Contextualizing Contempt: On Being A Midwestern Transplant To California

by Keith Taylor

Want a study in food accessibility, choice, and health? And want to know why it may be one facet of the divide and contempt we see between the Midwest and the Coastal regions?

Be born, raised, and work in a rust belt community for most of your life, where people complain about $1 a dozen eggs as too pricey, and organics as for-the-rich. Then, move out to an area with utter abundance (Costco, food co-ops, multiple farmers markets in numerous places) of fresh organic foods.

Oh sure, it’s definitely nice. A savvy shopper in these parts can eat incredibly healthy for very low prices. But there is no doubt that rust belt rural America is being left behind. Food is limited, not as healthy, and marked up in price. And I can attest to the dereliction  of the Midwest from two events in my own life.

First, from 18 to 21, I worked at a multinational retailer in the produce department. The treatments that corporate district managers demanded we apply to leafy greens made us all suspicious of the company’s concern for consumer exposure. We would regularly fill the shelves with half moldy produce. the company clearly did not care about the dignity of local consumers, many who had few is any alternatives due to local competitors being driven out. By the way, this same retailer recently closed almost two hundred rural stores because they weren’t profitable enough. Their shareholders made bank, and supposedly that’s all that matters.

Second, when we moved to Muncie, Indiana, I was well aware of the health epidemics that would frequently mention Muncie as being front and center facing these challenges, challenges of opioid addiction, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. But it’s something else to get immersed in the epidemics. Myself, I gained over thirty pounds in the two years we lived there, and for the first time my blood pressure registered a “high.” I had an acquaintance whoo visited the university hospital’s pain clinic for chronic neck pains. Within three minutes of seeing the doctor, she was prescribed opioids; mind you there were no x-rays taken nor alternatives suggested. It’s not difficult to see how the Midwest falls victim to these epidemics.

I’ll toss in a third event.

My car means a lot to me. I, like many others in my age cohort, carry a large student debt burden. While I now have a great job, the Great Recession and the massive shift in how U.S. industry and government invests in upward mobility had its impact on me. Because of this and being a late-in-life career starter, I’m frugal. My 2001 Honda Civic with 320,000 miles is both a closely held store of value (it’s THE thing that gets me from point a to point b) and a proud mark of my working class thriftiness. Indiana -where then Governor Pence was proud of the rainy day fund and reduced state funding in infrastructure- underinvests in its highways, odd considering how committed it is to car culture. Since my car had endured so well, I intended to drive it to 400,000 miles. Well, that is until I hit a poorly graded stretch of highway that bottomed my car out, puncturing my radiator, resulting in a $400 repair bill. It’s bad enough for this to happen once; it happened a second time, reopening the radiator while fracturing the frame of my car. That bill was $600. This happened while driving at state sanctioned speed limit of 55.

The abdication of the basics (they can’t even build the damn roads in car country!) has real consequences for everyday people. The people of the Midwest are forgotten. Treated as if providing them with basic dignity is a burden.

And what do you do if you live at the poverty line, in a region being hollowed out by powerful forces? You soldier on. These problems feel like a damp blanket wrapped around you on a cold fall evening. You hope you can overcome it yourself, that your body heat warms the blanket. So you suffer through it with a short-sighted optimism. Despite it all, you continue to wake up in a state of misery.

Now that I live in Davis, California, I am floored at how well things work out here compared to the Rust Belt. At how remarkably well the health system works, everything from billing to the patient experience is miles above anything I experienced in rural Illinois and Indiana. The food is affordable, abundant, and fresh. Oh, and I don’t have to worry about the roads causing costly repairs to my clunker Honda Civic. And my new job clears me some runway to buy a new car. …er, well, a 2012 with slightly under 100k on the odometer is new to me.

Talk about a culture shift and absolute class awareness. I read about this wealth, but I didn’t really know the depth of resources that existed in this country until I saw it firsthand. And I wasn’t so acutely aware of how little of those stocks flowed to rural Sacrifice Zones.

I can understand the contempt.