A third way to think about fast food

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, September 27, 2011 20:14 EDT
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Erik at LGM captures some of my growing discomfort with Mark Bittman's political approach to the question of improving national nutrition.  Bittman has taken to scolding people for being lazy more than looking at the underlying reasons people don't cook more.  I somewhat agreed with a rant he had a few months back about oatmeal, but in retrospect some of my concern is that liberals are too quick to seize on excuses that sound good—saying, for instance, that oatmeal at McDonald's is cheaper and easier than store oatmeal when it's objectively not—because they have the correct instinct not to assume the worst about people's motives when making food choices. It's a combination of over-reliance on a simplified version of rational actor theory and a rightful rejection of conservative assumptions that people's sufferering is a direct reflection of their lack of merit. But the problem is Bittman is erring too far in the other direction, and assuming that the reason people don't cook more is that they're just lazy and that a good scolding is what's going to get them on the other side of it. 

For instance, this critique of the common liberal arguments about why people eat more fast food than they should is a sound one:

This is just plain wrong. In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. (Judicious ordering of “Happy Meals” can reduce that to about $23 — and you get a few apple slices in addition to the fries!)

In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)

He points out that the "calorie needs" argument falls flat, because the problem now is an excess of calories in relation to other nutrition that we need, not a lack of them. Again, true, and I have to wonder if the people making the "calorie needs" argument are being flown in from the early-to-mid-20th century, when there really was a problem where people living in poverty were likelier to be underweight, whereas now they're liklier to be overweight than people who have more money. It's important to be cognizant of the flaws in these arguments, not only because it makes liberals sound stupid when they're trying to explain why people with low incomes aren't eating better, but also because, you know, having an argument is about more than winning.  The idea is that we legitimately want to improve this country and people's health outcomes.  If you're just trying to score points in an online debate, I guess stick with these bad arguments.  But by striving for better arguments and a better understanding of the issue, we get closer to reaching a solution.

The problem is that Bittman's response is to be a bit Pollyanna-ish and assume the entire reason people prefer to eat out instead of stay in and cook is that they don't appreciate the joys of cooking. Bittman still has one foot in the "policy" corner, so he's not a lost cause, but this emphasis on culture is worrisome, because if you start to become consumed by the idea that only cultural shifts will fix the problem, you start to overlook important policy and activism approaches that can do tremendous good. I think Erik makes some good points about why choosing to eat out instead of cook after a hard day's work is so appealing:

Bittman dismisses the idea that we don’t have time to cook because we spend an average of 90 minutes today watching TV. But if you are working 2 jobs or are depressed or are stressed out by your troubles, watching some TV after a long, hard day is simply more enjoyable than cooking. Even after I get home from the office, and my job is far less difficult than blue-collar or service labor, I usually don’t want to spend 90 minutes cooking. I want a quick meal, a beer, and a baseball game.

But he falls into the liberal trap of trying to juice up argument by not admitting to any real weakness in the human spirit that causes you to order pizza instead of make a sandwich. It's not just that after a hard day's work, you want a quick meal! It's that you want a greasy meal that is designed to hit all your pleasure centers.  It's that you work really hard and experience very little pleasure, and so the cheap thrill of fattening food is comforting.  It's no surprise to me that people who need more eat more comfort food.  They don't call it "comfort food" for nothing. I'll add that people often overeat in part because they go hungry; if there's big gaps in your income where you don't have enough money for food for days at a time, when you do get that money, you're going to do the human thing and buy yourself something high calorie and overeat the hell out of it. That's one reason that nutrition advice aimed at the more comfortable suggests small snacks throughout the day—if you eat when you have low blood sugar, you are pretty much guaranteed to overeat. 

Few people want to talk about this because there's no obvious fix for the problem. Bittman chooses to pretend that the solution is a cultural shift where we agree that cooking and eating home-cooked meals is more satisfying than gorging on restaurant food—and it is, for those of us who have lives that have enough pleasures and stress relief that the temptation to gorge on comfort food is muted. But his solution to enjoy cooking more is probably going to elide a lot of people, for the reasons Erik cites plus the fact that fast food rushes your pleasure centers in your brain more rapidly than pretty much anything but probably mind-altering substances.  (Sex is, I have to point out, more work and is more time-consuming. TV is less sensual.) But more liberal sorts like Erik breeze past the problem of "fast food is being applied to stress because it's designed to set off all sorts of pleasure centers", I think in part because it seems like it undermines the "rational actor" model that would allow us to create policy solutions to the problem.

But I really don't think it does. I think a huge part of America's problems is that we, as a culture, are suspicious of pleasure. We talk around it, at best. We refuse to admit some of our baser pleasures, which I think is one reason we also tend to over-indulge them at the expense of our health. If we do admit that they're a factor, we pull a Bittman, and assume that other people who indulge are just simply weaker or haven't been properly educated. But if we accept that fast food is eaten a lot because a lot of people feel it's a treat, and they have legitimate needs to treat themselves and few other options, I think we can start to have a real conversation about this. I want to offer a third way of looking at this: maybe it's that people who have access to more and more diverse treats (and the time to enjoy them) eat less fast food?  Obviously, money plays a big role in this, but it's also worth pointing out that people from similar backgrounds and income brackets are less likely to be fat if they live in more interesting places with more shit to do. Bittman and Erik are both halfway there to saying that eating is a form of entertainment. For people who may not have a lot of entertainment options, fast food may loom larger in their lives as a source of pleasure. If we want to counter the health effects of that, we need to start thinking in terms of genuinely prioritizing entertainment in our culture, and trying to find ways to alleviate stress and boredom for everyone, not just those who have the money (or the lifestyle—we not-rich but childless folks have similar privileges to people with more money than us because we have more time) to pay for more intersting shit to do than just eat cheap but fun food. 

Of course, we also need to make it our first priority to restructure agriculture subsidies so that crappy fast food isn't a cheap form of entertainment.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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