>Free Market vs. Free Will

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Image obtained from Time.com


In this day and age, we look at this advertisement and scoff.  
It’s shocking, certainly, but we’re so far removed from it that it doesn’t really register as more than an amusing historical anecdote. 
Imagine advertisers using doctors to sell cigarettes today.  They’d be tarred and feathered.  They’d be brought up on charges.  They’d certainly be fined by the FTC.  And, hopefully, we as consumers would know better than to be taken in by their claims.  Because we do know better.  We’re informed.
The question I’ve been mulling over for a while now is whether this type of advertising is really any different from the myriad ads with which we’re currently inundated, touting the “healthful” and “wholesome” benefits of certain processed convenience foods.  
Foods like Cherry Pop-Tarts® that claim to be “baked with real fruit” but in reality contain 2% or less of dried cherries and dried apples (and that comes below the “enriched” flour, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose (another name for glucose), and sugar).  Or foods like “Whole Grain” Hamburger Helper® that contain 300 calories, 13 grams of fat and nearly 700 mg of sodium per 1-cup serving. Yes, I said ONE cup serving.  For real.

The advent of many of the convenience foods we know today came about in the wake of World War II, when men were off fighting overseas, and women, who normally would be at home keeping house and cooking meals, took to working in factories to assist in the war efforts.  There was a demand for quick, easy foods that women could quickly get on the table after a long day at work.  Frozen dinners and canned  fruits and vegetables (which could also serve as staples in your handy bomb shelter) became the norm.  Margarine became an acceptable substitute for butter because of rations.


But when the war was over, the companies who were making these items just kept on.  And advertisers figured out that they could convince people that they needed these products.  And so the vicious cycle was born.

And here we are today – in a country where more than half of our population is overweight and more than 30% of adults are obese.

Which brings me to free will.  My husband got into a discussion with a friend on facebook the other day that began with a comment about a cable news station and eventually turned to the subject of rising food costs and the inability of poor people to afford or source quality food in urban settings.  All of this got me thinking.

First, I know plenty of people with plenty of money who consciously choose to purchase low-nutrient convenience foods over fresh, nutrient dense foods.  Whether it’s because they’ve been convinced by advertisers that this is the best way, or because they just don’t care, I’m not sure.  I just know that it happens.  I often think that there are just as many undernourished middle- to upper-middle-class children as there are lower-class children simply for that reason.

Second, I wonder if people were taught how to advocate for themselves, would they be willing to do so ?  I know it is difficult for the poor in America – they don’t have access to good education, they don’t have access to quality food, they don’t have access to reliable transportation which makes it hard to find and keep a job, and the list goes on.   And because of that lack of access, the argument is that they need someone to come in and take care of them, to do for them, to provide for them.  Which, in my opinion, makes it appear that  people are incapable of doing these things for themselves. And by inferring that someone is incapable, aren’t you automatically discounting their ability and intelligence?

Being the cock-eyed optimist that I am, I believe we are all intelligent beings, and we all have the same ability to gain knowledge.  It comes down to the availability of said knowledge and a willingness to learn.  There was an article in Newsweek a while back called What Food Says About Class in America, and it spent a lot of time outlining the disparity between the foods consumed by those on the upper end of the income spectrum vs. foods consumed by those on the lower end.  Organic, local, seasonal, nutrient-dense foods for the “rich” Americans and calorie-laden high-fat processed junk- and fast-food for the poor.  And granted, that is true to some extent.

But I don’t believe that it has to be.

The article ends on an uplifting note, featuring a man who receives $75 in food stamps per week for his mother and himself.  They are both diabetic, and he understands that they both need healthy regular meals in order to regulate their conditions.  He is quoted as saying, “To get good food, you really got to sacrifice a lot. It’s expensive. But I take that sacrifice, because it’s worth it.”  He goes to farmer’s markets and spends time sorting through the limited produce at his local grocery to find the best of what they have.  He is an example of someone making the best of his situation.  He does it because he knows he has to.  He’s informed, and he understands that in order to survive (literally, because of his health) he has to eat healthfully.

Just like we now know that the cigarette ad at the beginning of this post is ridiculous, we should also know that most of the claims made by advertisers about processed foods are also pretty much lies.  You’re not going to be happier or healthier if you purchase them.  And those of us who understand this should make an effort to share that knowledge with people who may not have access to the same sources that we do.  I’m all for free markets, and I believe that companies and advertisers have every right (within reason) to sell their products.  I also believe that consumers have a choice, and if we demand better quality food then producers will have to provide it.  The laws of supply and demand still apply, and we don’t have to let the big food conglomerates continue to dictate that supply.  If we stop buying it, they will have to stop producing it.  It’s that simple.

This is a PSA/commercial that Beyonce did in conjunction with General Mills and Hamburger Helper® encouraging people to donate to food pantries.  Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think people need to donate to food pantries – absolutely. And I applaud Beyonce for trying to make a difference.  I just wonder why celebrities aren’t teaming up with local growers  (and even backyard gardeners) to encourage people to donate fruits and vegetables and whole-grain products.  Why do we give the worst quality foods to the people who need the most encouragement to eat well and feed their children well?

Why aren’t more celebrities partnering with organizations like Share our Strength?  Why aren’t more people  in general signing up to volunteer to teach people how to cook healthfully through programs like Cooking Matters?

With knowledge comes power, and the power lies in our hands.  We just have to choose to use it.  We have to choose not to be influenced by crafty advertisers whose sole purpose is to get us to spend money on products we don’t need.  And we need to figure out a way to help others do the same. 

If you read this whole post, thank you.  Let me know your thoughts in the comments. 

I’ll leave you with one final image:

This was my attempt at a home-made version of Hamburger Helper®.  It uses fresh whole-wheat pasta, homemade cheese, fresh tomatoes, and white-meat ground turkey.  My husband, who is an admitted fan of Hamburger Helper® and hates that I won’t let him buy it, loved it.  So did my kids.  It contains 213 calories, 6 grams of fat, 4 grams of fiber and 432 mg of sodium per serving.  It took me an hour, start to finish, to prepare everything.

And my oldest got to help me roll out the pasta – which he thought was super fun (he called it “driving” the pasta machine).  You can’t do that with a box of Hamburger Helper®.

If you’d like a printable version of this recipe, click here.

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17 thoughts on “>Free Market vs. Free Will

  1. >Nice thoughful post – yes, I read it all. :)Its getting equally crazy in emerging markets like India (where I am)…Centuries of rich healthy home-cooked eating traditions going down the drain in favor of McDonalds and such. I just cringe at the sight of mothers feeding that disgusting reconstituted McDonalds crap to their little children. Here, its not so much a poor-people thing. MOstly middle and upper midlde class that eat at such places. Rs 25 for a lousy potato pattie is probably too much for the truly poor, when you get a fresh Vada pav (spicy potato pattie inside a local bread) for Rs 5 – not healthy either but still better than Mcd. Advertising does play a role in food choices for sure. And McD was rightfully sued in the UK for it – but they put up a big stinker and all…But ultimately, no one has a gun to your head and we have to accept personal responsibility. Things are changing, though – people are demanding better and hopefully our children will scoff at us as the generation that allowed Mcd and its ilk to tout their fares as healthy food.

  2. >Very thoughtful post! I too have been pondering these things, as you know. I think the biggest problem is that we as a culture are not trained or encouraged to "think." In general, people have just not put a lot of thought into nutrition and they go along with the advertisements because they don't really know better — or know to question it. It is very confusing to navigate the grocery store. You really have to read all the labels, it takes forever and I hate it. There are so many products these days labeled as "natural," "whole grain" or "preservative free" and it doesn't really mean anything. I have fallen victim to some of this marketing. Also, I think that people below the poverty line and on public assistance don't really feel they have any choices. I remember being in line behind a very attentive dad and his little girl who were using food stamps. They did not fit the image of the "lazy, good-for-nothing bums" some people make food stamp recipients out to be. In the cart, they had the absolute cheapest white bread on manager's special, the cheapest bologna and the cheapest American cheese product. This dad was doing the best he could — probably thinking he was being smart by stretching his food stamp allotment to the max. Granted, people with means often make poor nutritional choices, too. The sad reality is processed food is cheaper, more abundant, more assessible and subsidized by the government. Hopefully as more people become educated, think about the foods they consume and demand better choices, things will change.

  3. >@Raw Girl – I hope you're right about future generations scoffing at us. I can only hope that we can turn things around in time for our children to know to make better choices. I think it's so sad that food traditions are being usurped by fast-food and convenience. Thanks for sharing your point of view!@Time for Good Food – I agree that people don't think they have a choice. It's been drilled into all of us that we need to get the most for our money, and that means buying the cheapest version of everything. If we could train people to understand that there's value in spending a little more for better quality, then I think we'd be making a difference.Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. It's nice to know that someone is reading this stuff.

  4. >I think the most encouraging thing to me was reading about Jabir Suluki, and how he is taking personal responsibility for his own choices and then helping others. I feel the underlying issue in our broken food system in America is personal responsibility-what can I do?-on an individual level, and then-what can I do for others?-to spread the message. As the message spreads and becomes real change in individual lives, we would see the withering of profits for companies who continue to churn out sub-par "food product."

  5. >Excellent commentary on today's food situation. We have 8 (almost 9) children, and we've been studying how to eat economically and healthy on a budget. We are praising the Lord because today He's shown us how to use places like Costco to eat healthy, unprocessed foods for under $500/month! That's not just get-by stuff, it's healthy, fresh, wholesome. I just want to encourage that it's possible (and a fun challenge) to be a large family and eat healthy.

  6. >@Molly – I don't disagree at all. I have found myself donating those calorie laden foods in the past (before I really gave any thought to all of this). And I know that the lack of quality grocery stores with fair prices and decent food is a real problem. The urban food desert is a reality that needs to be addressed, and one that needs to be brought to the attention of everybody. I'm working on a project with the Atlanta Community Food Bank to try and shed some light on all of these issues. I just hope some of it helps.

  7. >I think this is a great post. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking. I do have a couple of comments. As the gentleman shopping for himself and his mother on food stamps said, it takes time to sort through the produce to find the best one. It takes time to go to the farmer's market – they aren't always open the hours that are convenient. What about the single mother that doesn't have time to sit down on Sunday morning to work on her meal plans for the rest of the week? She is often going to end up running to the grocery store after work, kids in tow, and picking up the most affordable and most convenient item. That is often Hamburger Helper. Or Ramen Noodles. It is one stop and she's outta there. She can cook diner with one pan and be done with it all in 30 minutes. Your version of HH took twice as long. For a working parent who has to come home and cook, clean bottles/lunch boxes, give baths, and so on, an hour is a long time to dedicate to one task. What about the person that works two jobs and is just trying to find something to eat between shifts? I do believe that these people need to prioritize their health and that of their families a little higher than some other things, I do not think it is so simple. I absolutely agree with you that more Americans need to take control and ask more questions and do their research. But how can we help them get to that point? How can we make healthy, quick, fun meals available to those that need them most, those that likely do not have the leisure to read food blogs and subscribe to healthy cooking magazines?The food bank issue is definitely something that needs to be addressed. I have also wondered why I am donating foods to the needy, when I myself would never feed them to my own family. How can we donate fresh foods and make sure they get to those families before they go bad? These are all important topics and questions, and I think starting discussions like this are a dang good start. 🙂 Thanks for the post.

  8. >I am all about free will and education. I believe firmly that we make out own decisions about the quality of the food entering our bodies and that it doesn't take an Ivy-league education to understand that convenience and cheap does not mean nutritious. I am by far not the wealthiest person I know and yet I have to admit, I am the best fed. I watch people with far more income then myself plop it down on foods that I wouldn't eat if they were paying me to day in and day out. One I am thinking of is now severely diabetic and knows he needs to change his habits, and yet doesn't. He will complain all day about his weight and health issues, and then go back to his favorite places for more junk food instead of cooking a reasonable meal. Another are parents I know that would rather let their child eat the fried bits off of the chicken nuggets leaving the semblance of actual food behind as opposed to upset them or make them feel like they 'had to' eat their supper. Not only is this teaching the child bad habits to grow up with, it can't possibly by healthy. And to top it off it is always rewarded with a giant slice of cake. Every night. The parents are too worried about making sure the child thinks they are 'fun' to ensure proper nutrients. So, I believe a lot of it has to do with free will, the choices we make. Eating organic is expensive but eating with common sense doesn't have to be. Just because there is a McDonalds on every street corner doesn't mean I have to step into one. I choose that and feel that a lot of other people just don't. Now, I am not saying there isn't an educational issue or that it isn't hard. It is. But we all have the power to choose different options – its whether or not we do that makes the difference. I collect food donations throughout the year for our local food bank usually collecting several hundred items to donate through my store. We always sift through the donations before actually handing them over to pick out the things that are expired. Last year (2010) we received a jar of peanut butter that had expired in 1989. Not only is that just wrong – I actually worry for the person that was able to reach into their pantry and pull that out. Wonder what else it looks like. We do get a lot of canned goods and hamburger helper, but that is because our local food bank asks for those types of things. They are either not able to get fresh foods to people fast enough or unable to store them. I wish we could donate fresh fruits and vegetables but it would require a total overhaul of our (local at least) food bank. And – while I'm writing war and peace out in my reply – we can also discuss the waste of local markets. I know people who work at markets and are made to throw away good food at the end of the day. They are not allowed to give it away, or take it home for themselves but are made to throw it away! How sad is that?Thanks for this post and giving others the opportunity to give their $0.02 about it.

  9. >@Elizabeth – all excellent points and great questions to consider. I certainly understand the struggles of working mothers, being one myself. An hour is a long time, but I don't think it's unreasonable. Plus, you could easily cut the time for the above version by using a boxed whole-wheat pasta. Then it would only take about 20 minutes start to finish. It's definitely going to take time and effort to make the information available and accessible. I wish there was an easy way to make people see the value in spending the extra time and effort (and often dollars) to provide a better future for themselves and their children. I'm just glad that there are people giving thought to it and trying to figure it out.

  10. >@Kita – it's shocking to me what people will donate to food pantries. It's like they think that anything is better than nothing; but when that anything will likely make someone ill, then perhaps it's time to rethink. And you're right about markets wasting perfectly reasonable food. My husband used to work in the produce department of a local grocery chain and they weren't even allowed as employees to take produce that wasn't sell-able home, even if it was still edible. I know they're worried about lawsuits, but it's ridiculous that there are so many hungry people and so much food goes to waste.I think the food banks also need to rethink their system. I know they are reluctant to turn away donations, but I think there should be a standard to which donations are held (at least no candy, no soft drinks or sugary drinks in general).Thank you for your comment, and for taking the time to respond in such a meaningful way.

  11. >One more thought – then I'll stop – I may be digressing too much. While I find the monotony of chopping vegetables and home-cooking dinner to be one of the most relaxing parts of my day (and I work full time but no, do not have kids), I have to be reminded that some people just flat out don't LIKE to cook.Boxed dinners, canned foods, and take out are all ways that people who don't enjoy cooking to gather their families together for a meal – for better or worse.

  12. >@Molly – I love how much discussion this has caused. I agree – so many people just don't like to cook. It all comes down to choice. My cousin used to hate to cook (or at least she thought she did) so she and her husband got take out or at out almost all the time. Now she lives in an area where the cost of living is significantly higher and she's realized that in order to afford to feed her children well on the new budget, she has to learn to cook. She has discovered that it's really not so bad after all.I am not claiming any easy answers here. I'm just glad we're talking about it.

  13. >Celebrities aren't teaming up with local growers b/c local growers won't pay them to appear in a commercial. Celebrities, most anyway, are the most vapid selfish people on this planet. They don't share and they believe they've never accumulated enough of the world's resources, i.e. wealth, so they keep pumping awful products just for a paycheck. That issue aside, I do believe that there is a very small thinking minority. No matter what you equip the vast majority with, knowledge or otherwise, they like to follow. So, instead you have to present information as propoganda like campaigns just to get their attention. This is just life. Sorry, I'm a statistician, so maybe that skews my view. I just think there's a lot of unnecessary inequality but the less resourced aren't educating themselves and taking an effective stand. It's unfortunate.

  14. >Fantastic piece that I will share. Yes, eating organically and locally CAN be pricey, but we often forget that the cost ends up elsewhere (.50 cent more for fresh apples, but don't have to spend $100 a month on medication) or that eating what we call "frank food" doesn't have to be crazy expensive. Buying nuts and beans and grains in bulk, for example. I buy my steel cut oatmeal in bulk and I am always amazed that I can get a jarful for under $1.00. I have worked in food pantries and always feel such a struggle arranging foodstuffs of things I wouldn't eat myself.

  15. >Interesting post…Judging by the eyeglasses and the fonts used in the cigarette ad, my best guess it that is goes back to about 1935. The U.S. Surgeon General did not announce that there was a definitive link between cancer and smoking until 1964. Prior to that the health risks of smoking were unknown, and I believe there was even a time that smoking was believed to be good for people's nerves.As for the rest… I think that processed foods started to become more of an issue in the 1970s. "Women's Lib" began, and with it the concept that cooking for your family at home was a bad thing. Couple that with the fact that most schools no longer teach home economics and we now have a younger generation that doesn't know how to cook, so they stop at McDonalds on the way home from work, or they fix a Hamburger Helper because it's easy. They need to start teaching home ec in the schools again. Cooking isn't sexist–it's a life skill that all children need to be taught.Yes, there is most certainly a problem when the cheapest foods are also the most fattening and unhealthy. But then again, my home ec teacher taught us that some of the best bargains at the supermarket are usually found in the produce section.

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