SBS VICELAND

Growing Up Poor Means Getting Addicted to Junk Food

Our culture is obsessed with healthy eating, but we need to take a closer look at who eats those Big Macs—and why.

by Albert Santos
18 October 2017, 10:57pm

Art by Ashley Goodall

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"I don't know, sounds a bit disgusting."

My fiancée often spouts that phrase as she watches me do yet another fucked thing with my food. Order a Big Mac with chicken patties instead of beef patties. Pair my dinner with Pepsi Max. Constantly down energy drinks. Crave that certain type of "Chinese" food that has been deep fried at least fifteen times.

It's difficult to hear her complaints, as fair as they are. It's even more difficult when you realise this wasn't the way everyone grew up. Most people have childhood memories of junk food, sure. Whoever tells you they weren't scared of Ronald McDonald as a kid is lying. But for most people these foods are an occasional birthday party treat, as opposed to a forced everyday reality.

Growing up, my parents purchased fast food because it was cheap, and it was what we could afford. We were a first generation migrant family, and my dad left us and returned to our homeland early on. So a single full-time income was supporting three growing children in a foreign country. It was inevitable that, because of time constraints, money constraints, or because ordering at a McDonald's counter is easier when English is your second language, typically "unhealthy" meals began to fill the gaps.

I only realised later that buying fast food, or making easy-to-cook meals, weren't treats so much as survival tactics. At the time, I thought the regular McDonald's visits were rewards for getting good marks at school. I thought the nutella sandwiches in my lunchbox were there because I loved chocolate. As a kid you're never forced to think about money. You'd never realise that these were necessary cost cutting measures, the offerings of a single parent struggling to get by. Blame constant advertising for reinforcing the connection between junk food and joy, or just my naïve childish brain for thinking that the fluorescent lights of multinational food chains cared about me at all.

This isn't to say that I don't have memories of great, loving home-cooked meals. My family emigrated from Brazil when I was a baby and feijoada, bacalhau, farofa, and picanha all formed part of my diet growing up. I have cherished memories of the food my mum made for our family, not only for exposing me to the unique culture of my birth nation.

Thing is, I also have solid, pivotal childhood memories of fast food. Eating Hungry Jacks for Boxing Day lunch, the magic of all-you-can-eat buffets, the joy of finding the toy in your happy meal box. More than twenty years later, I still have a commemorative Batman Forever glass from McDonalds. It may be scratched beyond recognition, but the nostalgia attached to it is crystal clear.

When you grow up poor, you end up internalising a lot of the food "mistakes" your parents make. Not because they're mistakes, but because that's how you got by. Now, in my adult years where budgeting and meal-planning are key, it just feels easier to resort to fast food a few nights a week. Or to cook easy, carb-heavy meals like pasta, tacos or chicken drumsticks. Buying fruits and vegetables, let alone anything else that would constitute a "healthy" lifestyle, feels like an outright chore for me.

What worries me more is that I know that I'm not the worst example of this. For all our financial problems, my family got by. The fact that my mum was not only able to raise three independent adults, but consistently feed and clothe them as well, already puts us ahead of many others.

With the cost of living in Western nations rising, these trends appear to be getting worse. The concept of "food deserts"—the areas where a lack of good, healthy food and below-average wages overlap—was popularised by Michelle Obama in the United States. Here, a 2015 study by Professor Thomas Astell-Burt looked into the phenomenon across a variety of Australian suburbs. He found that areas in Western Sydney, where I grew up, were not only "food deserts" but places where citizens were more likely to suffer preventable disease due to their diets than comparable areas in Sydney's North Shore.

The way families in disadvantaged locations feed and nurture their children are obviously different to those in more affluent areas. Yet when mainstream media uses scary buzzwords like "obesity epidemic" or "unhealthy children", concepts of how and why certain communities consume the food they do are never discussed.

Nobody talks about how much of our dietary habits start around RSL dinners, McDonald's family boxes, and fried chicken buckets. No one talks about how the companies that do profit off healthy living, from organic produce to activewear brands, exclusively target the well-to-do instead of those who could benefit the most. No one wants to admit that, maybe, the market is wrong.

For me personally, eating healthy has become less of a want than a need. I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease in 2010, and years of harsh symptoms coupled with regularly changing medications have taken their toll on my body. But if I want to reach any sort of state of remission with this chronic, incurable disease, I need to do better with my physical health.

But the difficulty curve of teaching myself in my late twenties to eat better is harder than if I had just learned from the get-go. Not just because unhealthy habits have been normalised in my adult brain, but because my Crohn's actively limits what I can and can't eat. It's hard to hear people say "Just switch out that thing for this healthy thing," when "this healthy thing" can cause a flare up.

Credit where it's due, the Medicare system is here to help by offering a limited amount of free dietician consultations. And with a professional's help, things are slowly changing for me. That's ultimately the key at my age: slow, gradual change. Replacing a couple of things at a time, until the whole meal is different. But it's not easy. It might never be. All I can hope for is that it'll be better for the next generation coming up.

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Tagged:
diet
class
poverty
healthy eating
Western Sydney
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