Building an ethic behind the food movement

Sales of breakfast cereal are down, and I have trouble being sad. I eat boxed breakfast cereal for the same reason everybody else does — it’s convenient – but generally only as a midnight snack. For quick breakfast I’m more likely to eat homemade granola or oatmeal or a PBJ. I would not be terribly sad if boxed breakfast cereal went away entirely. Not only is it bizarrely processed, but it’s probably the worst remaining artifact of late nineteenth-century thinking about food: deliberately stripped of flavor and over-sweetened to make it palatable. And I don’t care a whit about the profits of giant corporations that manufacture it.

And yet this tidbit from the original New York Times story is more than a little disconcerting:

Almost 40 percent of the millennials surveyed by Mintel for its 2015 report said cereal was an inconvenient breakfast choice because they had to clean up after eating it.

In the Washington Post, Roberto A. Ferdman comments:

Few things are as painless to prepare as cereal. Making it requires little more than pouring something (a cereal of your choice) into a bowl and then pouring something else (a milk of your choice) into the same bowl. Eating it requires little more than a spoon and your mouth. The food, which Americans still buy $10 billion of annually, has thrived over the decades, at least in part, because of this very quality: its convenience.

And yet, for today’s youth, cereal isn’t easy enough….

The industry, the [Times] piece explained, is struggling — sales have tumbled by almost 30 percent over the past 15 years, and the future remains uncertain. And the reasons are largely those one would expect: Many people are eating breakfast away from the home, choosing breakfast sandwiches and yogurt instead of more traditional morning staples. Many others, meanwhile, too busy to pay attention to their stomachs, are eating breakfast not at all.

But there is another thing happening, which should scare cereal makers — and, really, anyone who has a stake in this country’s future — more: A large contingent of millennials are uninterested in breakfast cereal because eating it means using a bowl, and bowls don’t clean themselves (or get tossed in the garbage). Bowls, kids these days groan, have to be cleaned.

Let’s be clear what we’re talking about, then: The problem isn’t that people are overworked, busy raising families in two-income households. Nobody doesn’t have time to wash out a cereal bowl. I ran a test this morning, scientific in precision of measurement if not in design: To get up from the table, carry a bowl to the sink, squirt detergent, wipe it out, rinse, then use the soapy rag to wash the spoon, set them both on the counter to air-dry, and return to the table to check the stopwatch took me exactly 36.97 seconds. That’s with no particular hurry. If you eat over the sink, you can eliminate the transit time and cut a good ten seconds off that time.

So we’re not talking about social and economic structures that make it hard for people to cook for themselves. We’re talking about laziness.

And can we, please, just talk about laziness? Yes, laziness. Sloth. Companies talk about marketing convenience, but what they’re marketing is sloth. The idea that work is a bother and that you deserve not to be bothered. I’m looking at you, Keurig. And you, Uncrustables. Yes, old farts have always grumbled about “kids these days” — but the old farts of today are fooling themselves if they think it’s just the kids. It’s all of us. (And who taught the kids, anyway?) And yes, the march of convenience foods began a long time ago. I can make you a very nice argument that cheese is a convenience food. Heck, the parched grain made by paleolithic peoples was a sort of convenience food, and that’s older than civilization! But at some point that sort of retort becomes the logic of an addict who says that his drinking hasn’t killed him yet. When are we going to admit that we have a problem?

As I’ve watched the progress of sustainable agriculture over the past twenty-odd years, as I’ve observed and participated in the “food movement,” I’ve noted a curious and worrisome pattern. It isn’t exactly one step forward and two back. It’s more that the vanguard makes great and obvious strides while behind it the army dissolves into the woods. The market for organic food continues to grow, but “two leading purchasing segments — dubbed true believers and enlightened environmentalists — make up for 46% of all natural/organic product sales.” Recyclying bins are everywhere, but we produce more garbage than ever. Farmers markets have boomed, but the grocery stores and industrial processors that serve the masses consolidate. People talk more about food, think more about food, watch more television about food — but aren’t cooking any more than they did a generation ago. Some of this is economics. But not all of it. Not nearly all of it. In a crucial way, the food movement is failing.

If, for example, we want people to buy whole and minimally processed foods, they’re going to have to cook them. There’s a problem there of education — too few know how — but also one of effort, which too few are willing to make. How do we create the willingness and ability of a busy person to feed a family from scratch, every day?

Years ago, when I was writing my book, I interviewed Alan Musselman, the former Executive Director of the Lancaster [Pennsylvania] Farmland Trust about what it would take to preserve farmland in Lancaster County. Zoning and similar legal mechanisms were fine, he told me, but laws and ordinances can be changed all too easily when a big enough financial incentive arises. What was needed — and what then remained to be built — was an ethic around farmland preservation that was strong enough to outweigh the desire for financial gain.

I’ll extend that thought to all of American food and agriculture. If we’re going to make lasting change, we need to build an ethic that supports the kind of cooking and eating. Not “ethical choices,” which are scattershot and shifting, but something more coherent. Not a lifestyle choice, not a marketing scheme, not one more way we can feel good about ourselves (and certainly not at the expense of others) but an ethic that is grounded in community and is strong enough to impel us to overcome the siren song of cheap convenience. We have to build character, and that is not easy or painless or cheap, and we have to do it in a way that isn’t merely an imitation of past generations but workable for the present and the future. Is that even possible in 21st-century America? I have no idea. I am not certain what it would look like like. We barely even have the language to talk about it any longer. But I do know that you don’t build an ethic through marketing campaigns but by experience and example, by teaching and friendship, one relationship at a time.