The Real Food Divide

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I’ve read several interesting articles recently* that discuss the concept of food as the new cultural divide in this country; that it is the wealthy and upper class that is driving an American food revolution, while the less fortunate don’t have the time, dollars, education or interest to care what they eat. If this is true, it’s a bad thing.  In any progressive culture, food should be a unifying component.

But while I think this question is an important one for all of us who seek to improve Americans’ diets to consider, I also believe it misses an important and even deeper point.  While it may be the rich who prefer organic, vegetarian, heritage, locally-grown, fair trade and other labels to preface their foods, while those who spend as little as possible to eat select what is cheap and available at a corner convenience store, both are still at least partially driven by the motivator we often seem to forget about in these discussions – the TASTE of the food.

And it is here that the Whole Foods shopper and the McDonald’s diner have more in common than either may realize.

With almost twenty years of marketing in the food industry, and especially after researching my book, “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything,” I am more convinced than ever that there is a primary point that we all think about when making food choices.  And it’s not nutrition, price, or even availability.  It’s what we, personally, think tastes “good.” 

The upper class suburbanite who turns up her nose at French fries from Burger King thinks nothing of eating in a top-notch restaurant where the chef regularly over-salts the food. (“Because that’s how my diners tell me they like it,” one James Beard award winner told me when I asked about the frequent propensity to over salt.)  She may proudly keep her kids away from HFCS-laden sodas, but make a morning stop at Starbucks for her own sugar-loaded caffeine fix.  The bottom line is, sweet is sweet, whether you find it in a $20 dessert from the best bakery or restaurant in town, or in a piece of cheap, stale candy that has been sitting on the shelf at Costco for 3 months.

A healthy diet is a varied diet, one that appreciates and accepts a wide range of foods, flavors and flavor combinations.  This is what all of us should be teaching our kids.  Eating from a narrow flavor, and thus food, profile range is just as much a problem for “wealthy eaters” as “poor eaters.”

*Check out “Divided We Eat: What Food Says About Class in America,” by Lisa Miller, Newsweek, Nov 20, 2010; “The New Front in the Culture Wars: Food,” by Jane Black and Brent Cunningham, Washington Post, Nov 26, 2010; and “Junking the Junk Food,” by Judith Warner, New York Times, Nov 25, 2010

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