Originally published on Zocalo Public Square.
Americans eat worse than people in many developed countries. We no longer value gathering around the table with family and friends. We see an emphasis on eating quickly and on the go. With this kind of disrespect for the meal, it is no wonder that people are not as concerned about the quality of the food. Reverence for the social and cultural values of breaking bread is what prompted journalist Carlo Petrini’s protest in Italy. In 1986 when McDonald’s fast food chain was planning to open a franchise in Rome on the Spanish Steps, an 18th century landmark, Petrini and a group of protesters gathered with bowls of pasta and other cooked dishes instead of picket signs. This simple act of defiance spawned the Slow Food Movement, which now boasts 100,000 members in 150 countries. The Slow Food chapters are called convivial—a name that calls to mind a place where people enjoy themselves over food.
But improving the way Americans eat is not as simple as restoring the family dinner around the table. Over the past 40 years food production, processing, and distribution in the U.S. have grown to an almost unimaginable scale, rewarding size and speed foremost. The subsidies in the U.S. Farm Bill have made fruits and vegetables more expensive. And most Americans live where there is little access to full-service grocery stores or farmers markets. Big-box stores reduce prices so much that smaller food stores cannot compete.
Fortunately, there is an increasing awareness of obstacles to good food. People are growing their own, shopping at farmers markets, relearning cooking skills, making better procurement choices. The tighter economy is reversing the trend of eating meals away from home. With education and civic engagement there is hope that our food future will be better than our food present.