore, roughly translating to somewhere in the region of £6, that’s a fairly expensive on-the-go lunch by many people’s standards: I am in California, after all. However, what is much more jarring than the price of a fast food lunch is the fact that a filling, less calorific equivalent is often way more expensive than that, even in pre-packaged form. Go a few doors down the corridor in the student union, and you will find a stall offering pre-prepared, boxed sandwiches and salads like those of our meal deals for $7-$8 alone, without tax (yet another bizarre Americanism: separating sales tax from retail price). If -like me this lunchtime, as shown above- you want a wrap, a snack and a drink, be prepared to cough up some $12 (£9.20) for it. That’s more than a lunch from delicious-yet-overpriced sandwich retailer Pret-A-Manger. And you can bet your bottom dollar (if you have any left) that the sandwich in question will -unlike Pret- not be a nice one. While retailers such as Veggie Grill go some way towards a healthier campus, their deceiving $5 mac and cheese bowls and soup pots are such tiny portions that you can guarantee it won’t satisfy you for the rest of your afternoon, and you’ll have to fork out $10+ for anything bigger. If you want a filling lunch on campus then you’ll have to compromise either nutritional value or cost, as you’d be hard-pressed to find both.
It has to be noted that, in a world of extreme diets and ‘wellbeing’ that guilts normal, healthy people into feeling inadequate about their lifestyle choices, I am not one of those who are trying to push a bizarre and dangerous food agenda. I am an unhealthy person. There, I said it. Before moving to America, I lost 16kg through increasing my workouts after receiving medical clearance from my orthopaedic surgeon’s office, however I am a lousy cook who hates most things green. I’m very prone to more treat days than is healthy. And that is exactly why such food options are dangerous. In a world of ‘clean juices’ and ‘detoxes’ which have no clinical benefits to your body and are pushed mainly through guilting unsuspecting body-conscious women into believing they need a non-clinically approved ‘health supplement’ or potentially dangerous diet plan costing tens and hundreds of pounds/dollars, mutrition is on the forefront of many people’s minds. And putting all that money-spinning nonsense aside, the goal that most of us should be focusing on for a healthier lifestyle is a balanced diet containing everything we need in moderation. If I could get away with eating at In-n-Out Burger every day with absolutely no repurcussions to my health, then I might damn well consider it. But I can’t. I -like many others- struggle with body image and fears around eating, and it is important to me some days to be able to assure myself that I’m not leading a lifestyle which will endanger my attitudes towards food again, be it unhealthy or orthorexic. And that comes through choice, something which is already limited by being a student with a tight budget. Having a range of foods -both more and less nutritious- available at similar price points puts the power of people’s diets back into their own hands: we can eat and drink as we damn well please, knowing that we aren’t going to be unable to afford that book we need for class if we have a sandwich instead of a burger too many lunches on the go.
While California’s costs represent an extremity of American expense, the message seems the same across the country: basic nutrition comes at a cost, more expensive than an extremely unhealthy counterpart. And, as the marketing of burgers as ‘sandwiches’ in many food establishments illustrates, this is a perfectly normal part of American life. It is completely unsurprising to me now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention place adult American obesity prevalence at nearly 40% (2015-16). Studies such as this, discussed by James Levine on the American Diabetes Association, suggest that “contrast to international trends, people in America who live in the most poverty-dense counties are those most prone to obesity.” Of course, many factors affect this statistic, such as placing limits on healthcare, access to sports, and nutritional education. However, making it easier and more affordable for those masses in need of a quick lunch to grab a combo burger meal than a salad directly feeds into the notion that more nutritious produce is becoming unavailable to low-income brackets in the U.S.
This problem of low-income obesity risk is admittedly not a purely American one: the NHS also acknowledges that children from low-income backgrounds in the UK are ‘more affected’ by the national rise in childhood obesity, using findings published in The Lancet to suggest that “people with less money and time to prepare food are more likely to choose cheap, easily prepared food,” and “the rise in the availability of cheap junk food high in sugar, often advertised to children and families, may affect disadvantaged children more.” The recent implementation of a ‘sugar tax’ on drinks in the UK may have attracted attention for the very true point that it disproportionately affects lower-income families, however, research has found that international examples of such levies are understood to have a beneficial effect on the health of lower-income groups. More to the point, an attempt is slowly being made to recognise how the food market disproportionately affects the health of a population based on availability (or lack thereof) of more nutritious food and drink options.
However, things like sugar taxes only serve any purpose if there are similarly priced, more nutritious options to hand: the exact price of a food item becomes almost meaningless if they are still by far the cheapest options on the market. On campus back at UEA, where I can find a sandwich meal deal for £3 in the shop and a pizza slice and fizzy drink deal in the pub across the street for around £4, I can live with the knowledge that I am not paying a premium to have access to the bare minimum of nutrition needed for a healthy diet. There is a range of nutrition available across all price points. Here in America, I am having to think twice before purchasing any form of lunch: can I afford to eat on the go today? Many days, I skip lunch altogether. And if I let my money worries get the better of me and choose the cheaper option, then my body worries guilt me over not paying more for a sandwich instead of a burger. As someone with a long history of disordered eating, I can tell you that this is not only damaging from a nutritional standpoint but from a mental health one too. No one should have to weigh up affordable but calorific fast food and spending twice as much on a less unhealthy sandwich, in order to decide whether they’re going to eat lunch that day.
In an ideal world, we would all be able to pre-plan and pack our own nutritious lunches using high quality, affordable produce, regardless of income or access. That way, we could say with confidence what is in our food, and take accountability for what we put in our bodies. This is not a reality: busy workers, students, parents, carers and guardians – we all have our reason for why we need to grab a meal on the go, be it every so often or every lunch time. Having to choose between prioritising health and bank balance while standing in the middle of a shop on an hour-long break is one more unnecessary stress that we do not need in our lives, and it’s one that I’ve never felt more acutely than here in the United States. But perhaps what alarms me more is not that I’m feeling this difference so acutely, but that for the people around me, this seems to be a normal way of life. And while a sandwich certainly isn’t going to save the day, especially in cases of extreme poverty which is so distressingly prominent across both countries in question, maybe we need to point out the obvious every once in a while: promoting fast food as the most economically viable way of living while reserving slightly more nutritious options for those able to afford it is not beneficial to the physical or mental health of anybody.
And yes, if you’re wondering, today’s lunchtime wrap was pretty grim. But then again, perhaps that was the aftertaste of the $8 I spent on it.