I'm Not a Real Dinner, 
but I Play One on TV

By Joe Romano,

Marketing Manager

Don't eat anything advertised on TV.

— Michael Pollan

tv-dinnerIn late November of 1953, the executives at C.A. Swanson & Sons had the biggest Thanksgiving leftover problem in history. The Omaha, Neb., frozen food company had overestimated the demand for its 1953 Thanksgiving turkey supply, to the tune of over half a million pounds of fresh turkey. With nowhere to store such an amount, the Swanson brothers, Gilbert and Clark, loaded the turkeys into ten refrigerated railroad cars, which had to keep rolling to stay cold.

As the turkeys rode the rails from Omaha to the East Coast and back again, the two brothers gave their staff a challenge — figure out what to do with the birds before they got back.

One of their salesmen, Gerry Thomas, had just returned from the Pan Am kitchens, where he had been given one of their new silver, multi-compartment, airline meal trays as a souvenir. He figured it might be just what the Swansons needed to sell off that turkey. Thomas mocked up a turkey dinner-filled tray and suggested marketing the meals by linking them to the national obsession, television. The box would look like a TV screen, complete with knobs and dials. By the time the turkeys arrived back in Omaha, the TV dinner, a meal that needed no preparation or cleanup, had been born. More important, home-cooked food had successfully been typecast in the role it plays across America today, the inconvenient, annoying, and unimportant sidekick who only earns his keep when he amuses us.

In the year 1969, the moon landing would stretch Americans' concept of their nation to include the moon and beyond. That year, Burger Chef would launch the ad campaign that would stretch the idea of the family dining table to include those at fast food restaurants. They began to market their restaurants as a place where everyone was considered family. Burger Chef's TV taglines in 1969 were, "Hello, Hello, Can you stay for a while?" and, "The Burger Chef family would like to have your family over for dinner." They launched the "Fun Meal" which eventually begat the "Happy Meal" at McDonalds and the "Kid's Meal" at Burger King. Cooked dinners at home were now just reruns of an expensive and inconvenient "boring meal."

A recent study published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians sums up the result: "Americans are spending a smaller share of their income ... on food than any other society in history or anywhere else in the world, yet get more for it."

The trouble is that the "more" that they cite, namely the availability of easy and cheap food, is the chief cause for the "more" in America's growing waistlines. The authors, Roland Sturm and Ruopeng An, considered suburban sprawl, the size of prepared meals, poverty, affluence, a lack of exercise, and a shortage of access to healthy foods as contributors to an obesity epidemic, but decided it was cheap food that was making the difference. "It's not just that we may be eating more high-calorie food, but we are eating more of all types of food," said Sturm. "We need to consider strategies that replace calorie-dense foods with fruits and vegetables, rather than just add fruits and vegetables to the diet." Also, we need to look at the kinds of fruit and vegetables we're ingesting.

According to Michael Pollan, we are eating much more of the government-subsidized crops that add more calories than nutrition: "Corn is an efficient way to get energy calories off the land and soybeans are an efficient way of getting protein off the land, so we've designed a food system that produces a lot of cheap corn and soybeans, resulting in a lot of cheap fast food." Natural foods do not get off the hook here; there are vegan junk-food junkies, too.

Maybe, it's the "time saving" and "convenient" processed, pre-packaged, and fast foods that are the culprit. Perhaps we don't even need time saving measures.

The idea propagated by advertisers that we have less time to prepare food is directly refuted by a time-use survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the study, "In 2012, people spent ten minutes less on [paid] work and related activities and 24 minutes less on [nonpaid] household activities and caring for children than in 2003." So we actually have about 35 minutes a day more than we did ten years ago. That is just enough time to make a healthy dinner. Time is not the issue, and it appears that money may be no object either, at least in the way we might expect.

"The high cost of healthy food may not be the problem as far as obesity is concerned, rather it is the excess availability and affordability of all types of food," says Sturm, the obesity study report's lead author. They discovered that "weight gain was strikingly analogous across all geographic areas and socio-demographic groups ... It affects both the more-educated group and the less-educated group, including ethnic groups." That does not mean that income is not a factor. "In the 1930s, Americans spent one-quarter of their disposable income on food, dropping to one-fifth in the 1950s. The share is now under one-tenth of disposable income," according to the study. "For the bottom-income quintile in the United States, food expenditures account for about one-third of disposable income."

So it would seem that while we all need better strategies to stop eating "as seen on TV," many of us don't have the same access to the healthier and, in many cases, less expensive whole foods we sell at GreenStar. Even if access is available, other barriers exist, including the fact that kids want what they see on TV or on other media. What can we do to help everyone learn how to plan, source, prepare, and eat healthy, fun, and delicious meals?

One idea is to talk about it and come up with solutions as a community, and that is the overriding goal of GreenStar Community Projects. Its primary focus is the creation of an ongoing network of individuals, groups, and businesses involved in building a food system that is more locally based, more sustainable, and more equitable.

GSCP's networking initiative, which was launched in late 2012, hosted four gatherings of the Feeding Our Future Network in 2013, in downtown Ithaca and as far afield as the Town of Caroline, with enthusiastic and diverse participation at each one.

A direct spin-off from the networking effort is the Community Dinners initiative, spearheaded by GSCP Board Member Phoebe Brown, which involves hosting informal dinners in people's homes, with an emphasis on those who tend to be marginalized for economic or other reasons. The idea is to encourage discussion of food-related issues, in a comfortable setting, and to offer folks opportunities to take their resulting engagement to another level. GSCP plans to expand this successful program significantly in 2014.

The networking sessions have generated lots of exciting ideas and connections, and have pointed to the need for follow-up support. One result is the creation of a Communication Working Group, which is establishing an interactive website about the local food system and the movement for food justice and sustainability. This effort brings together GSCP and Alison Fromme, who has operated an Ithaca food blog, Ithaca's Food Web, for several years and has been looking for ways to expand it. It now appears that, if additional funding can be secured, GSCP and Alison will collaborate to create and operate an exciting new website and food-related communication hub, starting this year.

Funding for these initiatives is crucial, so GSCP is hosting its Celebrate the Cause fundraising dinner on Friday, June 6 in The Space @ GreenStar. The incredible meal, prepared by GreenStar Chef Erik Lucas, will feature roasted wild mushroom ragout, pan-seared wild striped bass, or peppercorn-crusted New York strip steak, paired with great local wines, and that is just the main course! Tickets are $50 each, half tables (5 seats) are $250, and full tables (10 seats) are $500. For more info, or to order tickets, go to greenstarcommunityprojects.org.

Can the answer to America's obesity and health problems be as simple as Michael Pollan's suggestion to not eat anything advertised on TV? Well, yes, if we also revive the skills of growing, choosing, cooking, and eating together as families and as communities. Meanwhile, GSCP and groups like them show us all that the best food networks are not on TV.

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