Americans in Cars, Eating Badly: Scale and Scope

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As part of our series on Culinary Modernism, I’m republishing some older posts and essays from REALFOOD.ORG. This piece was originally published 27 January 2014.

Just on the heels of a post on the potential for better convenience and grab and go foods to improve health outcomes for Americans, comes news via Marion Nestle that Subway is prioritizing moving more vegetables out the door. They are specifically targeting the campaign at kids.

This morning, Subway is announcing that as part of its commitment to Let’s Move!’s efforts to reverse childhood obesity, the chain will put $41 million into encouraging kids to “pile on the veggies.”

Subway says it will:

+ Run a fun campaign to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables.
+ Set nutrition standards for marketing to kids.
+ Strengthen its “already nutritious” children’s menu.
+ Put signs on doors that say “Playtime powered by veggies.”
+ Do a video collaboration with Disney’s Muppets to encourage piling on the veggies.
+ Provide kids’ meals with lowfat or nonfat milk or water as the default.

I could, but won’t, nitpick over the nutrition standards. Let’s just say they are a start.

But I love it that Subway is focusing on foods—veggies, apples, and no sodas unless parents specifically order them.

And I think “pile on the veggies” is one terrific slogan.

This is especially heartening because:
A. Low vegetable consumption is the number one problem in the American diet. (or tied for number one with high sugar consumption)
B. In terms of marginal improvement to convenience foods, increasing whole grains and decreasing sugar are fairly easy. Increasing vegetables is much harder.

This is exactly what I was getting at in that previous post:

Convenience and fast foods are a less than ideal vehicle for increasing vegetable consumption. Frozen dinners aren’t so hard, but the central issue is grab and go foods. What I would love to see are whole grain, veggie packed ploughman’s pies; chickpea flour, veggie samosas; multigrain grilled vegetable burritos; and footlong grilled veggie sandwiches on hearty rolls. It’s not that hard to pile vegetables on a whole grain pizza and garnish it with a healthy dusting of chopped herbs and arugula.

Marginal improvements don’t get a lot of love in the food movement. Tom Philpott stopped by to comment:

. . . But this—”Philpott’s agreement with the central premise was buried at the end and only briefly mentioned”—doesn’t quite get at my critique, which was that a kinder, gentler junk food industry is a necessary, but probably not sufficient, response to our dirt-related health problems. Maybe I’m wrong—maybe hyper-processed food can be tweaked in a way such that it keeps people healthy. I doubt it, because i don’t think we have figured out precisely how such a diversity of whole-food diets—ie, Mediterranean, traditional Japanese, Inuit, etc—keep people healthy. Precisely engineering effective nutrition into hyper-processed diet would seem to require knowledge we don’t have. So sure, stop packing so much sugar into drinks and remove known health ruiners like partially hydrogenated fat. But I’m not sure engineers for McDonalds or Kraft really know how to keep people healthy.

I agree with this but also think it has three problems. It ignores my reframing from junk food to convenience/grab and go food. It under emphasizes the important of a both/and approach. I agree that “a kinder, gentler junk food industry” is not sufficient. It doesn’t need to be. There huge numbers of people who will only be only be reached through these kinds of small marginal changes. But in public health those can add up to significant effects. Some smaller group of people will see larger improvements in health by increasing the number of home cooked meals and shifting to proven traditional diets. That’s important too. But don’t underestimate how the resources required to nudge big changes among smaller groups of people versus small changes among big groups of people.

I’ve been an instructor for Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters program and for The North Hartford Community Kitchen. I’ve also been the executive chef at a retirement community, which I’ve talked about before. As an instructor I worked intensively for a few hours a week with a handful of people, hoping to help improve their eating habits. With Share Our Strength we worked with six students two hours a week for six weeks. With planning and transportation I invested three hours per student. With The North Portland Community Kitchen, I believe we did sixteen students for sixteen weeks, so the math worked out about the same, except that I think we helped more people make bigger changes over that longer period of time. In a few instances I know we helped a few individuals make some big changes.

At the retirment community, I simply made a decision to improve the eating habits of 200 people. I had to do a little selling of the program to the community and a little work to retrain my staff, but at the end of the day, I changed the eating habits of 200 people and I barely lifted a finger. They were suddenly eating mixed greens instead ice berg lettuce. They were eating fish twice a week instead of once. Potatoes twice a week instead of five times, replaced by wild rice, yams, and barley pilaf. All the flour in their baked goods was suddenly whole wheat. 10 grain hot cereal instead of Cream of Wheat. More fruit in their desserts, yogurt with live active cultures in the snack room. Small and not so small changes multiplied by 200.

Being an instructor was more rewarding, but I believe I achieved bigger results through those institutional changes. It’s a question of scale and scope. As a cooking and nutrition instructor I was better positioned to address the scale of the issues that people faced. As an institutional chef, I could address the scope of the problem. In my little corner of the world I was making small, significant changes at the population level.

Scale and scope. Consider. In 2010, Subway had 23,850 locations doing $452,000 per location for a total of $10 billion in sales. Meanwhile, in 2013 there were 8,144 farmer’s markets in the US with total sales estimated at $1 billion. Subway alone has triple the locations doing ten times the sales as farmer’s markets. And don’t forget that those 23,850 locations are open all year, seven days a week, day and night. Those 8,144 farmer’s markets are only open a few hours a week, a few months a year. Not only will an increase in Subway’s fruit and vegetable sales impact more people, it will impact those people who are less likely to actively make the changes on their own. The changes that get the food movement’s motor running like more farmer’s markets are more likely to reach the most motivated people.

Focusing on scale or scope is how a lot of people end up talking past each other. I believe the Freedman was addressing questions of scale, while Philpott was focused on scope. The food movement does a good job thinking about scope. Their weakness is in thinking about scale.

I know that comparing farmer’s markets to Subway is unfair and I’m all for seeing more farmer’s markets in low income neighborhoods. But let’s face it, when Michelle Obama moved to pressing Big Food for incremental changes, she was just using Willie Sutton’s logic. When it bears fruit (yes, pun) it’s hard to argue with that logic.

Sources

Let’s Move!’s latest move: Subway will “Pile on the Veggies”

Marion Nestle | Food Politics | 23 January 2014
American’s in Cars, Eating Badly
Marc Brazeau | REALFOOD.ORG | 16 January 2014
Feedback Loops, Institutional Reform and the Pitfalls of a Second Best World
Marc Brazeau | REALFOOD.ORG | 22 October 2013

The QSR Top 50

Sam Ochs | QSR Magazine | August 2011

Farmer’s Markets

The Agricultural Resource Marketing Center

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