The Fast-Food Fallacy

Why slow food beats fast food hands-down as the true value meal.

By Sandy Todd Webster
Jan 1, 2012

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.”

Educating Clients

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.

Alton Brown Talks Food and Fitness

Alton Brown, writer, director and host of the Food Network show Good Eats, and culinary commentator on Iron Chef America, was not always his svelte and “cut” current-day self. In fact, you can go to his third and most recent cookbook, Good Eats 3: The Later Years (Stewart, Tabori & Chang 2011), and turn to page 284 to learn the truth.

There, Brown describes “Live and Let Diet,” episode 221, season 13, of the show, and shares revealing video stills of his former self—which show a decidedly larger man: “Gaze, if you will, on this behemothic form,” he writes. “At first you might mistake this as a candid shot of Marlon Brando waddling onto the set of Apocalypse Now, circa 1978. The truth is, it’s me, waddling around a Louisiana crawfish farm, circa 2009 (the horror . . . the horror). The day after I viewed this hideous image, I stepped on a scale for the first time in several years and was shocked to find the number 213.5 staring back at me.”

That was the moment Brown decided things had to change. His goal was to shed 50 pounds. It took him 9 months, but he was successful. And he has kept the weight off. In addition, under the guidance of his Atlanta-based personal trainer, Roger Scott, a NESTA-certified pro and Brown’s trainer from 2003 to 2004 and again from 2008 to now, he has put on 15 pounds of muscle.

Looking lean, fit and snappily dressed in tweed, red (plaid) bow tie and other artfully mixed plaids from chapeau to toe at the 2011 Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival in early October, Brown shared some observations about food, exercise and the absolute need for fitness pros to “get into your kitchen—and into your client’s kitchen.”

After such dramatic weight loss, eating more is actually his biggest challenge with diet. “My trainer is constantly nagging me to eat more,” says Brown, 49. “Obviously I’ve been a big eater in my life, but I get fixated on weighing too much, and he’s always fixated on food and muscle. We’re constantly going back and forth on it.

“The nutrition part of the fitness equation for me is amazingly important. You can beat up your body all you want, but if you’re not rebuilding it properly and giving it all the chemicals it wants and needs, then you’re really missing the point.”

Their trainer-client partnership is a good match, as Scott, whose background studies in college had a nutrition emphasis, focuses about 70%–75% of each client’s program on nutrition. Scott feels it’s essential to know your clients and their daily routines so you can see what their strengths are as well as any possible stumbling blocks to maintaining a solid exercise and food regimen. Once you know the patterns, you can fine-tune your plan.

“Nutrition is key because trainers get only about 5–10 hours per week to spend with clients—usually on the cardio/resistance training side—so that leaves 100-plus hours per week when they’re on their own with nutrition,” observes Scott. “If you know clients consistently travel and don’t spend much time cooking, giving them a shopping list of the right foods to cook is not going to work. Instead, focus on teaching them what foods to order [and what to do] when they’re dining out (eat half the plate, take the rest home). Then, when they have time to cook at home, have them cook for the week or order in bulk from healthy, prepared meals at the supermarkets.”

Brown, a well-versed cook with a strong science background, has an advantage over most because he knows so many tricks of the trade and understands the chemistry and nutritional make-up of most foods. But again, he emphasizes, cooking does not have to be complicated. In fact, less is more, especially when you’re using seasonal, fresh ingredients such as those found in autumn that have a long shelf life into winter.

Brown works closely with Casey Lewis, MS, RD, at Welch’s® to spread the gospel about the magic of autumn’s food bounty, but their message goes well beyond the nutritional properties and versatility of the Concord grape.

“Everything we do together is about seasonal foods,” Brown says. “We’re big believers in it. My partnership with Welch’s is greatly based on getting people to understand seasonality. One of the reasons we’re focusing on the fall harvest is because, to my mind, it’s the best time of the year, nutritionally speaking. Now is the time you see the most depth of color in foods, which Casey and I are big proponents of. You know—deep oranges, deep greens and deep purples. So this is really one of the tastiest and most nutritious times of the year when you get right down to it.”

As to what cooks of all stripes—novice to expert—can do to capitalize on the season’s food treasures, Brown’s default answer is to cube up these gorgeous fruits and vegetables and roast them. “You can take almost anything that comes out of the fall harvest and roast it,” he says. “You can slow-roast it; you can fast-roast it. There are a lot of sugars available in the plants that ripen at this time of year, be they fruit or vegetable. And you can heighten those flavors by driving out some of the moisture, caramelizing some of those natural sugars and intensifying those flavors. For root vegetables and greens, I tend to head for the roasting pan. Or a quick sauté over high heat tossed with a little seasoning and olive oil. My whole thing is let the food taste like what the food can taste like. If [it] already has all the elements that are necessary kind of locked into it, get out of the way.” (Download roasting recipes and other ideas on how to extend the bounty of autumn fruits and vegetables at www.welchs.com/zagat.)

Brown says he and Scott have often gone into his home kitchen postworkout to cook or to make a postworkout snack. He feels that type of trainer-client interaction is crucial.

“You need to see what your client’s kitchen is like. See what’s in the pantry and refrigerator,” he says. “Try to understand what the client’s life is like so you can tailor a plan that fits. In some ways, if you’re going to be a personal trainer you’ve got to take responsibility for being a multidisciplined professional. Yes, you should know your way around a gym, but if you’re really going to be good, you’ve got to know your way around a kitchen. You can’t just say, ‘Go eat a banana,’ and call it a day. Well, you can do that, but you’re not going to make a permanent impact on that person’s life.”

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Sandy Todd Webster

Sandy Todd Webster is the editor in chief of IDEA’s award-winning publications. She is Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified and is a Rouxbe Certified Plant-Based Professional cook.

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