Frozen Pizzas and the Cycle of Poverty

I was struck with a realization recently and I thought I would share it with you today. That will have to wait, though, for I must fill you in on the story that was the impetus behind this post.

Not too long ago, Amber and I thought it was about time we actually have a go at a "dinner and a movie" (Can you believe that we've only been to the movie theater once now in about a year?). We were meeting in a neutral location to shave off some driving time for one of us; consequently, we found ourselves on a wild goose chase to find a movie theater that we didn't have directions for. As we were driving around--not lost, but not going in the right direction either--we wound up in an impoverished area of the inner city. Unafraid to actually stop and ask for directions (sometimes for the sake of time, you just have to ignore the testosterone), I suggested we pull off at the next gas station or corner store. At the first gas station, we rolled into the empting parking lot, greeted by a storefront with barred windows and doors. I wasn't even sure the place was still open for business, but after a closer look, we figured that the metal cage was simply protecting the gas station from robbers (and judging by the shear amount of protection, I think this gas station was safe from any kind of warhead or terrorist attack). Amber hesitated, but I assured her that it was perfectly okay. As we approached the door, I still had no idea what is behind it, because the place is blacked out. To our surprise, it wasn't just a cover for a strip club or a crackhouse and there were several people inside. I asked for directions from the first guy I bump into, who is taking a rest on top of a stack of 12-packs, but he's new to the area and didn't have a clue.

Another man, on his way out, stops. His face has patches of whiskers and bears the evidence of years of hard work. I notice that he had stopped in for one purchase: a frozen pizza. I ask the gentleman if he knows the way and he easily directs us to the theather--we were not anywhere close. Fifteen minutes later, a few miles away and worlds apart, I steered the car into the massive movie complex.

It was either on the drive over to the movie theater or afterwards that I turned to Amber and said, "Did you notice what that guy, the one who gave us directions, was leaving with? One Tony's frozen pizza."

I don't know why this particular interaction impacted me so. Maybe it was nothing. Or maybe I saw something seemingly meaningless that was really an tiny indicator of injustice. A frozen pizza? C'mon, lighten up, Jonathan. Give the guy a break. Oh, don't take me wrong, I'm not placing any blame on this chap. It was a frozen pizza for Pete's sake! I buy pizza all the time. So why all the trouble to tell the story?

When I saw that frozen pizza in his hand, my heart sank honestly. Not for the simple fact that he had a pizza, but because of what I knew that pizza represented for so many people there in that part of the city. Here is a guy, late 50s, or perhaps younger, but one wouldn't know it on account of his physical appearance, who has likely lived in the inner city his whole life, born into an impoverished family, maybe finished high school, definitely no college, has struggled through several jobs or maybe he's worked the same low paying job since high school. He may still live with his wife and kids, maybe he doesn't. Maybe he's happy and content. Maybe he's placed his faith in Christ. Maybe he's been to jail, maybe he hastn't. These things I do not know. My intention is not to build stereotypes, but to just be honest about what is true for many who live in the impoverished areas of America's inner cities. But, the frozen pizza...get back to the pizza!

So, the way I see it, this guy is paying 50-100% more for a Tony's frozen pizza at the local, innercity corner store than the typical suburban family is at their local Meijer or Wal-Mart. I have nothing against the latter's lower prices. But what about this guy who's never been free to buy groceries in mass quanitity and pay reasonable prices for them? Now maybe I just caught this man at a time when he was fulfilling a strong urge for a frozen pizza. I'm not foreign to such an urge. But, if you're honest, you know what I am talking about here.

What can we do to bring redemption to our inner cities? To educate and enable and empower impoverished families in the inner cities to buy groceries at reasonable prices? To see the futility of spending each week's paycheck on overpriced food and other items at the local corner store (this isn't a plea to close all inner city stores, please don't hear that)? To break the cycle of poverty?

Next time I'll visit these questions specifically. Until then...what do you think? Does it really matter? What's the bigger picture that I am talking about here? This is way bigger than just buying groceries.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Jonathan. This is an incredible question, which is at the crux of what I do.

To just delve into one question, ask yourself this: What's the value of community pride? How about the value of "having one of your own make it?"

A reality is that many of the local stores in the inner cities are owned by a few of the insiders within the community. They are the ones charging outrageous prices for relatively unhealthy products (next time you're in the inner city, try to figure out the nearest location to get fresh produce, and imagine trying to get there w/out a car). I don't claim to know the costs of operation for those inner city folks. I imagine that they'd be similar to those for other convenience stores, but they seem to charge a little more (maybe 10% or so). So, to some extent, people are taking advantage of their own in the price premium they charge, as well as providing food with poor nutrition (though the demand may very well justify what these stores stock).

But, let's say Wal-Mart wants to put up a Supercenter in their neighborhood. Citizens unite in outrage. Not in our backyard. We don't like corporations. We want the money to stay in the community. We don't want to hurt small businesses.

The same small businesses that have been taking advantage of the local populace is now a rallying point.

What's of more value? Bringing a Wal-Mart that can create a bunch of $8/hr jobs and provide access to cheap food? Or the small businesses that represents one of your own? Time after time, people in this country have rallied against corporate America by siding with the local businesses. I don't claim to have an answer. And this is just one issue.

Others to consider: Family structure and whether or not daddy is around. The importance of family traditions (for better or worse). Government versus the private sector in philanthropy. Food cultures from a sociological view. Cultural attitudes towards business and entrepreneurship. The role of corporate America. Basic education among the poor. Basic functional literacy skill acquisition.

And as far as that individual with the single frozen pizza goes... it depends on what you believe about the world.

-Chairman

Jonathan King said...

I knew this post would generate some good discussion from your end, Chairman. As I was finishing it up, I realized: this is right up your alley. You shed some excellent light on the subject...great insights.

Ahead of time, I was thinking of heading in the direction of, in your words, government versus the private sector in philanthropy, the role of corporate America and basic education among the poor. But you raise some great additional questions. I actually just read an interesting article in the WSJ about wal-mart supercenters trying to penetrate urban centers.

To be continued...

Anonymous said...

Jonathan. I think this story tells more of the state of your heart than it does about the man with the pizza.

But anyway, in the UK we have seen the major supermarkets buy up small stores and do a sort of mini supermarket. This has tended to chase out a lot of the convenience stores. It takes away the planning outrage but instead has people complaining that there is no variety in life.

The reality is that operating a city centre, or non-urban convenience store, is going to be more expensive - higher logistics, smaller deliveries, more expensive staff, bigger rent costs etc. So prices have to be higher. People also are willing to pay more for convenience foods.

That doesn't excuse the range of food in these places - but I'd say that even if the man had had a choice, wouldn't he have bought the pizza anyway? Low time to cook, low effort, tastes nice - maybe he was tired at the end of a long day.

If you want practical suggestions, encourage health food stores to move in. But will people pay for it? Also, encourage the Wal-Marts to enter the market with small stores and use their global buying power to deliver lower prices.

Finally, don't you have online ordering facilities for supermarkets? We have tesco.com, which means you can access the range of a supermarket without even leaving your house/apartment.

Jonathan King said...

o2thoughtful,
thanks for contributing to this discussion. as far as the pizza goes, you're right, high taste to effort ratio (i just made up that nutritional metric, but it seems reasonable). that's what most college students thrive on! what's easy to cook and tastes good?! but, i don't want to digress to far from the point of this discussion: not the pizza, but what the pizza represented in my mind: a sign of poor purchasing habits among the impoverished, who live paycheck to paycheck, rarely given a second thought by the economically advantaged.
i think you certainly have some good to contribue here, since you're coming from a UK perspective. yes, for inner city poor, the health food store probably isn't feasible yet. the online supermarkets do exist here, but to my knowledge mostly for the handicapped and middle to upper class.