When my two childhood best friends and I were kids, we would toast two pieces of bread, spread butter across them, and coat them in cinnamon sugar to curb our hunger if we were between grocery trips and our parents didn’t have much in the house. We also ate cheap ramen noodles, plain pasta with butter, canned tuna, bologna sandwiches, Celeste $1 frozen pizzas, McDonald’s value menu sandwiches, and we drank a lot of soda.
I’m no longer poor like I was growing up, and I generally have more meal options; even at my brokest moments in the last five years, I’ve been able to afford a basic meal at Panera Bread. I’ve since given up a lot of the poverty foods that I grew up with, mostly because I find other options tastier and, like many millennials, I’m more willing to spend my money on food than my parents were. When I first tried sushi in 2008, I loved it enough to work it into my shopping list occasionally despite the high price; I’d rather have one serving of sushi than eight Celeste pizzas for the same price. But I still drink at least two cans of Coca-Cola every day, and I’m not planning to stop anytime soon.
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Soda, like the other inexpensive foods that many poor people rely on, is frequently demonized. It’s often cited as a health risk for weight gain, which is a fatphobic tactic that ignores the fact that being overweight is not directly linked to health problems. And alternatives to soda that many people suggest, such as fruit juice, often contain the same amount of sugar and calories as soft drinks.
Still, these attitudes persist. Soda is taxed in over 35 countries and seven U.S. cities, and these taxes continue increasing; Washington, D.C. is currently considering raising taxes on sugary drinks. I’m often told by well-meaning friends and family about the amount of sugar and calories in the soda I drink.
After the second or third time I laugh off my soda habit by opening another can in the face of a dissenter, they usually get the picture and chalk it up to one of my quirks. I’m very privileged to be able to do that: I’m white, thin, and no longer live in poverty. When I was living on cereal and cinnamon toast, it was harder to rebuke people’s comments about what I ate; I had no choice. If I didn’t eat that one dollar chicken sandwich, I wasn’t going to eat dinner that night. If I let the sugary cereals expire, it was valuable money wasted. Growing up, I didn’t even have enough money to maintain a diet consisting of foods that don’t cause my disabilities to flare up, which I realized when I finally had the financial freedom to give up red meat in 2011 and stopped experiencing weekly stomach aches.
When you’re poor—especially if you’re also fat, disabled, a person of color, an immigrant, or from another marginalized background—the world feels entitled to share its opinion of every choice you make. What cell phone you use. How you pay your bills. How often you go to the dentist. What foods you put in your grocery cart, and how many of them you have to put back at the end of the trip because you’ve run out of money. Whether you pay for those groceries with SNAP.
Poor people have fewer choices; there are so many things I can do now that I couldn’t do when I was poor. I can spend a few dollars to rent my favorite movie on Amazon Prime, save up enough for a weekend trip to Maine with my best friends, take an Uber or Lyft when my body is in too much pain to walk ten minutes from the train station to my home, and eat sushi with my wife when one of us is craving it.
Every choice you make when you’re poor is more likely to be criticized by other people (“Why would you buy your sister a birthday gift when you can barely afford groceries?”). These choices also carry more weight: What if you decide to buy her that gift she really wants and then you’re stuck eating rice for weeks? It’s easy to judge poor people’s choices about what to eat and drink because these decisions are so visible, but sometimes getting a vanilla Coke with your Wendy’s chicken sandwich is the best choice you’ve been able to make that week. I remember sitting down with my dad to eat Pizza Hut, knowing he’d recently been injured in an accident at work and was having a hard time making enough to pay our bills. I ate pizza and watched Shameless with him, thinking this might be the last time we’d get to do this for a while if our cable and electricity were shut off. Maybe we could have kept the $10 (plus tip) we spent on pizza, but it wouldn’t have paid our bills. It wouldn’t have helped my dad, an independent contractor cab driver, figure out a way to work when he couldn’t physically drive.
Research shows that escaping poverty requires 20 years with nearly nothing going wrong. I haven’t reached that milestone yet, but I’m better off economically than my parents, a disabled mom on SSDI and a cab driver dad, were when I was a kid. My dad used to choose our meals based on what was on sale; I choose my meals based on what my wife and I are in the mood for. Do we want chicken or fish? Do we want fresh blueberries or frozen vegetables? I rarely eat fast food as a meal anymore (if I do eat it, it’s usually because I’ve been out drinking with my friends and it’s 2 a.m.). But I’m not planning to give up soda. As my wife’s aunt recently joked, I have a glass of Coke in the morning with my breakfast in lieu of coffee or tea.
Nothing tastes as comforting as freshly poured fountain soda with crushed ice. Maybe it’s the nostalgia from my childhood memories of drinking soda and eating pizza on the couch with my mom, who passed away in 2004, as we watched reruns of Seinfeld. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of thinking about haters clutching their pearls as I ingest what they would denounce as pure sugar and empty calories with my fresh salad.
Maybe there’s a kind of power in having enough money to choose any beverage, but still choosing the one that costs $1 any size at McDonald’s. I may not go through the drive-through often anymore, but I always know that it’s there waiting for me, like a crispy slice of cinnamon toast with my best friends on Saturday morning.