Yesterday, I had the interesting experience of reading a comment from a reader in the Netherlands, Line, who asked the following astute and provocative question: “I can’t help but wonder if the state of good food and nutrition, or rather lack thereof, is really as extreme in the US as I get the impression of from your writing? I live in The Netherlands and to me it seems that we do not have the same issues. This might only be my impression as most of my friends and family all cook though. It fascinates me, but also scares me, as Europe has a tendency to follow the trends from the US to a great extent…”
I responded to her — quite lengthily, I’m afraid — and gave a few general statistics about the decline of the family dinner, etc. But I couldn’t stop thinking about her question, and the very real concern that lies behind it. We’ve all heard about how the Westernization (i.e., “Americanization”) of food cultures in other parts of the world has contributed to a rise in weight and health issues, even in places like Japan, where the population has historically been quite slim and healthy. Line’s curiosity and apprehension are understandable when you consider the proliferation of McDonald’s springing up around the world.
There was another part to her question, though — the bit about wondering whether or not things are really all that bad here in the U.S. Obviously, I think they are, but as I pointed out to Line in my response, all bloggers come to the computer each morning with their own lens through which they view the world. My point of view and my opinion are what drive the entries on this blog, so it’s always possible that my perception colors what’s written here. After all, I’m not a journalist or a scientist or a researcher; I’m an activist, an advocate, and a just-plain-old-mom.
I do think, though, that anecdotal evidence, firsthand accounts, and personal experiences are powerful tools in telling any story — besides all the research and statistics that exist about the state of food and nutrition in this country, the simple act of going to any shopping mall and standing by the food court for five minutes or so gives a pretty good indication of what’s happening to our relationship with food. The other day, J. and I took the boys shopping for shoes and household items, then treated them to a ride on the carousel that’s at the mall food court. The kid behind us on the carousel surveyed the bustling tables and said to his father, “I’m hungry!” The response: “You can’t be hungry. You just ate all those donuts I bought you.” Kid: “I’m still hungry though!” Parent: “Well, no more treats, okay? When we’re done here I’ll take you over to the Burger King and you can get some fries or chicken nuggets.”
Add to that the fact that as we passed the very same Burger King kiosk, J. and I noticed a sign that said something like “Healthy choices for everyone” or some other similar nonsense. On it were a few menu items: apple slices, low fat milk, salad…and KRAFT MACARONI AND CHEESE. Yup, that’s a healthy menu item. It must be on there because of the “calcium” content. And the “fortified vitamins” or whatever the claim may be. Sigh.
But forget the food court. Too easy, right? Using fast food as the basis for a case against American food culture is like — what’s the old adage? — shooting fish in a barrel? (Not sure why there would be fish in a barrel, or why you’d bother shooting them if they’ve already been caught and packed, but hey…the metaphor stands.)
Leave the food court. Leave the fast food behind. Go to an American grocery store. Walk up and down the aisles with your kids. Chances are they’ll start pointing: “Look, Mom, Dora the Explorer! The Backyardigans! Scooby-Doo!” Everywhere you turn, boxes and bags are emblazoned with characters and graphics to entice little kids. And right next to those bright cartoon characters are the “nutritional claims,” placed prominently on the boxes to reassure skeptical parents that the Winnie-the-Pooh fruit gusher snacks are a wholesome choice for their toddlers. The junk in those boxes is invariably loaded with sugar (usually high-fructose corn syrup), artificial colors, preservatives, and little else. It’s chemically created, laboratory food. But it’s FUN. And we Americans like FUN. We think FUN is the way to get our kids to eat. And hey — if the box says it’s fortified with essential nutrients, then it must be HEALTHY too, right?
Even the “100% juice” at my kids’ school has fallen prey to the FUN factor. Laying all the arguments about excessive juice consumption aside, let’s assume that one glass of 100% juice is not an unreasonable beverage for a child. (I personally don’t believe there’s any real harm in one serving, as long as the rest of the kid’s diet is pretty sound.) My boys’ preschool offers water much of the time at snack, but the juice shows up a few times a week. And I had taken the information they gave me — that it was 100% juice only — at face value. Until I realized that it was blue.
P. takes a sippy cup to school with him in the morning, filled with the remains of the milk he didn’t finish at breakfast. Once he finishes the milk, the teachers rinse out his cup and use it to serve the water or juice at lunch and snack. The cup usually comes home still bearing the remnants of the day’s beverage of choice. And the other day, J. and I opened it to find something that looked startlingly like Windex.
Juice. Smurf-blue juice. J. looked at me. “What happened to 100%?” he asked, wryly.
I got on the computer and Googled the name of the company that supplies the school’s beverages. Guess what? “FUN” is even part of their name. And guess what else? The site is full of claims about the health benefits of their 100% juice products. Which are made from concentrates. And which may also contain artificial colors and food dyes.
Why? Because 100% juice isn’t apparently enticing enough on its own for children. Because a nice, sweet cup of juice needs to be made more FUN. Hence flavors like the Blue Raspberry that was in P.’s cup. When, friends, when did we decide as a society that red raspberries were somehow inferior? When did we decide that to be acceptable to our kids, anything raspberry-flavored had to be frickin’ BLUE?
Pardon me. But things, from where I sit, are getting completely out of control. Food, in and of itself, shouldn’t have to be FUN. Food should be enjoyable because it tastes good, fuels your body, and is shared with others. The experience of having a meal with family and friends — that’s what is supposed to be fun about food. But so many of us fail to provide our children with a real social experience at mealtimes anymore, which leads us to try to fill that void with something else. And that something else appears to be manufactured FUN.
Oh, Line, you’ve struck a nerve with me. I so desperately want to tell you that I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am. Readers, please help me out here. Comment on this post — provide me with stories, experiences, anecdotes about the state of food and nutrition in this country, so I can share your voices and perspectives with Line. Help me paint for her a picture of what the American food landscape is really like. If you think I’m crazy, tell me that, too. She wants to know whether or not I’m being accurate in my portrayal. You tell me.
Is it just me?