If you want Healthy-O’s, move to France

Yay…cereal companies are pledging to make children’s cereals healthier! Oh wait…only for kids OUTSIDE the good ol’ US of A.

Why do we think this is?

Photo: Bloomberg / Getty Images

American parents don’t care as much about their kids’ health? (one reason cited for the change overseas is in response to falling demand for the sugary cereals – no such problem here)

Too much money to be made from diet-related diseases? (in a country with “socialist” medicine, what would be the point)

Americans’ sense of entitlement & freedom stretches to sugar content in our cereal? (and stretches our waistlines)

I have trouble swallowing the “ignorance” excuse anymore.

Other thoughts??

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Don’t take it out on the kids

So yesterday I went to Chick Fil A for the first time in a couple of months. I didn’t even realize my visit coincided with the possible end of the chain’s support of gay-hate groups, but that’s fine by me.

I wrote recently about why CFA should be a smaller part of my life, and it wasn’t about politics or religion at all – purely about health. But yesterday I was jonesing something awful for the spicy chicken. So I rationalized that going every six weeks to two months isn’t going to kill anybody, and the small amount I spend there (usually under $15) isn’t going to make a dent one way or the other in their business. I fulfilled my craving without guilt, and made my children extremely happy by finally relenting to their near-daily demand for the place.

After we ate and they were safely ensconced in the playground, I noticed that the kids had automatically been given the under-3 toy with their meals. At first, I assumed the restaurant must simply be out of anything else. But then I saw every other kid in the place had a different and cooler toy (some kind of cd…not sure if it was for listening or computer). Since my house is already littered with those little board books, I decided to go ask for the other toy.

Here’s what I was told: “You didn’t buy the right meal to get those. You only bought four nuggets. You have to buy six nuggets to get the over-3 toy.” I’m like, what? I’ve always only ordered four…because that is all my kids eat. The woman patiently responded that this was a new policy: to give an under-3 toy with a 4-count nugget, and an over-3 toy with a 6-count nugget (never mind that I bought two 4-count meals, and therefore 8 nuggets…but I didn’t think of pointing that out at the time).

This concerns me because it raises a health issue. Basically the store is taking the position either that a) only toddlers eat 4-count meals or b) an older child with a reasonable appetite should be treated like a baby.

My children often eat only three of their four nuggets, and that is because I make them first eat their fruit and pouch of applesauce, all the while drinking milk (fries, if any, are last after nuggets). When they load up on the healthier stuff first, then their little tummies are pretty much full, and the nuggets are just a protein chaser.

But CFA is penalizing this behavior, and insisting that if I want my children to receive an age-appropriate toy, they have to have what they consider an age-appropriate appetite.

Is anybody else thinking about childhood obesity? Could this maybe be such a problem because we assume that a “normal” child portion is six nuggets plus fries plus (refillable) soda?

I realize that an older child probably does need six nuggets to feel full (though she will get fuller if she eats fruit and milk on the side instead of fries and soda). But my kid is four years old. And skinny. And frankly, I have no desire to force feed her extra nuggets.

CFA has tried (successfully, in my book) to position themselves as a healthier alternative for kids, offering grilled nuggets, applesauce, fruit, milk, etc. They used to upcharge for these items but stopped that practice a few years ago, which indicated to me a positive move towards caring about kids’ health – making it easy & cost-neutral to give your child something better for him. Now I feel like their commitment is declining…worse, I feel like they are cutting costs at the expense of kids.

And I do not know one parent who doesn’t go there because their kids beg for it. So really, children are among their most important customers. They should be bending over backwards to keep kids happy!

Yes, I know it is ironic to talk about health, especially to complain about it, when it comes to fast food. That was the point of my previous post. But the fact remains, sometimes your kids will want it, sometimes you need a fast and cheap lunch. That’s just a reality of parenting. And I’d rather go there than other places where I really don’t trust the food at all (and have bigger problems with their labor practices than I do with CFA’s charity practices). Finally, I appreciate the fact that at CFA I have several healthier options to choose from.

I just wish my kids wouldn’t be punished for making a choice that is better for their bodies.

[UPDATE: I’ve recently learned this might only be a local policy – if you find that this is not the policy at your CFA, would you mind posting a comment to let me know? Thanks!]
[SECOND UPDATE: OK Now I have been officially shamed by Food Babe and will probably give up CFA for good. Dammit.]

The true cost of food

I’m reading The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan. It’s the story of her undercover investigations working at WalMart, Applebee’s, and in the farm fields of California. If you’re looking for a quick primer – that reads more like a novel than a textbook – on the crazily complex food system we’ve developed in our country, this is your book.

McMillan’s experiences in the farm fields were most eye-opening to me, as she reveals not only the sorts of things we can wrap our heads around (even if we don’t like the idea), like worker injuries going unreported, the brutal pace of picking, the punishing weather conditions, and the environmental juggling act a farmer goes through to grow food in a desert like California’s central valley. Sure, we wouldn’t want to deal with these things ourselves, but we might think well, people choose that job, they need the pay, and it’s how we get our food, so OK.

But it’s not so simple. Take, for one, the requirement that workers in California receive minimum wage. A big step forward for farmworkers, it was thought. What McMillan discovered, however, was that her pay was doled out by piece, not by hour, and then her hours were adjusted to reflect minimum wage. In other words, one day she worked eight hours picking twelve buckets of garlic – $19.20 by piece rate. So her check says she worked two hours, not eight, since minimum wage is a little over $8. She has the math skills and pays close enough attention to notice this – plus, she’s a legal and temporary worker, both of which give her security in quitting and/or writing about the problem. But this commonplace practice is so underpenalized when it rarely comes to light that it’s definitely worth the cheating company’s risk in doing it (see p. 96).

Whether or not their hours are properly reported, even at minimum wage, farmworkers (who have the hardest of the food supply’s chain of jobs) are grossly under-compensated for their labor, when one considers the profit margin of fresh produce. McMillan made the aforementioned $19.20 for picking twelve buckets of garlic, and this amount nets the farmer only about $153 (they’re not getting rich either). Through an incredibly complex series of negotiations between wholesalers, distributors, and retailers (which McMillan doesn’t even bother trying to explain in detail), that garlic reaches stores, in a sleeve that is just under a pound, and sells for $1.99 in smaller grocery stores, but up to $3.38 at WalMart (which does almost a quarter of this country’s grocery business).

So in the end, the amount of garlic for which McMillan did a full day’s backbreaking labor netted her $19.20 in pay; at the smaller grocery it will retail for about $600; at WalMart, those same twelve buckets cost the customer $1,014 (p. 82).

What is all that money paying for, exactly? Profits for WalMart, sure…but that’s just a portion of it. McMillan states, “most of the price tag at the store pays for the system that moves it from place to place…By the time an apple ends up in the supermarket, the entire cost of growing it accounts for just about 16 percent of the price, while the other 84 percent goes to the complex infrastructure that got it there, what industry experts call marketing.” (28)

Ah, yes – don’t you love thinking about 84% of your food dollar going to pay for marketing the food to you?

It’s not paying the wages of the worker who picked it, that’s for sure. But would paying a fair wage increase our cost so dramatically that we could no longer afford food? Hardly: “increasing farm wages by 40 percent would increase the average American’s family produce bill by about sixteen dollars a year” (29, emphasis mine). I think I can eat that cost, if it means a liveable wage for someone who’s working their butt off to pick my peaches.

She goes on to say, “if I were really stuck here working in the fields…I’d want to know why, if the cost of food is such a great concern, we don’t focus on figuring out how to make marketing cheaper. And I’d want to know why, if my wages don’t change retail price much, I couldn’t just get paid a better wage.”

Why, indeed?

Hopefully you are wondering about now how to combat this system – or at least, I hope, how to stop contributing to it?

  • To start, buy as much produce as you can locally. Cutting out the cost of distribution systems and nation- or even world-wide transportation goes a long way towards keeping prices low. If the farmer’s market seems to expensive, go at closing time – you’ll get great deals on whatever’s left.
  • If possible, join a CSA, which will ensure that your money goes straight into a farmer’s pocket (then get to know the farmer, and ensure he or she is paying a fair wage to fieldworkers).
  • Avoid large farming corporations (even organic ones), as their infrastructure prohibits paying close attention to conditions in the field (most subcontract their labor anyway), and their corporate obligation to profit requires them to cut corners (sadly, it is often easiest to hurt people, rather than product).
  • Avoid huge retailers like WalMart that make plenty of money off other goods but mark up the cost of fresh food (since it spoils and therefore cannot be bought in the huge quantities that are their advantage over smaller competitors). An orange may cost 50% more at WalMart than the local grocery store simply bc it doesn’t fit their pricing scheme (see McMillan, 136-7, for her comparison shopping between WalMart and the local Mexican grocery).

To keep it simple: buy fresh, buy local, buy in season, buy from small farms, and cut out as many middlemen as possible.

Artisanal Foods?

Have you noticed the recent rise in so-called “artisanal” products, many from fast food establishments – the very antithesis of artisan! Lewis Black gave a classic rant about this growing problem on The Daily Show. (Artisan Dominoes Pizza? REALLY???)

In related news, Zagat’s blog produced a helpful Smackdown of products making the claim, taking one for the foodie team by actually tasting them.