Save Fast Food!

I recently read David Freedman’s article in The Atlantic, How Junk Food Can End Obesity.

I had a roller coaster of reactions while I read the novel article, but finally settled on confused.

… So … summary might be difficult. But I’ll give it the old college try: For those of you who haven’t read it, Mr. Freedman argues that “wholesome food” advocates (though I’m pretty sure most “real food” advocates stick with the “real food” label, Mr. Freedman chooses the term “wholesome food”… Not sure if he’s making a distinction or simply refusing to buy the real food movement’s cooptation of the word “real.” He never bothers to explain the origin of his term. In any case, his disdain for the movement is clear… He alternately (& derisively) calls real food advocates “Pollanites” after the real foodies dear leader, Michael Pollan. … Since Mr. Freedman doesn’t bother to draw out the distinction, if there is one, I’m sticking with the term I see most often, “real food advocates.”) …

Ok, so on that sure footing, back to my “summary”… Didn’t I warn you? …

Mr. Freedman wants to eradicate obesity. This is his sole focus regarding food. At least for purposes of The Atlantic article, he doesn’t care about malnutrition or the family farm. (More on the nutrition bit later…)

According to Mr. Freedman, real food advocates are a serious threat in the fight against obesity. Considering that even real food advocates recognize that we are (collectively) a mere drop in the bucket in terms of overall food consumption, I find this argument very hard to take seriously. Discrete groups with little buying power & little political clout are not usually fingered as the culprits in our obesity epidemic, but let’s roll with it.

So for Mr. Freedman, not only will many of the foods real food advocates eat make you fat (never mind the faulty nutritional science there… we’re rolling with it… right?!), but their disdain for and avoidance of processed food (& particularly fast food) reduces the incentives for Big Food (i.e. the major food processors & fast food companies) to develop food engineered to contain less fat & sugar. Not to mention the structural problems with getting real, unprocessed food to the masses.

So… I despite this less than glowing introduction, I was actually excited about this article. Once I got past his tirade & tangent regarding the fact that Whole Foods & Trader Joe’s sell processed junk (never mind that Trader Joe’s sells processed food almost exclusively & is not a health food store) & he started talking about class, I thought “This should shake things up a bit!”

You see, I am no defender of Michael Pollan (apparently, Mr. Freedman’s primary target). Though I agree with much of what he writes in Food Rules & The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I have also been a skeptic ever since I read the New York Times Magazine’s coverage of Mr. Pollan’s “The 36-Hour Dinner Party,” which I thought was the height of foodie elitism. Ick. Still, I think Mr. Pollan is mostly right in his analysis of our current food system (that it’s essentially broken, in large part due to Big Food).

As for Mark Bittman (another target), I think Mr. Freedman unfairly paints him as an elitist, simply the same as Pollan. But Mr. Bittman’s editorials strike me as less elitist & as stridently aware of the class problems inherent in the obesity epidemic. He advocates for practical solutions to our nation’s food problems & really cares about the next generation. He’s advocated for the Mediterranean diet, which is simple & can be very affordable. He’s practical. So what if he has chastised Americans to turn off their TVs to cook—He’s mostly right (though, yes, as Mr. Freedman points out, TV’s not the problem for those trying to juggle 3 part-time jobs).

Individual jabs aside, the article points to everything that makes me uncomfortable with the real food movement: from promoting farmers’ markets without talking about cost—particularly in urban locations—to side-stepping serious discussions about the time required to prepare 3 square meals a day from scratch to ignoring the centuries of sexism that have defined roles in the kitchen until recently…. So the real food movement is far from perfect… But, come on! Our hearts are in the right place. And there are lots of us strategizing & thinking about how real food can work for real people (regardless of class, race, or sex… Ron Finley pops into my mind, but also the countless unnamed advocates making farmers markets accessible to families on food assistance & bringing fresh food into public schools…).

But what I’m really troubled by in Mr. Freedman’s article is that he ultimately promotes a two-tiered food system in which some of us have access to the best, most nutritious food, & the rest get the processed, less-nutritious stuff. Mr. Freedman is also pretty quick to lump the poor (who have real access problems) & the middle classes, who have the money (& sometimes the education) to make better choices & who shop at grocery stores that have large produce sections but still hawk a ton of crap. In other words, obesity is not solely an access problem: It’s a problem that disproportionately affects the poor but is present across all classes.  Certainly obesity is not, as Mr. Freedman suggests, a bodega vs. Whole Foods problem & I think the biggest issues (& possibly the best solutions) actually reside in the middle classes.

Taking up the problematic two-tiered food system… If Mr. Freedman sincerely wants to accuse the “Pollanites” of moral vapidity, he is must also recognize his own (albeit less obvious) cultural biases. See, Mr. Freedman almost entirely strips the poor (& middle classes) of agency. According to Mr. Freedman, since the dawn of fast food, these (literally) poor folks have been mere victims; first, of biological urges &, then, marketing ploys. The implication is that those of us with enough will power & sense to turn our noses at a fast food meal (or at least to downsize or order the grilled cod as opposed to the super-sized burger-fries-soda) … in other words “elites” … have something that the “lower” rungs of society lack. Of course the lower classes lack money, power & (often) education. But they certainly do not by definition lack common sense, will power, or the innate ability to listen to their own bodies.

To highlight the ethical problem inherent in Mr. Freedman’s approach, let’s compare how I try to feed my four-year-old to how Mr. Freedman thinks McDonald’s should feed the non-elite masses. I have been known to hide some vegetables or real protein in a bowl of mac & cheese. T doesn’t yet understand the principles of nutrition & so I sneak in good stuff when he chooses not-so-good stuff. But in the spirit of openness & trust & honesty, I don’t “hide” the nutritious stuff too often out of a fear that T wouldn’t develop a taste for the healthier stuff. As a recently re-trained eater of real foods, I understand (as I suspect Mr. Freedman does) that it’s as much about developing a taste for real food as it is about knowing how to procure that food. But Mr. Freedman essentially advocates the hide-pureed-veggies-in-your-child’s-food technique as a way to fight obesity: Clearly, the poor can’t self-regulate, so Big Food should try to fake them out by passing off less obesity-inducing foods as regular ol’ processed junk. So, for instance, McDonald’s should sneak more whole grains & leaner meats into its menu items without letting anyone onto the ruse. … At least a ban on fois gras or big sodas is transparent. And it polices both the “helpless” public & the major offenders (Big Food). But no, it’s better if those who eat fast-food are none the wiser, after all, we can’t expect them to police themselves!

Now standing on a rather shaky moral premise himself, Mr. Freedman’s entire argument falls apart in my view. Stripped of all agency, how are the obese poor to find their way out of their unfortunate predicament? The government? The committed, albeit naive, “wholesome foodies”? No. The medical establishment? No. The only ones who can possibly help are the very ones who got us into this mess in the first place. That’s right, Mr. Freedman asks us to turn over this helpless flock to a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Because, damn, if they can’t help themselves, we (as a society) have no choice but to throw up our hands & hope that Big Food will (albeit slowly) doctor the food supply to help those who (apparently) cannot help themselves. And those “wholesome foodies”? They better step out of the way & stop advocating that we all consume more real food!

Even assuming that fewer calories & less fat are coming soon to a fast food joint near you (& really, who expects that to happen in the next decade?!), Mr. Freedman doesn’t touch upon the problem of over eating, which according to him got us into this mess (i.e. the urge to eat a lot is a biological defense against lean times, & it was the surfeit of cheap processed & fast foods has played into this urge). Sure, he offers up some vague food-science-y talk about satiety. But humans are notorious over-eaters, as Mr. Freedman himself admits. He never spells out how this new magically-engineered food is really going to help over-eaters to stop over eating. Perhaps that’s because (based on human nature & the business model of Big Food), Mr. Freedman simply can’t explain this piece of the obesity puzzle.

It is unfortunately easy for us humans to teach ourselves to eat even after we reach the magic tipping point of “satiety. So if the fast food “scientists” tell me that their new line of incrementally-healthier foods is going to fill me up faster, I will laugh mightily. Because unless the food is filled with some unknowable compound that will physically make it impossible to eat more, I’m convinced that the most doctored food out there cannot prevent over eating. And, besides, wouldn’t eating less be bad for the bottom line?! Why would we trust that anyone in Big Food would take such a risk?

Give me a break.

And let’s not forget that Mr. Freedman lumps the obese poor and the obese middle classes in the same group. So while you might have a steady paycheck (heck, you might not even be on SNAP!) & access to affordable whole foods, you are still a helpless slave to Big Food. Mr. Freedman never explains how or why these two groups are indistinguishable. I’m not going to get into this vastly layered problem … except to say that the poor & the middle classes face vastly different problems when it comes to food. Anyone who has the money to eat out semi-regularly at Olive Garden or Chili’s has the economic power to choose a mostly whole foods diet.

Ok, so even assuming that the fast food industry & the big food processors are able to solve the obesity epidemic … Then what? Well… under Mr. Freedman’s plan, we will have constructed a two-tiered food system in which Mr. Freedman & I will be able to feed ourselves & our families whole, nutrient-dense foods while the poor will continue to eat highly processed food, which, though low-fat, will still lack all the complex goodness of real foods. Because no one can argue with a straight face that processed food calories are as nutritious as whole food calories. And Mr. Freedman has not provided an exit strategy for his plan (you know, after Big Food single-handedly trims the American waistline…). So we will likely simply have another problem on our hands: inadequate nutrition & a continued battle with chronic illnesses. (More likely we already have that problem, but I reluctantly recognize that Mr. Freedman’s #1 concern is obesity.) The problems that go along with inadequate nutrition (including the lower performance in school) will further entrench class disparities. Yep, just the world I want to be living in.

Because, you see, I refuse to return to eating fast food or processed foods. If I read Mr. Freedman’s proposal correctly, that’s precisely what he says I should do. (At least, I think that’s what he’s saying… The whole “so what?” of the article is a bit confusing…). But I won’t give up eating real food. And I suspect the rest of my fellow real food advocates won’t either. We know that in an ideal world we’d all have access to real foods & there is not a meal goes by that I am not grateful to have access to that food right now.

I took away from Melanie Warner’s excellent new book, Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, that most food scientists would agree that eating the real thing is better than the highly-processed alternatives… in terms of vitamins, antioxidants, fiber… all the good things in real food that we don’t even yet completely understand.

So, say what you will about the real food advocates being naïve, most of us have a future vision that is deeply imbedded in equality. Unfortunately, Mr. Freedman’s vision is limited by his focus on obesity & processed foods. I don’t have THE answer to the obesity problem, but I do know that it is a multi-headed beast that requires the kind of big imagination that is unfortunately lacking in this recent Atlantic article.

Should fast food be healthier? Absolutely! But it should be more nutritious in addition to being less obesogenic. And if Big Food doesn’t think such food will sell, well the problem is as much about profits as it is about convincing people to alter their taste preferences (preferences created by Big Food) & Mr. Freedman doesn’t work out the problem of where the concern over profits takes over the concern over health.

Healthier fast food options should be but one of the weapons in the war against obesity. To suggest that Big Food will fail to roll out healthier food because a small (but growing) minority has a preference for real food is deceitful on the part of Big Food & disingenuous on the part of Mr. Freedman and The Atlantic. The real fear Big Food has is that as the real food movement grows, people (from the elites to the middle classes to the poor) are re-tuning their taste buds & discovering that junk tastes like junk. So Big Food should be scared: Hopefully one day (probably in the distant future) we won’t even want their food anymore. I trust we can work out the logistics on the journey.

In the mean time, I don’t think Mr. Freedman is as at odds with the “wholesome food” advocates as this sensationalist article would make out. Big Food doesn’t need help from real food advocates, and it’s unfortunate that The Atlantic published what amounts to a call for everyone to eat more crap.

There are so many things wrong with this article. Another bugaboo… Mr. Freedman’s obsession with obesity per se. Obesity itself is not a problem. We all come in different shapes & sizes. But it’s the chronic health issues that  seem to afflict a disproportionate percentage of obese people that are the real problem. Nevermind all the other bad sometimes-diet-induced stuff that can strike fat & thin alike: inflammatory diseases, cancer, etc. Mr. Freedman isn’t bothering with any of it.

Well, all that said: If Big Food really did manage to create a meal or two that was truly as good as the real thing… I’d probably buy into it. We could use some convenience around here.

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6 Comments

Filed under Food, Parenting, Simplicity

6 responses to “Save Fast Food!

  1. This is intense. Thanks for the summary!

    • Probably a bit much for a Friday morning but I’ve been thinking about this article non-stop! Next Friday will be lighter… or maybe a recipe…

  2. A well-thought out article on an important issue. I can’t imagine Big Food choosing to make fast food more nutritious out of the goodness of their hearts. It costs more, and if profits weren’t the primary motivating factor, we probably wouldn’t be eating so much junk in the first place. Still, it’s nice to dream that there’ll be a societal demand for healthful food, because I, too, could use a little more convenience.

    • Thanks, Joyce, & so true! In that Warner book I mention in the post she talks about how big the profit margins are because the ingredients are so cheap & also how committed (both for financial gain & for survival) the big food processors are to finding uses for every last molecule in a kernel of corn or a soybean. Ugh.

  3. Kate Hollander

    Don’t you think, though, that both the “real food” folks and those like Mr. Freedman rely much too much on the idea of choice? That we ought to choose to eat better, that corporations ought to choose to make better food…On and on, making it more and more of a culture war about choices, values, morals, and belonging. Accusations of elitism or maliciousness fly. Articles upon books upon blogposts pile up about what’s making us fat and what we could never bear to eat and about how people are too stupid to make good choices (not YOUR blog! But you know the ones!). That’s not how they do it in countries with sensible–but stringent–food regulations. The state, with the approval of the people (the countries I’m thinking of are quite staunchly democratic) says, “Nope, you can’t put all this awful crap in food and then sell it to people.” I ate the cheapest, most low-budget grocery-store food when I was in Denmark, and it was noticeably more delicious and simple and high quality than anything I ever get in the States.

    • Thank you for keeping me honest, Kate, because you are so right & I think my post veered a little too choice-y without balancing on the other end. I absolutely think our food policy should be something akin to what you experienced in Denmark, but I’ve become such a pessimist about the prospects of changing our fractured & broken food oversight system. I honestly I think food policy in the US is so completely captured by industry & the voices on the other side are yet so small that I see change on that front as nearly impossible.

      So to my pessimistic brain it seems like we have to talk about choice a bit, but I totally agree that it sets us up to be too dogmatic & to judge the choices of others. Is there a structural-choice dialogue we could be having? I absolutely think so. We need to figure out an effective way to override the current structures that set people up to continually make “bad” choices. I’m not sure this is exactly what I’m thinking out here, but I just discovered http://cookingmatters.org/, which seems like an amazing organization helping low-income families (re-)learn how to cook & (more importantly) how to shop for healthy, budget-friendly foods. I do have faith that more & more people will wake up to what’s wrong with our current supply of processed foods & maybe THEN the big structural change will be possible.

      I’d really love to know if you (or anyone else) think that’s all hogwash, Kate! It may be… I’m continually turning this stuff over in my brain & the ideas are always changing!

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