The New (Pay-to-Attend) Food Deserts

I hadn’t had a bite to eat since yesterday, so Jim he got out some corn-dodgers and buttermilk, and pork and cabbage and greens — there ain’t nothing in the world so good when it’s cooked right — and whilst I eat my supper we talked and had a good time. — Huckleberry Finn

And we danced all night
To the fiddle and the banjo.
Their drifting tunes seemed to fill the air.
So long ago, but I can still remember
How we fell in love at the Roseville Fair. — Bill Staines

Over the weekend, we attended the final day of the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair, a sprawling affair of equal parts livestock buildings and carnie rides. Maya loved patting the bunnies, and couldn’t get enough of the cows. And there were these pretty amazing owls.

We enjoyed the day as well — except that we couldn’t find anything even remotely worth eating in the whole durn place. We paid $10 for parking, and another $10 each per adult to get in, so in we were, stuck amongst the barkers and colored balloons.

There were battered and deep-fried oreo cookies, funnel cakes, french fries, pizza and corn dogs, as well as signs touting “fresh squeezed lemonade,” which, it was clear upon sampling, was an utter fiction. I picked at a relatively inoffensive brisket sandwich from the one place selling pit BBQ, and my hubs tried to eat a bit of a “gyro” that sported flabby, texture-less bread, watery, chemical-laden sauces and tubes of mashed meat. Mmm.

A single church-run place sold roasted chicken, and one shack dispensed mostly-naked roasted sweet corn (likely GMO, but still tasty) which at least is actual food. But there was nary a green, orange or rainbow-colored vegetable or fresh fruit to be had, except in the produce tent where the flora was present only to be judged, and not eaten. Cabbages and greens, hah!

Because we were, I dunno, at a county fair, when Maya sensibly asked for “watermelon,” I went searching and turned up zip. Processed dippin’ ice creams? Check. “Premium” ice cream from Turkey Hill loaded with:

HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, NATURAL FLAVORS, CITRIC ACID, MONO & DIGLYCERIDES, GUAR GUM, CARRAGEENAN, RED 40, BLUE 1.

Check. Even the coating on the chocolate covered bananas was chemical-flavored. Though at least the banana couldn’t really be messed with, once you got into it.

Instead of food, stall after stall sold nothing but junk. High-fat, triglyceride-fests on a stick. A poke around the Internet told me the obvious: fairs and festivals have become venues in which vendors compete to see who can deep-fry the most shockingly unhealthy foods– one even sells frozen, battered deep fried sticks of butter. Others hawk fried frozen kool-aid and similarly unnatural feats alongside the fry-battered snickers bars and Oreos.

Now, I’ve been known to appreciate a little key lime pie on a stick sometimes myself. But it was still striking that at a fair bedecked in 4H signs and clearly intended to build our reverence for people who drive tractors, there was no sign of either practitioners of a greener, more sustainable approach to farming — something common now in Maryland — or of any appealing, healthier foodstuffs produced by the aforementioned farmerfolk.

Amidst the cutesy pig races down the “hamstretch” around the Hogway Speedway and tractor pulls designed to stir up nostalgia for our not-so-distant agri-past, something important evidently got lost, which is that people have always best connected to the land by eating its wondrous outputs.

Indeed, the World Fairs, in the mid- and early twentieth century, were places for people to sample international foods that may never have gotten attention from such a broad swath of the population, including a French tent from the 1940 fair that became a popular restaurant in New York, Le Pavilion. Of course, the Fairs were also places for the new industrial processes around food to be debuted and marveled at, such as cotton candy and Wonder Bread.

Fast forward, though, to 2012, and it feels as though the Frankenfood has eaten the fair. Most traces of a home-made past — pickles, preserves, pies — were not for sale. Instead, we got the industrial fryer, loads of sugar, and distracting, hyper-kitschy lights on every surface of the food conveyance truck, as if to say — look here, instead of down at the glistening brown surface of your greasy funnel cake.

At the risk of seeming like I’m not in on the joke, I’m just going to say it: what is so durn “fun” about eating crap served up by fairly miserable people trapped in little metal boxes? We are living in a time in which chemical-laden, highly addictive calories that trip every one of our biological triggers (salt! sugar! fat!) are cheap, and actual food is scarce, despite the ample offerings in every convenience store, every ball park, every amusement park, every beach or public place where the goal is supposed to be entertainment or ease.

But, really, isn’t this just a cheap trick on all of us? A way for us to pony up $5 (which seemed to be the cost of anything at the fair) or more for our own deprivation and illness, gussied up as self-indulgence?

And if we grownups are a lost cause, we should consider that there were thousands of kids at the fair who really had no option except to eat what was given to them. Cass Sunstein, in his book Nudge, described the power of “defaults” in structuring choices — which basically means that we choose from what is in our faces most of the time.

After all, we’re just bodies in space.

And when it comes to things we are biologically predisposed to like, you can bet that the food marketers know exactly how to dangle it in front of us as a form of perilous fun so that we’ll bite. And bite again.

We publicly wring our hands about childhood obesity, and the fact that record and growing numbers of children are acquiring Type 2 diabetes (from somewhere, hmmm), but our public policies allow soda and other sugary junk in our schools, and our public norms are to pay decent money to be admitted to a “fair” that serves our children expensive, dangerous processed swill in place of anything resembling food.

And don’t even get me started on children’s menus at restaurants, which are generally vegetable-free zones made entirely of a newly engineered item known as pizza-hot-dog-pasta-grilled-cheese-chicken-tenders.

Of course, you might say that if I’m going to be this picky, I should always bring along some of my foodie provisions to ensure that we have the uber-organic, sustainably raised squirrel seeds we prefer. And sometimes I do have it together enough to plan ahead and pack snacks. But one of the things about being out in the world is tasting at least some of its flavors, and toting whole meals along for all-day excursions is not a fair expectation for us or other parents, especially when we’ve paid for the privilege of attending some event.

Even when I bring food, that really only takes care of my family. But we need larger solutions to the problem of a lack of nutrition in our public food. And am I really supposed to bring my own grub to a restaurant? Please. In other words, on this one, its really not us, its them.

Unless we start getting ticked off about this pathetic state of affairs, though, I don’t see how things change or how we can get the food marketers’ ugly, deep-fried, doughy fingers off our arteries and those of our kids. I’m working on a friendly but firm letter to the Montgomery County organizers of the fair, asking them for a greater variety of healthier stuff to eat next year. In a pinch, they could set up a green tent as some fairs do, or bring in food trucks with more variety for some of the time, which are options I’ll suggest.

Today’s column by Mark Bittman has more great ideas for how we should really honor farmers and their labors making something essential out of sun, water, and dirt:

  • We need to reduce unemployment and increase the minimum wage (including that for farm and restaurant workers). This (obviously) goes beyond the realm of food, but it’s key to improving the quality of life for many if not most Americans. (Here’s a strong argument for that.)
  • We need to not cut but raise the amount of support we give to recipients of food stamps. A good example is New York City’s Health Bucks program, where food stamps are worth more at farmers’ markets (which don’t, as a rule, sell sugar-sweetened beverages!).
  • We need not only to attack the nonsensical and wasteful system that pays for corn and soybeans to be grown to create junk food and ethanol, but to support local and national legislation that encourages the birth of new small-and-medium farms. We need to encourage both new and established farms to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, to raise animals in sensible ways and, using a combination of modern and time-tested techniques, treat those animals well and use their products sensibly.

Amen, brother.

I’m also thinking about designing a small, polite but clear card, addressed to the chef, that folks could hand to restaurants to raise the issue of improving offerings on kids’ menus. If you think this is something you would possibly print and use, please let me know.

6 thoughts on “The New (Pay-to-Attend) Food Deserts

  1. Great site– I appreciate your research, focus and passion. I have two kids and exhausted from keeping trying to keep them free from toxins. I also noticed kid’s menus are usually fried chicken things, fried potato things, “grilled” cheese, mozzarella sticks– rarely an actual vegetable (and no fries don’t count)! After reading up on Lustig’s research and looking at how sugar and alcohol have the same impact on the liver– it is the most difficult thing to keep them away from– friends get awkward if i say no to soda, juice, cupcakes- life has become a constant stream of nos.

    • Exactly. I’m really tired of finding nothing in our street and public food that would be healthy to eat! I wonder how much of our problem with child (and adult!) health would disappear overnight if we made healthy food the default rather than the “special” category… Thanks so much for your comment! Let’s be comfort to each other at least!! Laura

    • Hi MJ! I love corrections, but in this case I mean “food desert” — that is, a place in which real food is hard to find. People talk about this issue in terms of groceries in, say, low income neighborhoods. My point is that it is also impacts other public spaces! The admittedly lame pun attempt is also intentional. I make enough mistakes, though, that I really appreciate your discerning eye!!
      All best,
      Laura

  2. Laura — Tell your local festival to check out what they do in Western Mass — my friends from UMASS and I went to the Green River Festival in July (www.greenriverfestival.com) and while they had the usual array of what my Irish father would term “shyte” they also had lots of great local food vendors and an assortment of cuisines (Mexican, Thai, etc.) with offerings that included actual vegetables. Clearly it can be done on a large scale with a little creativity. For purposes of full disclosure, let me here note that my kid still had mac and cheese. 🙂 — Rua

    • Hi Rua, How great to hear from you! The occasional mac attack happens, I’m sure… Thanks so much for the link. I will check out the site as an example — and this doesn’t seem hard to me in this day and age, if you care to think about it for two shakes… Cheers, Laura

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