Poor Food


You can take that title two different ways.  As in either poor quality food or just food of the poor. Sometimes it can mean both things. Which did you assume?

This was my lunch today. (Well, only half of it was, the rest went into the trash bin.) I was down on N. Broadway, thought I’d have some hot and sour soup from the new Chinese food place, as everyone knows that’s my favorite soup ever. Or now they do. Yes, even over menudo or sopa de zanahoria. Hmm, for only $2 more I can get the “combo”, seems like a good deal.

And that’s how it starts.

I’m not talking shit about this food, it was actually good for what it was. Lots of carbs, satisfying noodles in their oil, soy sauce doused rice; it’s stuff the mouth craves. Can you eat better food? Yup, you can. But what astounded me most about this dish was the massive quantity of food I was served for a mere $3.99 and I even had to tell my server to stop cuz that was way too much. She replied I could just take the rest home if I didn’t finish. True enough.

(Free with purchase: People watching!)

Even though I’m not one of those twigs-n-sprigs vegetarians, I still don’t go for these sorts of heavy meals. But I used to, way back in my GR days, when I judged places not necessarily by the quality of their ingredients or the complexity of their flavors, but used the dwindling bills in my wallet as the primary unit of measure. If $4 bucks could keep me from having to buy another meal for the rest of the day, then that was obviously a wise choice.

I can imagine many people scoffing at this very moment, laughing at the notion that this meal could in any way be “wise”. I know people that think of their bodies as sacred temples and this sort of trash would never sully that church of self. Good for them. It reminds me of Pollan’s excellent In Defense of Food which has a good analysis of the current crisis in our food chain, but ultimately ends with yet more tithing to the self-church by concluding:

“Not everyone can afford to eat high-quality food in America, and that is shameful; however, those of us who can, should.”

I wish we could all be in that special place of being able to pay for better food, or have the time to make something ourselves. For the moment, I can. But I know that isn’t the reality for a whole lot of people. Even in those previously mentioned GR days (aka welfare, pa’ que sepan) where food stamps were part of the deal that poor folks made with the government so that they wouldn’t up and loot the food stores, I would still be looking for the value meals. That usually means heavily processed foods full of salt, sugar, oils, and other cheap fillers. This habit is quite wide spread in poor communities and is difficult to break, even when people get some money to be able to choose otherwise, which of course leads to all kinds of health problems in the future.


This “Chinese” food is as authentic as Tepeyac, Barragan’s or Arco Iris is “Mexican” food. It’s American food with an ethnic twist. Where am I going with all this? I wish I knew. I’m not trying to present a case for eating poor food, cuz it sucks to have no other reasonable choice. I sort of hope the conversation on food, assuming that’s even happening, can take class issues into account rather than just dismiss the poor for their poor, poor taste.

And seeing as the Global Economic Meltdown is picking up steam, I might as well throw out a solution that might actually help people, seeing as those in power have absolutely none to offer. The governor is proposing to eliminate welfare, assuming the poor will just lie down and die. In your dreams, Arnold! The poor, still being humans and all, WILL NOT WILLINGLY STARVE TO DEATH. If I know humans, and I think I do, they would likely act against governmental laws and against religious morality in order to acquire the means by which to feed themselves. Yes, that’s all speculation, but I’m betting some money on it.

While those in power bailout the banks and car companies of the rich, they’re gonna be telling you about how healthy it is to eat newspaper and grass. There’s nothing they can do about your state of misery. There’s just no money.

Would LA City be so cash strapped if they hadn’t given all those tax breaks to likes of those Grand Avenue developers? What if those 20 something million dollars the city council recently “found” to keep hiring police were used for something that was actually productive?

Here is my solution: I propose the Mayor or the City Council either cancel all those tax breaks and whatever deals they have with the Grand Ave people or use the funds for hiring more cops to get started on a new model for soup kitchens. I’ll call it La Sopa. Sounds classy, still soup. We know they are coming, why act like they ain’t? There’s lots of publicly owned facilities that can be quickly converted into social kitchens, where good food can be prepared to provide a need. Maybe you can even entice some fancy chefs to think about the public good and plan out some feasible menus. No truffles, please.

How about we take over all the public parks that the Governor wants to shut down to grow food for La Sopa? Turn the funds for batons and pepper spray into tomato stakes and bell peppers? If we redirect all the wasted water from ugly, useless lawns and golf courses into these new La Sopa gardens, at least our limited water resources will be going to something useful. Tough times demand tough measures.

How about offering those on unemployment the option to join these gardens or kitchens, just in case they don’t want to waste their days looking for jobs that don’t exist.

Those that control the world-as-it-is insist there are no other options. We know there are many more. The resources are there, the land is there, the people to make it happen are there. What is lacking is the creativity by those in charge to make anything happen. If things get any worse, they might just have to be pushed aside. Fair warning.


So the meal that got me started on this trajectory of thinking about issues of the haves and have-nots came with a fortune cookie with this message: The star of riches is shining on you.

I’ve never been rich; mostly poor, less poor, and not poor. Throughout all those stages, my understanding of riches has remained the same: it’s not about what you own or what wage you make, but about what you can accomplish with the people around you to make something worthwhile happen. I’ve been involved with social centers where nobody ever made a cent but that enriched everyone that participated in the process. It’s not easy but it’s certainly possible.

In the coming social breakdown going at it by yourself is not an option. It’s time to start thinking collectively!

This idea is a workable proposal.

For Sopa, EL CHAVO!

PS. For the record, this meal had “no-meat” but I didn’t ask about ingredients, so I wouldn’t call this vegetarian.

19 thoughts on “Poor Food

  1. Chingon!!!

    I think folks are going to have to do like the old Motorhead song recommended “Eat The Rich.” They won’t change. They want their lawns, lattes and law enforcement to keep everyone else locked up to die.

    Get to know your farmers markets. Get to know your co-ops. Get in on the South Central Farm veggie basket program.

  2. Damn El Chavo, just when I think you’re about to write ANOTHER HR review you come up with this.


    Great post. Reminds of another writer about to come to LA (from Uruguay hint:hint), of how from a rather mundane moment in life one can bring out the revolutionary and collectivist in all of us.

    Sous les pavés, la plage !

    ¡Bajo el pavimento, la playa !

    By the way, I received a flyer for this place yesterday on my apartment gate.

  3. OK, when do we start that project?

    I’ve been noticing, if you look carefully, these fast food Chinese places sometimes have one option that they’re making for themselves. Sometimes, it’s sitting outside of the steam table. It’s usually good, and often is vegetarian. Mustard greens, potatoes, something with bean thread noodles and chicken, Singapore style noodle, cabbage.

  4. Definitely a great post. In one way it reminded me of when I lived in the Haight district of San Francisco in 1981-1982. The neighborhood was beginning to gentrify. I would regularly get my calories at a place called Fat Fong’s where you got an overflowing plate of Chow mein for $2. I knew that the gentrifiers had gotten their way despite all the trouble we caused them when Fat Fong’s vanished and a fancy cookie shop took its place– now all $2 would get you was a cookie,,, Fortunately, though there were some moves in a direction along the lines you mention. with plenty of problems, but still people figuring out ways not only to stay fed, but to enjoy themselves in the process. that is why I look at the current economic situation (recession/depression/whatever term you want to use) as an opportunity at least for the creative, and thoughts like those in this piece are a good example.

  5. Unfortunately, all the people who may know something about growing food, los ilegales, are leaving because the ‘conomy is so bad. Your typical practical knowledge-starved starbucks drinking, mcdonald’s eating suburbanite will whither in front of the tv, tortured by all the food commercials. Ooo wait, that sounds like me!

  6. Great article…it will hurt but the recession is going to challenge a lot of new survivalist creativity (that coming from a newly laid off art teacher).

    Also- try Zoe’s on N Broadway (it replaced Wendy’s Toratas RIP). They haven’t got their menu even printed. The food is “fast food” but it is more made for the Chinese/Vietnamese community as it is next to the C/V Friendship Society so you get other things like vermicelli soup for $3.00!

  7. Chavo, you are not only a brilliant intellectual, but very brave to eat off the “B” restaurant menu. Can’t Huizar give the South Central Farmers an empty storefront in Boyle Heights for a vegetable co-op? It would be a great way to empower the community to work together to get through this economical crisis. Clifton’s cafeteria downtown was a minimal fee restaurant during the 1930’s depression. Their goal was to feed people, not make a huge profit. Where are the innovative community people at?

  8. I just had a thought, based on an experience from a few years ago. At the time I lived in a “bad” neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. (A couple drug dealers hung out at the bus stop on the corner, a few street walkers across the street, a few folks gambling for small change on the sidewalk). My friend and apartment-mate had the idea of asking the landlord if we could use what little yard space there was in the 4-plex where we lived for growing veggies. Perhaps because she was an immigrant from Ethiopia, she was actually pleased by the idea. So we put in some tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchinis, nasturtiums (the flowers and leaves are edible with a nice, slightly sharp, spicy flavor–great in salads). Part of our garden was in the tiny front area, and once the plants started producing, we would hear a lot of comments from people. If either of us were working on the garden people would talk with us about (including the gamblers, street-walkers and drug dealers), asking how to do it. Even in that small pace we had excess, especially of zucchinis. So we started telling people to feel free to take some. The public nature of our little garden naturally moved it into a more collective direction. Unfortunately, after we left there, the spaces went back to being merely decorative shrubs.

  9. A friend recently posted on Craigslist something to the effect:

    Looking for land to till and grow food on. You provide land, water and security. I will work the land and split the food in half with you.

    By the end of the day he had 5 responses.

    People know we need to know how to grow.

  10. great post.

    i’d add reviewing who really belongs in prison to the list of revenue generators.

  11. I got into a pretty heavy convo w/ a friend who refered to Salvadorian pupusas as “poverty food”. she made the claim that a well to do food critic called it that and so therefore… anywho, at $1.25 a pupusa, im good w/ two, and if eating the combination of dough, beans and cheese equates poverty food, then a large portion of the world is fed by it. so whatever. its expensive to eat well everyday. not in this economy. next time im on a plane and im leafing through that tax free air magazine, i may buy that alien like tomato grower in a pot.

  12. Chavo good post. But one glaring omission. You did not discuss what is happening in Big Agribusiness. Genetically engineered seeds–being patented by big corporations like Monsanto. Putting aside what is happening to food by being genetically engineered, if a corporation controls the seeds, they control the food. They can set the price for the seeds. Yes, we are entering into a wonderful era ahead…

    From their website:
    Monsanto is an agricultural company. We apply innovation and technology to help farmers around the world produce more while conserving more. We help farmers grow yield sustainably so they can be successful, produce healthier foods, better animal feeds and more fiber, while also reducing agriculture’s impact on our environment.

  13. That is some scary truth there Taco Sam, they are doing that everywhere. My dad told me they were doing that in Mexico years ago. Making people use their seeds. They have to use them or pests will eat crops not grown by their seeds and then the fruit from those seeds cannot be used. You need to go back and buy new seeds from them.

    We need to change our perspective and see that poor is the norm all over the world. We seem to think that it is normal to be middle class, when we don’t even really know what that is. Poor is the norm, having more is not, and is becoming more rare.

    I think I wrote it here before or somewhere, but I think if you can live without any income, only on your savings and what not, for 6 months then you can claim middle class. Otherwise you are poor and need to start uniting and working with others against those who have more and want to keep using up resources for their minority of the lucky.

  14. I had a crosscultural pupusa at the old so. central farm. Pupusa of nopal and cheese. It was good and probably healthy.

  15. Just came across your blog. Silly. But I must add (in an out-of-context way) re your entry about tamales de elote. Boy, are you pochos dumb OR WHAT??? Tamales de elote do not contain lard. DUMB DUMB DUMB. SOOOO frustrating that mexican food still has to be explained…and to people of so-called mexican extract. Maybe someone else had already pointed this out, but I didn’t take the time to read all the comments. And stop it with the bad language already. So tacky. 🙂 Your blog is funny, though.

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