Food insecurity is a situation in which someone doesn’t know where their next meal is going to come from. It’s an ongoing source of stress related to poverty and helplessness. Since many of my tenants have been from the working poor socioeconomic group, they have been in situations where they didn’t get enough to eat. In poorer states, up to a third of all children live in poverty, but that doesn’t mean social assistance is available. If the child’s parents are in the country illegally, if the child does not attend school, or if the family lives in a high cost of living area but makes too much to qualify for food stamps, frequently young adults or working-poor parents go without food or medication so that others in their family can eat. Families that suffer from addictions or untreated mental illness frequently don’t get enough to eat simply because the adults who ought to be providing food direct their resources toward their addictions or whims instead.
I find that food insecurity, if it becomes a deeply buried motive, can lead people to do some odd things that are intended to maximize the immediate benefit, but that are detrimental in the long term and hard to deal with in a tenant. One such activity is the binge or feeding frenzy. When a high-value food is brought into the home, a person who grew up in a food-insecure environment will often eat as much of it as possible, as quickly as possible. This makes sense if food is only available in small amounts, if there’s competition for the food, and if it will be eaten by others if you don’t get your share quickly. For a family that has no way to keep food cold or at the correct temperature, going grocery shopping every day or two makes sense. So does eating cheap fast food, because there’s no way to keep ingredients frozen or refrigerated. A family that relies on fast food for this reason doesn’t allow it to sit around, and the notion of having several days’ worth of food on hand is foreign. If there’s a little bit extra of something as a treat, someone will eat it, so it might as well be you.
Outside the food-insecure environment, binge behavior is maladaptive. It makes it impossible for a binge eater to live comfortably with a housemate, tenant, or landlord that deals with food in any other way. If you buy groceries once a week, for example, it’s very difficult to share refrigerator space with someone who goes day to day. The concept of meal planning and of saving particular ingredients for a meal a couple days down the line doesn’t exist, so they see no reason to not eat up all the protein, the dessert, or high value food immediately. They really, truly, don’t understand why you can’t drop everything and go grocery shopping again the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. It’s because they come from an environment in which going to the grocery store for just one or two items was normal. (In fact, if you have to carry food home on the bus, you’re not going to be able to manage more than a few bags’ worth.) So they don’t understand why you’re frustrated about not having the ingredients you need, when you need them. Your desire to make sure the potatoes you bought for Sunday dinner last until Sunday comes across as controlling.
Binge behavior comes across as total disregard for other people’s belongings or convenience. I once had a room-and-board tenant who would gladly eat through twenty dollars’ worth of fresh fruit in one day, to the point where she would make herself sick from eating several pounds of cherries or pineapple. She’d eat several pounds of it and make herself sick, but she just couldn’t stop eating it. She truly couldn’t function in an environment where there was more food than could be consumed in a couple of sittings. To her, it made financial sense to eat as much food as possible, and of the most expensive possible type. Whether or not I got what I needed out of the bargain wasn’t a blip on her radar screen, because the urge to binge was so strong.
A second way food insecurity manifests is by causing the person who experiences it to sabotage long-term relationships in order to get food they don’t necessarily even need. There are families that teach their children that if someone is willing to treat them, the thing to do is to bring along their entire family to share in the benefit, or if that is not possible, to order the biggest serving and bring back leftovers. The idea is to get as much as possible from the source of generosity before it dries up, becoming a conduit for resources that are to be taken from people that don’t matter and redistributed to people who do. The fact that such obvious greed is likely to exhaust the source of generosity before its time does not enter into the discussion.
Binge eating, taken to an extreme, can become an eating disorder even if the tenant does not purge afterwards. Yet a person with an eating disorder who eats compulsively will generally eat indiscriminately instead of going out of their way to eat only the expensive, rare, special, or high-value foods, leaving everything else behind.
The problem with the kind of thinking and behavior that grows out of food insecurity is that people treat it as a survival imperative. They obviously need food to survive, and if they grew up learning that to get food they needed to binge on the good stuff and get while the getting is good, they may not easily leave old habits behind later in life. Even if it’s not necessary to binge, it feels necessary on an emotional level. So trying to change such a behavior in someone else is very unlikely to be successful.
A tenant who binges can be perfectly easy to get along with, provided you find a way to make sure the binge behavior doesn’t affect you. I’ve found that the best way, and perhaps the only way, to deal with a tenant who binges is to cook and eat separately. It’s kinder both to yourself and to the person who’s going to have a lot of difficulty adjusting to what probably comes across as a ridiculous food surplus. If your tenant is truly comfortable shopping for groceries every day, let him or her do that, while you do your thing. You’ve got enough work to do just running the household. You don’t need another ongoing struggle over something that, realistically, just isn’t necessary.