Gathering around the family table for a nightly dinner has never been so complicated. It seems like there's a new study every day describing rising obesity rates, the danger of ultra-processed foods, and the increasingly busy schedules of families — all of which contribute to a unique and sadly unequal food system in the U.S.
A new book from a team of sociologists, "Pressure Cooker: Why Home Cooking Won’t Solve Our Problems and What We Can Do About It," explores the relationship between food, family and health. The professors studied 168 poor and middle-class families in North Carolina, some for as long as five years, going with them to grocery stores, observing them cooking at home, and generally observing their day-to-day food habits. What they found is, well, complicated.
"Our research convinced us that the solutions to our collective cooking pressures won't be found in individual kitchens," note the authors in their introduction. This is a direct contradiction to the public figure foodies we see touting that exact message. For years now, home cooking as been heralded as the answer to all our food-related woes. From Harvard studies to food writer Michael Pollan's "Cooked" book and Netflix show of the same name to celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's TED talks, these well-meaning but misguided messages want us to know that home cooking is the cure-all. But as "Pressure Cooker" reminds us, having the time to shop for fresh ingredients, plan a well-rounded meal, and cook in a stocked and working kitchen simply isn't a reality for many working Americans.
The book is organized around seven popular "foodie messages," ranging from "you are what you eat" to "know what's on your plate" to "the family that eats together, stays together." The authors then break down how these well-meaning messages put pressure on families (and especially women) that returning to the dinner table will create healthier kids and stronger family ties. By embedding themselves in these nine different families' homes and kitchens for years, the researchers paint a compelling picture of why we need to look outside the kitchen for answers to our collective food woes.
"Americans are increasingly strapped for money and time," the authors write, "contending with rising costs of education, healthcare, and housing; longer commutes to work; and growing uncertainty about the safety of our food system." It's not all gloom and doom, though, as the professors offer real and tangible ways to make our food system more equal in our own homes, communities and country.
For starters, keep food in perspective. Cooking is wonderful and important, but it's not the be-all and end-all for good parenting. Studies show that simply spending quality time with your children is what matters most, whether that's cooking an organic meal from scratch or playing a game of basketball outside.
Taking the pressure off families to produce a home-cooked meal every night leads into their suggestion to consider other ways for people to share a meal together that don't involve burdening one individual with the labor-intensive task of preparing food. Collective solutions that help people across all income levels include universal school lunches made with fresh food, encouraging churches and daycares to share their commercial kitchens, and community suppers are all ways to bring people together while lightening the load.
Other solutions demand a complete shift in both our way of thinking and our politics. "We need to reframe the way we think of food: not as a privilege to be dispensed by charities to people who deserve it, but as a fundamental human right for everyone," state the authors. They bring up the sobering fact that the United States is one of the few developing countries that has not endorsed a right to food. Recognizing food as a human right allows for tackling food insecurity a multi-pronged approach: raising the minimum wage, investing in affordable housing, and bolstering our food assistance programs instead of restricting them.
And finally, support the workers who feed us. The food that appears on our dinner table (or in our pizza box) every night doesn't get there by magic. It's a cruel irony that the staffers who work in fancy restaurant kitchens probably can't afford to eat there, or that the fruits and vegetables middle-class consumers buy to keep their families healthy are picked by farmworkers who suffer from occupational health problems. Consumers and retailers both play a part in improving workers' labor and living conditions.
If we want to have a fair and just food system for everybody, we'll have to look outside the kitchen for answers.