A Bizarre Awakening

September 13, 2016 in Food Economics, General, Health, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

Life is so complex today. Years ago I had dismissed ramen as a low-cost junk-food, high-calorie, palatable because of cheap additives, but except for calories, nutritionally impoverished. Now I am awakened to the bizarre finding that these shelf-stable bricks of twisted noodles are near the top of the food chain in two significant populations. One is students who are struggling with expenses and cooking/nutrition ignorance; the other is prisoners who face insufficient calories as their rations keep being cut back; and, in any case, need a form of currency to exchange for items in the lockers of their fellow prisoners.

A couple of months ago an article caught my attention in my on-line Los Angeles Times subscription. Teresa Watanabe and Shane Newell wrote about some new studies that have been released showing that a significant number of college students are struggling with food insecurity. Both the California State University system and the University of California students have been surveyed; if you want to read the surveys there are links in the LA Times article by Watanabe and Newell.

The part of the article that really trapped my mind was that some students are turning to instant ramen for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In my mind, ramen is one of the top junk foods. The students are hungry enough to ignore the fact that it’s loaded with sodium, refined carbohydrates and saturated fat. Note: One ‘brick’ of ramen is considered two servings; but the critical information is that it can be purchased for less than 50 cents a ‘brick’. If people are hungry enough, they will eat what they can buy. It is heartbreaking to realize that right here is the US people are turning to ramen. How can they expect to be at the top of their learning abilities while poorly nourishing themselves?

Having been educated at both a Cal State University and at UCLA, I felt especially sad to read Watanabe and Newell’s article. The studies have identified that some of the students don’t understand how to cook on a budget; some did not have money for food, and other had to choose between paying for food or an education.

Fortunately UC President Janet Napolitano and others are aware of this problem and are beginning to work on long-term solutions. Thank goodness! UC Berkeley even launched a cooking class for a college budget.

I hope those that are beginning to focus on this need will introduce the students to some inexpensive foods that can nourish the students.

Let me list a few fairly inexpensive foods that can give some real nourishment.

  • Beans – OK dry beans take some work; but what a bargain! You have to soak them and cook them. But canned beans are still quite a good deal.
  • Oatmeal – whole grain oats, not the fancy little packets containing instant oats and sugar. Real oats (inexpensive oats) with a little fruit is a nice way to start the day without breaking the budget.
  • If they must rely on ramen; then maybe they could sprinkle it with some frozen vegetables; or some canned beans; or a little canned chicken meat.
  • Peanut butter and bread is another fairly inexpensive food.
  • Don’t forget eggs when considering the budget. They can be versatile; especially if hard-boiled in advance. They can be grabbed from the fridge, shelled, salted, and gulped on the run in 2 minutes.

It’s nice that some of the universities now have food closets and food pantries. One of the things that’s great is that the transactions are anonymous – no questions asked.

Now the prisons are where the ramen story really gets bizarre. About a month after reading the Watanabe and Newell’s article, I stumbled upon an article that Amy B. Wang wrote for the Washington Post about instant ramen becoming the top underground currency in American prisons. Michael Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona School of Sociology, has done a study with 60 prison inmates. He has found that ramen is money in prison. They gamble with it and use it in barter. He found that it is attractive as an alternative to prison foods. Those who eat it may eat it dry with mayo, bread and a slice of cheese. Or put peanut butter, jelly and some raisins on dry ramen.

Gibson-Light’s study found that as prison budgets are shrinking, something he called “punitive frugality” is shifting food costs onto the prisoners and those outside who support them. At the same time, life inside prisons has always required some compact and valuable commodity. For multiple reasons, ramen is overtaking tobacco as the preferred underground currency.

I guess I have to tip my hat to Monofuku Ando, the creator of what he called in his autobiography “Magic Noodles.” He invented them in his simple kitchen lab in 1957 to overcome the slow-cooking problem of delicious and filling noodles. It helped busy but famished office and construction workers working long hours to rebuild Japan after the war. It has LOTS of salt, fat (usually palm oil – not a great choice), and simple carbs (noodles), that always score high on the food hedonics scale – especially when he added a packet of seasoning and flavors – chicken was first.

And it was cheap, and still is! It is a no-brainer for prisoners to buy packets for less than 50 cents, and the same for students. In prison there is not always water hot enough, so they eat them dry as mentioned above. My own advice above recognizes the appeal and widespread use, and suggests some additives that will increase the nutritional values. Unfortunately, you can’t get rid of the salt easily, nor can you change the fat source. Ouch!

It seems bizarre where ramen noodles have gone, and the role these compact bricks of curly noodles are playing in our society – surely students and prisoners are not alone in seeing the ratio of low cost, good enough taste, and filling calories. My public health appeal is for more programs to help starving and cooking-ignorant (also nutrition-ignorant) students, less “punitive frugality” aimed at prisoners because of shrinking budgets, and more good sense for all of us in watching the very large salt, fat, and highly processed carb load in ramen. Remember, always consider adding nutrients to it when it is expedient to use, and eat it sparingly.