Can Food Network Chefs Help Solve the Obesity Crisis?

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A Times op-ed says access to real food is the solution. But what about the people who have access and still eat junk?

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Frank Bruni, a brilliant writer who knows a thing or two about gourmet food, waded into the simmering debate on the perils of culinary elitism today. In an op-ed in The New York Times, he scolded bad-boy chef Anthony Bourdain for picking on the "deep-fried doyenne" Paula Deen for "telling an obese nation that it's O.K. to eat food that is killing us."

His message: Moralizing and gastro-snobbery won't move Deen or a nation of fast-food lovers towards healthier eating. And worse, it "cooks up resentment" between the food haves and have-nots.

Bruni is right in his diagnosis. In the six months my husband, Brent Cunningham, and I spent researching a book on food culture in Huntington, West Virginia, we saw firsthand how many people had written off healthier eating as both out of reach and complicated. Wait, you say I should eat more whole grains but Raisin Bran cereal is bad for me? In particular, we noted how many poor and working-class families enthusiastically embraced the fresh-food-is-expensive message because it liberates them to go back to the familiar and convenient pizza rolls, microwave meals, and, of course, the fast-food drive-through. As Heather James, a Huntington mother of three, told me: "I just feel like it's all stacked against me. No matter what I do I can't win. So why bother?"

Unfortunately, Bruni is wrong in his prescription for how to bridge the class divide. Paula Deen isn't the villain, he argues. It's the dearth of affordable, healthy food in many neighborhoods. In fact, Deen and other Food Network stars could be part of the solution to helping Americans slim down.

It's fashionable to blame access and affordability as the culprits of America's obesity crisis (and the $150 billion in associated health costs). Michelle Obama trumpets the openings of new urban Walmarts. Study after study shows that fresh, healthy food is more expensive per calorie than processed equivalents. (I myself have complained that eight-dollar-a-dozen-eggs available at urban farmers markets set the wrong example.)

Access and affordability are problems in some areas. But in many towns and cities the issue is overblown. In Huntington—the most unhealthy and unhappy metro area in America—the majority of families we met, even the very poorest, had access to a car and shopped at a grocery or superstore. While my husband and I bought organic produce and meat from the local butcher and cooked most of our meals, the families we were reporting on ate sugary cereals for lunch and soda and frozen pizzas for dinner.

It wasn't price that motivated our different habits. As we reported last fall, on average our groceries cost about $100 a week, or $2.38 per person, per meal. Not exactly the dollar menu, but far less than a Stouffers' frozen mac and cheese ($4.99 with loyalty card) or many of the fast-food specials, such as Captain D's $4.99 30-shrimp "Shrimpzilla," advertised on billboards around town.

The difference was taste and convenience. Cooking three meals a day at home, as we did for research purposes, is a hell of a lot of work. And for many families, putting in the effort doesn't pay off. Last fall, James, the Huntington mom, tried to make mac and cheese from scratch—but it wasn't a hit. "It's just not boxed mac-and-cheese," she told me. "And sometimes that's what you want."

Creating a healthier food culture requires reshaping Americans values about eating: Bigger can't always be better. Fast can't always be the goal. Maybe, just maybe, you don't deserve a break today.

Food Network chefs such as Deen, Guy Fieri, Sandra Lee, and Rachael Ray (who to her credit got involved in the campaign to reform school lunch) are sneered at by the urban fooderati. But they have real power—and wouldn't it be nice if they used it?

There are plenty of reasons to shirk this responsibility. For some, healthy, responsible eating undermines their brand. You don't build a multimillion-dollar empire glorifying sugar and lard, as Deen has, then turn around and tell people not to eat them. Others may fear being lampooned as another nagging, do-gooder like Jamie Oliver, who in two successive seasons managed to infuriate the populations of Huntington and Los Angeles. (Rumors have it that the show will not be renewed.) For almost everyone, lucrative contracts with big food companies encourage the use of fat-laden, salty processed ingredients.

Doing their part, though, doesn't mean embracing a preachy all-organic, all-from-scratch philosophy. (And it won't work, anyway.) But food network stars could offer a few healthy recipes as well as substitutions on their more indulgent creations. They could highlight diners and dives that serve human-size portions instead glorifying the 105-pound burger. They could promote sensible eating as enjoyable, rather than as a punishment.

Many Americans actually like to cook and a growing number want to learn. What if the magic ingredient to changing the way we eat turned out to be Paula Deen after all?

Image: Courtesy of the Food Network

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Jane Black, formerly a food writer at The Washington Post, is currently at work on a book about food culture and class in Huntington, West Virginia. Learn more at www.janeblack.net.

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