Well Being

Why Do We Coddle Fast Food Consumption?

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Mark Bittman’s piece in the Sunday New York Times, “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?,” is generating a lot of comments and controversy. Bittman compares the cost, for a family of four, of a dinner at McDonald’s versus two home-cooked meals (chicken, potatoes and salad or pinto beans and rice with bacon and peppers, both washed down with milk). His tallies: $27.89 for the McDonald’s meal, $13.78 for the chicken and potatoes, and $9.26 for the rice and beans dinner. Ultimately, the issue is not one of price, Bittman concludes, but of myriad other factors, like convenience, taste preference and lack of ability or desire to cook at home.

This issue is one that’s near and dear to me, as I think the myth that eating healthy is a luxury most Americans can’t afford is one of the greatest contributors to this country’s weight and health problems. Just last week, I heard a family friend say he was a vegetarian when he “could afford it”—since when are vegetables and grains more expensive than meat and seafood? Bittman’s article does a good job of attempting to dismantle this myth, and he makes several very important (and often overlooked) points:

• That the opposite of fast food and junk food isn’t all-organic produce and free-range, grass-fed beef; conventional produce and meat, rice, grains, pasta, beans, frozen vegetables, canned vegetables, peanut butter and “a thousand other things cooked at home” are “a far superior alternative” to nutritionally-empty fast foods.

• That lack of desire or ability to cook is a major impediment to eating at home, and more needs to be done to change the culture around cooking, to move it from something defined as work, drudgery or something requiring fancy skills and equipment to something people see as “a joy, or at least a part of life.” More than encouraging consumption of organics, or any particular type of food, we should encourage cooking more in general.

• That we tend to use the low-price rationale for fast foods as a stand-in for a lot of things that aren’t as acceptable to say, like that we’d rather eat it than a home-cooked meal, that it’s easier, more convenient, pleasurable.

And yet … articles like Bittman’s always rub me the wrong way, and I’ve been trying to pinpoint why. His gratuitous mention of “Brooklyn hipsters and Berkley locavores” bugs me—I know it’s an attempt to distance himself and his arguments from these people, but I think it only serves to reinforce the connection. More bothersome to me is his equation of fast-food consumption mainly with low-income folks. In my experience, eating crap is one thing that crosses class, geographic and educational-attainment lines. Middle-class suburban families live on fast-food. PhD students eat fast food. Young professionals eat fast food. And, yes, even New York hipsters eat it, too. Fast food is not a low-income problem, it is an American problem.

And, ultimately, I don’t think folks like Bittman go far enough in condemning it. Oh, sure, they’re fast to lay the blame on fast food companies and marketers. But progressives like Bittman don’t want to be accused of being elitist, or get lumped in with the mockable Brookyn hipsters and Berkley locavores, so they’re careful to couch any arguments about personal choice in sociological ephemera and resist saying anything too radical. Conservatives, meanwhile, are too reactionary, and too in bed with the idea that criticizing fast food is somehow an affront to business and a slide into ‘nanny statism’ to apply the same sort of harsh tactics to what we do at the table as they do to what we do in the bedroom.

And yet, honestly, maybe what the fast food debate needs is some good, old-fashioned stigma and shaming, a la smoking over the past 50 years. We can talk all we want about so-called food deserts, ‘evil’ fast food marketing, the addictive properties of fatty food, etc., but none of these are really doing anything to stop individual consumption of fast food. We need to make eating fast food ‘bad’ in the same way we’ve ostracized tobacco users. People should feel bad about eating fast food regularly. People should know that in doing so, they are inviting myriad health problems on themselves. We coddle the fast food industry, and its devotees, because it’s so politically/socially volatile not to—and I think this is the root of the problem.

Eating fast food is a choice. Every time we eat at McDonald’s, we are choosing that over other options. And it is killing us. I don’t think fast food should be banned, I don’t think fast food advertising (even to kids) should be banned; people should have the choice to eat fast food. But it is a choice.

The only really viable excuse for continuing to eat a diet high in fast food is lack of awareness—which is a big issue. I don’t think anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, thinks a burger and fries is good for them, but many don’t know how truly bad it is. Let’s make that clear. Let’s make that so clear that everyone knows it. And then let’s stop making all these other excuses.

Photo: New York Times