Friday, February 25, 2011

Sensitivities in discussing food ethics

Good food
There's some criticism floating around in response to food writer Mark Bittman's recent article about McDonald's surprisingly unhealthy oatmeal, and his frustration with Americans' collective obsession with "convenience foods."  The criticisms I've read were written by fans of his, but it's the comments in Amanda Marcotte's post that I'm interested in discussing.  As is wont to happen in the progressive blogosphere, commenters are critical of the seemingly condescending tone used by "elite" food writers like Bittman, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Amanda herself.  Some of the complaints that crop up in response to articles like these are valid, like the ones in response to commentary like, "I can't believe parents would feed their kids boxed macaroni.  Don't they know that has yellow number 9?!" without giving consideration to what their circumstances may be that led those parents to the decision to make boxed macaroni for lunch or a microwavable chicken pot pie for dinner.  Or the well-intentioned "you know, you can really eat healthfully for really cheap.  The farmer's market, which is open on Thursdays and Sundays is cheaper than the grocery store and even supports local farmers!!, but you have to get there before 2, and bring cash.  And there are plenty of cheap items that you can make that are nutritious and filling, it only takes an hour or so each night so prepare."

I'm of the opinion that Americans in general should like to spend that much time preparing meals to share with family and friends, and that it should be an activity that everyone involved participates in, but that's an ideal, not a reality.  We can try to shift our collective understanding of the role of foods in our lives.  And we can do that while also making sure to remember that, for many working families -- the very ones we root for when we think of the Wisconsin and Indiana protests, and the ones we are on the side of when we consider the importance of a social safety net and programs like WIC -- that extra hour, or those hours and requirements for using more eco-friendly, locally-supportive, less-expensive options, are worth a lot more than others might initially assume.

Some of Amanda's commenters have a problem with Bittman's biting condescension; specifically, where Bittman lays out the following:
Since we know there are barely any rules governing promotion of foods, one might wonder how this compares to real oatmeal, besides being 10 times as expensive. Some will say that it tastes better, but that’s because they’re addicted to sickly sweet foods, which is what this bowlful of wholesome is.
 I just think it something that needs to be acknowledged when righting such an article rather than the sort of “OH MY FUCKING GOD YOUR ARE SO DUMB YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW HOT TO LIVE YOUR OWN LIFE BECAUSE THIS IS EASIER THAN WHAT YOUR ARE DOING NOW YOU DUMBASS” sort of tone of the article. I just started reading the times because it is one of a few websites I can read at work. I had never read anything by this guy before this article and I thought he made a lot of good points but it just dripped with such condescension.
I agree, to an extent; the article does have a snarkier tone to it that I'm not used to reading (or hearing) by Bittman, although I haven't been familiar with him for very long.  But to me, it reads less as condescension and more as a general frustration with the system that creates this ignorance and fabricated need for extremely sweet, extremely "convenient" foods.  Bittman has proven his understanding of the underlying causes of poor nutrition in America (see the TED Talk below), and the obstacles that marginalized (and even not-so-marginalized people, lately) face in eating healthy, nutritionally-balanced foods in sufficient quantities.  He clearly speaks from a place of privilege, because while he may not have a luxurious kitchen to prepare all of his nutritious and well-documented minimalist meals, he does have the means, and the time, to adhere to his own food philosophy.  But even given that, he's not proven himself to be too out of touch to speak for the collective American population when it comes to food, its importance, and our relationship to it.

Amanda is similarly well-versed in the underlying causes of the Western food problem.  While I imagine that if she weren't such a high-profile writer, she'd let herself be a whole lot snarkier than she is when it comes to issues surrounding food, she does tend to remember that her audience doesn't consist entirely of New York-based foodies who have the luxury of being able to join a CSA and have the time to blog about it every week, among other things.  Which is why it's irritating to see more knee-jerk reactions from commenters who assume she's talking down to people who don't, or can't, eat like her.  Because while Amanda doesn't say anything in her response to Bittman's post alluding to a disdain or lack of compassion for people who are unable to follow hers and Bittman's similar food philosophies, some people are responding to her as though she did.  As kristin says
It’s kind of funny to me that Amanda can be so on point about valuing the labor women are expected to do, and then turn around and forget entirely about how that extra labor might make the work of getting breakfast into everyone a bit harder. Maybe because she doesn’t have the additional labor of caring for kids. That REALLY makes a difference in how easy it is to get meals on the table from scratch.

Bad food
I don't mean to single out kristin; the content of her comments, though, are incredibly common in this context, and oftentimes, the person making the comment is jumping to unfair conclusions.  While Amanda let some snark through when she echoed Bittman's assertion that our collective addiction to extraordinarily and artificially sweet foods has dulled our ability to taste the satisfying sweetness in real foods, kristin couldn't see past the frustration Amanda and Bittman were expressing with the consequences of the corporate-sponsored food system in America to the real point, which is what people like her have eased themselves away from.  While it's important to remember that many people are unable to change their diets to the ideal put forth by Bittman, Marcotte, and other food-focused writers and activists, it is also important to recognize that the people talking about it right now have made actually made the difficult transition from traditional, consumer-based Western eating toward more wholesome, healthy, deliberate eating, and understand each side pretty well.  A frustration doesn't necessarily indicate an unfair bias or a dismissively "privileged" perspective.  What Bittman was asserting is both scientifically supported, and intuitively true: that we've collectively desensitized our tastebuds to nutritionally-acceptable levels of sweetness and fat- and carb-satisfaction with heavily-processed, over-produced junk.  Of course an orange won't taste as satisfying as a Little Debbie's brownie, when you're not used to using an orange to satisfy your sweet tooth.  And that's not personal; anyone in Western society is susceptible, obviously, and the people who speak out against our current food system usually haven't been eating so healthfully their entire lives. It's not made up, and it's not being used as a vehicle to shame people who can't afford healthy foods, or don't have sufficient time to prepare them.

I think, ultimately, we need to remember that there is a clear difference between complaining about the people who remain deliberately ignorant of the food system in the Unites States, and hollering at the mother of three small kids behind you in the grocery store line about how she should feed her kids oatmeal instead of the sugary cereal in her cart.  The former is lamenting about the negative impacts of a recent trend, while the latter is personally attacking an individual over a choice over which they may have little control.  It shouldn't be too hard to tell the difference.