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April 2007
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Yo no quiero canned food…

…or “lateria,”* as one Latina farm worker described the kind of food she finds when she needs to access community food banks after her monthly allotment of food stamps runs out. “What do I do with canned beets?”

Although it’s a statement that might potentially raise the hackles of any number of people who believe that poor people should be grateful for whatever handouts they get, I knew what she meant; I despise beets in general and canned beets in particular, and canned goods have not played a large part in my experience of food. I met her at a farm worker meeting we were running. We had asked for participants to talk about their experiences accessing a variety of key resources in their communities, and it came to light that everyone present had been to the food banks. When their compañera mentioned canned food, they all nodded their heads and started telling their stories. I eventually heard similar concerns all around the state: why all the canned food? Can’t we have beans and rice? How do we prepare this food?

A lot of farm workers I talked with were not aware that much of the food they access in food banks is donated, although I am not sure that knowing that made their lives any easier. Food banks in some agricultural areas are able to provide culturally-appropriate foods to Latino clients at certain peak times of the year, but those foods are not always available–foods like dry beans, rice, masa harina, fresh vegetables, and tortillas. Selection depends to a large extent on the donations that are coming in. This is one of the reasons that I believe it’s critical to keep full funding for food stamp programs and also increase financial support of food banks; emergency food is supplemental and limited, and depends to a great extent on the largesse of donors who may or may not know what kind of food is going to be most helpful, and adequate access to food stamps can help keep people out of hunger and needing to access emergency food in the first place.

Food banks and other community partners work hard to help people use the food that is available, often providing recipes, cooking classes, and other creative services aimed at improving nutrition among low-income people, and some communities also do a lot of valuable work educating donors about what kind of foods are needed most. But when it comes down to it, poverty still takes away a lot of choices. Relying on donated food is hard. It’s hard to realize you can’t take care of yourself or your children, it’s hard to need to ask for free food, and it’s hard to see all of your freedom as a human being reduced to choosing between canned beets and canned peas.

That lack of real choice, not just in food but also in housing, health care, and other basic needs, was an underlying concern of the Latino farm workers I talked to all over the state. It wasn’t that they thought canned food is beneath them; not at all. Rather, it was that their only option, if they wanted to feed their families, was to try to cook with strange foods that they were not accustomed to cooking with and did not find palatable. Try adding to that the irony of the most important people in our food industry not being able to feed themselves.

I was thinking about this today while I was hungry. I’m used to having a lot of choices when it comes to food, and trying to operate within a pretty constrained budget for even a short time is stressful on a basic human level. Unlike a lot of vulnerable people in our state, I don’t need to worry about being judged for not liking canned vegetables. For some reason, my relative privilege lets me get away with having preferences about what I eat in a way that is not allowed to lower-income people. Something is missing…justice, I think.

*A great pun on lata, Spanish for “can”; lata is used colloquially to describe undesirable circumstances