Money Moments

Being broke opened my eyes to the problematic way we talk about food

By: Anne T. Donahue on March 14, 2019

Money is a funny thing. It’s tangled up with just about every aspect of our lives — from where we live, to what we eat and the quality of our relationships — so it’s no wonder that all of us have opinions on what we should do with it. But what shaped our approach to money in the first place? What pivotal moment forever changed the way we think about our finances? To explore these questions, we’re introducing MONEY MOMENTS — a regular series where Canadians reflect on a moment in their lives that shaped their attitudes toward money.

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One cold night in early 2012, tired and sick and resentful of bread, I walked home with a can of Chef Boyardee in each of my coat pockets. With these, I’d just bought two nights’ worth of dinner, and now I had only $5 to last me until my next cheque.

It was January and I was broke. One year earlier I’d moved from Cambridge, Ont., to Toronto with no savings or steady income, and believed that despite having no regular work lined up, I’d somehow miraculously earn enough as a freelance writer to cover my $800/month rent and any/all other expenses.

Obviously, I was tragically wrong. At most, I was only raking in about $200 to $400 every month, usually working from home, and realized by the summer that without a miracle I was too financially behind to ever get ahead of what I owed. That was a bad enough feeling in itself — but it got worse when it came to food.

I’d never been a particularly healthy eater, but my ability to buy fresh fruits, vegetables, or anything remotely nutritious diminished with every rent cheque I wrote. Over the previous year, I’d begun to lean on my line of credit and my Visa card to cover the bare minimum (like my phone and internet bills), so that by early 2012, I found myself with less than $10 to last two weeks — and only white bread, eggs, rice, and pasta to feast on. But, I considered being able to feed myself a victory, despite some of my friends and fellow writers not seeing it that way.

My ability to buy fresh fruits, vegetables, or anything remotely nutritious diminished with every rent cheque I wrote

The thing is, sometimes the “right” choice is simply to eat — because sometimes the “right” choice is to keep the hunger pains at bay. When we shame the “wrong” kinds of food or push certain suggestions onto other people, we’re usually not stopping to think that the likes of fresh produce aren’t always in somebody’s financial reach.

Because I’d made my zest for snack foods a joke for so much of my twenties, I set the stage for jokes about my inability to consume anything healthy. And at first, that was fine: at the start of my year in Toronto, I laughed at the way I’d framed myself. I ate popcorn for dinner, cereal for lunch, and donuts for breakfast, so I welcomed one-liners about my stunted adulthood (“What are you having for dinner? OH WAIT LET ME GUESS") and inability to take care of myself (“Of course Anne doesn't know what a vegetable is!”).

It was fine because ultimately, these were all my choices. And even now, I’m not above laughing at my own culinary incompetence. But the more debt I found myself in, the less my unhealthy options became a question of free will. Eventually, I had to buy only what I could afford, while being too embarrassed to tell anybody the truth. So instead of explaining how much I was struggling, I pushed my shame down and white-knuckled my way through more laughter about my supper choices or jokes about the way I always seemed to be eating SmartFood. (Because what choice did I have? Explain that a large bag could last two or three meals? And admit that I was being smothered in debt? No thanks.)

That wasn’t the fault of anyone — they were only continuing the narrative I’d greenlit months earlier. I’d not only given them permission to make fun of my eating habits, but I wasn’t ready to correct anyone or explain that criticisms about the way I ate were only adding to the nightmare of having nothing. (This only got worse when I resigned myself to moving back home by February of 2012 because I could no longer make rent.) So I continued to internalize, especially as everyone I knew seemed to focus more and more on making the “right” dietary choices.

I pushed my shame down and white-knuckled my way through more laughter about my supper choices or jokes about the way I always seemed to be eating SmartFood

Fruits and vegetables can be very expensive. When we lecture someone about what they should or shouldn’t eat, we’re not only tainting their relationship with food (because now their source of sustenance isn’t good enough), we’re making them feel like a dietary failure; like they, as a grown-up, are clueless as to how to take care of themself. And if you’re already feeling like a financial failure (which I most certainly did), it only adds to the belief that you, in general, and on all counts, have failed.

This isn’t to say you should stop making suggestions when asked, or that you can’t log on to social media and celebrate a healthy meal you’ve made at home. Just remember that what’s attainable for you isn’t attainable for everybody. And offering unsolicited commentary — even if you think you’re following somebody else’s lead — isn’t necessarily welcome. And that can be difficult: nearly eight years after losing my apartment and starting back at square one, I’ve had to remind myself that someone’s lunch isn’t my business nor in need of my feedback.

I’ve also learned not to guilt anyone about what they’ve chosen to eat. (Or just as annoyingly, to lord my own meal over anyone since I’m lucky to be able to afford eating at restaurants now.) Food is exciting, and I can understand that. But I came to fully resent my peers for thinking I cared what they thought about me or my groceries. And they certainly didn’t make me want to buy vegetables more. If anything, I began to make choices that would only annoy them, as a last-ditch act of control. And I didn’t talk about my financial reality for years.

Today, nearly a decade after that terrible winter, I can finally afford fresh fruits and vegetables. And sometimes I buy them. Other days, I’ll pick up a bag of popcorn and watch a movie in bed, revelling in my ability to make these choices. Because that’s the thing: the choice in itself is a luxury. And it’s certainly not up to me to weigh in on the dietary choices of anybody else.
 

Illustration by Janice Wu. 

 

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