The American Way of Eating

Michael Ruhlman • July 25, 2012

One of the curious things about doing a semi-ridiculous reporting project—say, leaving behind your life to go work undercover as a farm worker, Walmart produce clerk, and Applebee’s kitchen wretch—is that near-strangers confront you with grand, existential queries. Like: What’s the most important thing you learned? Continue reading “The American Way of Eating”

Why Your Hamburger Hates America

The Washington Post • June 29, 2012

I dare you to celebrate the Fourth of July without a hamburger. What food better conveys the values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness than an all-American beef patty, grilled in the sunny confines of a grassy back yard?

A burger on the grill says: I have the day off to celebrate this great country, and I am going to relish it. Continue reading “Why Your Hamburger Hates America”

Food’s Class Warfare

Slate • June 27, 2012

A few years ago, the chef and organic pioneer Alice Waters did a spin on 60 Minutes that managed to showcase exactly why foodies get branded as elitist. “Some people want to buy Nikes, two pairs,” she said in a casual moment at a farmers’ market. “And some people want to eat Bronx grapes and nourish themselves.”

This was vintage foodie-ism, a smug and irritating noblesse oblige transposed onto a discussion of our meals. That didn’t change the fact that much of everything else Waters said was right: The way we eat is making us sick; it’s a good idea for kids to learn to cook; even, in a more formal moment, “good food should be a right and not a privilege.” But her aside about sneakers made it unlikely that anyone not yet onboard with Waters would listen to her in the first place. Continue reading “Food’s Class Warfare”

More Americans cooking—not b/c they’re broke but b/c they know how @michaelpollan @JamieOliver @Bittman: It’s working! ::

Credit whomever or whatever you like — foodie journalists, celebrity chefs, the depressing state of the American economy — but Americans are increasingly cooking at home, according to a recent poll, reports trade magazine Progressive Grocer. Two key findings:

(1) Americans are cooking more

In fact, seven in 10 Americans say they are cooking more instead of going out in an effort to save money, according to a survey released in mid-May by The Harris Poll. Fifty-seven percent of consumers agree that going out for dinner is now a luxury, compared to their previous dining preferences, and less than a third (29 percent) say they would cut other expenses in order to be able to eat away from home.

Emphasis added there, because I think it’s points to an interesting fact: Most Americans are willing to cook at home as a bid at economic independence. The idea that Americans are just too lazy to cook doesn’t seem to hold up here.

(2) We’re cooking more, in part, because now we know how to do it

According to the Harris Poll, the economic malaise that started a few years ago has had a lingering effect. “At the beginning of the downturn, we saw consumers saving money by changing their behavior in two ways: eating out less frequently and shifting their eating-out dollars away from casual dining towards fast-food/quick-service restaurants,” remarks Mary Bouchard, VP and thought leader at Harris Interactive. “Now, with several years of experience with constrained budgets, they have shifted even further from the busy lifestyle convenience of eating out on a regular basis to making time for cooking at home.”

That last bit of emphasis — also added by me — would suggest that folks like Jamie Oliver, Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, not to mention Rachael Ray, have got it right: When we know how to cook, we do it more.

Why @Target ‘s expanding grocery business makes me queasy #PlayingCatchup

What I find most interesting about Target’s expansion as a grocer is that its produce offerings (not unlike Walmart’s) tend to be slim and of not-the-best-quality-ever. I’m completely comfortable with people making use of canned and frozen produce, but there’s something about shifting our food supply away from things-we-can-eat-as-they-are and toward things-someone-else-makes-and-sells-us that makes me incredibly uneasy.

Southern California roundup: All video, all the time

In the likely event that you were not at one of my events in Southern California over the last week, you may avail yourself of the links below, where you will be able to watch video to your heart’s content:

Is Eating Well Just for the Rich? A conversation with KCRW’s Evan Kleiman

Hosted by Zócalo Public Square • Thursday, April 19 2012

C-Span Book TV: The American Way of Eating

From Los Angeles Times Festival of Books • Saturday, April. 21 2012

Festival of Books: Tweaking the Food Chain

Coverage of panel in Los Angeles Times • Sunday, April 22, 2012


Quick thoughts on @NYTimes cover story on food deserts

I’ve been besieged with emails about the NYT’s cover piece yesterday on food deserts, so here are a couple quick thoughts:

(1) Food deserts have always been a crude measure

Keep in mind that this is a fairly new area of public policy. I’ve long though that food deserts are a crude measure at best; that the imbalance between healthy food and junk food in neighborhoods is important; and that using supermarkets as the only measure of access to healthy food is problematic. (Sorry, no links here, though I do talk about this in my book.)

So it’s good to complicate our thinking on this. Access has never been the only problem when it comes to changing the way we eat. That said, it is certainly part of the problem and needs to be addressed head on. These studies don’t suggest that healthy food options are not important, just that they are not a silver bullet solution. (which nobody has ever said they were in the first place).

(2) Who walks 2 miles to get groceries?

I have a sneaking suspicion that study author Roland Strum hasn’t spent much time with urban working families. How else can you explain this inane assessment:

Within a couple of miles of almost any urban neighborhood, “you can get basically any type of food,” said Roland Sturm of the RAND Corporation, lead author of one of the studies. “Maybe we should call it a food swamp rather than a desert,” he said.

Seriously?Mr. Strum, do you walk from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn to the Brooklyn BRidge to pick up your groceries? Or take multiple train lines and buses?  In Detroit, a car-based city if ever there was one, ONE FIFTH Of the adults do not have a car.

Are we serious in thinking that, if someone isn’t willing to walk two miles with a week’s worth of groceries, that means they don’t care about their diet and health?

That said,yes the food desert concept needs rfining. See bullet-point number one.

(3) Healthy food is like water

Do you think poor people should only have dirty water? That they should pay for cleaner water if they want to drink it?That you’d better be willing to walk two or three miles to get potable water out of a tap?

I like to think not. And yet that’s how we think about healthy food: That it’s something you get if you pay for it, but have no right to. And today we pay the price for that in terms of health and well being — and lack thereof.

It should be as easy to eat well as it is to eat junk, and until we make that possible I think we will lose this battle.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Deadlines, book tour and personal finances are taking precedence for now.

how did I miss this? 1/4 of party stores w/SNAP in Detroit sell expired meat?

In the hubbub of book publication and tour, I nearly missed this survey of Detroit corner stores holding both liquor licenses and SNAP certification. Done by the Restaurant Opportinities Center Detroit (full disclosure: They are sponsoring a book event with me on Thursday) in conjunction with Doing Development Differently in Detroit (D4) and Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength (MOSES), the report analyzes a survey of 207 corner stores visited in Detroit and finds — somewhat surprisingly, at least to me — that expired food is quite common in these stores: 22 percent sold expired meat, and 38 percent sold expired food.

One of the most frequent responses to complaints about the lack of grocery stores in low-income areas, and the corresponding abundance of what we here in Michigan call “party stores,” is that people in these communities don’t “demand” better food. The corollary of that is that the market perfectly reflects what IS in demad — and I have a hard time believing that 22 percent of Detroiters “demand” expired meat, and that 38 percent are asking for expired food.

Dollar stores supplanting supermarkets?

This Lempert Report snippet indicates that:

Supermarkets that don’t yet focus on dollar stores and the trip threats they pose, better wake up. They’ve proliferated in the down economy. The top four dollar chains in the United States (Dollar General, Family Dollar, Dollar Tree and 99¢ Only) have 21,500 stores – already more stores than the nation’s major drug chains: Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid.

My reaction to that may be Yuck, but here’s why: They don’t stock good food. If there were a dollar store for great quality produce and spices, though? Yum.