Working with people as a nutritionist, I’m often met with resistance. I try to explain how to make healthful food choices without using trigger words like “organic,” “sustainable,” or even “local.”
“When I hear the word organic I think of Birkenstock-wearing hippies in Cambridge or Berkeley,” one of my clients told me recently. Other clients have referred to whole, organic foods as “yuppie food.”
There’s no doubt that food choice and diet is an indicator of class and culture. But what perplexes me is this notion that eating a diet of processed, sugary junk foods is what “real Americans” eat.
According to food historian Felipe Fernandez-Arsmesto, author of Near a Thousand Tables, food has always been a marker of class and rank in any particular society. “Food became a social differentiator at a remote, undocumented moment when some people started to command more food resources than others,” he writes, and later: “Class differentiation starts with the crudities of basic economics. People eat the best food they can afford: the preferred food of the rich therefore becomes a signifier of social aspirations.”
But this isn’t true in modern-day America. The preferred food of the rich is now considered elitist and scoffed at by many Americans. In fact, there is data to suggest that even though many Americans can afford higher-quality foods, they chose to eat cheaper and less nutritious foods. Jane Black and Brent Cunningham wrote an op-ed recently about this in the Washington Post:
Many in this country who have access to good food and can afford it simply don’t think it’s important. To them, food has become a front in America’s culture wars, and the crusade against fast and processed food is an obsession of “elites,” not “real Americans.”
I would argue that the advertising agencies that work hand-in-hand with the big players of industrial food should take much of the blame for this change. Within the span of three short generations, Americans have come to accept industrial food as their mainstay—not only have they accepted it, they defend it like they’d defend the American flag as a symbol of their patriotism and allegiance to the “real” America.