What heroin addicts can teach us about eating well: a belated take @nprnews and @aspiegelnpr

I spent the day after New Year’s careening—if a resolute dedication to the speed limit can be called careening—down I-80 from Detroit to Brooklyn, so it’s taken be a few days to double back and re-listen to this beautiful piece by NPR correpondent Alix Spiegel, What Vietnam Taught Us About Breaking Bad Habits.

What I love about this story is how it lays bare the underpinning of our annual ritual of making resolutions. We take a deep breath, and, dammit, we are gonna change this time. For real. We mean it! January 1 finds us a nation enthralled to an unspoken command: Buck up, buttercup, and make it work this time.  

Spiegel’s story is more nuanced than that of course, tracing a study of soliders addicted to heroin in Vietnam who tried to get clean upon returning to the U.S. and linking it to the arc of American psychological research. But here’s what really caught my ear:

From the 1960s to the 1980s:

“The research was very much focused on trying to understand how to change people’s attitudes,” Wood [a psychology researcher] says, “with the assumption that behavior change would just follow.”

Sound familiar? It did to me. It’s the same stategy we’ve been using to talk about changing people’s diets. Tell them the right thing to do, and they’ll do it. Right? MyPlate or the Food Pyramid, even persuading people to eat local….it’s all based on the idea that if you tell them, they will change.

Which is why the next part of the piece was so fascinating:

So researchers studied how to organize public health campaigns, or how to use social pressure to change attitudes. And, says David Neal, another psychologist who looks at behavior change, these strategies did work.


“They do work for a certain subset of behaviors,” Neal says. “They work for behaviors that people don’t perform too frequently.”

Got that? Lectures work for infrequent behavior. Which is not a category into which eating falls.If you want, for example, to increase the number of people who donate blood, a public campaign can work well. But if you want them to quit smoking, campaigns intended to change attitudes are often less effective.

“Once a behavior had been repeated a lot, especially if the person does it in the same setting, you can successfully change what people want to do. But if they’ve done it enough, their behavior doesn’t follow their intentions,” Neal explains.


So, back to the heroin addicts I referenced in the headline. Most studies of heroin addiction showed that relapse rates of recovering addicts were around 90 percent. But the soldiers who came back from the war? Only about 5 percent fell back into addiction. Here’s Spiegel:

It’s important not to overstate this, because a variety of factors are probably at play. But one big theory about why the rates of heroin relapse were so low on return to the U.S. has to do with the fact that the soldiers, after being treated for their physical addiction in Vietnam, returned to a place radically different from the environment where their addiction took hold of them.

The parallel with eating isn’t a perfect one—there’s a bit of nuance in Spiegel’s piece about the very specific nature of environmental cues, things like where you are sitting and so forth. But it’s enough to give one pause, too, about considering poor diet simply a matter of preference.

Did those addicts prefer the drug? On some level, yes. But when you are in an environment where getting to it was foreign to them, most went back to living (on some level) a healthier life. It stands to reason that putting resources into building a foodscape where eating well is easy — and eating crap is not— might get us farther than just continuing to lecture.



Things are heating up in the New Year! AWE gets some love

It’s been a couple good days here in the AWE offices. (Note: by “office,” I do mean “laptop perched on lap in apartment I’m settling back into after 3 years of reporting from, more or less, my ’94 Ford Escort”).

First, the trenchant Stacy Mitchell published a piece on Walmart’s increasing control of our food system for Grist—and relied on an interview with yours truly for some of the lead grafs. Even better, she smartly reminds us that the problem for poor families isn’t necessarily a lack of supermarkets, but the price differential between fresh and processed foods.

Second, the wonderful Louis Aguilar of Detroit News fame posted a very nice profile of me and my work on the front page of the Business section this morning, including a partial slide show of a couple of my favorite groceries in Detroit. As I write in the book—and as Detroit commentators like James Griffioen, Kelli Kavanaugh, and Robert Linn have observed—Detroit’s rep as a food desert’s a bit of a misnomer. There are a number of excellent groceries in the city, and it’s an unusually robust food hub. Detroit actually has quite a lot of food. It just doesn’t have much infrastructure to get it into neighborhoods—and that’s a problem of leaving the distribution of a vital public resource entirely to the private market.

@ChickensintheRd is my hero! http://ow.ly/8d9IB

All my life, I’ve been looking for this: A smart, easy take on how to make Hamburger Helper from Scratch. In fact, I did a quick experiment for the book showing that it was cheaper to make Hamburger Helper from scratch—and just as easy. (Formal stats: 43 percent cheaper, 1 minute longer.)  But that was a quick, one-off thing. I have had plans for months to do a formal recipe.

I still might, but this amazing post from Suzanne McMinn—a blogger I just found—means I don’t have to. Not only is she making all the smart arguments about HH, she’s gone and done the work of coming up with TEN from-scratch versions mimicking the boxes. I’m officially impressed.

And eager, I confess, to take on the next Helper Challenge: Homemade Tuna Helper.

post-holiday catchup: Walmart in NYC

In the crushing buildup to the holiday, I nearly missed this scuffle in New York over Walmart’s ongoing effort to open stores in the city.

Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer released a report a couple weeks ago suggesting that adding a Walmart to Harlem would force local businesses to close. That’s a reasonable fear, given the company’s track record, but the report relied heavily on a similarly themed and widely-questioned report from Chicago—and one of the authors, called to testify before NYC’s City Council, had to admit that there was ultimately no net job loss. (No clear word on whether people just ended up working at Walmart instead of other food stores, and what happened to their wages and work hours.)

I think there’s a more interesting question to ask: What if Walmart’s prices aren’t always lower? I’ve been interested in the emerging body of research looking at what happens to food prices over time when Walmart comes to town. Most studies rely on snapshots, collecting prices from stores over a one- or two-week period; in those, Walmart usually wins on average (though not on everything, particularly produce). But it’s important to ask what happens over time.

Researchers in Wisconsin found that when Walmart (or other supercenters) opened up shop, prices didn’t go down over time. But as other stores closed shop, reducing competition, prices went up. So it’s worth asking: Say we let Walmart open up. Even if the overall number of jobs doesn’t drop, what incentive do they have to

smart study: fast food a favorite of the middle class, not the poor.

I don’t have much in the way of fact to add to Jane Black’s summary of this interesting new study from UC-Davis researchers showing that it’s not America’s poor who are eating fast food, but our middle class. But I think this is interesting:

Figuring out how to make healthier food rival the drive-through for convenience and taste will be hard enough. Convincing people to choose it over the bad stuff they love will require a monumental cultural shift….

I would say that in most of my reporting in low-income communities, that ‘cultural’ shift isn’t all that big. Make eating well easy and affordable and, mostly, people will do it. And when we focus heavily on that cultural shift, it’s incredibly easy to come off as snobs lecturing the poor on their eating habits, instead of just making it easy for people to make smart choices.

I’d love to hear thoughts on this, of course.

ah: My one-time employer Applebee’s fails @ROCUnited ‘s Dining Guide. #catchingUp

I’ve been waiting for the Dining Guide from the Restaurant Opportunities Center for a while, and it does not disappoint.

Well, scratch that: It does disappoint, but only because they find such depressing norms across the restaurant industry, which now employs nearly 10 percent of U.S. workers. My alma-mater, Applebee’s, came through with straight failing grades: it doesn’t win on tipped wages, regular wages, paid sick days, or advancement.

I’ve found ROC United’s work on the links between food safety/quality and decent work conditions to be persuasive. And they make a compelling case throughout their work that if consumers are going to fret about the conditions under which their food is grown, they ought to at least glance at how the workers involved in that process are treated, too.

Besides noting Applebee’s failings, the Dining Guide subtly reveals an important point: You don’t have to sell food at high-end prices treat your workers well.  Most of the restaurants that won high-road designations, in fact, feature entrées priced beneath $20 apiece, and several clock in at under $10.

a little late to the party: lovely Detroit urban farmer profile from @dirtysabot on @grist

I’ve long been a fan of Earthworks Urban Farm in Detroit, and farm manager Patrick Crouch was my first tour guide there. This charming interview with local urban farmer Edith Floyd encapsulates exactly what led me to cover urban farming in the first place: Normal people, living in neighborhoods, passionate about good food and growing it.

It reminds me of how Gabrielle Hamilton writes about finding a toothless Italian vecchio with his fly open, a farmer selling freshly grown food off the back of a cart, in Blood, Bones and Butter. She disses the sleek, hair-gelled young’uns selling at the fancy farmers market and instead swoons for the old man because he reminds her of:

…A time when we just grew it and cooked it and ate it and didn’t talk so much about it. When we didn’t crow all over town about our artisanal, local, organic fwa fwa. We just went to the farm and bought the milk. (p. 242)

And that’s sort of the weird, unsung link between the foodie world and so many of the people I meet in my reporting: It’s not that people don’t want to eat well, or that they don’t care about our meals. They’d just rather not be expected to base their identity on it, and go to the farm and buy the milk.

This is an inclination, as you can probably tell from my reporting, that I find utterly charming.

Welcome: 5DollarDinner is now The American Way of Eating

I’ll be moving content over from my old blog, 5DollarDinner, soon, but welcome to the new blog for Tracie McMillan (that’s me). This is where I’ll be talking about food, class, opportunity and inequity in America—which, as it happens, is the topic of my forthcoming book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table (Scribner 2012). There’ll be recipes every once in a while, but I’m planning to focus more on my investigative reporting and keeping track of public debate around—of course—food and class in America.