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.