I eat almost all of my meals at home. When I have a meal away from home, it’s likely that I’ve made it in my kitchen and taken it with me. The meals I make for myself, I prepare from scratch. It’s a great pleasure to do this. I like eating. I like cooking. I seem to be abnormal in this regard.
We long ago became a political economy in which food is a commodity: a thing produced for purchase by others rather than for consumption by the producer. We now seem to have become a political economy in which not only food but eating is a commodity: the USDA tells us that Americans eat more than half their meals away from home at fast-food and full-service restaurants as well as at cafeterias, vending machines, and similar commercial services.
What this means is that yet another aspect of our lives has been taken away from us and made part of a production process. When this happened over the course of industrialization, where skills possessed by the worker became incorporated into the machinery, social scientists referred to it as the deskilling of labor. What it meant was that businesses could pay for unskilled instead of skilled labor, thereby lowering costs and, most importantly, establishing even firmer control of production and the nature of the products that were produced.
In the 20th Century, deskilling reached into the realm of the home. A wide array of commodities tied the reproduction of the home to the industrial process away from home. In the realm of food, these included the rise of the supermarket and the foods sold there, packaged and processed foods, pre-packaged meals, and the technologies required to eat them. With this came the loss of kitchen skills, as described in the book Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get it Back by Ann Vileisis.
Last week, the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior published research on the factors that determine how often children eat at meal manufacturers, fast-food and full-service restaurants in particular. The most important factor the researchers found was that both parents had a regular, 9-to-5 job. The researchers go on to say that “dietary quality of children is influenced by the manner in which parents interact with their children (parenting style), time available for family meals, and the role restaurants play in their lives.”
Why is this a problem for the health of children?
The researchers say the food at meal manufacturers is “often higher in calories, saturated fat, and sodium.” In other words, the conventional view of what counts as unhealthy food. And so the outcome of this research suggests certain solutions. In this case, changes such as raising the awareness of parents about the importance of family meal rituals.
I think you’re likely to agree that this kind of consciousness raising is a weak response to the tidal forces that create the social environment and culture that makes eating meals away from home rational. Parents have meal rituals because of the necessities and context of their lives and their children’s lives.
One kind of solution the researchers bypassed in this version of blaming the victim is to look to the quality of the meals that are manufactured. Better regulation would mean better health outcomes for children. That path, however, is almost unimaginable—not the least of which is what might count as “healthy food.” That path also founders on the shoals of the industrial forces and their associated political economy that have commodified food and eating in the first place.
So the problem and its solution do not start with the values and actions of parents but with the commodification of food and eating. It is from this that food and eating illiteracy springs as a necessity. But the illiteracy itself is not the problem. The problem is that with eating illiteracy, we are cut off from the living processes that sustain us. Quite literally, we have no material connection to what we eat—not only in its origins, but in how we transform the raw materials into the finished product that we put in our mouth.
As I’m sure you’re aware, there are many people and organizations pushing back against this tide. For example, Santa Fe, New Mexico has a school program called Cooking with Kids. Students learn how to prepare their own meals from scratch. It’s a great success. The problem is that to do it right, the course has to take up to two hours. That doesn’t fit in with most school districts’ regimen—for example, “teaching units” in 40 minute time blocks.
And so while Cooking with Kids is ridiculously rational in providing children with food and eating literacy, it doesn’t make sense in the larger institutional framework of schools. In the same way, family eating rituals that reduce dependence on meals away from home don’t make sense in the context parents who both need to have a job.
The problem is not parental values. It is not even the commodification of food and eating. The problem is the mode of production that necessitates them. Relief might be found by nibbling at the edges. But that’s not a solution.