THR Web Features   /   October 16, 2014

The Morality of Food—Then and Now

U.S. Food Administration poster, circa 1917; this poster appeared in several different languages so that the food conservation effort would reach the many immigrant groups in America; Wikipedia Commons

Eating healthy, supporting local farmers, buying fair trade coffee—aren't these all practices we can feel good about? Well, perhaps to a point.

If the consumption of food in our time has become something of a moral matter, sometimes involving self-righteousness and even coercion, it’s helpful to learn that we didn’t arrive here overnight. The moral American foodie has a history, part of which is told by Michigan State Universtiy historian Helen Zoe Veit in her 2013 book  Modern Food, Moral Food,

Veit's focus is eating habits in the early twentieth-century America, a time when the culture was strongly shaped by rising immigration, changing views of gender and race, greater access to public education, and, perhaps most of the all, the advent of the Great War. Even before the United States entered the war, Herbert Hoover’s Food Administration instituted a number of national programs aimed at conserving food at home so more could be transported abroad to aid the Allies. Among Hoover’s initiatives were Wheatless Monday, Meatless Tuesday, and Porkless Saturday. Some fourteen million Americans, according to Veit, or seventy percent of the population, joined the effort, signing pledge cards and proudly proclaiming their membership in the Food Administration.

This effort worked primarily through voluntarism and a widespread enthusiasm for patriotic gestures on a grand scale. (There were also plenty of snoops who reported the noncompliant.) It also helped that Americans became increasingly receptive to meatless foreign cuisine, especially Italian pasta and other vegetable-only dishes. Indeed, pasta was ideal for food conservation because it was made from semolina flour rather than the wheat needed for the war effort. Housewives boasted of their sacrifice and ingenuity in the kitchen, and publishers churned out cookbooks on fleshless eating and “the rational dietary.” Cannily, the Food Administration, public leaders, and the media further reinforced the effort by connecting voluntary fasting with democratic self-determination, individual self-control, national willpower, and moral urgency.

It is interesting to contrast the motivations behind the World War I food conservation efforts with those behind today’s food-related activism. We are all foodies now, it seems. New concepts like fair trade or responsibly sourced foods vie with the return of traditional practices such as  canning and pickling. Whether you require a social agenda with your fruits and vegetables or just a wide selection of cereal and chips, there are grocery chains to suit every shopper. In the university town where I live, there are three national chains, three well-known specialty grocers, several brave independent markets, weekly farmers’ markets, and a number of “provisioners”—not to mention big box retailers with grocery departments. This unprecedented array of choices would have had early twentieth-century food reformers sputtering in consternation at our pampered and picky appetites.

Where has this food revolution taken us? While it has opened up our eating and shopping choices, it has also reintroduced us to the moral aspect of food. And this being a media-saturated age, morality often piggybacks on star-power. First Lady Michelle Obama wants to combat the sense of failure encountered by overweight children with her Let’s Move program and its laudable, if grandiose, ambition of “[solving] the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation, so that children born today will grow up healthier and able to pursue their dreams.” Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney asserts that eating meat contributes to greenhouse gases (presumably he means not just the methane emissions of cattle and other livestock, but also the carbon footprint of the meat industry in general). Desperate Housewife Eva Longoria wants to demolish the gender bias of food by opening SHe, a female-oriented steakhouse featuring “he-cuts,” “she-cuts,” and “we-cuts.” Surely, no one would want to ruin the dreams of children, destroy the atmosphere, or oppress women simply in the name of freedom of eating?

And then there are the food glitterati: celebrity chefs with their own cable shows and stars puffing the latest fad diets. The obligatory book contracts and the cross-country appearance tours ensure that all Americans will have access to what it takes to cook like the Naked Chef while staying sexy on the Beyoncé diet. Much of this celebrity food activism is aimed at improving public health and the environment, but it often verges on coercion, both psychological and, increasingly, legal—think Michael Bloomberg and his battle against transfats and soft drinks. Today’s message about moral eating behavior is a rather muddled one, equal parts accessibility, self-expression, self-control, and overeager civic-mindedness.

Oddly, we find ourselves at a time when food activism is both radical and mainstream. The label “food elitist” or “foodocrat” may be hurled as an insult or worn as a badge of honor. The foodocracy in which we now find ourselves gives people permission to lecture others, often with overbearing rudeness, about what makes some food choices superior and others inferior. Having your latte the way you want it may happen in Starbucks, but don’t expect the same accommodation in the boutique coffee house in a gentrifying neighborhood. In our game of organic oneupsmanship, we have all become complicit in encouraging the kind of food elitism that also strips us of what one blogger called “gustatory freedom.”

Then comes the recent story of Meatless Mondays at schools in the Sarasota County (Florida) School District. This program, part of Johns Hopkins University’s Monday Campaigns, dedicates the first day of the week to different health initiatives: quitting smoking, exercise, safe sex, and eating right. Meatless Monday drew its inspiration from the meatless and wheatless programs of the World War I-era Food Administration. Just as the war-time food conservators strove to convince Americans that living without meat was the patriotic choice, so Florida school officials hope to convince schoolchildren that a bun without a burger is worthwhile for “personal health and for the health of the planet.” The difference this time around is that the international menu choices in Florida—hummus, fiesta taco salad, and spaghetti marinara—will be an easy sell to today’s kids. Much has changed since 1911 when the Van Camp Company advertised that its canned spaghetti was made with the same sauce as its pork and beans in order to convince consumers that foreign food was good.

What hasn’t changed is the use of food as propaganda. Whether little Johnny in Florida buys into Meatless Monday for his health, for the environment, or just because he forgot to bring a sandwich from home, he will have his food choices limited—and dictated—by those in authority over him. The lesson here is that others know better than you and they will pass legislation (or institute programs) to convince you of it. Perhaps we are what we eat after all.

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.