The Fast-Food Fallacy
Why slow food beats fast food hands-down as the true value meal.
Early last year a Madison, Wisconsin, college student named Jen began sharing her knowledge of healthy food and her love of cooking with friends. The friends had fun at her dinners, they invited more friends, and the party—and conversation—grew. For $5 each, they could get together for an enjoyable and meaningful evening with great food.
Seemingly overnight, these regular gatherings snowballed. Within a couple of months, Jen, a chapter leader for Slow Food USA™, was part of a team organizing regular dinners for 100–150 people. The buzz had spread. Everyone wanted to experience the goodness of shopping for ingredients at the local farmers’ market, planning and cooking dinner as a community and coming together around a table to share their newfound bond: nutritious, delicious, simple and inexpensive food, and a new, meaningful social network. As Gordon Jenkins, associate director of network engagement at Slow Food USA tells it, “People were volunteering in the kitchen at Jen’s dinners and commenting that ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t know that fresh and healthy food like this could be just $5 and that it could be so much fun to cook it together.”
Thus, the first spark for Slow Food USA’s $5 Challenge campaign had been ignited. As the ember sailed easily into the air, enthusiasts elsewhere were gathering kindling to maximize its landing.
Froot Loops® Fuel the Fire
Around the same time, Jenkins and his colleagues at Slow Food USA—a global, grass-roots movement that has hundreds of thousands of members in more than 150 countries, and that links the pleasure of real food with a commitment to community and the environment—were looking for “a way to use the moment we are living in” to stimulate a bigger conversation about food. They felt that people were engaged—aware of how the miserable economy related to food and receptive to a dialogue about how that tied into the nation’s agricultural policy. But how to launch a meaningful platform about it?
Opportunity knocked in January 2011: President Barack Obama held a town hall meeting for which he invited the public to send him YouTube videos expressing what they thought were the country’s most important issues. Joshua Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, submitted a message that garnered enough thumbs-up viewer votes that it was selected to be aired during Obama’s meeting.
Jenkins recalls the video: “Josh asked President Obama, ‘Why is it true right now that it’s easier for many people to buy Froot Loops than it is to buy real fruit—and what are you going to do about it?’ The President got the question on air, and he answered by saying that his administration was ‘working with Walmart to try and address the issue.’
“That was great. We were excited that it was true, but we just didn’t feel like that was going to solve the problem,” says Jenkins. “It became clear from the president’s response that if we were going to create the solutions to finding fresh, healthy food for everyone . . . we really had to roll up our sleeves. And it required that we get people all over the country working on these issues. That was going to start by gathering people in the kitchen to sit around the table and start talking about it.”
Taking Back the Value Meal
Spurred by Jen’s grass-roots movement and the weighty impetus of driving policy change, the team at Slow Food formulated a simple plan. They developed a campaign that challenged members to create slow-food dinners for $5 or less per serving. The $5 mark is significant in that it’s about the cost of a typical fast-food meal, which symbolizes the type of food that current agricultural policy heavily subsidizes. It is also approximately the amount that nearly 50 million Americans receive per person per day in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, once known as food stamps).
Each meal that participants created had to fit the Slow Food ethos: it had to be made with “food that’s good for us, good for the environment, and good for farmers and workers . . . good, clean and fair food.”
On August 17, Slow Food USA announced the campaign on its website and by email. Four weeks later, on September 17, their national Day of Action arrived. Members began shopping for, creating and sharing their $5 meals. Slow Food set up a blog where members could share their experiences and the recipes and tips they’d used. Jenkins and his colleagues felt good about the day and waited for the results.
When 5,572 registered meals from more than 30,000 contributors flooded the site, it became clear just how ready the American public was for change. “Honestly, we’ve been totally overwhelmed,” Jenkins says. “We’ve done Days of Action in the past where people have gotten involved, and we thought maybe we’d be able to get a couple of hundred meals that people would organize and a few thousand participating. It was more than we expected.”
The Junk-Food-Is-Cheaper Misconception
With thousands of meal ideas for under $5 a serving—and many that fed four or more for less than $5—as concrete proof that whole food can be as affordable as, if not cheaper than, a visit to the King, the Clown or the Colonel, why does the opposite notion persist? Why do we hear time and again that fast food is less expensive than slow food?
If you plan, shop for and then cook food at home regularly, you know this just isn’t so. New York Times food and op-ed writer Mark Bittman did some research of his own to prove it. On September 24, just a week after the Slow Food USA $5 Challenge Day of Action, Bittman’s article “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?” appeared in the New York Times, showcasing his elegant thinking on the matter. To prove the dollars and cents part of it, he walked to a nearby McDonald’s and ordered an assortment of food and beverages that would feed a family of four. The tally? $28, or $7 per person.
He further underscored his point with examples of home-cooked meals that would be much less costly to prepare. For example, a roast chicken and vegetables with a simple salad and milk would feed four to six people for about $14; a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions would cost about $9 for about as many diners.
So if it isn’t personal economics driving junk food purchase decisions, what is it?
Jenkins points to massive corporate marketing budgets and campaigns. “Food companies have put so much money into marketing and advertising [their message] that fast food is cheaper than slow food that we don’t realize anymore that a ‘value meal’ is on average about $5–$7 at a fast-food chain,” he says. “That’s not a small amount of money.”
Alton Brown, writer, director and host of the Food Network show Good Eats and culinary commentator on Iron Chef America, echoes Bittman and Jenkins. “It’s a complete fallacy,” he says. “I can feed a family of four [for much less] than I could take them to a fast-food restaurant for. Even if the fast-food restaurant were cheaper, the nutritional value of that meal is so, so out-of-whack lower than what you can prepare at home that it’s not even comparing apples to apples. To me, a trip to a fast-food restaurant is kind of a splurge. I don’t do it often. [Fast food is] not something you can live on. And I certainly don’t see it as cheaper.”
So Why Aren’t People Cooking More?
We’re out of practice. One of the big reasons people think fast food is cheaper than slow food is that we’re not cooking as often, says Jenkins. “Often the path toward fresh, healthy food being affordable and easy for everyone is cooking. It’s getting in the kitchen if you’re able to.”
We think it’s too complicated. Casey Lewis, MS, RD, health and nutrition manager for Welch’s®, who is working with Brown on the company’s most recent campaign (for which Brown is the spokesman), thinks that eating out is enjoyable and will always be a part of our culture. However, she also believes that people may not understand how easy it can be to put together a simple, nutritious meal at home.
“When we put together the Welch’s ‘Taste the Harvest: Where and How to Eat Fresh, Local and Seasonal’ guide with Zagat® (www.welchs.com/zagat), we highlighted farm-to-table restaurants, but also recipes that had only a few ingredients, that were really simple and that could truly celebrate the heart-healthy harvest fruits and vegetables,” she explained. “Cooking doesn’t have to be a chore, and it doesn’t have to take a lot of your time.”
We fear it. Jenkins doesn’t pin the problem completely on lack of cooking skills. Cooking is easier than most people—especially inexperienced cooks—think. In our sedentary culture, he theorizes, we watch so many cooking shows that cooking may seem like something only expert chefs can handle. “But cooking is something that’s really simple that people have been doing since the beginning of time and building into their lives. Part of it is just getting over fear,” he says.
We overcommit and underplan. Roger Scott, a NESTA-certified trainer and Brown’s personal trainer from 2003 to 2004 and again from 2008 to current day, attributes most of the challenge with cooking at home to busy schedules and clients being out of their comfort zones (e.g., traveling, not at home enough throughout the week, business meetings, kids’ activities, etc.). When he sets up a fitness routine for his clients—whether it’s a celebrity like Brown or a regular Jane or Joe—one of the first things he asks for is a walk-through on how the client’s schedule flows.
Jenkins concurs that scheduling issues are to blame. “We’re all working more hours, and it’s tough to find the time to cook. It doesn’t take long. Fifteen minutes a day can get you healthy, affordable food. But it takes a little bit of planning—and that’s key. You have to think in terms of ‘Let me build in time to go to the farmers’ market this weekend. Let me see if I can prepare a big pot of something on Sunday that I can eat throughout the week. What are the things I can freeze?’ All of that really helps.”
There are many ways you can bring food awareness and cooking skills into your clients’ lives. Here are a handful of ideas to try with apparently healthy clients.
- Get in the kitchen with them. With cooking, as with any skill you build in life, you have to practice to become proficient. If you or someone you know is a good home cook and understands how to create a healthy, simple meal, make a cooking date. Select the recipes, shop together, make the food together, then sit down together and eat what you’ve made. Keep it simple.
- Hire talent to help you. Hire a personal chef or a local culinary school to lead a cooking class for your clients. Either apply a session fee or charge à la carte to cover the cost. Make it a social event where clients not only participate in the food preparation (for practice) but also eat the goodness created from the recipes. Ask the chef to keep things basic, healthy and under $5 per person.
- Teach clients to prep and plan meals for the week. Like Scott, you can encourage clients to cook in bulk at home once per week (Sunday is usually a good choice) and freeze or refrigerate the food for quick reheating during the week. For example, roast a chicken and a large pan of root veggies, bake a handful of sweet potatoes, and make a large pot of healthful chili or soup. Wash, chop and dry all of your produce for the week. With these tasks done, you can literally have dinner on the table in 15 minutes or less.
- Encourage basic knife skills and invest in at least one good knife. Nothing makes cooking more pleasurable (or miserable) than a good (or bad) knife. If you’ve never used a professional-grade knife, take a basic knife skills class or search YouTube for videos on the topic.
- Share recipes that are tried-and-true. Once a recipe has passed muster in your kitchen for ease of preparation, economy and great flavor, pass it along to clients with your raves on why they should try it. Better yet, take recipe cards and a sample of the finished dish to work and let clients taste it for themselves.
Where Do We Go From Here?
There is good traction for the Slow Food movement.
Jenkins, observing the explosion of farmers’ markets, especially in the last 10 years, feels there’s a kind of revolution going on. “We’re in this big moment,” he says. “People are really getting interested in this.”
And not just “regular” people. The U.S. executive branch is officially invested as well. The White House jumped on the bandwagon and created its own challenge—one-upping Slow Food USA’s with a $4.50 per serving Iron Chef–style throw-down featuring four James Beard Award–winning chefs and moderated by White House assistant chef and senior policy advisor for healthy food initiatives, Sam Kass. Linked to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), the Great American Family Dinner Challenge was hosted by Kass at PHA’s Building a Healthier Future Summit, November 29–30, in the nation’s capital.
The summit was designed to help ensure a coordinated and succinct national agenda around fighting childhood obesity. Its aim was to foster dialogue, forge partnerships and streamline childhood obesity initiatives among private, nonprofit and public sectors.
“We’re really excited that the traction is starting to pick up,” says Jenkins. “Mark Bittman’s article was great. What the White House did is really exciting—they took the challenge and did it their own way with chefs. That’s all good. I think the next step is going to be looking at why it is easier to buy Froot Loops than it is to buy fruit. And not just looking at what each person can do, but looking at what we all can do as a country so the slow food way of life is accessible and affordable for everyone, every day.”
Jenkins points out that America’s farm policy completely contradicts our national nutrition policy. While health officials recommend that we eat mostly fruit and vegetables, our agricultural policy mostly subsidizes fast food and puts comparatively little into fruits and vegetables. The next big step for the movement is to take on this discrepancy, he says.
In October, Slow Food launched a campaign aimed at the congressional super committee, whose deficit-reduction decisions could affect food and farm policy as we know it. Slow Food transitioned its $5 Challenge into a larger campaign. The new “Recipe for Change” (in the form of a petition) targeted the super committee as it attempted to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal spending budget (affecting everything from agriculture to defense programs). Potentially on the table from the agricultural committees were $23 million in cuts that would essentially reauthorize the farm bill (which wasn’t slated to be evaluated until late 2012), according to Emily Walsh, the public relations and marketing manager for Slow Food USA.
As of press time in early November, more than 6,300 people had already signed the Slow Food USA petition. Stay tuned on the progress of this and other food issues by bookmarking www.slowfoodusa.org.
The Fruits of Our Labors
Jenkins believes that the path to health starts with cooking, but what really makes it fun, he says, is when we do it together—when we cook together and when we eat together. He leaves fitness professionals with this advice: “Get in the kitchen with your friends and clients. Get in the kitchen with your children. Take a half-hour to cook a meal together,” he urges. “It’s a whole lot more fun when you do it that way. It’s a whole lot more meaningful. And when you’re cooking at home, the healthiest food you eat is also the most delicious.”
The ember flew. The fire ignited. The movement—the revolution to take back our food—is on fire. Now get out there, people, and get cooking.