History adjacent – meal prep time and thoughts on welfare politics

I don’t have a primary source document to share this week, but wanted to talk about some interesting facts in the news I’ve come across in the past few days related to my research interests!

On Thursday, I listened to The Guardian’s “Today in Focus” podcast which dove into Boris Johnson’s anti-obesity policies. The whole episode is a fascinating look at the relationship public health officials are trying to establish between obesity and COVID (see this Food, Fatness, Fitness blog post for a counter argument). The podcast discusses the barriers to health, particularly for poor Britons, including the cost of fresh food and time constraints. Then a statistic in the episode stopped me cold as I walking around running errands on my lunch. Guess how long the average British person spends cooking each day. Any thoughts? Well, turns out, it’s only 15 minutes. I was SHOCKED when I heard this, and had to investigate similar figures in the U.S.

Turns out, the Economic Research Service of the USDA used a study to estimate just this back in 2014. Using data from the American Time Use Survey,  the author’s found the amount of time was slightly higher in the US, at 37 minutes. However, this also includes time cleaning up in addition to cooking and I’m not sure if the UK figure accounts for this. But it does not matter if these figures are exactly comparable because I am not writing a peer-reviewed publication here! I can say what I want. The joys of blogging.

Back to the where I was going. Interestingly, the US data broke out its ‘preparing and serving food’ measures by gender. Men spend, on average, 22 minutes preparing and serving food whereas for women it’s 51 minutes. The study also found that for families who receive SNAP benefits (supplementary nutrition assistance program, more commonly known as food stamps) or WIC (assistance for pre- or post-natal mothers and their children up to age 5), participants average daily meal prep was more than 10 minutes higher than the respondents as a whole, at 50 minutes. This could have to do with more women being beneficiaries of both programs, but as the authors’ note, it has to do with the rules of food stamps and WIC, too.

You cannot buy hot or prepared foods with food stamps or WIC. You can’t walk up to the deli counter and purchase a ready made salad or sandwich. Instead, program beneficiaries have to buy ingredients to cook these items from scratch. There are even more rules on what can and cannot be purchased using WIC, which only allows the purchase of very specific food items with particular nutritional components geared towards new mothers and young children. Check out this very intense table on the Food and Nutrition Services website outlining these requirements.

I was once in line behind a woman in the grocery store in Santa Barbara who made the mistake of picking up a gallon of regular semi-skim milk instead of vitamin-D fortified milk. The WIC coupon would not go through on the milk she selected. As the line backed up while we waited for an associate to grab the proper milk, I could sense others growing restless as this ‘welfare mother’ inconvenienced their day. This made me think about the way policies very directly impact program beneficiaries, but the way they also create public reactions and feed into decades old stereotypes.

Welfare does not have to be demeaning and stigmatizing, and in many countries it is not. A basic income or adequate cash benefits would allow people to buy what they want and reduce the burden on the poor. But in the U.S., we went a different direction, at least with programs like food stamps and WIC. They are classified as ‘near cash’ benefits. They do provide added flexibility by setting aside funds for specific items, i.e. food, but can’t be used to help in other areas where people’s budgets may be tight.

I’m not quite sure how I get from stats about time spent cooking to discussing features of food welfare programs, and welfare politics in general. But unimportant! If you want to dive deeper into food studies, Tropics of Meta released a list of the “Ten Greatest Books in Food Studies.” This is a bit dated, coming out in 2015, but a great starting point for anyone that wants to think more about food politics, inequality, and all kinds of other things. I hope you enjoy!



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