Taxing Junk Food: Where’s the Unity in the Community?

As usual, blogger Bettina over at The Lunch Tray got me thinking today with her response to a widely circulated op-ed by the brilliant Mark Bittman.  Bittman’s piece makes the impassioned — and well-reasoned, which is unusual when people start talking about the taxation of anything — argument that it is not only POSSIBLE to fight obesity in America by taxing junk food and subsidizing healthy foods, but may actually be long overdue.  The time, he says, is ripe for a seemingly radical economic shift in the food supply game.  And, like Bettina, I think I largely agree with him.  But.  (Didn’t you just KNOW there was going to be a “but?”)

In her response to Bittman’s op-ed, Bettina points out the following:

“Unfortunately, many Americans wouldn’t possess the necessary knowledge — or the desire — to cook up a bag of navy beans and a sack of brown rice, even if they were readily available in their neighborhood 7-11 for 5o cents a pound…we’re really talking about not only the need for major cultural re-education with respect to cooking, but also a huge shift in the public’s expectation that food should always be tasty, cheap, fully prepared — and immediately available.”

Amen, sister.  See, here’s the thing.  Cooking, as I’ve mentioned before, used to be a necessary life skill.  If you wanted to survive very long in this world, you’d have to at least be able to sear some venison over your campfire, or boil basically inedible grains of rice into a palatable congee, or whatever.  But as we’ve become a busier, more industrious (note that I don’t say “more productive!”) society, with greater access to and market for “convenience foods,” cooking as a life skill has not only fallen out of fashion — it’s fallen off the face of the earth.  What was once a necessity is now more a status symbol, and the simple comfort-food ways of the family dinner table have given way to the rise of the foodie society.  As a member of that foodie race, I can’t and won’t condemn it; I think foodies are going to be part of what brings cooking BACK, fundamentally, as long as we can all get our noses out of the duck confit long enough to make a substantial social contribution to the world.  But the point is, people now cook because they WANT to, not because they HAVE to, and if they neither want to nor have to, then it becomes a lost art.

That would be a great enough problem in and of itself, but it’s been compounded by the fact that nature abhors a vacuum.  When cooking for necessity fell out of people’s lives, it left a neat, dinner-shaped hole, into which immediately rushed any number of time-sucking replacements.  For some, those replacements seem good and worthy and noble, like a second (or third) job, or volunteer work, or time spent cleaning our ever-larger homes.  For others, the replacements are (dare I say?) a bit less noble.  Facebook, anyone?  Many of us spend so much time farming virtual crops that we don’t actually get the chance to purchase, prepare, and eat them in real life. 

So when Bettina says we need a real perception shift in the way we look at food, she’s not kidding.  There’s an enormous amount to overcome here.  It’s not as simple as convincing people that they should care about where their food comes from and what’s in it.  It’s not as simple, even, as convincing them to go a step farther and actually begin preparing some of it themselves.  At the point we’ve gotten to, cooking from scratch is such a foreign, faintly quaint notion — and seems so UNNECESSARY to so many people — that we’d have to convince them that it’s actually MORE important than all the other things they’ve filled that time void with, in order to truly have a shot at changing the culture. 

Think about it.  Many mental health professionals will tell you that if you want to quit a bad habit, you’ll need to actively work at replacing that habit with something more positive, because otherwise your natural instincts will kick in and you’ll keep repeating the pattern.  It stands to reason, then, that if we want people to begin habitually engaging in a POSITIVE behavior like home cooking, we’d need to remove something else from their routines in order to find a place for it.  This is where that great time argument comes from; people often genuinely DON’T have the time to cook, not because they can’t make that time, but because they’ve filled it up neatly with some other occupation and are unable to see that there may be space for a shift.  We’re creatures of habit, we humans, in both the best sense…and the worst. 

So just as those who are dedicated to working out in the mornings know that they must give up an hour or so of sleep in order to hit the gym before work, those who are truly dedicated to home cooking — and I’m making a big leap of assumption here, in generously figuring that we can get people to that point in the first place — will need to understand that they’ll first need to remove something ELSE from their lives in order to put home cooking in its place.  That’s what’s daunting and troubling to me, when I step back and think about the void that exists in the readiness of the American populace to actually cook real food at home.  How to get people to routinely organize their time in such a way that they are able to physically cook, and help them to be so successful at it that they don’t give up and slide back into the old habits?

If you carry the morning workout analogy through, for many people, the best predictor of success in cultivating that particular habit happens to be a strong and active support system.  A personal trainer, a gym buddy, a morning exercise class…if there’s someone who will actually know and CARE that you didn’t go to the gym, you’re probably much more likely to go.  So maybe what we need, if we are to re-train our culinary habits and change our collective perspective on food, is cooking buddies.  Culinary trainers.  People who will actually hold us accountable for what we do in our kitchens, and will continue to push us to develop and cultivate the skills we need to be successful home cooks in the long run.

I know it sounds crazy, but it used to be the way things were.  It’s just that those people weren’t  called “cooking buddies.”  They were called FAMILY AND FRIENDS.

That’s right.  It’s we who are failing each other; it’s our communities that are letting us down.  Back in the day (forgive me as I wax nostalgic about an era in which I wasn’t even alive), if an adult human being — okay, woman, but I’m trying to be ungendered here for the sake of the modern analogy — couldn’t cook, there would damn sure be a mother-in-law, a Girl Scout leader, a church social group, or some other individual or group that would intervene and teach the basics.  Right up until maybe 20 years ago, no one would have DREAMED of attending a potluck or social function with a store-bought offering, because it was simply expected that you’d put some time and effort into the food you set before yourself, your family, and your community.  Now, it’s not only considered acceptable and almost de rigeur to pick up a last-minute potluck item at the grocery store, as if to prove that we are somehow busier than everyone else and therefore more valuable to society; it’s actually become a perfectly natural thing to forego the food altogether and find that everyone clamors to bring the BEVERAGES.  Let someone else worry about, you know, that stuff we eat to keep us alive.

I know I probably sound like the world’s only 30-something curmudgeon, but this is what scares me, when I examine the idea of changing our food perspectives radically enough to give Mark Bittman’s wonderfully possible proposal a shot at being even remotely successful.  We no longer HAVE the kinds of communities, and community ties, that would actually allow us to hold one another accountable for our cooking choices.  And those of us who do, have had to work hard to cultivate them and have to truly dedicate ourselves to keeping them.  As our social worlds become more global, and Facebook makes us all friends, our actual communities become smaller and less important to us in a way that reverberates throughout everything we do.

Churches, temples, and other houses of worship?  Anemically attended, many of them, particularly in certain areas of the country and certain faiths.  School functions, PTA meetings, and children’s recitals?  Hurried, harried, and often just the same old dozen or so people.  Block parties, community gatherings, festival days?  Sure, they still exist in many areas, but they’ve changed dramatically from the days when everyone would turn out for a day of merriment; instead, we’re so tired that sometimes we find it easier to just channel-surf through reruns of “Family Ties” than to actually go and socialize…especially if socializing means any effort on our parts to bring a food item to share.  (Enter the last-minute guilt-assuaging run to the store for those beverages!) 

Who’s going to teach us to cook?  And I mean really teach us.  The places I’ve mentioned are just a few of the many community touchpoints that might have kept cooking in the forefront of vital skills, something encouraged and even possibly slightly OVER-encouraged by adult peer pressure.  Sure, you can offer classes for those who might be able to afford them (and care enough to pay the money and show up every week), but that’s not going to make a significant dent in our food culture, nor increase the skills of those who may need affordable, home-cooked meals the most.  Okay, so we’ll make cooking classes available for free through community centers and churches and…all those other places people are too busy, too tired, and too stressed out to attend.  Perfect.  Unless you’ve got that cooking buddy to drag you to Wednesday night culinary lessons at the YMCA after you finish your 12-hour workday, I’m guessing you’re not going to go very regularly.

I’ve said this many times in my life, and it bears repeating, especially in a circumstance as complex and vital as this one.  IF YOU WANT TO REALLY HELP PEOPLE — REALLY DO THE RIGHT THINGS, THE THINGS THAT THEY NEED — YOU MUST FIGURE OUT A WAY TO REACH THEM WITH THE APPROPRIATE TOOLS WHEREVER THEY ARE.  In a disjointed world, where we’re less unified in our physical communities than ever before, just offering people cooking classes isn’t going to stop the clock and turn things back to the time when getting a casserole and a salad on the table every night was considered the most basic of necessities.  We’ve got to create a system that supports people in every possible way without relying on them to reach too far outside of their comfort zones.  In short, we can’t expect them to put forth a huge amount of effort, but we have to get them to make a monumental behavior shift.

I believe it’s possible.  And I have some ideas.  But before we can even start thinking about getting people to cook again, we have to convince them that cooking is not a lost art.  We have to make it essential to human life again.  So I turn to proposals like Mark Bittman’s, and I continue to wonder: Will we ever, as a nation, as a world, be brave enough to move backward — away from “progress” in the form of convenience foods — to finally move forward?

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16 Responses to Taxing Junk Food: Where’s the Unity in the Community?

  1. Pingback: Fridge to Fork: Croque Monsieur | Red, Round, or Green

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  3. Anonymous says:

    The community is, unfortunately, blissfully ignorant. I was once – not that long ago!

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  5. Sally says:

    Amen, sister!

    To your point, meeting people where they are (too tired, discouraged and inexperienced to cook), I am always wondering what, exactly could be done to reach those people.If you had a national home cooking day or something like that, it would probably be teaching to the choir, and clearly not enough. It saddens me.

    When my (college age) son was younger, I actually felt apologetic about bringing a home made dish to a potluck (though believe me, there was never a scrap left.) In certain economic groups women have justified their cluelessness in the kitchen by feeling somehow superior that they don’t know how to cook, or don’t have time because they are ‘too busy’ read ‘too important’ to be a little Susie homemaker (blood boiling here).

    Potentially, the younger kids (those still in high school or college or just out of college) are a target audience. My son is working on a farm this summer and has suddenly become passionate about food sourcing and though he never took ANY interest in food as a child, I see there’s some hope in that age group. Maybe we need to convince educators in schools that home ec or something like it should be a part of a plan to improve health and nutrition for this appalling problem!

    • Sally, thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughtful comment. I have an extensive background in educational program design, non-profit work, and community service learning, so I can easily imagine the hundreds — yes, hundreds, if not thousands — of pieces of the puzzle that would have to be enacted to shift our culture perceptibly. I think there are probably no shortage of good ideas; it’s constructing a framework of those ideas in a manageable way that would make an impact. That’s the tough part.
      You make a really good point about the feminist implications of cooking, and I say that not to dishonor feminism in any way; but when you take any idea to its extreme, it’s possible to twist the original implications to have at least a few negative outcomes. I see it as my absolute duty as a woman to not only fulfill myself personally and professionally, but to provide the highest quality of life and care for my family that I can — not because I’m their servant, but because I chose to bring the children into this world and to share my life with a partner, and when you love somebody, you want to look after them and put them first, just as they look after me and consider my needs before their own. We all have to take care of one another. That means somebody has to feed everyone, and I would look at it as a failure on the part of our family if feeding everyone meant never really producing an actual meal comprised of real food.

      You’re right about the audience, by the way. New research has shown that people under the age of 35 in this country — particularly those with higher levels of education — are the ones who are most interested and invested in choosing organics and knowing where their food comes from. That’s not really a surprise, but it is good to have it confirmed.

  6. Ed T. says:

    In addition to all the above, don’t forget that in many cases the houses themselves will have to be re-engineered, to provide a properly-sized kitchen. In too many homes (outside of the higher-end McMansions and the true custom-built places) the kitchen is geared more toward the re-heating and final prep of food-cooked-elsewhere, or set up as a showpiece.

    One piece of good news, however: it appears that the slow cooker/crock pot is making a comeback, and this handy little device can make a big difference by allowing people to leave the pot on (and not having to worry about it boiling over) during the workday.

    ~EdT.

    • Ed T.! Great point. However, I will say that in my very, very modest 100-year-old home, our kitchen is not quite what most people think of as “adequate” these days — for one thing, it’s not tremendously big, nor does it have granite, stainless steel, or any bells and whistles of any kind (unless you count a 20+-year-old dishwasher as bells and whistles). 🙂 We get an awful lot of cooking done in that small space, and I’ve done an awful lot of cooking in even SMALLER spaces.
      But your point is well-taken, and a large part of the problem IS access to cooking facilities. Slow cookers are a very good answer to that problem — people who read this blog faithfully are aware by now that I advocate heavy use of the slow cooker whenever possible. I think in general, if we can give COOKING and food preparation in general the comeback they deserve, we can easily teach people how to overcome a lack of facilities — or find really creative solutions to the worst issues of inaccessibility. Thanks for reading, and I hope we’ll see you around here more!

  7. Melissa House says:

    One of the best ways to create change is to teach food education k-12, and it needs to be a core subject. This is a wonderful article! Health education has become a lost art as well. You make great points throughout your article:)

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Melissa! Yes, you’re absolutely right that core education in food and nutrition from the very youngest grades is essential to the long-term health and well-being of any society. That’s just ONE of the things that’s missing, though, and I know firsthand from lots of experiences in the education world that unfortunately, if lessons aren’t shored up by support from parents and the community at large, the things we teach our kids in school can really become diluted very quickly.

  8. Milehimama says:

    Very good post, lots of food for thought. I think this is what Jamie Oliver was trying to do with his Food Revolution- the original book’s premise was learn to cook one simple dish- from scratch- and then teach someone else.

    I just don’t know HOW to do this in America.

    • Thanks very much, Milehimama. Good to see you on here! I think I do have some ideas as to how we could do this, but it will take time and effort — lots of both. Unfortunately, Americans are not very patient about social change, so I’m concerned that time and effort may not be luxuries we have…but I’m going to keep working at it, and I hope everyone else does, too!

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  10. Viki says:

    Well obviously, we are to buy one of Mark’s cookbooks! That was said kind of tongue in cheek. Kind of. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s. Mom cooked. When she got a job after Grandma moved in with us, Grandma cooked. After Grandma passed on and Dad retired, DAD COOKED (and canned, and gardened and yes mom still helped a lot.) The point I’m making is that No ONE taught ME to cook. Yes I had the obligatory Home Ec. class. It was really kind of a Joke. I went away to college. Found I really hated the meal plan. Found out that if I could read, and I could, I could cook. Seriously. A few pots and pans, a few spices a few ingredients and a few cookbooks and I fed myself through college. Experimented with going all veggie all the time, which lasted 2 years. Met a guy and showed him that he could eat a whole lot better with just a little more time and forethought and he married me. Two kids and 29 years later we are still cooking.

    What I am trying to say is that people have to Want to eat better in order to eat better. People have to want to cook in order to take the time to learn. They don’t need fancy classes. Although a nice neighbor or friend or family member would be great, they really just need to be able to read and have the desire to put a meal on the table.
    So now we are back to literacy.

    • Thanks for commenting, Viki! I agree with your basic premise, and I think you make two very good points: 1) People can learn to do pretty much anything they set their minds to, so it should logically be the same way with cooking; and 2) People who can read adequately and have good basic comprehension can certainly manage at least the basics in the kitchen without much help. However, I think we have to look at this problem from a broader perspective. First of all, there are a good many people in the United States who have a less than functional reading level. A quick search of statistics (check this link: http://nces.ed.gov/naal/kf_demographics.asp) shows that in 2003, 11 million American adults were completely without English literacy whatsoever — meaning they were untestable. In addition to those people, 93 million more were below what would be considered an “intermediate” — not even “proficient” — literacy level. You’d need at least an “intermediate” level of literacy to read and follow the steps in most recipes successfully.
      I highly doubt that a large portion of the illiterate and functionally illiterate population of the US is sitting around cooking all day — many of those people are at the lowest levels of income, and it’s not a far stretch to imagine that a significant number of them live in food deserts. Just addressing the problem from a literacy standpoint, I think you’d have to do an awful lot to reach those people in a meaningful way as far as cooking goes, and I’m not sure teaching them all to read English proficiently (while a noble and extremely important goal for other reasons) is the first solution.

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