“They Just Want to Eat Crap”

“Why do those people hang out at fast food restaurants? Don’t they know that food is bad for them?” “Fortunately in my family, we learned not to eat all that garbage!” “I wish I could teach them how to eat right. You see, that’s why there’s so much diabetes and heart problems among those people.” “They don’t have any discipline or self control and that’s the real problem. Better parenting and life choices would have saved them from being so fat.” “Back in my day, we ate at the dinner table, not out of a bag in the backseat of a car!” These statements and many like them do one thing: stigmatize marginalized communities while absolving those who target distressed communities of any wrongdoing.

One of the main problems with the location of fast food restaurants is that residents themselves are not asked what they want. Instead, corporate chains aggressively locate in communities that have historically been allowed very little political power. Irregular job schedules and long commutes prevent most of these residents from attending decision-making meetings, where most of the local politicians have already decided for the residents. In addition to the restaurants, there are more varieties of junk food sold at cornerstores and gas stations in an effort to gain more customers. Neighborhood clean-up is determined by volunteer availability and local government, and most of the irregular job hours mean that some neighbors never see each other, let alone have time to cook. Therefore, people with little political power are invaded by multiple outside sources, including their local governments, to determine how a neighborhood will look, leaving residents to either purchase “bad” food or spend more travel time getting to “good” food.

Education at all levels is responsible for the fact that there are multiple adults who are unable to cook. Those who blame poor parenting skills forget two aspects of current life: 1) parents are commuting much more than they were because of employers’ bias against telecommuting; and 2) learning how to cook requires not just skill, but equipment to cultivate those skills. Home economics — which taught a variety of skills, including cooking — was taken out of the high school curriculum in favor of more and “better” standardized tests, so mostly the upper socioeconomic echelons have time to recapture those skills. Referring people to online videos makes two assumptions: 1) everyone has internet, which large telecommunications corporations have made sure to prevent; and 2) people have all the equipment mentioned in the videos. Additionally, because there is an ethos of eating out, one is usually condemned to consistent social isolation by eating at home unless one has the space and the social time to create cooking clubs.

Potlucks are generally both suggested and maintained by older generations who were able to take advantage of classes where everyone was taught how to cook and the workweek was limited. In that generation, most people were assumed to have a dish specialty, which might have been cultivated with processed food. Regardless of ethnicity, people were expected to know how to make what were viewed as “common” dishes: “pigs in a blanket,” queso with Velveeta (which is not a cheese, but a cheese product), green bean casserole, meatloaf, etc. As people’s time has been shortened by extended work expectations and longer commutes, more people are picking up prepared foods from various locations. However, almost any prepped food is going to be more expensive than the ingredients to make the food, which is why so many more younger people tend to choose to eat out for about the same price.

“But what about the individuals themselves! Don’t they have personal responsibility to make sure they make good choices?” To anyone confused about why people are so drawn to “bad” food, consider how much control one actually has if not cooking. The ingredients of packaged food are on the package, but if someone is unaware that Red-40 is a known carcinogen that corporations are allowed to use, that means nothing. Looking up every ingredient is tedious for every item of food one consumes. Furthermore, every time someone picks up a candy bar, that person is consuming mountains of research, engineering, and advertising, not to mention the public-private collaborations of local planning. “Bad” food is designed to be addictive; corporations make sure of it or someone loses a job. They have armies of scientists and spend millions on subsidies for every bite a person takes. People who barely have enough money to pay for housing and utilities, and who work several jobs to cover medical crises, do not have the bandwidth to consider all of that when they just need some calories.

Reading suggestions:

Moss, Michael. Sugar, Salt Fat.

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