We have the U.S. military to thank for our grab-and-go food. That (seemingly) fourth branch of government is responsible for our protein bars, frozen dinners, canned tuna, Chef Boyardee ravioli, Spam, and that orange "cheese" powder that sticks to your fingers from Cheetos. Much of our convenient, processed, packaged food came from the need to feed soldiers on the field, from MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) to the higher-tech foods of today. The military's mission has played a huge role in shaping the food industry’s research agenda, resulting in a proliferation of products fine-tuned for portability, convenience, shelf-life, and mass appeal — rather than health, taste, or environmental sustainability, says Anastacia Marx de in Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat.
Then the pendulum swung the other way, taking us back to our roots metaphorically, and yes, literally. What's next after the artisanal, home-grown, hand-crafted, slow-food movement reaches its pinnacle? It helps to know how we got there in the first place.
The Rise of Convenience Food
The military is the largest funder of food research in the United States, so no wonder its agenda shapes the way Americans eat. About four-fifths of the Department of Defense's research and development budget pays for research conducted by business and industry giants, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"Wartime innovations in blood plasma transport paved the way for instant coffee, the McRib is descended from military research into 'fabricated modules of meat,' and the finger-staining dust on Cheetos can be traced back to a dehydrated, compressed 'jungle' cheese invented by government scientists in 1943," according to Popular Science.
Convenience food has been a great source of relief and sustenance. Prepared, packaged food not only helped feed soldiers, it met the needs of a growing number of households with two working parents and less time to cook from scratch. Yet it was another step away from fresh produce and unadulterated animal proteins. And it took us another leap toward child obesity. Fresh food has become a thing of the wealthy. Many children of lower socio-economic status don't recognize what a whole eggplant or pineapple looks like when pulled from the ground, let alone understand that food doesn't come from the drive-thru or grocery store, originally.
The food evolution was beginning even before the military stepped in, when the industrial revolution transferred our fresh produce from backyard farms to distant mega-farms that mass-produce food. Then that food was sent to assembly lines in processing plants and shipped thousands of miles across the country.
But global wars made it worse, says Lizzie Collingham in The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food: "… wartime food shortages and substitutes primed a population to value abundance and accept reduced quality ingredients."
Farm to Table Fanatics
Since the early 2000s, we've experienced a backlash to this trial separation from our food sources. The epidemics of obesity and diabetes and increasing cost of health care have scared us into caring where our food comes from. We've tightened the leash on our food's origins and handling with farm-to-table, organic, locally-grown values that glorify CSAs (community supported agriculture).
It's chic and somewhat luxurious to shop at farmers markets and spout food advocate Michael Pollan's advice to stick to the whole foods along the supermarket's perimeter. The problem is the system is rigged to make fresh, whole food more expensive and out of reach for many Americans. Big Agriculture and the associated businesses make more money selling processed food.
The farm-to-table ethos has been so overdone, some restaurant menus are falsely claiming it to glom onto the trend. The buzzword's outshoots have sprung, from nose-to-tail (eating the whole animal, including the less desireable parts) to root-to-stem (like eating beet greens and using your food scraps for stock instead of tossing it in the trash). Food educator, activist, and writer Pollan is responsible for shedding light onto the perils of eating the way we had been, starting with his deliriously successful book, The Omnivore's Dilemma in 2007. He's the guy who first said "Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants." On the 10th anniversary of his book, Pollan participated in a Chowhound's Table Talk with Michael Pollan, addressing the problems the food movement has in making healthy food accessible to less affluent people, the change in cattle-raising practices, and GMOs.
Meal Kit Deliveries
While this is all nice and good for people who love cooking, have time, money, and are willing to do it, then there is everyone else. True, every household had to cook whether they liked it or not before the rise of convenience food. But now we have a choice, and the stressors have grown. Both parents are still working, and today's young professionals are the first generation to earn less than their parents did before them.
With this food knowledge part of mainstream thought these days, there comes great responsibility. We know why cooking is good for us. So are meal-kit and grocery delivery services the next step, bridging the gap between convenience and from-scratch homecooking?
Usually the food isn't sourced locally in services such as HelloFresh, Blue Apron, Martha & Marley Spoon, and Sun Basket, although some services try when they can because it does lower distribution costs. The same goes for grocery delivery services like Fresh Direct and Amazon Fresh. If you're buying whole foods and fresh produce from these delivery services, that's still better than resorting to a fast-food joint or grabbing processed, sodium-packed, sugar-infused foods such as canned pasta, fruit, and soup; frozen TV dinners, chicken nuggets, and pizza rolls; bags of chips; boxes of cookies; and fruit-swirled yogurt that masquerades as a healthy breakfast or snack yet has more sugar than ice cream. It's a start.
If meal-kit delivery services prevent you from eating processed foods and teach you cooking techniques that make your more comfortable in the kitchen, that's good. Soon, you could be growing your own heirloom tomatoes and plucking leaves of basil from your window plant. You never know.
Check out our pros and cons of the many meal kits on the market today, with Your Ultimate Guide to All Those Meal-Kit Delivery Services. But if you're going to stay truer to the mission even though you don't have much time to cook after work, we hope these 15 Tips and Tricks to Cook Dinner Faster can help.
— Head photo: Task and Purpose.
Amy Sowder is the assistant editor at Chowhound in New York City. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She's trying to like mushrooms. Her running habit is the excuse for her gelato passion. Or is it the other way around? Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.