Is it Just Me?

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.”

Pardon me?

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?



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19 Responses to Is it Just Me?

  1. Pingback: Food Revolution Fridays: Rising Above the Deep Fry | Red, Round, or Green

  2. Kim B. says:

    Loyal reader here!! Sorry I’m late to the party (I’ve been out of the country), but obviously, as a public health researcher, I have to add my answer that you’re not wrong. Unfortunately, you are 100% right and one has only to look at the alarming rates of obesity in this country for proof.

    • Kim!!!! So happy to see you back on here (I actually was wondering, when you didn’t comment the other day, where you’d gone!) 🙂
      Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation. I think this is one of those few times in my life when I’m kind of sad to be right.

  3. TB says:

    Nope, it’s not just you. I feel like I’m from Mars somedays in my baby/mom’s group. Some of the members look at me like I have a third eye when I bring black beans & rice or hummus and crackers for my little guy to snack on.
    Less is more in my book. Less ingredients, less packaging, less confusion. I feel terrible for some children in our group knowing that dinner for them is “healthy” (nitrate-free) hot dogs and frozen sweet potato fries. I know these parents are well intentioned, but really…. it takes maaaaybe 90 extra seconds to scrub a real sweet potato, slice it up in any shape, drizzle with oil and pop it in a hot oven. As for the hot dog, I just wish that the name of the meat they consumed actually matched the animal it came from. It would be a start.

    • So true! I’ll confess to occasionally relying on a particular brand of frozen sweet potato fries in a pinch, but only after lots of label-reading, and only when I really need to save the extra 10 minutes or so on cooking, slicing, etc. And it’s absolutely a rarity!
      But you’re so right about feeling like you’re from Mars sometimes. The other day a parent of one of L.’s friends was chatting with me and somehow, the subject of smoked salmon came up. She was SO relieved when I told her that L. loves smoked salmon and that, when I can get it on sale, I buy a bunch of it and make mini-sandwiches for his lunches. She said, “I’ve been feeling so bad about (her son’s) lunches, thinking that he was the ‘weird kid’ with the lox and bagel! Thank God he’s got a buddy!” I think so often that’s how parents feel — worried, stressed, confused, not wanting to be too firm, not wanting to make their kids into the “weird” ones. That’s why I keep this blog — because the more we all talk to one another and open up about these things, the more I think we’ll begin to work together as parents to improve food culture overall.

  4. James says:

    Welcome to the slippery slope of American culture: sacrificing quality in one area for perceived quality improvement in another area. In this case, replacing quality for convenience at meals in order to “improve” quality time elsewhere. Family dinner time isn’t seen as quality time because you’re just eating and/or talking, when you could be out doing “fun stuff” together. We may shy away from the term, what with our sometimes prudish bent and the term’s often steamier implications, but American culture is hedonistic. “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” and the media tells us happiness is lots of money and free time to do whatever we want.

    I don’t have a view into middle/high school curriculum, but I’d wager that the home economics/cooking classes are long gone. You see, we likely had to cut those programs (along with any extra art or music) in order to spend more time re-teaching kids basic core knowledge (math, science, reading/writing, social studies) in order for them to pass standardized testing. And we all know (in the US anyway) how well those standardized tests have worked out.

    • It’s really funny you bring that up, James. We often sacrifice things like household chores on the weekends in order to go out and do “fun stuff” with the boys — the zoo, the park, the museum, etc. — but we NEVER sacrifice dinnertime together for fun activities. It’s just not in our makeup. We’ve even eaten family “dinner” at 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon before taking the kids to an evening event because we are so committed to that time together; but I’ve never actually been aware of that until just now. It’s just part of what we do. And yes, you’re right, a big issue is the concept of free time. People feel like there’s no time in the day, and while I sympathize — we’re all ridiculously busy — I wonder how many of those same people are spending hours online at night, or watching TV, or doing any number of other things?
      And don’t even get me started on the standardized test thing. 🙂 Another day!

  5. Renee says:

    I wonder, too, if the FUN in food is part of the problem with weight gain for kids. If food is that much fun, it’s easier to continue eating once you’re full. If food is just food –good tasting, but not full of sugar or salt or cartoon characters– then maybe kids wouldn’t be constantly wanting more. It’s really hard to believe that a kid could eat a bunch of donuts and still be hungry, but it’s not so hard to believe that the kid might just want the BK meal because he associates it with FUN, especially given all the food marketing that’s done to kids.

    • That’s such a good point, Renee. I know that there have been times where I’ve even said to my own son, “Are you REALLY hungry, or do you just want (xyz food) because it tastes good?” He’s astute enough to admit, usually, that he just wants the snack or treat because it tastes good and not because he truly has room for it in his belly. Those moments are really few and far between in our house, but I can imagine that if we had all kinds of cartoon-covered foods etc. in our pantry they might be more frequent.
      And I absolutely think the kid on the carousel just wanted the BK meal because it seemed like fun. The thing that gets me is that his parent was so oblivious to the whole scenario. What happened to common sense and limits? (pardon me — shaking my cane again.)
      Also…one of the things I think about all the time with these “fun” foods is that their construction in and of itself allows for overconsumption far more than the average whole food. Most of the “fun” foods are low in fiber, high in sugars and additives, and react with your system in a way that masks the feeling of fullness and signals your brain to want more food. The body doesn’t get properly satisfied, so you want more and more even after you’ve consumed the appropriate number of calories. It’s a vicious cycle.

  6. Jenny says:

    It’s definitely not just you!
    I’m from the UK, which is where Jamie’s Food Revolution started and prior to that he had a program on school meals where he discovered the amount of fast food the children ate. When he introduced fresh food, parents were passing takeaway through the school fences! I think it’s clear just from that, schools don’t always serve the best food! My school wasn’t like that – you weren’t allowed off the school grounds and if you didn’t eat lunch, you got nothing. There were options – a non-veggie/veggie hot meal (chips on a Monday, fish on a Friday) and cold meals such as quiche, ham, salad, coleslaw etc. all made in school. I think they’ve added a salad bar (so you can have the coleslaw, salad, beetroot etc. whether you have the hot or cold options). A lot of food was still wasted – it was definitely a mystery meat pie! – but at least is was freshly made (even if turkey dinosaur shapes appeared occasionally)

    In the north of England where I live, you only have to walk out the door to see how many overweight people there are – the region is one of the most deprived in the country, people eat very little fresh food and a LOT of ready meals/takeaways according to recent statistics. It’s appalling! I can think of at least 10 takeaways within 10 minutes walk from my house (although you can guarantee no one actually walks to them!) and I get at least 3 flyers a day through my door advertising food delivery services – that I don’t want or need! (That’s not to say that I don’t ever eat takeaways – but I balance them with lots of homecooked food, including lots of veggies)

    Here, the amount of ready meals eaten is blamed on working mums – my (working) mum managed a homecooked meal (nearly) every night. The problem is that schools don’t teach cookery/home economics anymore, so no one knows how to cook! While I was a uni, I apparently ate ‘exotic’ food – the person was referring to a courgette/zuccini! I was shocked at university just how little people knew how to cook. I dread to think what it’ll be like for my future kids.

    • Wow, thanks for another perspective. (Who knew I had international readers? I’m floored!) I think, from everything I hear, that the US and the UK are strikingly similar these days food-wise, with a few exceptions — many of which can be chalked up to the differences in what the two governments allow as colorings, preservatives, and additives in processed foods. I think the point you make about not being taught to cook is a good one — I hadn’t thought about the home economics classes vanishing from schools. When I was a kid, our school district mandated that everyone take home economics for a semester in both grades 7 and 8; I can still remember a group project where we were assigned to cook a chicken stir-fry dish with rice and vegetables, as well as my sister’s class having to make a vegetable lasagna (which she and I both LOVED, as I remember!). We also had a homework assignment that involved cooking one component part of a family meal once a week for a specified time period — completely without help — and we not only had to provide the recipe, but our parents had to sign off on the paper saying that we’d done it and rating how it turned out. I have no idea whether or not that requirement is still in place, all these years later, but I can tell you that by the time I was 13 I at least knew how to make stir-fry, twice-baked potatoes, and morning glory muffins on my own!

      • James says:

        I seem to recall our school’s home economics class also requiring one to complete a sewing project. I may suck at it, but I know how to use needle and thread in a pinch.

      • Yes, that too (we had to make tote bags — way less cool than my sister’s class making stuffed animals!). And you’re right — we can all sew a button on if we need to!

  7. Danielle says:

    Check out this article from the NYT – several years old, so you can imagine the state of things now – on the influence of American-style fast food culture in Greece.

  8. J. Charlie says:

    I’ll comment on this. The most chilling thing is the fear the reader expressed at what will happen when their country gets Americanized, or ‘super-sized’ if you prefer. There’s compelling evidence in the Pacific that her fear is warranted:

    I was raised on “stuff that comes in bags or cans.” I was so proud of myself the other day when I was out with friends and one of them kept asking me if I liked different kinds of fattening and salty treats. After they named a few items, I stopped the line of questioning by simply stating, “You know, I just really prefer fresh foods.”

    I did have to make a lot of personal decisions that go against the way I was raised and the way most of the people I know approach food; but hearing myself say that out loud as a genuine response made me see that it is worth the effort to think before eating. It is possible to rise above the deep fry.

    • Thanks for the comment and the link, J. Charlie! I agree — it can be very difficult to feel as though you’re going against the grain in your particular family, peer group, or community, but on the other hand, it’s very rewarding from a personal standpoint to realize the progress that you’re making towards being a more conscious eater. And I love the last sentence: “It is possible to rise above the deep fry.” It IS. And how much more enjoyable is the once-in-a-blue-moon fried item (like a really good fritto misto) when you actively make the decision to consider it a treat, and to seek out only the best quality?

  9. Donna says:

    It is NOT just you. I don’t know if I have mentioned this before when commenting on this blog, but I am in advertising by day, and am a dance teacher by night. I have the fun of being in an office environment full of junk food, as well as trying to impart a little wisdom about nutrition to my students when I can, especially since they should be fueling their bodies properly to be athletes.

    This past Sunday, I went to a dance teachers’ workshop, where students also attend to take classes. It was from 8:00-1:00, so everyone needed to pack some snacks since they’d burn a lot of calories in that 5 hours. So I had a few servings of fruit, granola, low fat cheese with whole wheat crackers, carrots, and water. I looked around the room between classes and took notice of what all the teenagers had: doughnuts, coffee, gatorade (very few even had water!), chips, fruit snacks, cookies… one girl even had McDonald’s breakfast with her first thing in the morning before getting right up and taking a ballet class. I thought to myself… how do they not get sick? Or maybe they do, and they aren’t making the connection.

    So there’s my anecdote… food is certainly a crisis in our country. It’s not just you. And blue raspberry seems insane to me also… are you going to start sending your own juice into school?

    • Thanks for the comment, Donna. Fast response! I knew I could count on my loyal readers. 🙂 You’re absolutely right about the kids getting sick and not making the connection — our niece is an avid soccer player, and I recall a year or two ago hearing her father discuss how when her mom takes her to games (they’re divorced), she always “punks out” halfway through and can’t keep playing. Turns out mom takes her through the Dunkin’ Donuts drive through for the pre-game breakfast and gets her a double chocolate muffin and a Coolatta! The kid was maybe 10 or so at the time and didn’t make the connection, and frankly, she shouldn’t have HAD to be able to make that connection for herself . Parents should be connecting the dots and then passing that information on to their kids.
      As to sending my own juice to the school, I may, or I may just request that P. get only water. I’m considering pointing out the whole food dyes-behavior-learning issue to the director, but I don’t know…I feel as though the dust is still settling in some ways from last time, and I’m trying to be a bit cautious about jumping into the fray…

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