-- This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website.
-- This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website.
If you’re tuned into the politics of food and the influence that large corporations can have on public policy, you’re probably familiar with the term Big Food by now. And Big Ag. And don’t forget Big Soda.
But you probably haven’t heard about another powerful arm of the food industry's lobbying: Big Pizza.
Meet the American Pizza Community.
A coalition founded in 2010 and led by some of the nation’s largest pizza retailers, the APC includes popular national chains including Domino’s, Papa John’s, Little Caesars and Pizza Hut, plus many of their suppliers.
The group, according to its spokesman Tim McIntyre, is aimed at “work[ing] together on topics that are unique to the pizza industry” and no, that doesn’t just mean trying to get you to eat more of that cheesy, greasy goodness we all know and love.
The way the APC puts it, they’re going to battle in the war on pizza.
“We want to stop the demonization of pizza,” McIntyre said in a statement sent to The Huffington Post. “Think of it this way: bread is good; tomato sauce is good; cheese is good. Put them together and they’re somehow bad.”
This has meant that, since its inception, APC has focused primarily on fighting the push to add nutritional information to restaurant menu boards. The APC has vocally opposed this, arguing in a 2013 Bloomberg article that the mandate would be “virtually impossible” for the pizza industry to meet due to the seemingly endless combination of toppings a customer might choose for their pie, as well as the fact that most chains’ customers don’t even set foot in a store to buy from them.
That’s not all the group is up to.
In a press release issued last month and reprinted by the Pizza Today trade publication (but not published on the organization’s own website), the APC lashed out against the Department of Labor’s final ruling on overtime eligibility. That ruling doubled the overtime salary threshold from the current $23,660 to $47,476, guaranteeing overtime pay for millions of additional workers.
The APC believes the change will be an expensive one that will negatively impact job and income growth, overburdening employers already facing small profit margins with significantly increased administrative costs.
The ruling, McIntyre told HuffPost, “cuts right at the heart of the restaurant industry.”
This was not APC’s first foray into wage issues. It had previously opposed the minimum wage hike in California and lists employment and labor policies among its top issues on its website, but the group has received little publicity for these efforts.
Of course, these policy positions should not come as a surprise given the stance of the restaurant industry as a whole on worker pay. Trade groups like the National Restaurant Association, home to industry heavyweights including McDonald’s and Darden Restaurants, have been consistent and vocal opponents of wage increases.
That opposition also shows in the data. Restaurant workers across the board struggle to get by as the majority of them receive low wages and few benefits. According to a 2014 report from the Economic Policy Institute, one in six restaurant workers live below the official poverty line.
Still, there’s good reason to believe pizza restaurants, while rarely the target of #FightFor15 worker protests, are among the broader industry’s biggest offenders on worker pay and conditions.
The major pizza chains’ records on these issues reveal a long string of controversies. Last month, the attorney general of New York filed a lawsuit accusing Domino’s of “rampant, systemic wage theft” at 10 stores where workers were allegedly underpaid at least $565,000 and that the company’s headquarters, not just its franchisees operating those stores, were involved.
For his part, McIntyre, who also serves as executive vice president of communications, investor relations and consumer affairs at Domino’s, told HuffPost that the company “believe[s] in paying people fairly -- and we believe in providing opportunity to those willing to come in and work hard every day to build a career with our brand.”
Of course, Domino’s isn’t the only pizza chain that has been involved in worker pay controversies.
Previously, four franchisees operating nine Papa John’s restaurants in New York similarly were forced to pay almost $500,000 in back wages and damages to its workers. Though Papa John’s headquarters was not named in that lawsuit, nor another one alleging delivery drivers were being short-changed, the company’s CEO John Schnatter has faced criticism over the low wages paid to his company’s workers or the remarks he made in opposition to healthcare reform.
Pizza Hut franchisees, too, have also faced wage theft allegations.
Despite all this, it almost appears as though Big Pizza gets a pass on its questionable politics.
According to a 2014 USDA report, about one in eight Americans has consumed pizza on any given day. And, contrary to the trend of health-conscious youngsters, that number rises to one in four when only males aged 6 to 19 are considered.
Pizza is retaining its throne as America's go-to comfort food, too. According to research released earlier this year by Harris Poll, pizza is more popular than the creamy triumvirate of chocolate, ice cream and macaroni and cheese.
In addition to eaters becoming more health-conscious, they are also -- thanks to the growing food movement -- drawing new connections between the food they eat and its politics. All of this should spell disaster for Big Pizza, so why -- the industry's own proclamations of the "war on pizza" aside -- isn't it?
Michele Simon, a public health attorney and the author of Eat Drink Politics, argues there could be a class element to be considered when one compares how activists often protest McDonald’s, for example, but rarely target popular pizza chains.
“Activists often choose issues, especially in public health, based on what they, the privileged class, can look down on,” Simon told HuffPost. “So it’s easier to look down on eating low-brow foods like cheeseburgers, fries and soda than pizza, a fun food everyone enjoys.”
Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project, a non-profit working to expand opportunities for low-wage workers, added that pizza is not only tasty and convenient, but also extremely cheap, which makes it appealing for a wide cross-section of eaters.
It’s not uncommon for major pizza chains to offer coupons lowering the price of a single pizza as low as $3 or $4, or even less. On honor of the opening of their 100th Chicago location in 2014, Domino’s offered $1 pizzas at all of its Chicago-area locations for a 100-minute window.
But such extremely low prices are not sustainable. When food prices go that low, Conti argued, someone -- almost certainly a worker -- is getting stiffed.
“We’re not responsible consumers when we buy four pizzas for $20 and tip $3 to the delivery person, if that,” Conti told HuffPost. “If we’re getting that much of a bargain, someone somewhere is paying the price. We have to realize this is no way to have an economy that works for everybody and is robust.”
Of course, not all pizza restaurants have spotty records on worker’s issues, so there is reason to be hopeful.
Saru Jayaraman is the director of the University of California Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center and co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, a group working toward improved wages and working conditions for restaurant workers.
Currently among ROC United’s 100 “high-road” restaurants the organization has partnered with -- employers that offer better wages, paid sick days and advancement opportunities -- are two pizza restaurants, Dimo’s Pizza in Chicago and The Just Crust in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Beyond that, pizza pickings are slim. No national pizza chains are among ROC United’s “high-road” employers, but Jayaraman is confident that could change. She said she is meeting with restaurant CEOs every week who are interested in treating their workers better, and is confident there is an opportunity for a pizza retailer to step in and fill the void.
“In 15 years of organizing, I’ve never seen a moment where the high road is more visible, viable and trendy,” Jayaraman told HuffPost. “I think there’s a consumer community out there that is certainly wanting to eat good pizza that treats its workers fairly.”
Meanwhile, the next time a piping hot pizza arrives at your door an hour after you ordered it, it might be worth considering what that pie actually cost.
“Our workers and our local economies pay the price for those cheap pizzas,” Conti added.
-- This feed and its contents are the property of The Huffington Post, and use is subject to our terms. It may be used for personal consumption, but may not be distributed on a website.
It appears someone has left half of our generation at the north avenue beach. pic.twitter.com/PaLQ5uEFKN
"As many as 130,000 low-income college students could lose the Monetary Assistance Program grants they need to afford a college education."
Did you catch that one, Luke? Man, I guess we'd better find some more beaches to trash if we're gonna be joined by 130,000 college dropouts. Maybe they can start braiding plastic from the beach garbage into bracelets and sell them to the rest of us when we're trashed.
That's cold, right? Well, tough, it's every man and woman for himself.
And there goes my alma mater, Eastern Illinois University. Oh, well, tough luck for all those students and teachers and professors and secretaries. So long to the bars and the falling-down frat houses and the T-shirt shops and fast-food joints in Chuck-town without any higher ed funding. Guess they all can just come up here and beg for change on the streets with the rest of the homeless people who aren't getting help any more.
All that joblessness and no hope of learning and getting ahead is gonna make a lot of people depressed. They're not all going to embrace our new screw-everybody-else approach to life, right? But that coalition says the wait time on suicide hotlines is gonna be at least six months.
"In-home care services for seniors will continue to be slashed, forcing them into nursing homes, and many more will join the over 3,000 seniors that have already lost home-delivered meals (Meals on Wheels) services.
All 29 agencies serving survivors of sexual assault will continue furloughs and staff reductions begun in July 2015 and services for over 3,700 sexual assault survivors will be in jeopardy."
Seriously? Think about it, Luke. Now, I'm getting really depressed. And angry ...
What about all those Down Syndrome kids and adults and the ones all over the autism spectrum? What's gonna happen to them without any state money?
And did you hear Maryville Academy is gonna stop taking care of kids with no parents or parents with problems? Yeah, state officials said they probably were going to have to cut their funding by $23 million. There goes a 132-year history. I guess those 60 kids can come hang at the beach with us for the summer. What about later? I don't know, I guess they figure it out for themselves.
Just like all those people who are mentally sick. All of them and the people who've been working to support them can just give up now, too.
Remember Tina Wardzala? The woman I wrote about a couple of times who was assaulted as a kid and raped as a young woman? She's bipolar, agoraphobic and has post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of no state funding, she had to give up seeing a psychiatrist she was comfortable with and used to seeing.
I couldn't help it, Luke. I checked on her recently. Her counselor of many, many years told me she quit showing up some time in the past few months. The counselor, Kathy Allen, reached out, but she hasn't heard from Tina.
It made me wonder how many people like Tina are in trouble in my own neighborhood and all those other neighborhoods in Illinois.
"We are finding ways to stay afloat for now," Allen wrote me, "but have seen our waiting list grow dramatically in recent months to the point of having to temporarily close services to new clients. We continue to advocate for a reasonable solution to the budget crisis that recognizes the needs of vulnerable children, adults and families in Illinois and the cost-effectiveness of providing 'upstream' services and supports for these at-risk populations."
It's all about me, right? Just like the Springfield politicians are showing? I'm supposed to just go the beach, get smashed and trashed and leave it all behind? Let someone else worry about it?
Right. Later, Luke.
What the tronc?
Tribune Publishing, the troubled owner of the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun, announced Thursday it was trading its storied corporate name for "tronc Inc." -- short for Tribune online content.
The internet immediately began masterfully, mercilessly, making fun of the rebranding:
This is our new logo. Again, tronc. pic.twitter.com/HzfKaJ6D0Q— Kurt Gessler (@kurtgessler) June 2, 2016
There's also the issue of the English meaning of "tronc" -- a box for collecting tips for staffers (typically at a restaurant or hotel) to split later -- which derives from the French word for "poor box."
Tribune Publishing, a media company with a nearly 170-year old legacy, has -- like most newspaper publishers -- been in tumult lately as advertising and circulation plunge.
Chicago tech mogul Michael Ferro invested in Tribune Publishing this year (he still holds shares in the rival Chicago Sun-Times.) Ferro swiftly installed a new CEO and became board chairman.
Since then, Ferro has fended off an $860 million offer from USA Today owner Gannett Publishing.
Ferro is said to be longtime friends with another major Tribune -- sorry, tronc -- investor, billionaire Los Angeles surgeon Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong. Soon-Shiong was announced Thursday as the company's vice-chairman. He said he plans to speed tronc's transition from newspapers to online publishing with machine vision and artificial intelligence.
“We will benefit from Dr. Soon-Shiong’s entrepreneurial spirit and strong technology expertise as we aggressively implement the changes necessary to transform the company and create superior value,” Ferro said in a statement.
The company's statement on the rebranding -- a gobbledygook of buzzwords like "monetization" and "premium, verified content" -- also noted it would shift from the New York Stock Exchange to Nasdaq, where it will begin trading June 20.
Topping off the company's tone-deaf nonsense, the team behind the rebranding apparently forgot to check tronc-related social media accounts before the announcement:
Bring me the idiot consultant who sold Tribune Media on announcing this awful name without looking locking down all related social accounts.— Tronc Chicago (@TroncChicago) June 2, 2016
WASHINGTON -- In the summer of 2008, Andrea and Andrew Hauser of Elkhart, Indiana, were confidently planning out their lives. They'd bought a home the year before, and in August, they found out they'd be having their first child.
Then it all started to unravel. By that fall, the recession sweeping across the country had struck Elkhart and almost flattened it. The city was a major hub for the RV industry, and as the U.S. economy fell in on itself, not many people were interested in buying luxury vehicles.
The Hausers, who worked in the industry, weren't spared. Andrea lost her job first. Three weeks later, while driving back from a trip to spend Thanksgiving with family in Georgia, Andrew got a call saying that his company was going out of business.
Plenty of others were in the same boat. Andrea's brother and father were soon jobless, and she estimates that eventually, 75 percent of their friends were without work too. They'd have parties where they'd eat, play cards and exchange bleak jokes about the economy. The Hausers got by on unemployment insurance. But half of it was going to the $800 a month Andrea had to pay for COBRA coverage, since her pregnancy meant that she couldn't afford to go without health insurance. They cut back elsewhere, shopping for cheaper groceries and never going out for dinner.
"It wasn't the end of the world," Andrea recalled. "But it was easy to feel like we were going to experience what our grandparents experienced during the Great Depression."
But gradually, things started to get better. In February 2009, President Barack Obama signed the stimulus bill. The benefits would take a while to trickle down to Elkhart, but one change came quickly to the Hausers: The government now covered two-thirds of Andrea's COBRA costs. "If that had not happened, we would not have been able to pay our mortgage," she said.
Soon after, Andrew got a job. So did Andrea's brother. The country's economy was improving, the RV industry was coming back and jobs were coming back with it.
On Wednesday, Obama will travel back Elkhart in a swing that certainly seems like a victory lap. He stopped by the town several times during the 2008 campaign, and Elkhart was the first city Obama visited as president, back when the local unemployment rate was hovering over 17 percent. Currently it is 3.8 percent, one of the lowest jobless rates in the nation.
But while Obama is expected to spend the day touting his economic successes and the resilience of Elkhart's residents, it won't be a mutual lovefest. Even many people there whose lives were tangibly improved by his administration aren't starry-eyed fans of the president.
Andrea, now 33, can't recall whether she voted for Obama in 2012. She's not planning to vote for his likely Democratic successor, Hillary Clinton, in 2016, saying she'd prefer a third-party candidate. Andrew, who said he believes Obama deserves more credit for the work he did in turning around the economy, nevertheless didn't vote for Obama or his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, four years ago. Like his wife, he isn't too pleased with his choices in 2016 either.
"It's hard. It's difficult. I would like to give him a little sense of encouragement," Andrew, also 33, said. "Personally, I can't say [that] everything about him, I'm all about. But I'm also not a type of person who thinks our president should get bashed every time for one reason or another."
The Hausers are not a microcosm of Elkhart. They applaud the work done by Obama and plan to attend his event on Wednesday. But as Jackie Calmes of The New York Times recently reported, much of the rest of the city, which is reliably Republican, is far more skeptical of the president.
Still, the Hausers' story underscores a larger problem that has vexed this president since his earliest days in office: how to reap tangible political benefits from his economic policies, or, failing that, how to succinctly explain the ins and outs of those policies at all.
According to data gathered by ProPublica, Elkhart received nearly $170 million in funds made available by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 -- about 2 percent of the $8.7 billion sent to the state of Indiana as a whole. But when asked for thoughts on how the stimulus had helped them, many recipients said they were unaware they'd even benefited from it.
"I did not receive a loan through the stimulus program, sir," said an official with Namacle LLC, a company that appears to manufacture gun parts. In fact, Namacle received two loans through the Small Business Administration, for a total of $350,000, via money made available by the Recovery Act, according to ProPublica's data.
The official confirmed the SBA loans but declined to say what he'd used the money for. "That's private information," he said.
Not all stimulus beneficiaries flat-out denied having gotten money through the program. But most seemed completely unaware that the loans they received or the grants they were awarded were made possible by that bill. A receptionist at Goshen Chiropractic Center PC, which got a $119,000 SBA loan, said she "certainly didn't recall" the company getting that money. A manager at McCarthy's on the Riverwalk, a restaurant that received a $213,000 SBA loan, said she hadn't been there long enough to know about the money McCarthy's received in 2009.
Leanne Brekke, who used to run Indiana Micro Metal Etching company, said she didn't know the SBA loans she received -- more than $500,000 in total -- were made possible through the Recovery Act. Brekke used that money to buy the company, she explained. But she sold it a few months ago out of concern that taxes and the possibility of a forced minimum wage hike would make her business unprofitable, if not completely untenable.
"I'm not a big President Obama fan," Brekke said. "I'm voting for Trump."
There are any number of reasons -- besides sheer confusion -- as to why Obama doesn't get more credit for his economic agenda in places like Elkhart. For one, the stimulus wasn't a universal success. PBS reported that even as jobs came back to town, "the average take-home pay in Elkhart-Goshen had dropped 22 percent -- down from nearly $74,000 in 1999 to almost $58,000 in 2014."
Three relatively high-profile electric car ventures fizzled in the town despite high expectations. And while unemployment has gone down, it's debatable how much of that is a result of the president's legislation. The Recovery Act didn't prop up the RV industry, after all. But it did spark an economic turnaround strong enough to breathe new life into the luxury vehicle market.
"The connection between what the government intervention did and the rebirth of the RV industry, the explosion of the RV industry, is not a direct connection," said Kyle Hannon, president and CEO of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce. "There probably is a line, but it is not a straight one."
"The types of stimulus projects you have here would be redoing a runway, which is a big project," Hannon went on. "But we don't have a commercial airport. Most citizens won't touch that airport. But I can't say it was a bad idea. We had five chamber members who got business from that project."
The White House doesn't dispute the idea that the president has fallen short in the selling of his agenda. Though Obama's approval on the economy has been consistently high in recent months, there is a reason he is traveling to Elkhart. He wants to convert the still unconverted.
"Elkhart is not Obama country but he believes engaging in a constructive way with people who disagree with you is not only a vital part of democracy, but one that there is far too little focus on today," Obama's communications director, Jennifer Psaki, told The Huffington Post. The president, she added, wants to discuss "not only how far we have come, but where we go from here."
Obama certainly has fewer fans in Indiana than when he first started showing up there. In the 2008 election, he squeaked past Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the Hoosier State 49.8 percent to 48.8 percent. Four years later, he lost the state to Romney 54 percent to 44 percent. Few expect Clinton to best Donald Trump in Indiana come November.
"There are a bunch of Republicans here. Let's be honest, it's Indiana. It's a very Republican area and conservative in many ways, so it's going to be hard to sway their opinion," said Andrea Hauser. "There are certain social issues that I think people can't get past."
And so while Obama would love nothing more than to turn a tale of a saved city into a springboard for Democratic votes, he'll likely make limited progress this week. People don't always vote with their pocketbooks, as Hauser pointed out. Sometimes, in fact, they don't vote at all.
Take Elijah Wiggins, who completed advanced technical study coursework using ConnectED-donated software at Elkhart Area Career Center while he was in high school. ConnectED is an Obama-led initiative to outfit schools with next-generation broadband technology. It allowed Wiggins to learn how to draft 3D models. The coursework led to an internship and then to a part-time job, which he still holds today in addition to studying at a local community college.
"Honestly," he said of Obama, "I don't think he gets a whole lot of credit for everything that he does. I know a lot of kids who didn't realize that our software was donated or that he was even working to help us out with it."
This will be the first presidential election in which Wiggins, who turned 18 this year, is allowed to vote. But he won't be casting a ballot.
"I didn't end up registering," he explained.
A photo posted by Tanya Wright (@tanyattwright) on Apr 26, 2015 at 7:43pm PDT
A photo posted by Tanya Wright (@tanyattwright) on Apr 11, 2016 at 2:25pm PDT
A photo posted by Tanya Wright (@tanyattwright) on Jun 11, 2015 at 6:50am PDT
Shootings and homicides continue to make headlines daily in Chicago. The police do their best to implement one strategy after another to help reduce gun violence, however, the strategies are coming up short as it relates to achieving real results. New Superintendent Eddie Johnson stated that the Chicago Police Department has a list of thirteen hundred individuals that are responsible for the majority of violence in Chicago. If this list exists, then there should be some collaboration with other agencies to reach out to the people on the list and attempt to help the perpetrators secure gainful employment. There is a proven model in Richmond, California that appears to be effective by paying would-be shooters not to shoot. Some people may not agree with this approach, however, you must try something different in order to get results.
Unemployment is very high for African American youth in Chicago. The majority of young men that find themselves out of work will take to the streets as a means of self-employment. If we as leaders are serious about reducing violence in Chicago, then we must become very aggressive in regards to securing employment for the high-risk youth in the community.
The Boston Miracle yielded results in the early 1990s by engaging high-risk youth in meaningful solutions to urban violence, which led to a dramatic decrease in youth homicides. Law enforcement officials realize that we cannot arrest our way out of this epidemic of violence that plagues many cities across the United States.
In order to stop a killing, one must have a relationship with a would-be shooter in which that person will listen to reason before taking a life. This would take some serious people skills because most delinquents just commit the act and ask questions later. However, there are people in the profession of violence prevention like the Violence Interrupters that can make a breakthrough to some of the perpetrators by developing strong relationships in advance in order to detect potential acts of violence before someone pulls the trigger.
The time has come to embrace new strategies in the field of criminal justice in order to make communities safer. It would be much better to embrace a would-be shooter help them reach a higher plateau in life by stressing the need to take care of their families and providing employment as a way out of a criminal lifestyle for those who want to get out. This would be one of the only ways to at minimum reduce homicides in Chicago by thirty to forty percent.
What would you say are the defining characteristics of the American eater?
If you look at our obesity rates, they'd suggest we’re mostly overeaters. But beyond that, the question is tougher.
It’s not so much that we lack a U.S. food personality — if anything, we have multiple, conflicting ones. At the same time, more consumers are demanding that their food be “natural,” organic and GMO-free, even as Taco Bell sells record numbers of Doritos Locos tacos. We seem more interested in celebrity chefs, cooking shows and recipe videos than ever before, and yet we’re also spending a record amount of money eating out and ordering in.
To address our nation’s diet-related concerns, it would seem necessary first to better understand what we eat, how we eat it and, of course, why.
In her new book, Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies — How What We Eat Defines Who We Are, Culinary Institute of America program director and food writer Sophie Egan digs into these questions.
It turns out previous attempts to dissect our dietary schizophrenia have ignored some important pieces. Principal among those, Egan argues, are the ways in which Americans working longer hours than the rest of the industrialized world has impacted both their motivation — and ability — to make healthier food choices daily.
So how do we go about resetting our workplaces, cafeterias and the norms they help instill to a healthier default? The Huffington Post recently spoke with Egan about the challenges ahead and the reasons for hope.
What prompted you to explore this question of how we wound up with the food culture we have today?
I’ve been working in food professionally for a number of years and was thinking about how powerful a mirror food is for who we are at a much deeper level. I was tired of hearing that in the U.S. we’re so diverse and are such a huge country that we don’t have anything we could identify as a national food culture. I felt like, well, what can be said? I dug into that question of who we are as eaters, these core values we have as Americans -- these are things we don’t even see sometimes because they’re so deeply ingrained in how we think.
And that led you to this discussion of how the way we work impacts the way we eat. It almost seems so obvious now that I’m asking you about it, but we don’t really talk about that relationship. Why is that?
It really comes down to a reframing of how we look at the root causes of our eating choices. We typically center those conversations around individual willpower or these character accusations, if you will: That Americans don’t cook because they’re lazy or we just follow whatever we saw on TV. But I would say work is a root cause. In addition to a lack of financial resources [being a factor for many people], another important root cause of some eating behaviors that maybe aren’t as healthy as people would like is lack of time. If we’re working more than we used to, something is falling by the wayside.
What was stunning to me was seeing how technology has really blurred the lines between work and home for many people. This mindset of, well, if you can work, why wouldn’t you? Whether it’s on vacation, in the evenings or on weekends, all of it. So with the increase in the numbers of hours we’re spending working, we’re not focusing on food. We look at food as fuel. You squeeze in a sandwich if you have three minutes in between meetings, or grab a Kind bar when you’re racing to catch the subway in the morning. Eating is a secondary need as opposed to something people used to design their days around.
And this starts in childhood. Kids in K-12 schools usually don’t have enough time to eat, so they’re scarfing down pizza or hot dogs or whatever is being served in their cafeteria in 10 minutes. By the time you’re in college, it’s a grab-and-go, grazing mentality. So you’re trained from an early age to see food as secondary. This is a huge cultural norm that’s very difficult to reverse.
I’ve noticed that the “food as fuel” mindset is behind a lot of the marketing of Soylent and similar products. I tried one last year and thought it tasted just as joyless as you would think. Why is this sort of message at the heart of a lot of so-called “foods of the future” today?
Culturally speaking, Soylent is a huge step backward. There’s this sense that we can take food and improve on it, to take what nature gave us and say there’s got to be a better way. A life-hacking approach. A Silicon Valley approach. But [AOL co-founder] Steve Case has this great quote that food is not something disrupting the disrupting you have to do.
Soylent is an extreme, but I would say it represents a larger idea of reducing food to its nutrients. Food is so much more than that. It does nourish us and we need certain things to survive, but I hope that people are starting to realize that flavor and taste and joy are some of the greatest pleasures of life. I think in the U.S., we have a very related discomfort with leisure and with pleasure. It’s sort of unspoken that if you sit around and do nothing, you’re lazy and you’re lesser. I think similarly there’s this sense of taboo around pure enjoyment of taste and of eating food with other people.
There’s also an element of purity to utilitarian foods like that. In the book, you make a strong case for food — whether it be a particular diet or the practice of going to brunch — as a sort of "secular church." Is that a hypothesis you held going into this, or did it develop along the way?
I started with this question about the contradiction of why we’re willing to spend basically the whole day seeking out brunch when our typical mindset is to go to extreme lengths to minimize the time we spend obtaining, eating and cleaning up after food. So it was more of this question of what is so different about that. Very quickly, my research led me to this discovery about how different our weekday eating habits are from our weekend eating habits. We spend the least amount of time of any major developed country preparing and eating food. We’re hardwired in terms of that idea of efficiency.
But looking back, it’s very clear weekends are about indulgence and treating yourself after a long, hard week. These are also some of the only times we aren’t as scheduled, though many families have soccer games and a million other activities too.
Your book also discusses how Americans are so used to getting our food exactly the way we want it, and points out how companies are always pushing new flavors and innovations or “stunt foods” like Doritos Locos. How do you balance these trends with ideas that could push us in a healthier direction? The answer can’t be to go back to the “good ol' days,” right?
This is a really tough question. It’s not just that we all should return to the old ways, because there’s clearly some innovation or new ways forward that should be welcomed. But what kinds of pieces from our past do we really want to resurrect?
Everyone talks today about how people are paying more attention to food than ever before, but from a policy standpoint, a number of things are still missing. One is the amount of time in schools for lunch. I think, at a broad level, going forward what I’m hoping for is for us to collectively find ways to focus on food more. And what I mean by that is, if more employers could make the American lunch break the norm in office settings. I’ve heard of a handful of companies where they ring a cowbell and everyone knows to take a break. You can’t expect individual change in the midst of the same larger environment, not only the physical marketing environment, but the cultural environment. I’m calling for cultural change, and it has to come from the top down.
I think the piece most worth resurrecting from the past would be teaching people to cook. You don’t have to call it home economics. But it should be painted as essential life skills. What if, in order to graduate from college you had to demonstrate that you knew how to cook an omelette so that you could feed yourself? If it was considered the same way as learning a language or riding a bike?
We’ve outsourced the preparation of food to the professionals. Are we going to stop eating food that comes in packages? Of course not. But we would be wise to see for what it is the availability of real, whole foods and the power that comes with feeding yourself and preparing food yourself instead of being sort of over-reliant on new solutions.
Are you optimistic that we're moving in the right direction, toward getting back into the kitchen and eating more “real” food? Or are we too set in our ways at this point?
I am optimistic. I think our appreciation for novelty and innovation is a double-edged sword. We’re eating more foods from around the world than five years ago, which is a silver lining to how much more we’re eating out. But it’s really brought a world of flavors to the masses. It has tremendous potential for healthier eating habits, because some of those other cuisines taste amazing and happen to be good for you without being positioned as good for you. That’s the best way to go.
I’m also optimistic about how much consumer awareness can change Big Food, and we’re seeing that in food companies removing artificial flavors and colorings, or antibiotics. Consumers’ collective demands are really starting to make change happen faster. I think in some ways we’re more empowered than ever before.
It is only with this greater awareness that we can we collectively take more control over our food choices. And with that, we can celebrate the aspects of our food culture that we sometimes overlook, and change those aspects of our food culture that are hurting us so that we can end up with healthier, happier relationships with the food we eat.
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email email@example.com.