No free lunch

Americans who can't afford to eat are harming the vital raw food and low-carb grocery industries -- and giving high-class dieters a bad name.

By Joyce McGreevy

Published September 22, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

Once again full-time waitress and single mother Donna Howshee-Duzzitt, 39, has been caught not eating on the job. "Even with the employee discount for whatever is left on a customer's plate, I need every penny to feed my three kids," she claims.

In another community, 8-year-old Hartley Mathers has gone to school without breakfast again. "It's no big deal," he says shortly after being revived by paramedics.

Lester Dynon, 57, is taking a lot of ribbing for moving back in with his mother, something his pals say is a lot easier now that they can actually see his ribs. The unemployed factory manager is equally jocular as he celebrates the two-year anniversary of his foreclosure with something that is reminiscent of a meal. "I can't say it's Mom's cooking that drew me back home," he quips, glancing over at the apparently still breathing remains of his 78-year-old parent. "She's more into the canned stuff than I am, and anyway I'm not sure that's actually tuna."

Fasting is going mainstream.

According to respected fad watcher Faye Poppycock who read it somewhere, 34 million Americans have turned on to the fasting phenomenon for economic reasons. "Some are thrill seekers who get high, or at least lightheaded, on not knowing where their next meal is coming from. Others are binge buyers, cutting back on food in order to blow a C-note on medicines for an uninsured child. Still others want to keep up with the Joneses, the Smiths and a lot of their other neighbors."

But this equal-opportunity starvation has authorities worried. Many say it's time to take a bite out of hunger.

"It's so disturbing to read that all these people are using their bodies to download the fasting experience without paying for it," says Neva Thinnanuv, founder of the Sacred Narcissist, an exclusive urban spa that charges its members $4,000 a week to not eat. "It's a real slap in the facial for our honest, fashion-abiding citizens who have made the ultimate commitment to their self-indulgence. Why should some people be allowed to starve for free when the rest of us are paying through the nose job?"

Diet guru Oleg Puller agrees. Puller, a former professor of advanced hucksterism at the University of In My Dreams, fears that genuine hunger could pose a serious threat to a multimillion-dollar economy -- his. Looking pinched, probably because massage therapists have been pinching him, Puller says he has been forced to safeguard what few millions remain. "That's my entire life savings, at least for now," he says anxiously.

But Puller also worries about the bigger picture. "We have a $40 billion diet industry that is under threat from people who are totally diet-book illiterate and who demonstrate little interest in calculating their body fat percentage. Is that the kind of person you want your child to grow up and have a shallow relationship with?"

Statistics show that unauthorized "hunger sharing" has risen sharply among Americans. One in 10 U.S. households lack enough food to meet their basic needs -- and yet these same households contribute absolutely nothing to the nation's raw food restaurants and low-carb grocery outlets. Nine million Americans, including 3 million children, live in households that regularly go hungry, yet few, if any, have registered at one of the nation's many exclusive spas. "It's like millions of people are opening up franchises on nonprofit hunger and they don't care whose fiscal health gets hurt," says Puller.

Food police confirm that DWI, or dieting without income, violates the current American style code, which clearly states that "the more dubious the benefits of the activity the more money one should spend for the privilege of obsessing over it." They agree with freelance diet dilettante Arnie Svelt that "something ought to be done about fasting freeloaders."

This kind of support could embolden the indulgence industry to announce lawsuits against "privation piracy." But until such attempts at reform can proceed, others are hoping that education will help. People need to understand, say body cleansers, that those who go hungry because they are homeless, unemployed, underpaid, disproportionately taxed, neglected, abused, seriously ill or dying are probably just doing it to get attention. On the other hand, people who pursue not eating because it was either that or the "Herbal Colonics of Umbria" tour remind us that, somewhere, the American dream of living entirely in denial is still possible.

And while a cultural leader of the "fast, not food" movement has yet to emerge, or may simply be too narrow-hipped to be visible to the naked eye, many have pinned their slenderized hopes on American illusionist David Blaine, who has traveled all the way to London to champion the cause of recreational fasters everywhere. According to fans, Blaine, who is currently sealed inside a plastic box hanging from a crane next to the Tower Bridge and not eating, is nothing less than a pioneer in the creative possibilities of bringing hunger into the international arena.

"I do hear rumors that going without food is not entirely unknown in developing countries," says Narey Acklew, a licensed hunger management specialist. "But there's a certain unstudied quality to it that hinders the aesthetic. And frankly, I understand that a lot of people cheat because they give in to cravings for dry leaves and grubs. Grubs! Do you know how much fat there is one of those?"

But until the day when world hunger becomes more fad-oriented, and fasters, both rich and poor, first-world and third-world, become willing to pay $4,000 a week for the latest diet therapy, the campaign to keep people spending dollars to lose pounds will remain largely a domestic one. Even here, however, the challenges are frequent and unexpected.

"It used to be that if someone was fat, at least in your narrow estimation, you could safely tease, bully or cajole them into investing their hard-earned money into the weight-loss industry," says one lobbyist who asked not to be identified because of his lifelong commitment to several conflicting interests.

"Then along comes some band of renegades like the Center on Hunger and Poverty in Washington, D.C., pointing out that 'obesity and hunger (and, more broadly, food insecurity) ... sometimes co-exist in the same families and the same individuals ... [because] those with insufficient resources to purchase adequate food can still be overweight.' And they cite such factors as 'the trade-off between food quantity and quality.' And what, might I ask, does that have to do with the price of grilled wild Pacific salmon with caperberry-infused eggplant puree?"

The problem with this kind of accurate research, says the lobbyist, is that it puts undue pressure on business leaders, political representatives and TV talk show hosts to envision a world where ordinary people can access things like healthy food on a regular basis. But to achieve this would require a modicum of job development, a basic living wage, somewhat affordable housing, a fair to middling educational system, and possibly even healthcare of some sort.

Instead, says Evan Skinnear, a renowned personal fasting coach, the best way to help those who are both poor and overweight is to look at them funny in the grocery store checkout line. "By staring down someone who is using food stamps and perhaps buying some item you don't approve of," Skinnear explains, "you're sending a powerful message, one that says, 'Someday, when you decide to stop being poor, you'll be able to stop eating that junk and lavish money on not eating at all.'"

Joyce McGreevy

Joyce McGreevy is a writer in Portland, Ore.

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