Food: The Next Culture War

A few weeks back, everyone’s favorite post-modern politician, Sarah Palin, decided to mock (incorrectly, as it turns out) the Pennsylvania State Department of Education’s decision to ban cookies in schools by bringing in her own to share with folks at a fundraiser at Plumstead Christian School in Plumstead Township in Bucks County.

As far as political stunts were concerned, it was clumsy, at best, and certainly not helped by the fact that the Pennsylvania State Department of Education has had no plans to ban cookies, pastries, or even candy bars. But clumsy has never concerned Mrs.Palin before, and will unlikely do so in the future until people stop paying her $75,000 speaking fees.

What is interesting to me is that this bit of news preceded two other data points worth noting.

  • Rush Limbaugh attacks on Michele Obama’s project of getting children to eat healthy (that he did so by misrepresenting a recent Kansas State professors “Twinkie Diet” is both unsurprising and secondary).
  • Slate posts an interactive timeline detailing the increase of diabetes in America, which shows the disease on the rise. throughout the country, granted, but more-so in areas of the country that would be considered deep “Red State” – Lower to lower-middle class, white Appalachia, and the deep South.

All of these things are related in some way, or at least demonstrate a pattern that food is as much a part of the American culture wars as gay soldiers openly serving in the military and stem-cell research.

Two of these data points are saying this – Don’t trust the government (and, by implication, liberals) to provide you proper guidance on food. The third, it seems to me, is an indirect consequence of the first two points.

My first question to those who agree with the first two points is this – Alright, don’t have faith in the government regulation of the food industry and nutrition. That’s a valid decision and there’s enough abuse and restriction in the system for me to see that point. But if you have no faith in the government surrounding food, then who do you put faith in?

The immediate answer is that the individual or the family, which again, is a valid answer. An individual or family that is engaged in food choices generally can pick and choose healthy meals.

The key phrase above is “An individual or family that is engaged in food choices.” Because once a person stops being engaged (however that manifests itself), then societal influences will take over. And the biggest influence upon us is marketing, in all of its guises, direct and indirect.

Think you can’t be fooled by marketing? Then let me ask you the following questions –

1) Is Frappuccino a coffee?
2) Is Gatorade healthy?
3) Why do doctors recommend 8 class of water a day?
4) Which item is more important in nutrition – Fiber, Carbohydrates, or Protein?
5) Which is more nutritious – organically grown spinach, or spinach that was grown via means used by Agri-business?
6) How healthy is a Vegan Diet?

I’ll give my version of the answers on Monday, only for a point of completion, but if you came up with a one sentence answer for any of them, it’s likely wrong (again, I’ll clarify on Monday).

My point here is that most quality information on food is highly nuanced, to the point where it requires much more than a 30 second commercial, or certainly a ten second decision in the grocery aisle, to be of any worth. Such nuances are where most people get taken for a ride, allowing their faith in other institutions to fill the void, and and they often take a person down an intellectual road that is simply wrong.

I suspect that the diabetes patterns shown in the map are affected by an aspect of this dynamic.

The other aspect is that when “foodies” (for lack of a much, much better phrase) talk of food, it is either of no relevance to the listener, or so highly smug and/or pretentious that it turns people off. An example of the former is when people talk of foods in areas of the world that have no direct relevance to a person. I am quite guilty of this, but am at least aware of it to the point where I try to temper it. When Saveur talks of a how awesome the food culture is in the Tuscany region of Italy, unless a person has a point of context for that article, the information is of little value.

The latter, however, is especially annoying to me, and likely doubly so for those who have an issue with “elites”. Let’s call this the burger question problem. It goes like this:

Person 1: I’d really like a hamburger
Person 2: Really? There’s a place I love. They sell something called a fleurburger, it’s made of a delicate Kobe beef topped with foie gras and black truffles and served served on a brioche truffle bun , garnished with a sauce containing even more truffles.
Person 1: That sounds nothing like a hamburger.
Person 2: I assure you, it is. It costs $75, but it’s soo worth it.
Person 1: You’re an idiot.

Whenever a person brings ethics into the equation, there’s even a higher risk that a variation of the above conversation will take place.

Person 1: I’d really like a hamburger
Person 2: Really? There’s a place I love. They only use beef that is grass fed, and the cattle live care free lives, where they are pampered until their last day.
Person 1: Why do I care about the cow? Is it dead? All I want is a burger.
Person 2: Why not have a burger and save the world?
Person 1: You’re an idiot.

The point is, for many people, food is nothing more than “I am hungry (or, it is lunch) therefore I must eat.” And once the hunger (or lunch) has passed, they don’t care anymore. The point is, they don’t wish to be that engaged in their food choices, and if being engaged in food means spending $75 on a hamburger, or caring about the care and comfort of the beef on their bun, then, by god, their going to run from being engaged in their food choices – in which food marketers will gladly fill in the void of their food knowledge.

I don’t have an answer to this conflict. I don’t even know if their is an answer. All I know that there are not many honest brokers in this discussion. Most everyone has an agenda in this discussion, and that the conflict of these agendas will lead to higher health costs, both physical and financial, in the long run.