Nutrition in the Media

supermarketThe Nutrition section of Boston.com has recently been advising Bostonians on how to lead healthier lives, last week focusing on how to eat less salt. According to the article, the average American consumes over seven times the amount of sodium our bodies need to perform every day. In order to help the average American consumer less sodium, author Joan Salge Blake takes the reader step-by-step through the grocery aisles, recommending that consumers check the labels of their processed foods for sodium content and offering alternatives to salty marinades and dressings.

Interestingly, nowhere in the article does Blake suggest buying organic or shopping at local markets for unprocessed foods, despite her claim that “over 75 percent of the sodium we consume sneaks in from processed foods.” Instead, she suggests ways to reduce sodium intake that allow consumers to still eat prepackaged and factory-produced foods, and all the while still shopping at corporate supermarkets.

I find it odd that Blake does not advocate organic foods at all, but instead tries to work within the industrial food system to get Bostonians to eat healthier. I understand that local markets are not accessible to all, but increasing awareness about the health benefits of local foods cannot hurt. Those who are reading these article on Boston.com are already conscious about eating healthier. Thus would it not make sense to suggest local markets to the masses, subsequently creating a higher demand for local foods and hopefully (eventually) lowering prices?

This week’s article does, in fact, recommend starting a vegetable garden at home to all who are able to do so. Yet I had several issues with the 320-word piece:

1) it lists cost-saving and taste as the reasons for starting a garden, never mentioning nutrition or the health benefits of organic food

2) it does not explain how to start a garden, or which fruits and vegetables to plant in a New England climate, and

3) it lists no alternative for local foods if a person does not have the time or space to start a garden

If a person had no previous knowledge of the nutritional benefits of organic foods and were unable to start a garden of their own, she would see no reason to buy locally; the “cost-saving” factor would be irrelevant, as would be the idea that produce tastes better if you cultivate it yourself. The combination of this article and last week’s, which gives pointers on how keep a clean conscience while still shopping at a corporate grocery store–despite hinting that it is impossible to do so (Blake herself says processed food “sneaks” in extra sodium)–does not really advocate local and organic food.

Instead, the underlying message is that you should create a vegetable garden yourself to save money, and regardless of that, there is a perfectly fine way to stay healthy by intelligently shopping for processed foods. So while the intentions behind these pieces are certainly good, the reader is given no real reason to stop shopping at supermarkets. And considering the fact that those who have the time, space, and money to invest in a vegetable garden are already more likely to be more health-conscious, I cannot see these articles really changing many people’s food philosophies.

real.food.fast

Over the weekend, I made my first trip to b.good, a Boston-born restaurant chain that offers a fast food-inspired menu made from local and organic ingredients. I ordered house-ground burger with locally made gouda cheese and a side of house-cut “air fried” french fries. As I waited for my food, I was able to read a bio on the farmer who supplied the meat I was about to consume, including where the farm was located, what the cows were fed, and animal living conditions.

The food was modestly priced and delicious, just as I’d hoped. However, I took away more from my visit than just a full stomach. After reading The Taste of Place last week, I have been paying closer attention to the way local and organic food is represented around me. For the most part, I’ve been noticing how “real” food–a.k.a. local and organic food–is marketed as being for a healthier and more sophisticated palette. Restaurants and markets that sell “real” food are often more expensive and geared toward the yuppie–read: young urban professional–population.

This generalization of the “foodie”–and I use that term for simplification purposes; it can certainly be pejorative–movement comes from both sides. The “average” American is generalized as not caring too much about where their food comes from. The foodie is generalized as having an image of herself as one with more refined ideas of taste and food and as one who has both the time and the money for fresh meals. The foodie movement normally conjures up images of pricey organic summer squash and locally made cheddar cheese–far from a cheap burger, fries, and shake.

Yet b.good obviously problematizes this stereotype. It marks the intersection between America’s foodie movement (the new) and our love of fast, familiar food (the old). Interestingly, the crowd I found at b.good was not the young, earthy crowd that one normally finds at eateries touting fresh and local ingredients (and higher prices to match). Instead, this group was much more eclectic and representative of the local population as a whole. It represented both the foodie and the non-.

It would seem that b.good attracts a more diverse bunch because it produces traditionally cheap food with a sophisticated label. I cannot know whether the restaurant’s customer based is rooted more in its focus on local ingredients or its focus on great tasting, recognizable food. What I do know is that regardless of a person’s motive for eating at b.good, they will get access to learning about the pros of local, organic food once they are inside. They will read about where their meat is coming from, who cut their fries that day, and why the chain’s founders are dedicated to making food the “real” way. The idea that local, organic eateries exist for a class of people with a higher food conscious could potentially go by the wayside.

The fact that b.good serves traditionally fast food–rather than the haute cuisine local-centric cooking is often associated with–gives this form of local food activism exposure to a new wave of Americans. It gets people thinking about where their food is coming from and why fresh is better. It also relocates the farmers and chefs into the discusion of food chains. And it does all of it deliciously.

Live Unconsciously.

Panera Bread has a new commercial about their approach to “the right way” of preparing food through the use of foody buzzwords like “trust,” “community,” “farmers,” “humble,” and my favorite quote from the title, “live consciously”. By using these words, Panera attempts to conjure up an image of the company as one with a set of morals that prioritizes natural, local, and sustainable food systems. Its target audience is certainly health- and food-conscious consumers (again, see the title of the video), and yet that is the exact audience I think this ad alienates. Panera’s entire goal in this commercial is to convince consumers that by eating Panera products, they are living up to some set of unspecified ethical eating standards, yet the company provide almost no information on how eating freshly baked breads makes someone more moral.

Panera’s idea of providing “food you can trust” is extraordinarily vague: the entire text of the commercial is only 116 words long, spoken over a distracting Rube Goldberg-esque contraption that involves wooden chickens and a plastic tomato garden with a watering can. The commercial does not mention tomatos. The only examples given of the company’s “right way” of preparing food are 1) baking fresh bread from fresh dough, which the commercial notes has been done since Panera first opened, and 2) using antibiotic-free chicken in recipes.

We are supposed to believe that by buying Panera products we are living more “consciously.” Yet what does Panera what us to be conscious of? Obviously not where Panera’s vegetables and fruit come from, or how their soups are made. There is no mention of how far these antibiotic-free chickens and the ingredients for this fresh dough have to travel to get to each Panera location. Does “food you can trust” only encompass trusting that the bread is fresh? What about trusting where it comes from? Is Panera more trustworthy than local cafés and restaurants because it can afford artsy commercials? Brand recognizability is not synonymous with trustworthiness.

That decision made us wonder: what else could we do the right way? So we talked to our farmers and our chefs.

This quote invokes the image of Panera cooperating closely with its suppliers and its employees, humbly working together in harmony to create the ultimate moral and virtuous menu for hardworking Americans. The funny thing is, Panera was actually sued for failing to comply with the California Labor Code in 2009 and 2011. While they did not admit to any wrongdoing, the company still put aside $5 million to settle claims that it failed to allow food and rest breaks as well as termination payment for some of its workers. The company was also sued for racism in the workplace in 2011 with the claim that one store was placing attractive white women at the registers and keeping African American workers in the back room only.

So, Panera, what exactly should we be conscious about? Perhaps the way that the commercial attempts to trick consumers into thinking the company said more than it actually did. Decidedly vague references to morality and consciousness make it seem like Panera is in tune with the “foodie” crowd, and yet provide little to no evidence of supporting local farmers or operating with a food-centered business plan. Should we tune out the ethical implications of poor labor conditions to eat fresh bread? I do not want to ignore the good Panera has done with its Panera Cares outreach or its innovative “Pay What You Want” system that has helped feed thousands, but the idea that we are somehow living at a greater moral standard by eating Panera is ridiculous.