A Most Amazing Chance Meeting

I met the most amazing woman tonight. She posted to a local Weston Price email group I’m on that she was looking for dairy kefir grains since PCC had just stopped carrying whole milk kefir. I responded and she ended up coming over to pick them up. She brought gifts of frissee starts in trade and we chatted briefly while Pancake Boy whined that he didn’t want to eat his scrambled egg. Eventually he ended up going to bed without eating dinner yet again…see what I’m up against here?

Later the woman emailed me that she teaches a course at UW on the anthropology of food. I had to look it up because I had no idea what that meant but it sure sounded intriguing. I find it fascinating that I chanced to meet this woman tonight when last night my post was about what food means to me and what it should mean to each of us.

That it’s not simply rocket fuel but nourishes our lives, our memories and our relationships. It’s who we are. It transcends time. It connects us with our ancestors and our past and our future. It’s frightening these days.

She emailed me a snippet from a private course blog that discussed Lunchables (remember my children have a Lunchable fettish?) that I’m sharing:

The American Bag Lunch as Nutritional Ideology

The Japanese Lunchbox Project reminded once again of how the classroom can become an ethnographic field site. In the blog entries on our kitchen activity, I discovered that the presence of a few guests from Japan yielded some important intercultural learning. Some of you commented on the bemusement on the part of the Japanese students at being asked such detailed and focused questions about the obentos their mothers made for them when they were in preschool. How could such a mundane everyday practice become the topic of such an avid interest on the part of non-Japanese? The experience caused many of you to reflect on your own experience of the bag lunches packed for you by your mother or other caregiver, and in a few cases, on your own practices of packing lunches for younger siblings or as a paid childcare worker. The items that would be assembled for the typical bag lunch for a primary school
student were carefully catalogued, usually a mix of foods that would delicately insert the nutritional ideology of the mother into her child’s lunch: carrot sticks, apple slices, string cheese (read: vegetable material + protein). Alongside these would be other items more guaranteed to find favor: cookies, a fun-sized candy bar, a small bag of chips. The inclusion of a juice drink appeared to fall in-between these two categories: something sweet that also announced its nutritional value (10% real fruit juice!).

What this suggests to me (as a reader of these blogs but also as a veteran of packing many bag lunches for my two children) is a subtle struggle in a nutritional war between “real foods” and the highly commodified and heavily advertised foods that prove so alluring to children. However, this struggle over the “value” of foods did not end with the assembly of the bag lunch! Many of you described with great ethnographic detail the “exchange value” of these selections once the bags were opened in the school lunchroom and the swapping began. One student described how the inclusion of a Fig Newton in her bag lunch achieved a certain amount of edible capital as long as it remained an exotic item until, one by one, her friends lost interest. I can only imagine the fate of the whole-wheat fig bars I inflicted on my children as a wholesome alternative to cookies loaded with corn syrup and transfats.

This aspect of the blog discussions also reminded me that many of my students grew up with Lunchables as a form of pre-packaged bag lunch. The rise of the Lunchable could be tracked alongside the rise of the convenience shop onigiri as the answer to an economic system that increasingly demanded that both parents work outside the home (true for both Japan and the U.S.). It poses a question for us to reflect upon (inspired in part by Raj Patel): How does this commodified substitute for something homemade become so alluring to kids? How are we as consumers being constructed for the food systems we are given?

I particularly love the ending question – How are we as consumers being constructed for the food systems we are given? I feel like we are but tools the marketing machines use to achieve their bidding. I’m still unclear, however, how my two kids who rarely if ever even watch public television let alone commercial television, are so mesmerized by the idea of the Lunchable.

It’s not just that it’s storebought crackers, lunch meat and sliced cheese with a small tub of applesauce, a juice and a cookie. Because last week we had storebought versions of lunchmeat, sliced cheese and crackers. We have home canned grape juice, home canned applesauce and store bought cookies right now. It’s clearly that it’s all wrapped up in one neat little bundle. It’s structured and predictable.

I also believe part of it is the image on the box. It’s like the Playmobil boxes which show you the toys set up in the perfect scene, suggesting exactly how you can play with them. The picture on the box shows you exactly how the food will sit in the tray, what it will look like and therefore how it will make you feel. Is it the structure and security of the image that entices them? The order of things neatly arranged, not touching each other, showing them what to expect?

They love to eat the food that comes in the box while looking at the box which suggests to me that the image and idea of the food is equally, if not more important, than the food itself.

I wish I knew more about child psychology, or even adult psychology. Perhaps that might help me crack this nut. In the meantime I’m dusting off my bento accessories and stepping up my prepared meal efforts. I might even photograph them and tape the picture to the outside of the bento boxes to see if that has the same effect of as the Lunchable box.

How about you? Do you feel like we’ve been constructed to support our existing food systems? And don’t you wish you could go back to school, if only to take this class?

10 Responses to A Most Amazing Chance Meeting

  1. I keep reading about your son and thinking of my husband. He wouldn’t eat either. I’m a new reader, so I don’t have the background on what you’ve tried, etc. Turned out his adenoids were so swollen that nothing tasted good. Once they were removed he ate like crazy. Our niece had to have the same thing done for the same reason. Same results. Good luck! My sons suddenly started eating everything in sight once they turned five.

  2. There are no chance meetings. :)

  3. I’m so facinated by this, I’ve always wondered why lunchables were so desirable to children. If only we could get oscar myer and kraft to market truly helthy food to children so successfully. …and I would absolutely love to take that class, and so many others!

  4. Thought provoking post. The whole processed food market seems to make everything “beautiful and sterile”; a novel compartmentalized little package, energetic colors, while being oh so convenient. It’s unfortunate/frickin’ scary that agribusiness has taken over the food mind set.

    We as mothers, wives, fathers, husbands and children are helping to change that perspective. Great change happens on the grass roots level. Onward slow food movement.

  5. I am thinking maybe what we are dealing with in the case of the lunchable is a case of commodity fetishism. A fetish is a location of misplaced desire and agency. In other words, the greatest part of the allure for kids may be precisely in the fact that it is not homemade! The commodity appears on the store shelf as this magical presence that has no back history (that is, of Mom investing all this effort). Even if your son is not seeing the ads, he is immersed in a society in which the commodity thing promises a kind of magical gratification that exceeds the more immediate needs of hunger. The literature on commodity aesthetics make a big deal of packaging. In the case of the lunchable the clear cellophane both incites desire and prohibits access. What you purchase is the privilege and the freedom to break it open and play with it!!!

    I guess the problem for us as parents is how to re-enchant “real food” so that it has this kind of magical allure to the child consumer.

    I don’t know if miming the aesthetics of commodity food is the way to go. No matter what you do, the food that you make yourself does not come from that same mysterious origin as the commodity that appears magically on the store shelf. I do so wish that I had gotten involved in producing my own food when my kids were young (what you are doing now) so that they understood “where food comes from.” It is ironic that this is working as an anti-aesthetic for your son (it is just too familiar)! But even though you are really frustrated with the results of your efforts now, your kids will thank you later. One of the most moving student blogs I ever read in my food class was from a young man whose mother had died when he was in his teens. It was all about the food battles that he had with her as a child. She would would have been so proud to see how he treasures her caring as an adult and how aware he has become about food politics and how deeply her lessons inhabit his soul.

    Using the bento tools to make food more like play may work for a while, in a way it displaces the commodity fetishism from the food itself to the tools. But it may backfire if all food, then, needs to become play. I had this experience with my kids. I wonder if another way to go about this might be to involve the child in helping to produce the food in age appropriate ways. What if, for example, he had the sole responsibility to produce the carrot crop for the entire family? Or, even easier, radishes!!! I highly recommend Territorial Seeds Easter Egg radishes, they have such a lovely range of colors. But carrots come in colors too!

    Incidentally, did you know they are trying to develop a genetically modified carrot that is chocolate in color and flavor? This is an example of the extremes to which industry is willing to go to solve this problem.

    I hope you don’t find my comments too intrusive. It is a problem that we all encounter as parents. I still have a college age son still at home whose diet is just terrible and I can see how his health is suffering from it. To use the South Park food pyramid: beefy logs, cheesy puffs, and snacky cakes are his food preferences. So we are all struggling. Fortunately, he has developed a love for my homemade hummus. I make sure we never go

    I loved your comment BTW on how the image of the food seems to be even more important than the food itself (McD’s Happy Meals!). The comparison to Playmobil was brilliant! The promise of happiness. Maybe what I mean about re-enchantment could be about displacing the magic of the commodity with the mysteries of nature. Growing radishes himself would give him something that he has to check on everyday and hopefully will get him excited about the changes that are produced as an effect of his care. Another project might be growing sprouts. The rewards of this are so immediate. You can talk about how the wonder of sprouts expresses a life force that we can share by eating them. If he grows sprouted wheat berries for your chickens and then sees how they regard these as “candy,” you can start adding them to, well, even pancakes!

    This exchange has encouraged me to spend more time in my class next year collecting stories from the students about their own battles with their parents over food. Maybe we can discover some new insights that might help.

  6. My mom has crohns with several feet of large intestine removed. This causes anything with fiber to travel, painfully, right through her body. We always had crap in our house that only she could eat. Which led to monkey see, monkey do. We wanted the junk food that she ate, to the exclusion of every other food. We also had dessert every night. And we had lunchables. I’m fighting a very steep battle for myself. My kids are wonderful eaters. My son has the occasional hunger strike, but I try to not let it bother me. Which I am successful at if he sleeps well. ;)

    I do find that if my kids grow the food or even just pick it they will at least try it. My son discovered his love for tomatoes by picking them off the vine.

    Thank you for exploring this topic!

  7. Kristi – wow! What a thing to have your whole life. I can see how that might lead to some binge eating. Poor guy! And now he doesn’t have that 14 year old metabolism to let him eat everything all the time either.
    Tiffany you’re so fly.
    Justine I think about that all the time. The problem is truly healthy food is like breastmilk (vs formula). No one profits from it so it does not get promoted correctly.
    Kathy it is scary. But people like you are helping to slow down food. Keep up the good fight!
    Ann I’m so glad I met you – I’m fascinated with this whole thing. I’m going to make pop tarts from scratch and see if they’ll eat them. They’ve never seen a pop tart before. In fact my 3.5 year old is fascinated with the can opener that came out last week since he’s never seen one before.
    Amy how hard that must have been having food in the house but off limits!
    I grew up in the early 70′s when microwaves were new and rare and there was not so much processed foods. That said we regularly ate breakfast cereal for dinner. Then when we moved in with my dad and stepmom in the late 70′s we most often ate hamburger helper or microwaved/frozen meals since my stepmom worked and relied heavily on convenience foods. I hated them even as a kid. I’m curious how much of this is because we don’t have those things in the house versus the concepts that Ann discussed. We’ll see how the homemade pizza snacks go over…if I ever have time to make them. ;p

  8. I would love to read more about your bento boxes. My kids love them and I like doing them because it makes lunch prep a bit more interesting.

    We pack one every time we travel and they are perfect for plane rides.

  9. It is likely that when children see others eating lunchables they get very jealous. I was speaking with a lady at church last week and she talked about all of the delightful things she made for her children at lunch. She would take the sandwiches and cookie cutters and presto, a highly valuable lunchbox item. She talked about how she used cookie cutters for other things too, like shapely ice-creams and more. Sometimes it just takes a little creativity I guess, which I don’t always have.

  10. Jenny, I should do a blog post on it. I do use cookie cutters and have rice and egg molds to make things shapes. I soak hard boiled eggs in beet juice/water to stain them pink, I have the little tiny soy sauce squirters that look like fish, etc. That is why I’m so intrigued by this whole thing. I can make a darn cute lunchable myself but it’s not shrink wrapped. In fact, mine are even cuter than lunchables! I think what I’m going to do is take this to the next level with lunches. Even on days when we are here I’m going to assemble bento boxes ahead of time so all they have to do is get them out of the fridge and can eat when they are ready. When my lunches are more desireable than the purchased Lunchables I will be finally satisfied. I’m considering this my summer challenge. ;p

    I just ordered a bento box book but there are TONS of blog out there with fantastic examples of lunches – if you type obento into the google bar. I could spend entire evenings looking at that cute food. I just need to make it appeal to my two mario brother boys. If only the egg molds looked like mario brothers I think I’d have it made.

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