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time for dinner

October 20, 2006

I have seen a whole slew of articles in the last few weeks about the “cafeteria crisis.” Children are eating horribly unhealthy food at school, and someone’s trying to do something about it. Out with sugary sodas, out with high-fat fast food, in with organic vegetables and fresh unprocessed food, etc.

The school lunch craze is out of control. Everyone’s obsessed, everyone’s talking, everyone’s writing. It’s an interesting place from which to start talking about diet and nutrition. We all saw Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock’s famed documentary wherein the filmmaker eats nothing but McDonald’s three meals a day for a full month and the extreme diet wreaks havoc on his entire body. And I sat there, as any good college-educated, middle-class white person living in a major American city would; I shook my head in sadness and wondered, in awe, how Americans can eat such terribly unhealthy food.

In August, the NYT magazine visited the issue in the School-Lunch Test. Last month, the education issue of the New Yorker Magazine came out, and in it was an article about another attempt at alleviating the “school lunch problem,” detailing efforts to improve school lunches at a few Berkeley public schools. The Lunchroom Rebellion profiles chef Ann Cooper, who revamped the lunch program at a private school in the Hamptons and was then hired to work on lunch in Berkeley. And just yesterday, the NYT summarized the same issue as it is taking shape in England (Glorious Food? English Schoolchildren Think Not).

The articles all detail the specific programs of each profile; the economic and racial makeup of the school districts; the money budgeted to them by both the federal and state governments for their lunch programs; who is in charge and what they are doing to revamp the program. Each article also mentions a key obstacle to getting their job done successfully: the parents. The question remains to be answered in all of these articles: how do we take a step back and change the context? A letter writer in this week’s New Yorker asks perhaps the scariest question of all: “If North Americans generally prefer pepperoni to fresh corn on our pizza, why should we expect our children to want anything different?”

Interestingly, an article about the TV Food Network in the New Yorker of two weeks ago addresses this very issue, albeit from a different angle. TV Dinners describes the rise of cooking shows, starting with Julia Child way back in 1962, attributing much of the success of the TV Food Network to transitioning its hosts from seasoned chefs to more “down-to-earth” hosts. Bill Buford explains how the food, along with those preparing it, has changed dramatically. Chef hosts with whom the network began (Mario Batali and Sara Moulton, for example) have been replaced with next-door neighbor types who cook terribly unhealthy but “real” food, not chef food (Rachel Ray is a prime example of the down-to-earth variety. Buford calls her “the most watched kitchen personality in the history of American television.”). This is a generalization, obviously, but Buford does a great job at summarizing why Americans love Rachel Ray – I highly recommend reading the article for that.

Americans like Rachel Ray because, according to the head of programming at the network, “she speaks their language, shops at the same places they shop, and uses the same ingredients.” The premise of her show, for those who live under a rock, is that anyone should be able to cook a meal in 30 minutes. Everything’s got to be quick because obviously no one has time to cook (hello? One of the big reasons Americans eat so much fast food!). Buford explains snarkily: “You don’t have to know how to cook, just how to shop; and everyone knows how to shop.”

The most intense paragraph to me, and the one most relevant to the point I’m trying to make here, comes towards the end:

I found myself taking stock not of what I’d seen during the preceding seventy-two hours but of what I hadn’t. I couldn’t recall very many potatoes with dirt on them, or beets with ragged greens, or carrots with soil in their creases, or pieces of meat remotely reminiscent of the animals they were butchered from—hardly anything, it seemed, from the planet Earth.

The Food Network is not to blame for the food problem in this country, of course, but it does represent something really poignant and heartbreaking: Americans have become so distant from all the food that we consume. Our food goes through a long chain of people, factories, processing plants, and international borders: so long, in fact, that it prevents us from understanding where it comes from or what it takes to arrive at our plates. And even in the very venue that should theoretically be about creating food, we find program after program where hosts teach us to take the easy way out, both in terms of using pre-packaged food and in terms of being lazy about how to add flavor and depending too much on animal products and an overwhelming amount of fat.

In order to make any kind of real and lasting change in public school cafeterias, the food culture in this country has to change. Easier said than done, of course. But we cannot be surprised if we see no change in a generation of children when we change their diets for one or two mails a day for five days a week. That leaves a lot of meals (and a lot of food education) up to their families. I commend the revamped lunch programs that include, in addition to changing what they are serving at lunch, food education, which often includes learning about how certain vegetables grow and where the climate allows, keeping a garden near the school for students to take care of. Food is really complicated. And I mean this in every way possible way. The mistake we have made is to treat food like every other commodity in our lives – television, clothing, transportation. Just something else to buy.

To make food taste good, you have to know spices, you have to take time, and you have to have a little bit of innovation. It’s time to make time for food. Push some other crap out of the way and really think about this thing that’s sustaining you, that’s allowing you to get out of bed and do all the other crap. A few months ago, a friend taught me to make yogurt. And everyone asked me why, of all things to make homemade, would I make yogurt? My answer is that food can be a pretty amazing thing. Yogurt is unbelievable, you start with a small amount of yogurt from a previous batch, leave it in a lukewarm incubator all night with a lot of milk and the (healthy) bacteria in the yogurt spread to the milk overnight. When you wake up in the morning, you have a huge quantity of yogurt. And of course I can buy yogurt but why would I avoid doing a science experiment in my kitchen that results in something delicious?

Of course, so many other issues are a part of this problem, including access to fresh fruits and vegetables, which many Americans are unable to access. I’m proud to say that in this fair city, one can take food stamps to any greenmarket and redeem them for fresh, delicious, local produce. It’s a step in the right direction, especially considering that fresh produce is most difficult to find (not to mention most expensive) in the poorest parts of the city. The time issue is a real one as well. Most women in this country work full-time jobs – a phrase not too many people would utter in the 1950’s. (Women do most of the cooking, which is a problem for another post entirely.). I acknowledge that we actually do have less free time than we used to. But it is our health we’re talking about, and the health of generations to come. No one can deny that America has an obesity problem. And at some point we’ll see that more drugs are not the way to solve this problem (that’s mostly a way to give pharmaceutical companies more money that they don’t deserve). It’s time we take food back into our own hands. Buford concludes:

…for more than two decades the cost of going to restaurants or getting takeout has risen less than the annual rate of inflation—that it’s much less expensive today than at any other moment in our history to pay other people to prepare our dinner. Never in our history as a species have we been so ignorant about our food. And it is revealing about our culture that, in the face of such widespread ignorance about a human being’s most essential function—the ability to feed itself—there is now a network broadcasting into ninety million American homes, entertaining people with shows about making coleslaw.

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