Americans in Cars Eating Badly: Why We Need Better Convenience Foods


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As part of our series on Culinary Modernism, I’m republishing some older posts and essays from REALFOOD.ORG. This piece was originally published on 16 January 2014

Note: Read the follow up as well: Americans in Cars, Eating Badly: Scale and Scope

Marion Nestle flags a chart from the USDA’s Economic Research Service:

Measured against the Dietary Guidelines recommendations, two recent ERS studies find that consumers are underspending on vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and low-fat dairy and overspending on refined grains, fats, sweets, and convenience foods in the grocery store. Food choices when eating away from home are even more of a nutritional concern. Policies that promote healthy foods and make them easier to identify on store shelves and in restaurants may expand both demand for and supply of healthy food options.

This put me in mind of a number of recent articles and a debate from last year that clearly highlight why we need better convenience foods.

Most recently NPR did a piece on how NAFTA impacted American’s eating habits.

Walk through the produce section of your supermarket and you’ll see things you’d never have seen years ago — like fresh raspberries or green beans in the dead of winter. Much of that produce comes from Mexico, and it’s the result of the North American Free Trade Agreement — NAFTA — which took effect 20 years ago this month.

. . . Of course, for consumers fully committed to buying local, that also means buying only what’s in season.

“I don’t have much fruit in the winter — bluntly,” says Joan Gussow, a nutritionist and author who has been the “matriarch of the eat-locally-think-globally food movement.”

Gussow eats mostly dried fruit in winter and whatever vegetables grow near her home in New York’s Hudson Valley. By selling fruits and vegetables bred to travel long distances, she says, NAFTA has helped train people to value convenience over flavor.

“It’s meant that people don’t know anything about where their food comes from, and they don’t know anything about seasons,” Gussow says. “And so they really have settled — as they have with tomatoes — for something that is really like a giant orange golf ball.”

Jaime Chamberlain disagrees. He says the produce industry has made great strides in packaging and shipping more flavorful fruits and vegetables from Mexico. Don’t knock availability — celebrate it, he says.

“We should be teaching our children that nowadays, you’re able to enjoy strawberries even though you’re in the dead of winter in January,” he says.

I have loads of respect for Joan Dye Gussow (and her books on my bookshelves), but given the gap between what we should be eating and what we are eating it’s hard for me to be too critical of anything that makes fresh produce more available and more affordable.

If Farmers Can’t Find Time to Cook, We Need to Reexamine Cooking As a Priority

One weaknesses I see in food movement (everywhere, really) is the tendency of people to universalize their own strengths, values, temperament, experience, etc. It’s nice that Joan Gussow can put gardening and cooking at the center of her priorities. That isn’t so easy for others.

In theory, farmers should be poster children for the locavore movement. They have fridges and fields (or home gardens, in the case of some larger farms) stuffed with gorgeous produce. But such proximity to local food does not automatically translate to the plate. The evidence is perhaps most extreme in California’s Central Valley, where a startling 80 percent of farm laborers – many of whom are recent immigrants living in low-income communities – are obese. But the disconnect impacts farmers of all kinds.

. . . Rachel Kaplan, 35, of Powisset Farm, a CSA farm in Massachusetts, shares a similar sentiment. “At the height of the season, it is a feat in and of itself to sustain the energy to work let alone come home and start preparing food.” Even more to the point, she adds: “A lot of the times cooking comes at the expense of sleep.”

Nick Hagen, 28, a fifth-generation farmer at Hagen Farm in North Dakota, says eating in the fields also poses logistical challenges. “Throughout our wheat or sugar beet harvests, there is no time to stop for lunch. I typically have one hand on the tractor’s steering wheel all day, and fish around in my lunch box with the other.” Hagen ends up eating a lot of one-palm foods like peeled hardboiled eggs and plain beans packaged in a container he can “hold and almost drink.” Apples are in; oranges, which need to be peeled, are out. “I can occasionally manage a banana,” he said.

Hagen, who has a gluten intolerance that forces him to be creative about his in-field meals, manages to eat fairly healthily, if not excitingly. But for many farmers, this lack of time translates into less-than-ideal food choices. “You see a lot of running to the gas station for chips, soda and coffee, which helps farmers stay awake during the crazy hours,” Hagen says.

Bryan Austin, 53 of Dover Farm in Massachusetts, agrees. “Our bodies need energy and modern foods like potato chips (fat), coffee (caffeine) and cakes (glucose) give instant energy,” he says. “Last year, I ate store muffins for breakfast, drank three cups of coffee a day and always had some candy as a snack – awful!” Bryn Bird, 29, a second-generation farmer at Bird’s Haven Farms in Ohio, says, “The summer is the most unhealthy time for most of the farmers I am social with,” she said. “My family lives on pizza all summer.”

So much for the virtues of growing your own food. Farmers working long, frantic hours can’t find the time to cook, never mind such foodie pastimes as pickling and canning. How can we expect our high achieving professional friends or two job juggling low income friends to find the time to do well planned grocery shopping, to cook, to do dishes, clean the kitchen and manage the composting produce in their crisper drawers?

I love cooking. I get great pleasure from it. I love teaching people to cook. I happen to have an amateur interest in nutrition. But I can’t and don’t expect my priorities and pleasures to be universal. I certainly don’t expect anyone to extrapolate public health policy from the idiosyncrasies of my priorities and pleasures.

Admonitions to Cook and Garden Can Only Get Us So Far. We Need Better Convenience Foods

That’s why last summer’s essay by David Freedman “How Junk Food Can End Obesity” was such a missed opportunity. The piece inspired a ton of conversation, almost none of it was particularly productive.

The problems with Freedman’s piece were legion.

The linkbait headline inspired a counter headline, “Bunk About Junk Food“, from David Katz MD that implied that he had a major bone to pick. He didn’t. Swapping the phrase “Convenience Food” for “Junk Food” would have likely settled the matter for Katz. Freedman has an anachronistic fear of fat that completely sidetracked Tom Philpott’s critique. Meanwhile, Philpott’s agreement with the central premise was buried at the end and only briefly mentioned. Freedman took his contrarianism to absurd levels. He claimed that Pollanites are hurting Big Food’s efforts to market better options by not pitching in and BUYING those products. He set up a ridiculous straw man by conflating Pollanism with the most brain dead, consumerist products sold by Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. That inspired a well deserved, but counter productive backlash.

Stripped down to it’s essentials, Freedman’s case is hard to argue against. Katz characterizes Freedman’s hypothesis this way: “We can improve diet and health using the very foods we already know and love.” I would put it another. Do you believe that lowering the sugar, refined carbs, while increasing the fiber and nutrients by significant levels in convenience and fast foods could move the needle on health outcomes for Americans? This is the essence of what makes a successful public health intervention. Small, impactful, widely adopted changes. Emphasis on widely adopted.

Here is Katz:

We can, indeed, have better chips. We can have better cookies, crackers, cereals, and pasta sauces. If they are only a tiny bit better, it won’t matter much. But if they are meaningfully better, the net effect across the expanse of food choices we make can add up to something very meaningful indeed — including, as noted, a much reduced risk for obesity, chronic disease, or premature death. This, I think, is what Mr. Freedman meant to say.

This is where I see a beautiful opportunity in the place of potentially ugly and unproductive discord. We will always eat. Unlike tobacco companies, which can disappear entirely, food companies of one kind or another are here to stay. And so they will either be part of the solution, or part of the problem.

Mr. Freedman is saying — and I agree — that they can be part of the solution by providing us better choices. But for that to matter, they will need to be truly better choices — not another bait-and-fake. We’ve had more than enough of products that boast of some nutritional virtue on the front, while revealing the far homelier whole truth only in fine print.

Here is Philpott:

I don’t object to a kinder, gentler form of corporate fast food—I would applaud the the industry if it made a serious push to ditch its old “supersize” profit model and promote less caloric foods.

But Philpott can’t help but continue:

But the fact remains that highly processed diets have a history of ruining people’s health, and “real food” diets have the opposite track record. They may yet prove to be the best strategy we have for addressing our mounting diet-related health troubles. And hey, real food can be pretty convenient, too—check out Bittman’s old Minimalist column. And fast food itself has a history that long predates its takeover by corporations.

I don’t disagree with this so much as groan at the predictability of the sentiment and its irrelevance for people who don’t need more recipes. They need better frozen dinners, grab and go meals and better burgers.

Sadly, Freedman’s contrarianism meant that much was written about what he got wrong. People barely touched on what he got right. Instead of extending the conversation he was trying to start, it became all about the fights he had picked. Unsurprisingly, when Mark Bittman came back with approving reports of new and improved fast food, he didn’t catch nearly as much grief. Part of that was being a member of the tribe in good standing, but good manners help.

Where to go with the problem Freedman poses? Let’s come back to the chart that we started with. Aside from our out of control sugar consumption, the biggest problems the chart shows are how few vegetables we are eating, followed by the sugar we are over eating.

Convenience and fast foods are a less than ideal vehicle for increasing vegetable consumption. Frozen dinners aren’t so hard, but the central issue is grab and go foods. What I would love to see are whole grain, veggie packed ploughman’s pies; chickpea flour, veggie samosas; multigrain grilled vegetable burritos; and footlong grilled veggie sandwiches on hearty rolls. It’s not that hard to pile vegetables on a whole grain pizza and garnish it with a healthy dusting of chopped herbs and arugula. Meanwhile Bittman has pointed the way towards a pretty damn good black bean burger that sneaks some mushrooms into the mix.

[Postscript] In the original post, Tom Philpott responded in the comment section. That exchange is reproduced below.

Tom Philpott:

This is an interesting and provocative piece. But this—”Philpott’s agreement with the central premise was buried at the end and only briefly mentioned”—doesn’t quite get at my critique, which was that a kinder, gentler junk food industry is a necessary, but probably not sufficient, response to our dirt-related health problems. Maybe I’m wrong—maybe hyper-processed food can be tweaked in a way such that it keeps people healthy. I doubt it, because i don’t think we have figured out precisely how such a diversity of whole-food diets—ie, Mediterranean, traditional Japanese, Inuit, etc—keep people healthy. Precisely engineering effective nutrition into hyper-processed diet would seem to require knowledge we don’t have. So sure, stop packing so much sugar into drinks and remove known health ruiners like partially hydrogenated fat. But I’m not sure engineers for McDonalds or Kraft really know how to keep people healthy.

Marc Brazeau:

Fair enough. I think the situation call for a both/and solution. I agree that hyper-processed food probably can’t be tweaked enough. I should have been clearer, that I was talking less about junk food and more about making reasonably healthy convenience and grab and go food.

I would love to see more people eating along the lines of the Mediterranean and traditional Japanese diets. That’s how I eat. But I know too many people for whom that’s out of reach in terms of there time pressures and priorities.

Thanks for stopping by,
Marc Note: Read the follow up as well: Americans in Cars, Eating Badly: Scale and Scope

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