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Poverty Food

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Bon appétit?

"Grease, fried dough, pig fat and sorghum. And you better get to like it ... because you're going to get the same thing every morning, every year."

When food is being used to transport a message about the low social status or dire life situation of a character.

On one end of the Sliding Scale of Shiny Versus Gritty we have Snooty Haute Cuisine to indicate an upper class environment. On the other end of the spectrum we have Poverty Food for lowlifes, neglected orphans, prison inmates, starving artists, broke college students, and anyone else stuck in a Crapsack World.

Poverty Food is usually portrayed as an unappetizing, bleak and gloppy substance. Truth in Television in the sense that mush-like meals are cheap and easy to make while still being sufficiently nutritious. If it's not gruel, expect poor people to chew on (dried) bread or eat instant ramen. A mostly U.S.-specific food is "government cheese", originally created to deal with milk surpluses, which is usually the first thing handed out to food-stamp and Social Security beneficiaries.

In Real Life the types of food eaten during hard times often become stigmatized in the times of plenty, turning into a kind of a Stock "Yuck!" in that particular culture. This happens not only because people often resort to eating something they hardly consider palatable, but also because of psychological association of eating certain types of food with poverty. Note that just because the food poorer people eat is stigmatized, it doesn't actually mean it's all not good. Yes, some Poverty Food, like sodium nitrate-laden canned mystery meat, isn't good for you. But some food associated with lower-income communities is healthy and nutritious: beans and rice, or fish chowder; season it to give it some taste, and you've got yourself a Boring, but Practical meal.

Supertrope to a number of scenarios wherein characters struggle with the quality of their diet. In ascending order of grossness:

  • Stock Medieval Meal: Medieval peasants in fiction consume nothing but stew, bread, beer, and cheese.
  • Soup of Poverty: Cheap, low-quality soup served at homeless shelters, sold in cans or homemade.
  • Future Food Is Artificial: Commoners in future settings will have to make do with synthetic food.
  • Even the Rats Won't Touch It: An animal reaction is used to convey the distastefulness of the food.
  • Dog Food Diet: A fallen-on-hard-times character ends up eating canned dog food.
  • Reduced to Ratburgers: A famished character resorts to eating rats or similar vermin.
  • Eating Shoes: When nothing is left to eat, a character will turn to anything in sight, most likely shoes.

Subtroper of Food as Characterization. Compare Mock Meal, Emergency Food Supply Animal, No Party Like a Donner Party. See Mess on a Plate, Mystery Meat, and Nondescript, Nasty, Nutritious when the focus is on the visual and tasting experience of the food rather than the social implications of a dire meal. See Frozen Dinner of Loneliness for when lonely characters eat convenience food. Contrast Food Porn and Grapes of Luxury. Often used for Poverty for Comedy. In a bleak, dystopian totalitarian state that rations food, this may lead to characters craving tasty, fresh Black Market Produce.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Blue Lock's Jinpachi Ego eats food like instant ramen by choice. Having had to keep to a strict diet as a student athlete, he chooses to eat ramen as an adult to catch up on what he missed.
  • Chainsaw Man begins with Denji eating plain bread with Pochita, commenting that he heard people put jam on it. An omake shows he couldn't always afford that, so he'd eat flour mixed with water. For Christmas, he'd add sugar.
    Denji: Tastes like cake, right?!
    Narration: They've both never actually eaten cake before.
  • Cowboy Bebop features this trope on a regular basis, due to their Perpetual Poverty. In the first episode, Spike complains that there's no beef in the bell peppers and beef Jet served for dinner, at which point Jet angrily retorts that it's because he can't afford to buy meat due to the money from the last bounty that Spike capture having to go to paying all the damages Spike caused while catching the guy. Another episode highlighted the crew glumly subsisting on self-cooking instant ramen because their funds are so low. Finally, the end of "Mushroom Samba" has them living off of a duffel bag's worth of dried shitake mushrooms (which their bounty insisted were the fun kind and worth a fortune).
  • Referenced in Food Wars!: One of Kouijirou Shinomiya's signature ingredients is burdock root, which is a popular vegetable in Japan, but had fallen out of fashion due to its status as poverty food in France, where Shinomiya had his culinary training.
  • The eponymous Naruto eats instant ramen most of the time, because that's all he can afford (It helps that he likes it, too). He considers ramen from Ichiraku's Ramen Stand to be one of "the finer things in life," and is always delighted when someone treats him to ramen from there (or when he can actually afford it).

    Comic Books 
  • In Asterix the Legionary, Asterix and Obelix join the Roman Legion to track down a fellow Gaul who had gone missing, and at dinnertime, Asterix remarks that armies are renowned for their crappy food, it keeps the soldiers in a bad mood and fierce in battle. Sure enough, they're served a horrific glop consisting of flour, bacon and cheese, cooked together to save time. Asterix sourly notes that he didn't think the Roman army would be quite that fierce. Hilariously, the British Legionnaire loves the food, commenting that it's just like the food back home.
  • Lucky Luke: The Stagecoach features this as a Running Gag, where every single rest stop for the titular stagecoach only serves beans and bacon for the poor passengers. The one exception is one cook who serves beef and potatoes because he's made a deal with the gambler who often takes the same route and bets with the other passengers what dinner will be served at that one stop. Hilariously, this even happens at the celebration banquet at the end, which is supposed to be high class but STILL serves some variation of beans and bacon in every course of the meal.
  • Astro City: Quarrel II, the daughter of the original, villainous Quarrel, grew up in the rural Appalachians, and since money was usually in short supply, she would supplement the family's diet with possums, squirrels and other small animals. It apparently didn't taste very good but it kept them all fed.

  • Katawa Shoujo: Rumbling Hearts: Hanako is homeless. She has a job but can't currently afford a permanent residence or even much food to eat. Hanako works at a restaurant, where she sometimes eats either leftovers from the kitchen or takeout that is discarded by the delivery people.
  • Touch (2005): Roxy grew up eating little but cup ramen and canned tuna thanks to her poor, abusive mother not buying much else.
  • Rocketship Voyager, which is rife with homages to classic Science Fiction, includes a reference to zymoveal, a Poverty Food from Asimov's The Caves of Steel (see below). Paris ate it as a child, when his father was unemployed, and learned to doctor it with hot sauce.
  • In A Winter's Tale, Castiel often ate food that was being discarded from Gas-Z-Sip like burnt nachos and dried hotdogs. He also ate moldy bread and cheese from dumpsters.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfiction frequently treats ponies grazing on wild grass as this: Ponies can survive on grass, but the taste and nutrition value are so low that they won't eat it if anything better is available.

    Films — Animated 
  • Jebidiah "Cookie" Farnsworth from Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire serves up lumpy ooze to the survivors, who have no alternative except to choke it down. Cookie earlier stated that the four food groups are: "beans, bacon, whiskey and lard," thus dinner looks to be some unholy mixture of those ingredients. Bizarrely, his circumstances are about as far from "poverty" as possible - he's a hand-picked member of a massive expedition being bankrolled by a billionaire - he's just very set in his ways.
  • No Dogs or Italians Allowed: The Ughettos eat a lot of polenta (a type of cornmeal associated with the lower classes) with milk, because they can't afford much else.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Guyana: Crime of the Century: As time passes, food in Johnsontown becomes more mundane and less appetizing. A man complains that, despite having to work 13 hours a day, they're not getting any meat just as he and the rest of the population is being served with rice and gravy (yet again, according to a girl and her mother who are next to him). And this occurs right before the scene where Johnson tells his closest circle that they'll have to cut expenses and food rations in favor of investing further in local safety (and also because many people have defected, resulting in financial constraints).
  • The Kid (1921) has a scene where the Tramp dishes up an undefinable mass from a disgustingly messy pot.
  • In The Matrix, the crew subsists on porridge that apparently tastes just like "Tasty Wheat" found within the Matrix. It's one of the reasons why Cypher commits a Face–Heel Turn, so he could once again get to taste delicious food such as steak, if only as an illusion inside the matrix.
  • Life of Pi has a grumpy cook (played by Gérard Depardieu) in a sleazy galley serving his gravy-rich stodge to the ship's lower deck passengers.
  • Played for laughs in The Grand Budapest Hotel, where the imprisoned gentleman-protagonist wheels a cart around the cell block in the morning, offering mush to inmates.
  • Ivan's Childhood is set in a Crapsack World at the Eastern Front during World War II. In one scene we see Ivan and two befriended officers of the Russian army eating a mushy meal out of brass bowls.
  • In The Little Rascals short "Mush and Milk", the gang are all living in a boarding school run by a ghastly old woman who serves them the two titular foods every day because she's too cheap to give them anything else. Once her husband's pension comes in, he treats the kids to a meal at a high-class French restaurant — which turns out to be the exact same mush they've been eating every day. They promptly throw it in the waiter's face.
  • The prison inmates in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang get a disgusting dish of grease, fried dough, pig fat and sorghum to eat, day in and day out, which the wrongfully convicted hero has a hard time adjusting to.
  • Together is set in a Stockholm commune where cooked porridge is served on a regular basis for economic reasons, much to the kids' dismay. Göran tries to sugarcoat the meal to them by comparing the porridge to commune life:
    Göran: You could say that we are like porridge. First, we're like small oatflakes. Small, dry, fragile, alone... but then we're cooked with the other oatflakes and become soft. We join so that one flake can't be told apart from another. We're almost dissolved. Together we become a big porridge... that's warm, tasty and nutritious, and yes, quite beautiful, too.
  • Seven Samurai: The poor villagers have to subsist on millet because they're giving all their rice to the samurai in payment for protection.
  • Played for laughs in a couple Woody Allen films:
    • In Take the Money and Run, it's mentioned that the prisoners are served "one hot meal a day: a bowl of steam".
    • In Love and Death, Boris states that with money being scarce when he and Sonja lived together, she "learned to make wonderful dishes out of snow". (Including "a nice, big bowl of sleet" for dessert, which Boris pronounces his favorite.)
  • Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory: Willy Wonka is offered a bowl of a slimy substance by an Oompa Loompa chieftain, Wonka grimaces and gags while attempting to eat it. This is perfectly understandable to anybody who's read the original books, where it's explained that the only food the Oompa Loompas had available to them when they first met was a particularly foul-tasting mash of caterpillars, beetles, and bark. In the book, he managed to hire the entire tribe on because he had ready access to what was to them a rare and treasured treat: cacao beans (a key ingredient in making chocolate).

  • In Ambergris, during the War of the Houses, food became scarce. It was also discovered in that period, that door knobs in Ambergris were made using sawdust and oxblood. So almost all of the population has had at least one meal of door knob.
    • As the war progressed, it was discovered that parts of the fungus bombs used by House Frankwrithe & Lewden are edible. Additionally the fungus bullets used by that same house turn out to be highly nutritious once the poisons in them have gone stale. People had been known to dig out bullets from corpses just to save for their next meal.
  • Older Than Feudalism in The Bible:
    • God provides "manna" to feed the Israelites on their journey out of Egypt. It's described as having the appearance of tree gum and tasting like wafers and honey (though, that does sound pretty tasty). They live on it for 40 years. The Israelites appreciated the manna at first but got weary of eating the same thing all the time. After which, God sends them flocks of quail to supplement their diet. They never stop whining about it either, which is why He's so cross with them.
    • Judaic law, which otherwise forbids the eating of insects, specifically exempts locusts — mostly so that poor people will have something to eat during famines and locust infestations.
  • In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie's destitute family subsists on grey "cabbage water" and, when they're really lucky, the occasional loaf of bread. This is why chocolate is Serious Business to him.
  • In The Zombie Knight, Colt's cooking is like this, although it actually tastes okay.
    Hector: What's in this?
    Colt: Gravy.
    Hector: And?
    Colt: And some other stuff.
    Hector: What other stuff?
    Colt: Just be glad I'm good at making gravy.
  • In Jill Pinkwater's The Disappearance Of Sister Perfect, the heroine infiltrates a cult and is put off by the cheap, institutional food (chipped beef, peas, and mashed potatoes, all described in the most unappetizing terms). It sticks to the roof of her mouth, which is too bad because cult members are forbidden from drinking until after they have finished their food. The drink itself is described by one character as "instant flavored sugar water — cheaper than juice."
  • The companions in The Belgariad generally eat pretty well, even on the road, because Polgara is a Supreme Chef and Silk is an excellent scrounger, but if they get stuck in a seedy inn, or Polgara is absent or out of commission for some reason (or mad at them — that happens a fair bit, too), they get gruel or burnt bacon. In the Malloreon sequel series, they get beans, too.
    Silk: I hate gruel.
  • In The Caves of Steel and the sequels, the lowest classes have to subsist on some sour-tasting yeast mush. The entire Earth qualifies, in a way, being poor and overcrowded compared to the rich and spoiled Spacers - even natural food, rather than yeast, is always eaten processed, and only in Spacer cuisine does one encounter things like whole apples, eggs with visible yolk, etc.
  • In Jane Eyre, the food on Jane's arrival at Lowood is noted as being disgusting: her first dinner there is described as "smelling of rancid fat" and consisting of "indifferent potatoes and strange shreds of rusty meat"; the next morning the porridge is so burnt as to be inedible. It eventually comes to light that the minister who runs the school is embezzling funds and deliberately spends as little as possible on everything, including the food.
  • In Matilda, the titular character is visiting Miss Honey in her home. She's astonished to see Miss Honey using margarine, and concludes that "She must be poor."
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: The definitive poverty food in King's Landing is the "bowls o' brown" served to the urban poor. Most soup kitchens' kettles have simmered for years with regular top-ups from absolutely anything at hand — vegetable scraps, offal, rat, pigeon, political dissidents...
  • The Stormlight Archive: "Flangria" is a meat substance that's mass-produced by magically transmuting rocks. It's tasteless, textureless, and cheaper than water, and almost everyone who can afford better rations avoids it. Kaladin considers it a major triumph of Herdazian food that it has flangria recipes that are actually tasty.
  • In The Hunger Games, the working class of District 12, itself already the poorest district in Panem, subsists mainly on rough bread and mush made from tessera grain, pine bark, wild dog meat, and in the winter, a local stew made from mice meat, pig entrails, and tree bark. Katniss assumes that Peeta, being a baker's son, must be one of the few inhabitants to eat well, but he reveals that the family can't afford to eat their own wares. He could only eat the unsalable mistakes and bread that's already gone stale.
  • I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream: The main characters are forced to subsist on whatever disgusting scraps they can find, and even that is rare. Explicitly mentioned are some sort of worms, as well as "manna" that tastes like boar urine, and the plot revolves around the group trying to find a cache of canned food somewhere beneath the North Pole. The Master Computer AM could easily provide them with any food imaginable but only gives them near-inedible things out of sadistic cruelty since it is intent on torturing the characters for all eternity, and keeping them on the brink of starvation is just part of it.
  • In Race to the Sun Nizhoni's dad says that frybread is "crisis food" and that's why he hasn't taught her how to make it. Another character agrees that this is not a traditional Navajo dish, since the recipe was created when the Navajo had only flour, water and baking soda. Still, they can be delicious.
  • Ramona Quimby has an example of Poverty Food for pets rather than humans. When the family falls on hard times, they can only afford a cheap brand of cat food called Puss-puddy for the cat, which he hates.
  • In Runaway by Wendelin Van Draanen, Holly remembers that when her mom was still alive, they'd always get two boxes of KFC for Thanksgiving dinner. One time, when she asked if they could roast a turkey next year, her mom told her that turkey was actually tough and dry and that nobody actually wanted to eat it, but it's implied she was just trying to make Holly feel better about not being able to afford it.
  • Moving Pictures: Holy Wood is a Boom Town; there aren't enough jobs to go around, so most people have only pennies to spend on food. One entrepreneur opens up an eatery that sells disgusting stew at thirty pence a bowl. If you have to ask what kind of stew, you aren't hungry enough. They eventually settle on calling it fish stew, "on the principle that if you find it in water, it's a fish."
  • In the To Ride Pegasus books, something called "subsistence loaf" (implied to be welfare rations) is mentioned - usually as a threat ("Do what I tell you or you'll be back to eating subsistence loaf by tomorrow.")

    Live-Action TV 
  • In an episode of Johnny Bago, Johnny is forced to join a traveling circus. The ringmaster is a blackmailer who is forcing all the workers to work for him for free, and feeds them leftovers from the previous day's crowd all mixed together. It's served in scoops of brown blech.
  • In Lexx the crew primarily subsists on a grey sludge extruded by the titular Living Ship through a rather disturbingly-shaped dispenser.
  • The Big Bang Theory:
    • Penny, a Cheesecake Factory waitress who makes the least money out of the main cast, claims she often has to eat whatever scraps of food the customers leave on the tables.
    • Leslie Winkle and other characters have been heard to remark instant ramen fulfills this function when the need for food coincides with a near-total absence of cash.
  • Married... with Children: Okay, who wants a Tang-wich? (Sand-like orange drink powder between two slices of bread). Then there's "toaster pickins" (aka toaster crumbs) and Al's toothpaste sandwich. Funnily enough, someone actually tried the tang-wich, and found that it was quite delectable, saying that the tang and bread together tasted like cake. She also tried the toothpaste sandwich. It was just as gross and inedible as one would expect.
  • In Frasier, when Niles is struggling to make ends meet during his divorce, Frasier finds a baloney sandwich and a fruit cup in Niles' valise, making his poverty food equivalent to a school kid's sack lunch.
  • The Beverly Hillbillies: Played for Laughs with the Clampetts, who continue to serve up their preferred backwoods Appalachian fare even after striking it rich and moving to California. Beverly Hills simply doesn't have anything to compare to a good plate of grits with possum gravy.
  • On Good Eats, Alton posits that one reason many people dislike cabbage is that for a long time, cabbage was associated with survival during tough times. (The other is that it was often boiled for long periods of time, leaving it mushy and overcooked, and bringing out bad flavors.)
  • On The Expanse, MCRN sailors turn their noses up at red kibble, despite Alex's positive endorsement, simply because it's Belter food.
  • Cobra Kai: When the series starts, Johnny is reduced to eating a classic "loser's lunch": single slices of fried bologna. For an extra kicker, he can only afford the red sticker, half-off, expires-soon bologna.
  • Practically every meal prepared by Neil of The Young Ones consists of lentils, the dried legume equivalent of ramen.

  • "The Hunger Within" by Psychostick is a metal song about a man craving various foods but being too poor to eat much besides foods such as dry cereal or ramen.
    "I wish I had a taco with plenty of hot sauce, but all that I've got is a box of crackers."
  • Kendrick Lamar's "HUMBLE" mentions him having eaten "syrup sandwiches" in the past, which he contrasts to his richer life now.
  • Barenaked Ladies play with the concept in their song "If I Had $1000000":
    "If I had $1,000,000
    We wouldn't have to eat Kraft Dinner
    But we would eat Kraft Dinner
    Of course we would, we'd just eat more
    And buy really expensive ketchups with it
    That's right, all the fanciest ketchups, Dijon ketchup"
  • The song "Rubber Biscuit" plays with this trope with the idea of a "ricochet biscuit" that is supposed to bounce into your mouth—if it doesn't, you go hungry; and invokes it with a "wish sandwich", when you have two slices of bread and wish you had some meat to put between them.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Cyberpunk has Kibble. Kibble is a foodstuff that takes its name from having the exact smell, taste and texture of the dog food with the same name. Kibble is nutritionally complete, and it is possible to live on indefintely, but everything about it makes you wish you hadn't. Future Food Is Artificial is in full effect in this setting, but most people who aren't utterly destitute opt for the more palatable low-end "prepacks". They might consist of a food paste that resembles instant ramen-flavored sealing foam, but at least they aren't kibble.
  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: Poor-quality food costs only pennies per day and keeps people reasonably healthy, but generally consists of rough bread and a Mess on a Plate or thin soup of questionable provenance.
    When you can't stomach another Rumster's Special, and you're down-on-your-luck broke, you can always count on the soup vendors to keep you warm.

  • In Annie, the girls in Miss Hannigan's orphanage are usually fed hot mush... except now and then they get cold mush instead.

    Video Games 
  • Detective Dick Gumshoe of Ace Attorney subsists pretty much entirely on instant ramen as a result of the many, many cuts to his salary he has endured. His idea of a luxury is being able to add extra salt to it.
  • In Cult of the Lamb, Followers must be regularly fed to avoid death or rebellion. Grassy Gruel is the cheapest and easiest food to acquire, being crafted from the abundant grass of the first and easiest dungeon. However it does little to satisfy hunger and, unless a specific Doctrine is taken, will both reduce a Follower's faith in the Lamb and likely make them sick. Notably, the Lamb will immediately vomit and lose health if they eat the Gruel.
  • In The Hayseed Knight, Ader starts the game in such dire financial straits that his only reliable meal each day is a pile of tiny, raw potatoes, which he treats like delicacies. Once his Uptown Girl paramour Sep starts to supply him with sweets and wine whenever they meet, he loses his taste for them.
  • In Luck be a Landlord, the modern kind encompasses a couple of the items you can obtain. Instant Ramen will let you choose two items instead of one every rent cycle, and the Frozen Pizza permits getting two symbols instead of one every other spin.
  • In The Sims Medieval, gruel is one of the easiest meals to cook. It costs nothing to create and fills your Hunger need somewhat, but its cheap taste lowers your Focus, which contributes to your Quest Completion reward meter.

  • Sam & Fuzzy: Played for Laughs after Sam loses his taxi driver job, and sinks into a deep depression. After refusing to leave the apartment for over a week, even to buy new groceries, he's reduced to serving "flour paste" for dinner.
  • In Drowtales, poor Drowolath usually end up with their tongue purple due to their diet, which is largely mushroom, moss and algae-based. Bread is considered a luxury, considering they live in a cavern. Cheese and animal meat moreso. The rich have normal pink tongues.

    Web Original 
  • The Satire news website The Babylon Bee note  tells of a college student who places a packet of ramen noodles into the offering plate at church. He considers it a worthy offering because it's all he has.
  • Great Depression Cooking was a series where a woman in her 90s recounted what she ate growing up during the Great Depression. They're predominantly quick and cheap foods, such as sugar cookies and coffee for breakfast (only on Sundays) or lentils, rice, salad, and occasionally meat for dinner.
  • Life of Boris has done several videos, such as this one, showing viewers how to eat reasonably well on a comically tiny budget.
  • Neopets: Omelettes and jelly have this status among players, being available for free once per day, cheap to buy in user shops, and counting as three and two portions of food, respectively. Other cheap-as-dirt foods include stuff gotten from dailies and whatever you can reel up at the Underwater Fishing Cavern. Your pets will happily eat all of it, though, so some users feed their pets this stuff every day in order to save money for more expensive things.
  • Tasting History with Max Miller: Max tends to prepare meals eaten by the royalty and the very wealthy since those are more interesting to make and recipes for the poor didn't get written down as much. Despite this, he still features a number of foods for those of little means.
    • The Roman Gladiators had Puls, a porridge made of barley and fava beans. The dish formed the staple of a gladiator's diet, save for the meals before games. This had the side effect of making gladiators become flabby and flatulent. note 
    • Trenchers. They were made from torte bread, a type of bread made from unsifted flour of various grains. The torte loaf would then be cut in half and allowed to become stale. Trenchers were used by the wealthy as a plate to eat food on, and then afterwards were sometimes handed out to the poor.
      • The low status of the bread even became a plot point in Virgil's The Aeneid. After an old man curses the Trojans to suffer such hunger they will gnaw their very plates, a character realizes this has come true when he sees the Trojans eating their own trenchers.
    • Downplayed with Spartan black broth. Despite its recipe calling for large amounts of blood, the poor reviews of contemporary greek writers, and the reputation of the Spartans, Max says the broth is decent aside from its horrid appearance.
    • Hardtack also makes frequent mentions in the show, always accompanied by a clip of Max banging two pieces of hardtack together.
    • Max has even made boiled leather based on a recipe left by one of Captain Morgan's men.
    • Averted in the case of gruel. Despite being synonymous with this trope, gruel is really just the word for a thin porridge. Prior to the 1800s gruel was eaten by all social classes. Recipes could be very fancy, using ingredients like spices, cream, or brandy.
  • A Running Gag among the Touhou Project fandom is that Reimu's shrine gets so few donations, she eats grass growing through the flagstones.

    Western Animation 
  • Cow and Chicken. In "Confused", Cow and Chicken are sent to military school, where for chow they are served yellowish-brown goop to eat out of their helmets, which Red Guy (as their Drill Sergeant) says is beans and biscuits.
  • Dexter's Laboratory. In "Misplaced in Space", Dexter finds himself in an alien prison, where he's served what he accurately refers to as, "a bowl of foul-smelling gruel", but tries to play up his faux gratitude by complimenting the chef. Luckily for him, however, an alien inmate with an insatiable appetite consumes Dexter's bowl for him.
  • In one episode of The Fairly OddParents!, Timmy wishes for everyone to be the same, including grey mush for food. It chimes with the rest of the "everything is grey and homogeneous and boring" theme of the episode.
  • Kim Possible: Ron complains about the indeterminate "pudding" served by the school cafeteria, which is contrasted with the fine fare served at the "senior table".
  • The Simpsons features this in "Kamp Krusty" where Lisa is at first incredulous that the camp would serve them nothing but gruel. Counselor Dolph explains that it's actually Krusty-brand Imitation Gruel. "Nine out of ten orphans can't tell the difference!" Conversely and unsurprisingly, the counselors eat like kings. When the Fat Camp gets liberated, Martin is starving so badly that he is overjoyed to find a drum of the stuff.
  • Steven Universe: "Greg the Babysitter" reveals that when Greg was new to Beach City and didn't have a steady job, he would get by in ways like taking baths in the ocean and eating leftover fries from trash cans.
  • In TaleSpin, the staple diet of Thembria is "gruel", it looks like something use as glue more than food. When Balou is trapped in a Thembrian prison camp, he's roped into a plot by one of the inmates to blow of Thembria's "Strategic Gruel Reserves".
  • Scott from Total Drama grew up on a dirt farm and subsisted almost entirely on this kind of food. He actually prefers foods such as gruel or moldy bread over anything else and will even gladly eat dirt.

    Real Life 
  • In the Philippines, poor people scavenged leftover or expired food thrown by restaurants and supermarkets from garbage dumps and sites which is called "pagpag". And depending on the condition, the pagpag can be cooked by frying it in hot oil and it can be sold to other poor people.
  • The ironically named "billionaire's casserole" is a simple casserole made of whatever inexpensive ingredients you have around the pantry, often franks and beans.
  • In the United States, instant ramen is the stereotypical food of choice for people who are trying to spend the absolute minimum of money and effort on food, most specifically college students. Depending on where you buy it, it can cost less than a quarter per serving, it requires no additional ingredients besides boiling water (and because the noodles are pre-fried, it can even be eaten "raw" in a pinch or if you prefer it that way), and until prepared, it needs no refrigeration and has a long shelf life. One long-term experiment determined a typical Pot Noodle is still good after twelve years and tastes no differently to one "fresh" off the supermarket shelf.
  • "Loser's lunch" is a slice of bologna eaten by itself (optionally pan-fried to class it up a bit). It gained a reputation for being the fallback food of struggling rockers.
  • A toast sandwich is a real dish, being a toasted slice of bread between two untoasted slices of bread, for when you've only got bread and water in your pantry. Unfortunately, it's only as nutritious — and appetizing — as three slices of bread.
  • A mayonnaise sandwich — as in, bread and mayo, period — is a popular poverty food in Russia ("mayonez" is something of a Trademark Favorite Food with Eastern Slavs in general).
  • A sugar sandwich in the US, which acts as a poor man's jelly sandwich and has precisely two ingredients.
    • If resources allow, this is called "fairy bread" when spread with hundreds and thousands (sprinkles).
    • in the North of England, a "sugar sandwich" could have three ingredients. A scraping of butter - if available - on the bread. More often it was a cheaper edible grease - margarine. Or else a substance which Oop North still has the stigma of being a poverty food - lard, rendered and filtered pig fat. Unrendered animal fat - pork or more usually beef dripping - was regarded as a foodstuff in its own right and was often a cheap sandwich filling.
  • In Northern Europe, the inner bark of the certain species of pine was long known as being edible, and was often used as a fallback food in hard times. Its main problem was that it was hardly palatable — tough, bitter and resinous, so for the most part it was dried, milled into powder and added to the flour when making bread to stretch the grain reserves. It was used on a large scale as late as the Siege of Leningrad.
  • In Poland during periods of poverty (like the war), acorns were used as a food source. Usually, they are treated as food for pigs, but after certain procedures (soaking for a long time in water), they become edible for humans, although they taste really bad. So they would be crushed and added to flour to make bread — and to make real flour last longer.
  • In many rural parts of the world, there are wild plants that are edible but don't taste good and thus end up primarily in the diets of people who have no available alternatives. Some South Pacific islanders, for example, have plants they refer to as cyclone plants. They're hearty little weeds that are often the only thing left intact on the island after a cyclone, but because they also taste horrible they're only eaten then.
  • Dandelions are edible, but usually people eat them only as a last resort because there is a high probability that very dangerous to consume herbicide/weed killer was used on them, they may be covered in bugs, they may feel embarrassed to eat them, or have concerns about misidentifying the flower species because there are other flowers that look similar to dandelions. Dandelions are also said to taste bad, being very bitter.
  • Inverted on the Balkans with the term "chorbadji" and derivatives, meaning a wealthy man. It comes from "chorba" (soup), i. e. "he who gets to eat soup". That is, soup which isn't this trope, and whenever he pleases.
  • Food deserts are areas where large grocery stores refuse to set up shop because of low return yields, like far-flung small rural towns, and safety issues, like the inner cities, or increasingly because of competition with dollar stores. As a result, locals often have to rely on whatever highly processed packaged food they can buy in the nearest convenience store or fast food joint rather than nutritious fresh food.
  • George Orwell in The Road To Wigan Pier wrote "And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you."
  • Spam has long held a reputation as being eaten by people too poor to afford fresh meat, often being associated with rednecks and hillbillies or military rations, at least on the U.S. mainland. It's more popular in tropical places like Hawaii and Guam as well as in Korea for its long shelf life. This has led its producer, the Hormel Food Corporation, to launch a new advertising campaign in an attempt to make it seem classier and more appealing to mainstream Americans.
  • Chef Jack Monroe specializes in creating meals that are both tasty and nutritious using only cheap tinned and dry ingredients commonly issued to people forced to use food banks.
  • World War II:
    • During the Nazi occupation of France, the populace was forced to subsist on hardy root vegetables like rutabagas and Jerusalem artichokes. These foods became so loathed that they largely disappeared from French cuisine after the war.
    • The Dutch, meanwhile, had to survive on tulip bulbs. Ironically, chefs attempting to cook with them today end up paying more for them than for caviar.
  • Rice:
    • Amongst East and Southeast Asians, there's congee, which is made by boiling existing steamed rice to make a porridge-like meal. Using broth instead of water and throwing in chopped veggies (fresh or pickled) and meats can make it more palatable. Rather ironically, it also doubles as Comfort Food in areas that have seen rapid economic growth after World War II since due to the timing of their rises the current working or recently-retired adult generation would have likely grown up poor and eaten congee as Poverty Food due to their family's financial situation before it transitioned to Comfort Food nowadays because it's something Mama used to make for them when they were little.
    • For non-Asians, or in places where rice is not a staple food, rice goes for pennies a pound, leading to many poorer people buying it as a substitute for potatoes. Cook it without seasoning, add a tin of baked beans for the protein, and you get the modern equivalent of sci-fi's cheap, flavorless/ill-tasting nutrient paste. Naturally, if the cook knows how to season the rice and cooks their own raw beans, expectations can be radically subverted, as the cuisine of Latin American countries can demonstrate.
  • Gruel, some sort of thin, boiled cereal product (a handful each of grains and legumes in as big a vat of water you can get), has been a famous foodstuff of the desperately poor since time immemorial, perhaps most famously depicted as such in Oliver Twist. Certain historians think that gruel pre-dates even bread, which was "a luxury only available to city dwellers" in Antiquity.
  • A story on PRX that is presented as true involves a young man traveling between towns for musical gigs who has just enough money to buy a case each of cans of beans, corn, and tuna, with one can of each constituting his meals for the day.
  • Historically, lobster was considered poverty food due to its high protein content, to the point that ordinary Americans used to eat them three times a week, and were served to prisoners. Rail transportation, canning, and the increase of prices from demand and supply turned lobster into a high-class delicacy by The Gilded Age.
  • In modern Germany, canned ravioli fills the role ramen has in the USA, and pretty much signals that you have hit rock bottom.
  • Goetta is a type of mush made from scraps of meat and pinhead oats developed by impoverished German immigrants to the US to help conserve food money. However, it's done a one-eighty and is now considered almost a delicacy in the Northern Kentucky/Southern Ohio area (which historically had a lot of German immigrants).


Video Example(s):


Al Bundy's Toothpaste Sandwich

Al is so broke and hasn't eaten in days that he tries eating a toothpaste sandwich.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / PovertyFood

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