When I was growing up, it was a treat to go to McDonald’s. I remember the first time I dipped a golden, crispy French fry in a chocolate shake (oh yes I did!) and marveled at the fact that I would never be able to do that at the dinner table. McDonald’s was fun!
It was even more enjoyable because my family only went to McDonald’s once a month, if that. So it was really an excursion, not a typical Saturday afternoon.
Family dinners weren’t elaborate, but we had real food most of the time. My single mom made do with a little money, some welfare stamps, and fresh meat and produce from local farmers. Okay, I often made biscuits from a packaged mix and smothered them in grape jelly and mounds of butter. And we frequently used Miracle Whip and white bread. But we rarely had sugar cereal, chips, frozen pizza, or deep-fried food. Most of the time, our budget couldn't support those convenience products.
In my different schools, the hot lunches were not always appetizing but again, they were made from real food. We only had pizza on Fridays, white milk was the universal beverage option, and soda and snack machines were non-existent. The meals weren’t too imaginative. But they were basic staples that filled our bellies and provided energy.
Most of us have tales from childhood similar to these, many of which include these well-worn directives:
*“Clean your plate! Children in (China) (Africa) (down the street) are starving!”
*You have to eat at least two bites of your (asparagus) (Brussels sprouts) (spinach) before you can (have more mashed potatoes/ice cream/pudding) (leave the table) (watch TV).”
*“I don’t care if you’re full. You took the extra helping of corn and you need to eat it. You can’t (shove it under a glass) (shove it up your nose) (throw it at your brother).”
In the past two years, I’ve read Fast Food Nation, In Defense of Food, The Botany of Desire, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I’ve also watched the movie Food, Inc. and chef Jamie Oliver’s TV program “Food Revolution”. And I’m convinced of one thing: our modern food system is condemning millions of children to unhealthy lives for the sake of profit.
I’m not a parent, but I’m a taxpayer, a voter, and a consumer, and believe I have the power of choice in all of these areas. I’m also a former farm girl, and have deep respect for people trying to make a living from the land. It’s not a profession someone considers lightly: it’s damned hard work, and expensive to manage, and myriad factors impact the potential for profit or loss. Doesn’t matter if someone raises chickens for a major corporation or grows organic lettuce for sale at the farmers’ market.
For the past 50 years in America, the rise of fast food retailers and the installation of supermarket culture has forced massive change in food production. The idea is that “sameness” is what comforts us. This means the same kind of potato is used for French fries; a chicken breast is a regulated size regardless of which restaurant location you visit; and consistency of flavor is guaranteed from the vats of product shipped in from the main warehouse. In order to fuel this automation of sameness, components have to become more processed, more transferable, less expensive, and less labor-intensive.
Sameness also increases the risk of plant monoculture, which in turn raises the dependency on chemicals to control pests and disease. Most commercial, non-organic farmers don’t want to put chemicals on what they’re growing, or force-feed antibotics and steroids to their animals, but to guarantee yields and production, they often don’t have a choice.
CNN recently released a report that health insurance companies invest in fast-food companies. Of course they do: that’s where the profit is. The fast food industry is roughly a $160 billion market -- and it only has us to thank.
Tragically, there’s an extreme disconnect between what and how we choose to eat and the monetary value we place on the practice. The general public assigns a different value system to food: “A bag of spinach costs $4.95? I can get a (burger, fries, and soda) (mongo taco) (small cheese pizza) for that same amount!” Some families actually believe that milk, with a price range of $1.99 - $5.99 a gallon, is not as much of a bargain as a 2-liter bottle of juice drink for $.99. On one hand, the numbers are clear. On the other hand, if you’re really looking for a bargain beverage, maybe you should stick with water, which is free, right from the tap. And better for you (usually) than juice drink.
There’s also the myth that we don’t have time to cook nutritious meals because we’re so busy. Again, there’s a serious disconnect between making meal time a priority and responsibility for all and rushing through it to the next thing on the list. “I can’t make homemade spaghetti sauce with pureed vegetables -- Bobby and Janie have (soccer) (homework) (bugle practice) and we’re better off grabbing some chicken nuggets to eat in the car.” Yes, we all lead busy lives. And if everyone does just one task in the kitchen, meal preparation will be more enjoyable, move quickly, and create food for the soul as well. With the right nutrition, we’ll have energy to burn for all the things we want to be involved in.
Honestly, we can’t vilify the fast food industry when we’re the ones bellying up to the drive-thru. We can’t criticize major conglomerates for making processed cheese when we’re the ones who smother nachos with it. We can’t blame insurance companies (well, not completely) for trying to make profitable investments instead of raising premiums even more.
What we can do is make better choices.
*Plan ahead to make healthy meals at home, and ask everyone in the household to find recipes, help with meal preparation, and clean up. Even if the kids have homework, they also have 20 minutes to tear lettuce, toast whole wheat bread, and set/clear the table.
*Find ways to make other foods fast for those late nights clogged with (work) (school activities) (both). The plastic cup-o-soup bowl you see on store shelves now is just a take on the old-fashioned thermos filled with stew. Form an assembly line to make stacks of wholesome sandwiches, and grab bags of celery and carrots, nuts and raisins, and sliced apples so everyone has something healthy to nosh on. And make a big pot of vegetable soup every week, just in case.
*Rethink how you assign value to food. Sure, a fast food meal may cost $4.95. So does a pound of grapes, from which you can get at least five servings of fruit. A pan of homemade lasagna and a tossed salad nets eight dinner servings for roughly $2 a person.
*Be concerned about what children eat in schools. If you’re a parent, this should be a major issue. If you’re not a parent, as a taxpayer, you have a right to ask questions. Chef Jamie Oliver is asking everyone to sign a petition for healthier school lunches and initiatives in America. On the same site, pick up free recipes for better home and school cooking ideas for things kids love.
More importantly, pursue real food. Our pasts are filled with food-related memories. Cookouts, school food fights, picnics, sleepover kitchen raids, a special dish only a grandmother could make, the first Thanksgiving meal you cooked (mostly) on your own, playing “airplane” with a baby, what you had for dinner on your first date. Juicy, fresh strawberries sprinkled with a smidge of sugar will always taste better on a hot summer day than soda packed with chemicals modified to taste similar to strawberries and sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. We should always want to eat in a way we remember.
And go ahead -- dip French fries in your chocolate shake (you know you want to). But make both from scratch. Try these.
* Crispy Baked French Fries
* Classic Chocolate Milkshake
Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
4.28.10 @ 12:16a
Sidebar: highly recommend watching "Food Revolution" when it cycles back around, just to see how drastic the change for our school systems needs to be - including more parents getting involved.
Also highly recommend watching Food, Inc, which you can stream for free on Wed. 4/28: http://www.pbs.org/pov/foodinc/photo_gallery_watch.php
And if you have Netflix, instant play The Botany of Desire.
Both Food, Inc. and TBOD are extremely fascinating.
4.29.10 @ 11:27a
I read The Omnivore's Dilemma, and while I fully expected to be horrified about the meat-processing parts, I was not. It was the revelation that processed-past-the-point-of-ridiculous corn makes up so much of our diets nowadays that flipped me out.
Real food at is not hard to do, nor is it expensive. It DOES require a tad more forethought than fast food does, but in actual time spent on food decisions, it's about equal. It's going to be harder to get it back into schools, though. Oliver's suggestions are good ones, but realistically, we'd have to "sell" this as a program, and I'm not sure how we'd go about doing that.
4.30.10 @ 5:36a
As a product of a household that viewed McDonald's with starry-eyed wonder as part of an American experience and relief at how little it costs to feed a family, I grew up ( and outwards waistline-wise) with it as a constant presence. My school lunches consisted of greasy pizza, and my intestinal lining has traces of Ho-Hos eaten from my 7th grade year. When funds were really tight, brown-bagged lunches consisted of Vienna Sausage sandwiches.
Thus, I've become a proud follower of Oliver's Food Revolution (and like you, someone who follows Michael Pollan and Food Inc.), and bravo to the naked chef for attempting to educate West Virginia. If it takes touring a funeral home's selection of massive coffins that have to occupy two plots at a graveyard, then let him showcase that- and whatever else- we need to retool our thinking and inform our decisions.
4.30.10 @ 6:45a
What broke my heart in the series is the mother who realized that her cooking and food choices were responsible for her children's problems. Never mind the poor 300lb 12-year-old son...that little girl is 4, and is the size of an 8-year-old!
To see the mom cry -- I'd like a follow-up on how that family is doing, how they've conquered their cravings and moved on to healthier eating, how they encourage each other and so on. I think as a family unit, they would inspire so many other people.
Juli - yes, rolling out a program in all schools is difficult when the USDA considers French fries to be a viable vegetable. Talk about being twisted into conformity by lobbyists. Jamie has the right idea that the change has to come from concerned people on the ground level, but also from government modifications. Sign the petition!