When food is being used to transport a message about the social status or life situation of a character. On one end of the Sliding Scale of Shiny Versus Gritty we have Grapes of Luxury 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 or anybody 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.
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.
Supertrope to a number of scenarios wherein characters struggle with the quality of their diet. In ascending order of grossness:
- 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, preferably shoes.
- Dick Gumshoe of Ace Attorney likes eating instant ramen because he's almost always broke.
- 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.)
- Cowboy Bebop features an episode highlighting the crew glumly subsisting on self-cooking instant ramen because their funds are so low.
- Asterix: 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 reknowned 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 didnt think the Roman army would be quite that fierce.
- Hilariously, the British Legionaire loves the food, commenting that it's just like the food back home.
- Many a Ranma ½ fanfic that exaggerates Akane Tendou's Lethal Chef credentials make the results of her "cooking" be some variation of horrible-tasting and/or toxic goop, which may or may not have attained some sort of unlife and/or possess Eldritch Abomination-like tentacles.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 FaceHeel Turn, so he could once again get to taste delicious food, 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 an old man who serves mush and (spoiled) milk every day because he doesn't have any money. He's waiting for his pension to come in. Once his pension comes in he treats the kids to a high class meal...which turns out to be porridge.
- 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 economical 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.
- Trope Codifier (if not Trope Maker) is probably Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist with his 3 thin bowls of gruel a day.
- 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. 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.
- In Judaic law, which otherwise bans the eating of insects as un-Kosher, specifically exempts locusts—mostly so that the 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 wonderful cook and Silk is an excellent scrounger, but if they get stuck in a seedy inn, or Polgara is absent, out of commission for some reason, (or mad at them — that happens a fair bit, too), they get gruel or burnt bacon. In The Mallorean, 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 with Miss Honey in her home. She's astonished to see Miss Honey using margarine, and concludes that "She must be poor."
- 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.
- In The Big Bang Theory, 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.
- 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 Hunger Within" by Psychostick is a metal song about 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 having him eaten "syrup sandwiches" in the past, which he contrasts to his richer life now.
- 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.
- 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 chime 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".
- Johnny Hart's cavemen appeared in an Animated Adaptation of their comic strip B.C.: The First Thanksgiving in 1973. After failing to catch a turkey for dinner, the men had to make do with rock soup. Fat Broad ladled moist rocks onto their plates. It made for one grim meal.
- 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.
- 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. It costs less than a quarter per serving, requires no additional ingredients besides boiling water, needs no refrigeration and has a long shelf life.
- "Loser's lunch" is a slice of bologna eaten by itself. 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.
- A mayonnaise sandwich (as in, bread and mayo, period) is a popular poverty food in Russia.
- In Northern Europe an inner bark of the certain species of a pine was long known as being edible, and was often used as a fallback food in a hard times. Its main problem was that it was hardly palatable tough, bitter and resiny, 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 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 after a cyclone are often the only thing left intact on the island after a cyclone, but because they also taste horrible they're only eaten then.