Food for thought

Last week the internet news sources and even the New York Times featured stories about food research by sociologists from North Carolina State University. The research did not study the level of nutrition in popular foods, nor the availability of adequate nutrition in poor communities. Most of the headlines seemed to gleefully proclaim that home cooked, from scratch, family dinners were not worth the effort needed to make them happen. The journalists reporting on the North Carolina research seemed smugly defensive, attacking writers like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, who advocate for cooking from scratch, as being elitist and out of touch with reality. Some writers seemed to imply that cooking might even be detrimental to a family’s well being.

That, however, is not what the research said. I’m not sure exactly what Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott and Joslyn Brenton were trying to document with their research. Their report went from disparaging popular food gurus and pointing out that few family dinners are like dinner with Ozzie and Harriet to affirming that home cooked meals are cheaper and healthier than eating something else. While they seemed intent on debunking the myth of the happy family dinner, the researchers neglect to point out an alternative.

Yes, the authors are right, meals are often less than pleasant. Children go through stages when they only want to eat only one thing. Even well adjusted kids turn their noses up at new foods. Parents forget that, short of installing a feeding tube, it is impossible to force someone to eat things they don’t want to. Many of us have fallen into futile mealtime power struggles, bribery, cajoling and threats over broccoli and green beans. Yes, the television food shows create unreasonable expectations for the cook. Who couldn’t whip up a five course meal in a half an hour with a crew of twenty chopping, precooking and arranging ingredients and flowers for the table?

Often we are as tired as the children by the time we get supper on the table. We try hard and complaints and picky eaters make us grumpy.

At the very end of the report, Bowen, Elliott and Brenton cut to the real issues, which interestingly have nothing to do with the value of home cooking or of sharing time with each other at the end of our busy days.

Many of the poor women the sociologists followed and interviewed not only could not buy enough food for their families, they often did not have adequate kitchens nor the skills needed to cook things from scratch. They often only cooked things they knew their kids would eat because they didn’t want to waste money on food which was thrown away. They didn’t buy fresh fruits and vegetables because they didn’t know how to prepare them and had inadequate storage to keep them. Many of the foods available to them from food pantries were processed and canned. Many women, working full time, sometimes more than one job, found they did not have the time needed to plan, shop for and prepare good meals. Even middle class families reported the cost of food and the time needed to cook to be barriers to eating well. Most often, the responsibility for feeding the family falls on women who in the majority of cases, also did the cleaning up.

This research points out serious problems in our culture.

Poverty is a serious problem in this country. More than four percent of Americans live on less than two dollars a day. That is the worldwide definition of extreme poverty. Most of the people living in poverty live in families where someone works at least part time. Many of the poor are children and the elderly. Living without good food leads to chronic illnesses. Not having enough to eat affects children’s behavior and their ability to learn.

Making sure everyone has enough good food to eat should be a national priority.

We have devalued food. We have made food cheap, fast, and easy. We pay the people who cook and serve food low wages. Americans spend less on food (on average, less than seven percent of our income) than people in any other country. If the poor do not have access to food, it is not because food is too expensive, it is because their income is too low. The North Carolina research reported that even middle class families earning $100,000 or more are having trouble affording good food. One has to wonder how our priorities have gotten so messed up. Are our cars, electronic gadgets, memberships at the gym, family vacations, and whatever else we spend our money on, really more important that what we eat?

Food affects every part of our lives. Sharing meals affects our relationships. Good food gives us pleasure. Healthy nutritious meals affect our health, our ability to think and our children’s ability to learn. Food should not be cheap. Everyone should have enough. The preparation of food should be considered a valued and important task, shared by everyone who eats it. Everyone should learn to cook, not just mothers.

We can live without an iPhone, an iPad, a new car or designer jeans. We cannot live without food.

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