Do Americans Value Food?

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This question was prompted by an interview with Tracie McMillan, author of a new book called The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table.

McMillan explores the American food system by spending many months picking produce in California fields, working in two Walmarts, and helping to organize service at an Applebee’s. Her argument is that our entire food distribution system conspires to make people unhealthy. But in the interview she adds that working people are simply too tired or frustrated about thee lack of control over their lives to be more focused on the quality of what they eat.

There are all these competing social and work pressures that make it really hard for folks to cook at home and to spend a lot of time on it; also, as there’s more and more academic pressure on kids to do all this stuff after school, there’s just less time for that kind of learning [how to cook].

She is certainly right that our food distribution system is not devoted to making healthy options available. Throughout the 20th Century, we spent a great deal of public money making cheap food plentiful, which meant standardized, packaged foods that could travel long distances—essentially meat, grains, and the salt and sugar that makes packaged foods attractive. Fruits and vegetables have never received the price supports of other commodities. But the underlying assumption of the book seems to be that if healthy foods were more available and if people had more time to prepare them, Americans would change their diet.

I’m not so sure. The following facts are from  Lydia Zepeda’s “Carving Values with a Spoon.”

  • The average U.S. household devotes the smallest proportion of its expenditures on food than any other country.
  • Only 38% of school children eat two or more servings of fruits and vegetables per week.
  • As women moved into the workforce throughout the 20th Century, men showed little inclination to take over household chores resulting in a massive loss of cooking skills and food knowledge as convenience foods became the norm.
  • The average U.S. adult spends 75 minutes per day eating, 30 minutes a day in food preparation and clean-up, and 5 times that amount watching television.
  • We employ nearly 10 million people in food service and preparation—most of these jobs are low-paying, high stress, physically demanding, and insecure.
  • According to surveys, only 68% of parents think they should be responsible for teaching their children the habits of good nutrition and only 40% think they are successful, despite the massive availability of scientific information about healthy eating.

One might conclude from these facts that typical Americans don’t care much about food as long as it is plentiful and cheap. The American way of eating is plowing through a bag of chips while watching celebrity chefs on the Food Network cook.

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