Food: Fuel ​and ​Fun


Young workers in particular appear to be more sophisticated in their food choices, seeking out global cuisine with intense flavors and exotic condiments.

Food, as it relates to health, is a complex subject. As individuals in North America, healthy, safe and affordable food is available and most of us have the means to purchase it. Still, obesity in adults and children rose dramatically in the last half of the 20th century, along with heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases linked to diet. What is happening now? Can we identify an emerging trend? Are we more conscious of caloric content or nutritional value, foregoing processed and high-fat foods? Do we make food choices based on the value of good health? Are we aware that our choices can make a positive difference in the world?

Many of us are interested in the story behind our food: where it comes from, how it’s made and what’s in it. Our increasingly urban population seeks out ethnic and artisan foods, often buying fresh produce and prepared dishes from suppliers at farmers’ markets, food trucks, pop-up diners and roadside stands. Local foods—as ingredients purchased for cooking or as dishes served in a restaurant—appeal to a broad range of consumers who have an interest in sustainability and a desire for fresh, organic foods.

Young workers in particular appear to be more sophisticated in their food choices, seeking out global cuisine with intense flavors and exotic condiments. A study by the Culinary Development Center notes Gen Y’s preference for “authentic” foods: “If it bears the name papusa, hummus, vindaloo, nigiri, or arepa, it had better be a close approximation of the native form.” At the same time, the study found that while a twenty-five-year-old may appreciate healthy food, he or she is also prone to fueling the day with caffeine and “indulging in some of the most decadent fast food around.” Still, this generation does gravitate toward organic, free range, hormone-free, cruelty-free, grass fed and locally grown products—even while lacking consistency in its choices.

For the 20,000 employees who work at Google, “food is deeply entwined with the company culture and identity.” There is no generic bulk food in its cafes, of which there are 17 for the 4,000 workers at Google’s Mountain View campus. The company supports local farmers, organic produce, hormone-free meats, fresh-squeezed juice and "raw" food. The reason? First, because it’s part of the Google ethos. And, because good food enjoyed in a casual communal setting is an excellent way to keep workers happy, healthy and productive— willing and able to work long hours at the campus.

Such interest in healthy eating and authentic foods—as opposed to generic, packaged and highly processed foods—parallels concerns about food production and transport, ethical consumerism and healthy ecosystems. At the same time, there is still a fast food venue at every major intersection and while McDonald’s now puts apple slices in every Happy Meal (a small concession to health), a recent study based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Eating Index shows only slight modifications to fast food menus and “given that fast food is ubiquitous in the U.S. diet, there is much room for improvement.”

Food trends are, of course, just that—trends. This week, the healthy thing to eat is kale, flax seeds and yogurt. Tomorrow, it will be something else. One trend that has entered the mainstream is the preference for organic food and the growth of the organic food industry—the fastest growing sector of the American food industry. Organic food sales grew by 17 to 20 percent a year in the early part of the 21st century and today, organic products are sold in most conventional grocery stores, as well as at farmers’ markets that have popped up across the U.S. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a weekly farmers’ market outside its Washington, D.C. headquarters and now spends roughly $5 million a year as part of its Farmers Market Promotion Program.

Emblematic of person and social values, the food on our plates has an effect beyond providing nutrients or inflicting damage on our own bodies. The transportation of produce from distant locales has a carbon footprint. Pesticides and herbicides used in large-scale farming seep into rivers, affecting biodiversity and the health of our communities. Packaging presents problems of waste and landfill. The value of choosing to purchase fresh, nourishing food from a local farm is now recognized at the level of community and national policy, resulting in reforms like the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, as well as programs such as the Edible Schoolyard Project.

Clearly then, choosing to eat local, seasonal, wholesome food is not only a matter of personal health, but is also linked to healthy communities, biodiversity and a sustainable environment. As we look at how our cities are changing, many becoming “greener,” we will see a parallel to the shift from a fast-food culture to a good food culture.