Laurie Toby Edison

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When Junk Science Meets Junk Food

Laurie and Debbie say:

eating in a settlement house kitchen

Scientists at the University of Toronto have released a report claiming that the very existence and availability of fast food somehow makes us be in a hurry. “Fast food represents a culture of time efficiency and instant gratification,” says Chen-Bo Zhong, who co-wrote the paper with colleague Sanford DeVoe to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science. “The problem is that the goal of saving time gets activated upon exposure to fast food regardless of whether time is a relevant factor in the context. For example, walking faster is time efficient when one is trying to make a meeting, but it’s a sign of impatience when one is going for a stroll in the park. We’re finding that the mere exposure to fast food is promoting a general sense of haste and impatience regardless of the context.” They did three experiments, each with less than sixty participants (less than thirty outside of the control groups), all of them University of Toronto students. So we already know we aren’t looking at real science. Their theory, which they “confirmed,” was that fast food logos, such as the ubiquitous Macdonalds’ golden arches, make people more impatient, and make them do tasks in more of a hurry. The experiments consisted of subliminal or peripheral vision flashes of fast food logos during other tasks. (We wonder if the control group got subliminal flashes of Alice Waters and the food at her restaurants.) While they don’t actually say in their paper that they are talking about why poor people make bad decisions, they do talk about “density” of fast-food restaurants, which we all know tends to happen in lower-income neighborhoods. (Fast food isn’t exclusively, or even perhaps mostly, the food of poor people. Know any white men in the tech industry? Any gamers?) Nonetheless, Kathryn Hughes, writing in the Guardian, has an excellent class-based critique: The panic around the moral and psychological damage of fast food … was always [fueled by] a much deeper suspicion of what it represented: ignorance, indifference, a wilful inability to imagine a better way of feeding the future. It’s for that reason that, back in the early 19th-century, moralists including William Cobbett churned out a whole array of “cottage economies” and “penny cookbooks” aimed at stopping the working classes from squandering money in the pie shop. These prim moral primers were full of bright suggestions for turning the scrag end of lamb and on-the-turn turnips into something that not only nourished body and soul but also saved pennies for a rainy day. … What all those Victorian moralists missed – just as the Toronto report ignores – is that fast food is the emblematic product of maturing and late capitalism. Urban workers, forced to work longer and longer hours, do not have the time to invest in cooking from scratch. Those who are obliged to live in shared accommodation and rented digs may not have the right equipment for making real food slowly (Agas don’t fit into bedsits; microwaves do). When you are exhausted after a 10-hour shift, then soup is fiddly to consume on the way home. Burgers and kebabs, by contrast, are easy to eat with one hand and require neither plates nor knives. Far from being the refuseniks of capitalism, unable to master its first principle of delayed gratification, the people who rely on fast food outlets are its honourable foot soldiers. We should salute them. Hughes is right on target for most of her essay, and is invoking a long and fascinating history of missionaries, settlement houses, and other do-gooder efforts aimed to make “the poor” eat “right,”  but we disagree with her that delayed gratification is a capitalist virtue, especially in 21st century capitalism. While she excoriates the study for ignoring how workers are pushed into fast food, she also ignores how consciously and carefully fast-food corporations engineer the attraction and desirability of fast food. Just to be clear, neither we nor Hughes are saying that fast food is a good thing, or good for us. Working through purchasable state legislatures, the corporations work hard to ensure ridiculous amounts of salt and sugar in every school cafeteria. Working with urban planners, they carefully calculate which street corners, neighborhoods, and strip malls will be most profitable for new locations. And working with food scientists, they carefully study exactly how much fat, salt, and sugar will make you reach for the next Dorito. So who exactly is into instant gratification? Who is trying to move fast, make immediate moves that might not be so sensible in the long term? Who is impatient? Well, fast food customers perhaps–but fast food owners, demonstrably. And no one is going to fund tiny, silly studies of what the owners do when their own logos flash subliminally onto a screen. Thanks to Annalee Newitz at i09 for the pointer.

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Laurie Toby Edison by Carol Squires

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