Back Forty: Using food to plumb the depths of homelessness and addiction in Vegas

Back Forty will bring you periodic reviews, interviews, and reporter insights about the stories they wrote. We hope you enjoy it as a companion to our content on and our Ag Insider policy news site. You can subscribe to the newsletter below.

The Las Vegas Strip. Photo by Kobby Dagan/VWPics via AP Images.

By Christopher Ketcham

Here’s a gimmick for a book that could have gone wrong: a confessional narrative of interactions with poor, desperate people, centered with details of the food that you’ve cooked and shared with them. It threatens to be cringeworthy. But in Kim Foster’s new memoir, The Meth Lunches: Food and Longing in an American City, it works, with the author using food as a vehicle to plumb the darkest reaches of poverty, abandonment, mental illness, homelessness, and, not least, drug addiction.  

Foster, who has won a James Beard award for her essays, learned to cook when she worked as a young woman in a New York step-up house for schizophrenics, where she had to produce meals for twenty people at a time. Cooking for the down-and-out became a life-long passion. So when she makes a much-dreaded move from New York City to Las Vegas, where her husband works as a theatrical showrunner, she connects with her new community with the practices she knows best. 

Two weeks after the move, she meets Charlie, a meth-addicted handyman tasked with renovating their new house. Foster decides to feed him a daily nutritious lunch. But Charlie is unappreciative; addled and paranoid from years of drug abuse, the lunches, however lovely, aren’t going to save him. He is the “first of many meth-addicted friends,” she writes. “It doesn’t take long for meth to become a huge part of our everyday lives.” 

Intrigued by the desert Gomorrah, Foster settles into a world that feels like the raucous New York of the 1970s, a place of “high highs and lows lows,” “the beautiful and the ugly,” where “everything is pulsing and vibrating and teetering on the thinnest of edges.” That edge is produced in no small part by the epidemic of meth addiction that has burned through the city, along with much of the desert West.

Soon we are introduced to a peripatetic cast of cursed Las Vegans — the unhoused, the wrongly incarcerated, people sick with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or some undiagnosed mental illness. Destiny, a 20-something single Black mother whose 4-year-old son Foster and her husband take in as foster parents, runs afoul of the legal system. She fails to show for court after being arrested on a misdemeanor charge for her role in a street fight, accumulates a pile of unpaid fines, and ends up sentenced to several months in the Clark County Detention Center. Foster takes Destiny’s son to visit her in the jail, a daring move in violation of foster parenting rules. 

Naturally, Foster turns an investigative eye to what the prisoners are eating. Notoriously bad prison food aside, she learns that inmates are wildly creative with the foods they cook when they have access to a commissary, a fridge, and a microwave. One of the “beautiful concoctions” among female inmates is the Sprite-infused birthday cake: coffee creamer, sugar, and a can of Sprite are chilled in the fridge to make a pudding-like base; crumbled cookies form a crust; a melted Hershey’s bar serves as the frosting.  

Foster’s admirable accomplishment is that she underscores, in swift and compelling analytic asides, how American society has institutionalized the maltreatment of the underclasses. 

The policing of misdemeanors is a case in point. In Foster’s telling, the American iteration of the misdemeanor system arose after Reconstruction in the South, when freed Blacks were building wealth in their communities, which was objectionable to whites in power. Misdemeanor laws were fashioned into a labyrinth of small infractions and “made-up offenses,” Foster writes, such as loitering and vagrancy, that “allowed white people to police where Black people could be. How they lived. Where they walked.” 

The misdemeanor trap helped feed a pool of free involuntary labor; you pile on fines that people can’t pay, and soon they have to work off the debt. “This sounds like an antiquated system that no longer applies,” she writes. “But it is alive and well in nearly every state in the United States.” Today, misdemeanors account for 80 percent of all arrests. As Foster describes, the system disproportionately punishes the poor, especially poor people of color.

Foster wants us to know that the pain and suffering she witnesses in Las Vegas can be salved, if only momentarily, with the sharing of food. The problem with her framing is that we don’t get to see much of that salving up close. Or when we do, there is an alienation to it that seems appropriate to the circumstances, given that people who are beaten down by poverty, drug addiction, and mental illness are not likely to appreciate the honey-braised bok choy.

Here’s Foster, for example, feeding Gloria, who is homeless and schizophrenic, a cup of yogurt in her front yard: 

I try to get her to take the spoon but she won’t. So, I make a gesture like I want to feed her. She doesn’t stop me. I brush the spoon against her lips. Her head jerks away, but then she gets the taste. She takes the spoon herself now … She eats. Scrapes the cup with a spoon for the last bites. And then it’s over. She drops the spoon in the grass. Her arms are moving. She mumbles things I don’t understand.

Foster’s story culminates during the Covid-19 pandemic with the creation of a food pantry that operates out of her kitchen, living room, and front yard. She ends up working a small miracle, serving thousands of Las Vegans who show up for donated butter, eggs, milk, granola, dried herbs, canned meats, pasta, rice, beans. Lots of beans. When 700 pounds of beans pile up in her living room, Foster uses the opportunity for a digression on the history of bean eating — the quintessential protein of the poor, consumed just about everywhere. 

Partnering with a group of fellow Vegas foodies, almost all women, Foster also helps start a community dinner. Together, the women produce 250 meals every month, boxed and ready for pick up. These are not soup-kitchen staples. They cook garlic chicken thighs with lemon-anchovy sauce, parmesan potatoes, and haricots verts with grilled lemon; Hawaiian plate lunch of chicken tonkatsu over rice; slow-roasted brisket with lemongrass, tomatoes, and coconut rice. An Ethiopian friend teaches the group how to cook beef sambusas, kik alecha (split pea stew), gomen (collard greens), and misir wot (spicy red lentils). 

“We cook and grow close,” Foster writes. “We cook and give each other shit. We cook and feed our people.” 

But the pantry eventually collapses — it’s too much of a burden for her to carry mostly alone — and the community dinners fade soon after. Many of the people Foster feeds, such as Gloria, disappear into the fetid Vegas night, and she never sees them again. The point of Foster’s work, and her book, is not perfection of the effort or even its perpetuation. The point is the practice of empathy, at which Foster excels on just about every page.