About cafeteria food, of all things! So many times, Bittman’s comments on our food culture in the United States are typically very critical (as they probably should be). It seems like a nice shift that he thinks things are looking up. In a recent op ed for the New York Times, Bittman shed some light on a few cafeterias that are actually making real efforts to provide healthier food for their customers. Menus are seasonal, and the food is prepared from the freshest ingredients. Some cafeterias have even shown a real commitment to using local food. Most people are exposed to cafeteria food at some point in their lives, whether its in primary school, college, or places of work. A trend of healthier food options in cafeterias can have some real and exciting impacts on our food culture.
I’m excited too. But there are two things that need to be addressed more fully-cost and inclusive culture. Bittman does briefly discuss cost-he says that the ingredients to make fresh food is cheaper than processed food, but the preparation of fresh, healthy meals is much more expensive because it requires so much more time. Outside of this, there is no mention of the cost of healthy food. Unfortunately, cost is a very real dilemma for many people. While many foodies consider cost as a secondary factor when choosing what to eat, this is simply not an option for many people. Yes, it is exciting that cafeterias offering healthier food, but what would be even more exciting is if that food was actually affordable. I wish Bittman would get just as irked at people not being able to afford healthy food the way he gets upset over people not wanting healthy food.
My second issue with Bittman’s celebration of revolutionized cafeterias: the food being served is of a completely different culture. Less meat and less cheese is a good thing, I could agree with that. But there are people who only know that kind of food. It is what they are comfortable with, and the culture that they seek. I’m not saying that cafeteria’s should stay the same for the sake of preserving (unhealthy) culture; but a change like this shouldn’t happen immediately. For example, look at the hospital at UVA. Some of the workers are financially well-off, and face the option of considering cost secondly with food. But many are not, and the food they have been able to afford is the food that we want out of the cafeteria. But wouldn’t it be a disrespectful to say “You’re culture is wrong. And it doesn’t matter if you want this change or not, its happening.” How off-putting. Instead of just looking at how we can change the supply of food, we also need to understand how to change the social demand of food. We need to be respectful and considerate. It would be tragic if our food culture turned even more into a story of the haves and the have-nots.