Saturday, February 23, 2013

Junk Food, The Real Opiate of America's Masses

A few months ago I wrote a post about my favorite kinds of junk food, and I said this:

"If Karl Marx were alive and amongst us today, he would say that cheap junk food, not religion, is the opiate of the masses.  People are willing to passively accept warrantless spying by their government, drug tests from their employers, and surveillance cameras on any corner, but will get up in arms if you dare restrict their right to giant containers of sugary soda."

The recent article in the New York Times Magazine about the science behind addictive junk food got me thinking about this fact again.  Until recently, overconsumption of junk food was a cheap vice that was completely socially acceptable.  Folks might frown at smoking or judge someone for drinking to excess, but chomping through a whole bag of Doritos and washing it down with a liter of Mountain Dew would hardly draw much notice.  Not only that, this was something that I did as a child all the time while having parents who would have taken me to the woodshed if I drank or smoked.  A friend of mine who grew up in a very religious, evangelical environment always likes to talk about how overeating, i.e. gluttony, is the one acceptable vice among devout Christians.

Growing up as I did in a lower-middle class household governed by cheap parents, junk food was one of the few things we were allowed to indulge in.  My mom would bring home bulging bags of Brachs Pick-a-Mix candy from the grocery store every week, along with crates of soda.  (Since it was cheaper, many varieties of Shasta were always on hand.)  My father loved pretzels and Fritos, and cracked open endless cartons of Whoppers.  Once I was old enough to be drawing an allowance, I would go to the drug store across from my junior high and buy a handful of peppermint patties and mini-Reese's cups just about every day, without a shred of parental disapproval.  My family is not alone in this.  Junk food in this country is cheap, plentiful, and always at hand.  As I mentioned before, our whole agricultural policy is centered around the proposition that a bag of Cheetos ought to cost as much as a bunch of spinach.

In the past thirty years, those of us who are not in the upper-strata in the taxpayers have been getting squeezed.  College now means decades of debt, medical bills cause bankruptcy, and wages are stagnant.  However, potato chips, candy bars, and Big Macs are still as cheap as ever.  Having another frustrating day working your no security, shit-pay job where you have no voice?  Just crack open a soda and chomp down on some chips and candy until your body warms up to the sugar and carbs and your troubles are forgotten.

We should be doing more to understand this country's consumption of junk food as a class-based phenomenon, and not of the "the proles are so dumb and uneducated and stupid they're eating themselves to death" variety I keep hearing from affluent urban liberals.  I've changed my eating habits, but I understand why someone might be upset over losing the Big Gulp.  What right does a billionaire like Bloomberg have to deny a simple, if unhealthy, pleasure to a regular person who has so little in life that they can afford to indulge in?  Instead of just berating consumers of junk food, we ought to hold the people who make and market it more accountable, and to question the cruel, unequal economic system that has made the masses seek an opiate in junk food in the first place.


Brian I said...

Fascinating analysis--these are some great observations! But don't forget the other class- and religion-based aspects of this equation. (Disclosure: I was raised in an upper-working-class/lower-middle class protestant context). Like many, I grew up in a family that ate lots of fairly unhealthy food, yet we chastized ourselves for being overweight.

As Americans we indulge, but then we are supposed to feel guilty about our dietary antinomianism. Then we are trained to run to weight loss programs or self-help books in order to purge the weight that our indulgence/moments of weakness caused.

Nicholas Koerner said...

Right on as always W.H.B. I work for legitimately and purposefully evil company and the only freedom they allow us is to leave the building for lunch. Because the place is outside of town there are only 3 options and all three are fastfood places in the three near by gas stations. Every day hundreds of us go to them even though the food is bad and expensive. I stopped going there but most of my friends do even though they don't like it. It's the only way to escape from workplace tyranny so every day, 5-7 days a week depending on the shift schedule, they go out to eat and smoke. A lot of us are young, most of us are in college, so they don't think it matters much, but for the career employees its a serious problem. You could blame them for being stupid and eating junk food every day but the structure of the system we are in provides incentives to be unhealthy as the only happiness and freedom that we get at work.

Inside the building, most everyone lives in fear of being fired at a moments notice and its the best paying job for college students and those with low education, so no one speaks up for themselves. The people that work there have to work there so they put up with some truly reprehensible behavior from our employer. Junk food is the only freedom they have.

Helen Bushnell said...

Brian, I think that feeling guilty about food keeps some people from eating well. It can seem indulgent spending time learning to cook. Of course, lots of people either can't find ingredients to cook with or don't have a place to cook.