Rachel Laudan’s “In Praise of Fast Food” sheds some light on our misguided nostalgia about the past with respect to food. We think of our modern food system as broken and toxic, while, Laudan points out, toxicity has always been cause for concern in what we eat. Today, she says, we are no longer enslaved by the need to feed ourselves; we don’t have to wake up early to make bread or rice, we can buy it at the store. Laudan calls out those “luddites” of food who are critical not only of s0-called unnatural, processed foods, but critical and judgmental of those who eat such foods. I think this is an important issue to shed light on, not only in the way we look at the past, but in the way we look at the poor.
There is a rampant idea that the choice to eat processed, fast, cheap food is a choice to be lazy, fat, and neglectful of one’s and one’s family’s health. There is a sentiment that obese people are making cheap and easy choices and the rest of us are paying for it through our tax dollars. We fail to see eating fast food as the inevitable outcome of poverty; a trap constructed by government, advertisers, and big business to serve cheap, addicting food to those with the fewest resources.
My mom used to tell me that families that ate fast food did so because it was cheap and easy, but they didn’t realize that it was actually much cheaper to buy and cook food. In the same breath she would pay $200 at Whole Foods for ten items. She means well. But I think that a lot of people believe this about healthy eating–that you just have to make a concerted effort, and that it might take more time and money upfront, but that in the end you would save money by buying fresh food and cooking for your family. It turns out this isn’t true, according to this Harvard study. While Laudan touches on the freedom inherent in having the option to order fast food when something goes wrong, and the ways in which processed food have freed up time for humans to accomplish all kinds of other things, there is also a lack of freedom in fast food. For many, it isn’t a choice. And the health issues that result from years of eating this kind of processed, corn syrup-soaked food cannot be solved through fat shaming or blaming obese people for healthcare spending. Also note that fat shaming does nothing to motivate weight loss.
While I think the system by which fast food is created is inherently bad, unhealthy, and greed-driven, I certainly don’t think the people who consume fast food are. It’s important that–just as Laudan wants us to see processed, fast, easy food as a privilege afforded by the century we live in–we also see eating healthy, “natural”, organic, home-cooked food as a privilege afforded by our socio-economic status, not just a choice some of us make because we are better or smarter or more committed to our health.