Survival of the Freshest

14 08 2007

Ronald McDonald baby

By Jill Ettinger

I watch a lot of old movies. They’re entertaining on many levels, from the innocence to the ignorance of the times; there is something remarkable in the simplicity of life without cell phones, two thousand television channels or email. There’s a slightly thrilling yet sympathetic feeling watching our naïve ancestors. Like peering into the routine of someone with a disability. How did they manage? Despite the gaping void people must have felt without our innovations – they still seemed so happy, so alive. If they only knew what life could really be like without having to leave the couch! They would certainly have rued their lonely existence sans iPods.

Being in the food business, I am hyper-aware of several things in these classic flicks. First, there is usually an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables around. People gardened and shopped at local fruit marts instead of Walmarts. Nature was more prominent, even in cities like Manhattan. People picked apples right off the trees on their streets, and had a much more sophisticated knowledge of what was growing around them. Every summer, I watch my neighbors’ cherries, apples and blackberries fall to the ground and wonder why I don’t know how to make pies like they did in the good old days.

The other – and much more mind-blowing – detail that I observe in these movies is the cost of goods. A weeks worth of groceries for a single person would be well under $5!  Probably half of that. I’m just one person, and I spend at least $10 a day on food, but probably actually more like $20. I don’t mind so much. Why, I’d spend triple if paying for quality. Certainly there is value in value, and I for one want to know that not only is my food high-quality, but that virtue is respected from the beanstalk to the source and supplier. Unless you’ve been living under a rock (moss is good eatin’, you know), most are at least partially aware of what’s going on with our food sources, of the lack of quality and values. There are changes happening of course. But it’s not as picturesque as it seems. Free-range eggs are offered as a nice sounding solution to the horrors of factory farming, yet it does not mean that hens are running around in someone’s backyard. They are crammed into large aluminum sheds, never to see daylight, cannibalizing each other, fighting for space to stretch a wing, or if lucky, two. Organic has come to equal healthy, even in the most sugar-laden junk food; as if avoiding chemical pesticides also magically unclogs arteries and prevents diabetes. The debates wage on about our food miles, environmentally friendly packaging considerations, and everyone seems to be consumed with solving the problem of  overconsumption.

Yet the obvious, still hidden in plain sight. The FTC just subpoenaed the mother load of monster brands  – forty-four in total, from Coke and Pepsi to Burger King and McDonald’s, in an investigation of marketing aimed at children. Now I have no great faith that this is anything more than mere protocol, and that Ronald will just get a slap on his clown wrists. But it’s still interesting, especially this information from the article: “McDonald’s, the world’s largest restaurant company, said Aug. 6 that it’s a “responsible marketer” after a Stanford University study found it’s advertising is so pervasive that preschoolers prefer the taste of chicken, hamburgers and french fries wrapped in McDonald’s packaging to the same food in plain packaging.”

Let’s go back to 1939 for a little comparison. In Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Jefferson Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart) marvels the Senate with his backwoods ways. He filibusters the floor for more than twenty-four hours to clear his name, and witness that justice comes to a corrupt politician – a puppet for a corporate agenda.  Many things separate 2007 from 1939, but many remain the same. Republicans sunk a cloture in Senate just last month to successfully block a Democratic bid to withdraw troops from Iraq.  In fact, even though we have a Democratic majority, already this year Republicans have blocked votes on major legislation dealing with energy, labor rights and immigration. The voice of the people is, perhaps, choking on a Whopper.

We may have outraged mothers and citizen action groups aghast at the impudicity of super-sized television commercials and billboards, but who is really deep-frying our kids? I certainly don’t think the Hamburglar is sneaking into rooms at night force-feeding McNuggets. Let’s be real. This is not Lord of the Onion Rings. This is America: the land of abuse-abuse-abuse-get-sick-and-sue. McDonald’s and the lot only target commercials to children, because parents let them.  Still, I for one do not condone the behavior of these behemoth bullies, but they are, in all fairness, just seizing opportunity. That’s a pretty big gap between the FTC, the corporations and these children.

Unhealthy eating is a habit learned just as much as healthy is. We are visual creatures. We gravitate towards bright colors, like those of a strawberry, an orange, a pepper, a metallic can of soda, or big red box of French fries – not necessarily their contents. So much technology is now available to make our lives easier, yet we have so much less time to properly nurture our families. Fast food is an advent of convenience, but not really.  As I walk my dog each morning, I often see the McDonald’s truck that pulls up next to the location around the corner from my apartment. The conveyor belt comes out and into the back door the cases of frozen everything slide on in to be thawed and re-fried and re-wrapped. Seems like so much work. I mean, what’s more convenient than a juicy summer peach or a handful of grapes? How long can this really last I wonder before we realize Nature provides an abundance of both Healthy and Happy Meals? And then I stop wondering and wander to a tree across the street. I think it’s a mulberry tree. Are those safe to eat?

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