Food Takes Time

Kevin Drum and Aaron Carroll report on a new study of the effect of new grocery stores opening in "food deserts" in poor neighborhood. The study is paywalled, so I can't speak to the whole thing, but both of them quote similar bits making the same point: no statistically significant effects on the BMI of people in the neighborhood, and very few signs of healthier eating in general.

This is one of those studies that probably belongs in the Journal of "Well, Yeah...", because it doesn't surprise me a bit. Not for reasons that can be addressed via policy measures-- Drum quotes the study saying "The development of new food retail stores should be combined with initiatives focused on price and availability that could help bridge the gap between improvements in people’s perceptions of accessibility and behavior change"-- but because of much more fundamental economics. I seriously doubt that people in the neighborhoods in question are eating badly because they don't know that what they're eating is crap-- they're eating badly because anything else takes time.

This story caught me at a moment when I was particularly susceptible to it, because one of the reasons today's planned physics posts didn't get done is that I made dinner last night before taking the kids off to a basketball game. Which I didn't strictly need to do-- I didn't even eat any of the food I made-- but I felt it was important because we've been eating a lot of frozen crap lately. All I did was to fry up some chicken breasts and steam some broccoli, but even blocking out 45 minutes for that is a challenge-- Kate and I both work all day, and don't get home until around 6pm. Bedtime for the kids is 7:30, which is about as late as we can let SteelyKid go and still be able to get her on the bus at 7:30 the next morning. That's not a time to cook and eat, especially once you factor in that SteelyKid requires half an hour of constant nagging to eat one hot dog.

So, if we want to eat healthy, fresh food, it comes out of my work day. I need to go home a little early, to do dinner prep, so stuff is nearly ready by the time the kids get home. To some extent, we can make large batches of stuff on weekends and re-heat leftovers, but weekend days have a way of getting eaten up as well, with play-dates and trips to see shows or movies, and home maintenance, and work that spills out of the office day. On the other hand, pre-made frozen food heats up in fifteen minutes, start to finish. When things get busy, that's a hard choice not to make.

And keep in mind I have a great job. I'm paid quite well, thank you very much, as is Kate, so buying food isn't a problem. And we're both highly educated professionals. If I need to leave a little early to deal with family stuff, I can do that, as long as I show up to teach my classes. And a lot of the time, we're just barely able to keep everything together. So imagine how much worse it would be for somebody punching a clock at one or more low-paying service jobs, where leaving a little early to get dinner ready means coming up short for the week.

People aren't eating crap because they don't know it's bad for them, or because they're brainwashed by food industry marketing, they're eating crap because it's fast and easy and if you've only got a narrow window in which to cook and eat, fast and easy is really tempting. Plus, most of that stuff tastes pretty good, and small pleasures, even guilty ones, are hard to begrudge people at the end of a long day.

On top of that, there's the question of habit-- this study is looking for and failing to find changes in set routines, and that's another big time sink. When we cook fresh food, we tend to rotate through a handful of dishes over and over, because while they're more complicated to make than frozen crap, they're familiar enough to be routine and easy. If I'm standing in the grocery store exhausted at the end of a long week, I'm not going for new recipes and unfamiliar vegetables. It's not that I don't like variety-- I enjoy cooking, and try out new recipes and ingredients when I can-- it's that learning to cook something different would take time that I just don't have. We regularly get offers to sign up for shares of vegetables from local farms, and while I'm sure it would be good for us, I always end up passing, because I don't have the time to learn how to cook new things, or badger the kids into eating them.

And again, if that's the situation for a family in eighty-mumbleth percentile of the income distribution, with jobs that allow flexible scheduling, it's going to be vastly worse for people who are punching the clock in the service sector. Learning new habits takes time, and there are only so many hours in the day. If you're just scraping by as it is, taking the time to learn new stuff-- particularly new stuff that will take more time on a continuing basis-- just isn't that attractive an option. Even if, on balance, it would be better for you in the long run.

So, again, the results of this study are utterly unsurprising to me. I'm also generally unimpressed with the policy prescriptions mentioned as possible solutions, though, because the issue is much deeper. This isn't something you can solve by spending money on educating people about eating better, it's something you can only solve by giving people more time. Which means a whole host of liberal-ish policies that don't seem to have anything to do with food-- higher wages, better working conditions, national health care, etc.-- but lie at the root of absolutely everything else.


(Of course, there's also a cultural component to this that goes beyond mere economics. Most of the work-life juggling problems I have are to some degree self-inflicted. That is, I could choose to do the absolute minimum at work, and not run this blog, not write books, etc. That would free up lots of time for healthy cooking, exercising more, etc. We'd take a slight income hit from that, but we'd be perfectly comfortable with just our base salaries.

(A big part of why I don't have time is that I take on these extra projects that are optional. But then, I put a lot of time into the blog and the books because there are things that I want to accomplish via those activities. And I've been raised in a culture that values ambition, and striving for more, and that's just as hard to break out of as anything income-related...)


More like this

I used to eat a lot of Trader Joe's frozen pastas. It seemed better than other quick stuff, but I was eating way too much pasta. Then Three Stone Hearth opened up in Berkeley. Now they cook amazing food that I can buy and heat up. Local, organic, sustainable ingredients - bone broth soups and stews, sourkraut, polenta with greens. It's expensive, but I'm in a similar situation to yours. Money isn't the issue, time is.

By Sue VanHattum (not verified) on 12 Feb 2014 #permalink

most of that stuff tastes pretty good

It's designed to do that. We evolved to crave protein and sugars, which provide a lot of energy but were scarce in the pre-modern world. Today we get plenty of those things--especially sugars--in processed foods. And it's a hard habit to get out of.

Fast food (McDonald's et al.) is tempting for the same reasons. If there is an outlet in your town, or on the way home from daycare, it's a quick solution to the food problem. It's not that much cheaper than cooking good meals from good ingredients, but it is quicker for most people. (I have various reasons for not patronizing such places, but one of the biggest is that most of the major chains don't have stores in my town--so driving back and forth eats up most of the time I would otherwise save.)

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 12 Feb 2014 #permalink

Amen. Cooking (properly) is difficult. You need:

a) Good ingredients (bought and stored)
b) To prepare ingredients
c) A recipe (Find a good book is a chore in itself)
d) Time to actually cook the food, and
e) (important in my opinion) Time to set the table properly to be conducive to a good meal
f) Clean up time

Each of this steps is straightforward, but takes time. We're all supposed to be working eight hours, and have eight hour at home, but with commutes, this works out to more like 11-12 hours work and 4 hours to ourselves. The art of daily cooking is a hobby a lot of people simply don't have time for anymore.

I honestly don't understand why supermarket don't sell pre-packaged, fridge-able sets of ingredients, (possibly prepared) with cooking instructions for full meals. They make a killing! I guess it's easier just to pile em high and sell em cheap.

Chad got close but missed the key element; it's about life style and what's important, not about time. Eating together as a family is essential, so make that a priority. Someday you will have the time and perhaps more insight to be able to write a great blog.