Maine is famous for two foods: lobster and potatoes. The people of West Athens are familiar with only one of these—potatoes. If you are what you eat, then the residents of this small impoverished village are starches and meat. The diet in this town is a combination of country cooking and junk food.
There are always potatoes. Grown in nearby Aroostook County, they are sold at Jim’s Store in Athens, a 50 pound bag for about $8.00. Families go through 50 pounds in no time: mash them, fry them, grate them and boil them. Toss them in soups, grill them on the wood stove, bake them in campfires and sometimes just eat them raw like an apple.
French fries commonly make a meal. It’s rare when there is something else on the table besides the main course. Maybe some white bread and cheap margarine, or home-made biscuits or a jar of pickles. Vegetables are an endangered species, making an appearance in potato or pasta salads laden with Miracle Whip. There is seldom a balanced or planned meal, the planned meal. Nutrition is a middle class luxury. The pressing concern is filling the hungry stomach.
Typical foodstuffs are white bread and stacks of fried baloney, cheese curls and Spaghettios, elbow macaroni with a little hamburger, onion, and tomato sauce, and potato chips, especially BBQ flavor. Poor Man’s Stew is a favorite: water, onion, pork drippings if you have them, potatoes and dumplings. Meats are processed hot dogs, baloney or ham slices. During hunting season there’s deer meat. Scrambling a dozen eggs means supper for under $1. Another standby is macaroni and cheese, the kind you buy three to four boxes for a dollar when you can get out to the supermarket. Cheap and filling are the food values relevant to West Athens.
It’s not that people there have never heard of eating well and watching their diet. They aren’t strangers to the idea that what they eat profoundly affects their health.
These messages come into even this most isolated of communities, and they do so in a variety of ways. There are hot lunch programs at the schools, and nutritional counseling (or nutritional pleading) in clinics and hospitals. Outreach workers leave behind printouts of nutritious recipes and shopping strategies. Many have regular contact with social service programs like WIC and food stamps, that include nutritional information with their benefits. Indirectly, through government food giveaways, soup kitchens, and food banks in surrounding towns, the message of eating healthfully is communicated.
There also are enough people in town who suffer from diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, with contact by these people with the medical profession (irregular and incomplete as it is) for the general message to get out. There are a few people who are under strict dietetic restriction and post their do’s and dont’s under refrigerator magnets and usually follow them. But for the majority, an enormous gulf exists between what they eat and what they should eat. In spite of the efforts of those on the outside to improve their diet, most of the locals of West Athens continue to eat poorly.
What food they put on their plates may appear a trivial concern when compared to their material want. But the poor food is also a reinforcing cause of their poverty. A person living on an inadequate diet for extended periods is like a car running on watered-down gasoline: both operate far below optimal performance levels.
Adults are afflicted with nutrition-related illnesses that affect work performance or from working at all. For children, it leads to health problems that promote school absenteeism and impairs their ability to learn and achieve—- all part of the viciously repeating cycle that keeps them poor.
Data from the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture reveal that as household income decreases, the adequacy of household members’ diets also decreases. While the government intends food stamps as a supplement to income, here they can be the only income. It is rare when finances stretch to the end of the month. Were it not for the strained generosity of neighboring relatives, many might go hungry. It is hard to put more on the table than one starchy dish. Many healthier foods are more expensive: lean meats and light foods cost more, whole wheat bread is high-priced compared to white. When asked what she would do if she had money, Rena York, a life-long resident of West Athens now plagued by diabetes, high blood pressure and dangerously high cholesterol, responded, “I’d eat the food that I know I’m supposed to eat.”
Most nutritionists will tell you that eating right does not mean spending more money, just spending wisely: avoiding prepared foods, trimming fat off meats, reading labels, comparison shopping, buying sale items. It is not that the people of West Athens are incapable of doing this, rather it is that the grinding conditions of their poverty are of much greater concern. The daily struggle of existence with all its demands allows little time, quiet, or peace of mind to sort through RDA percentages, saturated this and polyunsaturated that, and which food group you need.
Living in a community that lacks any business in a depressed county in an economically stagnant state is bleak. What is the point of changing one’s diet in this atmosphere? Outsiders may tell you that eating better is beneficial in the long term, but what good is such an abstract, intangible concept like the future when faced with the concrete reality of poverty’s daily struggle?
Other pressures are just too great and too real. The end result is that, instead of careful, cost-conscious habits, poverty lends itself to the opposite behavior. Your kids are screaming on top of all this and so you just give them what they want. What will make them stop crying? Usually sweets or junk food. And what tastes better for yourself than greasy, salty, sugary things? Give me food that’s easy, tastes good and brings immediate pleasure to a world where pleasures are few.
There are other money-related reasons for the poor food. Many in West Athens lack proper dental care. Residents with no teeth or terribly decayed ones couldn’t bite into most fruits or vegetables if they tried. The food that is easily available to them in the small stores in the nearby town of Athens tends to be expensive, and stress the worst elements of their diet — processed meats, white bread, prepared foods, snacks. A more balanced diet would generally require traveling nearly 20 miles to Skowhegan, but this requires a car that’s legal and gas, commodities sometimes in short supply in West Athens.
Television and the long arm of culture reach into this small town accustomed to a slow pace, preaching fast food, quickness and convenience. Shacks without indoor plumbing now have microwave ovens; vegetable gardens, once a common sight, are a rarity today.
What people eat also is affected by their world view, one that biases them against the outsiders telling them how to run their lives. This goes for expert nutritionists as well as government bureaucrats and authorities.
If any significant change is going to occur, the nutrition of the poor will have to become a national priority — a position it briefly occupied in the 1960s. Moreover, nutrition programs will have to inform people in places like West Athens (as well as their urban counterparts) in terms they can understand, accept and use in their daily lives. Because diet does not occur in a vacuum, nutritional needs cannot be met without also addressing other basic problems — like economic opportunity, affordable health care, and quality education. Perhaps then the benefits of eating a healthy diet will at last become available to those most in need.
@1995 Steven Rubin
Steven Rubin, a freelance photographer who works for JB Pictures, is examining rural Maine during his Alicia Patterson year. He is the first Josephine Albright Patterson fellow of the foundation.