Saturday, July 26, 2014

USA Food Culture: Chimp Tales

Experiences at playgrounds that were only 1 week apart spurred this post. After painting the picture, I'll delve into capital C "Culture," aka enduring or high culture and the sacredness of food. Stay with me, this is one looong post.

Part 1: Fishy Bike Park

That's what some kids call the park nearest our apartment. It's great because there's equipment oriented for kids ages 5+ and equipment for kids under 5, there are swings, ride on bouncers, a large pond with fountains, two benches, and two picnic tables. TWO picnic tables.

We met a friend and her four year old for 40 min of play with my four year old, two year old, and the 16 month old I babysit. At the end of our play time, a mom arrives with her 18-24mo son. The mom is talking on her phone as she lifts the boy out, as he swings, as she lifts him out, as they sit at the picnic table and she unloads a snack from a lunch bag, and she keeps. on. talking. Without ONCE addressing her son to transition him between activities or acknowledge his choices.

Evan and L. are playing on the younger kid equipment near the picnic table. I turn to respond to Abigail and her friend E. who are playing at the pond's edge with E's mom. When I turn back, the mom on the phone is following her son up the stairs of the little kid equipment. And her son is eating a vanilla long john donut. EATING a donut WHILE PLAYING on public playground equipment.

Besides the yuck factor for germs for this poor boy, my mind is personally racing ahead to what the contact with a donut will do for my son, Evan.
Will this boy touch Evan?
Will he smear donut all over the same surfaces that Evan may touch?
Will he drop pieces that either Evan or L. will investigate or try to eat?

By the way, it is 10:30am.

I try three times to get the mom's attention, and finally she drags her attention away from the phone.

"Ma'am, my son has a food allergy and the donut is not safe for him. Would you mind eating back at the picnic table?"

She breathes a confused, "Sorry." As I collect Evan and L. to play at the other equipment out of range of the donut. But rather than finish the donut at the picnic table, she just packs up her son into the stroller and heads home while she keeps. on. talking. She never did verbalize to her son that they were leaving, and he never uttered a peep. Strange.

If the phone conversation is that important, why not just plug in a movie at home?
Why go through the hassle of shlepping kid and stroller?
Why not save playground time as special one on one time?

Fishy Bike Park, photo credit:

Part 2: Whee-ooo Park

That's the sound a fire engine makes, and that's the prominent feature of this playground. This playground has a hard rubber surface, two separate play areas for ages 5+ and under 5, large disk swings, traditional swings, and lots of spin around contraptions.

Finally a cool morning in humid Saint Louis! We went on a detour walk, looping to the north before ending up at this playground. Lots of hills. Good for mama buns.

Anyway, the first thing I notice is that there are an astounding 24 kids ages 6 months to fifth grade playing all over. And there are 3 adults, and 2 teens. Neither the YMCA nor the rec center are walking distance, and neither the adults nor kids are wearing color coded camp shirts. Maybe these are home daycare ladies who know each other, since they are chatting non-stop?

The second thing I notice are about 10 lunch boxes, various water and juice bottles, and food wrappers all along the low cement block perimeter wall. I park the stroller near the majority of these and check out the types of food visible and a wrapper or two. Just seems to be crackers containing wheat.

Abigail runs off on her own, but Evan and L. stick by the fire engine slide. Great - no big kids here! Then Evan and L. hear the bells (kids can stomp on flat circles to ring bells) on the big kid equipment, so we head over there. After the second slide down, I notice 3 Jack-In-The-Box fast food bags on the retaining wall over here. But no one is actively eating, so I just decide to watch Evan carefully. After about 4 more minutes, 3 eight year olds run over, forage from the fast food bags, and run in 3 different directions while holding and eating food.

And it is 10:30am, just like the last incident.

My mind runs through the same line of questioning, but given the sheer number of food bags and kids, I decide that we will leave. I explain, "There's too much food here that isn't safe for Evan, and the kids are eating and playing at the same time. We need to leave now." My kids cooperate with Abigail asking a curious (not defiant), "Why?"

For Evan's sake and the sake of other kids who have allergies, I feel like I need to approach whoever is responsible for the Jack-In-The-Box food. So, I ask the 3 ladies about who brought the food, explain that eating and playing at the same time isn't safe for kids with allergies like my son, and my kids are disappointed that they have to leave now that it isn't safe. She apologizes. We leave.

Enduring Culture

So how did I explain this to Abigail? She knows the allergy 'whys' for her brother. Instead, I explained our American food culture. "Americans have some not healthy ways of eating food, like not sitting down at a table or washing hands. Papa and I want us all to be safe and healthy. That's why we teach you how to eat, where to eat, and what to eat."

I am a language teacher and there is a guide by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) called the Five C's: culture is just one "C". Culture can be summed up as practices and perspectives, and products and perspectives. Food falls under both categories. All cultures have complex practices or ways to eat 'correctly' in that culture and the perspectives one gains about food when trying out the practice. All cultures have unique food products that contribute to and reflect the perspectives the culture has about food.

photo credit:

Take gummy bears for example. I can buy Haribo Gold Bear gummy bears here in the USA, but they contain high fructose corn syrup, chemical food colorings, and other artificial flavors. There is no fruit juice in them. Haribo gummy bears marketed in Germany (whose people generally love this German company) contain real fruit juice, no high fructose corn syrup, and no chemical food colorings. The product reflects the culture's perspectives on food and what food should be... and they changed their product to fit USA culture.

Take the French practice of food as another example. No one eats on public transportation, on the platforms, or in the waiting rooms. A meal is looked at, admired, smelled, and talked about... often before even sampling the first bite. Seasonal, regional freshness is prized, and fruits available from Morocco in the dead of winter aren't often selected by the French. Their preschools serve 5 course lunches, where children are encouraged to eat their hors d'oeuvre, main course, salad, cheese, and dessert with quiet conversation, slowly, and mindfully. French babies eat adult table food mashed up, not purées from a jar. The French eat slow meals at fixed hours of the day. Why snack when another leisurely meal is coming soon enough? The practices reflect the culture's perspectives on food, and meals are soul food.

photo credit:

High Versus Low

But how do practices, products, and perspectives come to be? Social scientists separate culture into two main categories: high culture and low culture. High culture typically endures over generations or years to become part of a culture's heritage. Few people would dispute the greatness of Mozart or Van Gogh. The difficulty is that often low culture, or popular culture, shining stars sometimes blur things. The masses make them popular in a seemingly fleeting fad (Mozart) or they seem to know the right people but lack widespread recognition for their talent (Van Gogh), but then years later, these artists, writers, politicians, musicians, etc end up making a large mark on more than one generation. Another obvious example would be the Beatles; the lyrics and genre resonate with more than one generation and life stage.

It concerns me that since about 1920, and especially 1950, the USA has backslid into a state of food culture that I can only label "Chimpanzee Eating." First we prized the efficiency of assembly lines and machines and introduced automats. Then fast food boomed with drive tru ordering in the age of the automobile and interstate highways. Folks, we've almost reached the 100 year mark of these food culture patterns. Looks like this popular culture phenomenon may be seeping into our enduring culture.

photo credit:

But when did Americans start eating anywhere and everywhere in public? Many of us seem to eat like chimps. We want any food available at any time we might feel hungry -- breakfast at 1pm? Sure. A packaged muffin on the commuter train? Well, I ran out of time. Chips, then heavy appetizers during the Sunday afternoon game? Don't ask me to watch without a beer and munchies. Chimpanzees forage all day long, discarding it and picking it up again, sharing bites between friends, and wiping it all around. We are humans, who can sit at the picnic table 10 feet away with an attention span for the time it takes to eat one apple, please.

Concessions at long sporting events are understandable. Airport/airplane, train station/dining car, highway restaurant oasis are all vital for hours long trips. Fine... one is still likely to be seated (in all cases) or more likely in a designated food area (for travel). And can I get an "Amen" for some better, healthier, typically "American" foods other than a burger, fries, donut, latte with a tower of whipped cream, candy bar, or chips??

Healthier perspective

The problem of chimp eating has multiple dangers. What should we change now?

  • We face an obesity epidemic and rising type 2 diabetes. We must learn mindful healthy eating at regular times.
  • We face rising food allergies among children. In an elementary classroom today, 2 of 26 children will have food allergies. Milk (#1) and Egg (#2) are likely outgrown by age 5... elementary school age children will likely live with their allergies their whole lives. We need to learn to limit food to eating areas only, and practice cleanliness in hand washing before and after meals.
  • We need to learn to not accept fake substitutes like 'fruit' gelatin snacks, 'fruit' punch, vanillin, or colorings, but rather we need to eat real, whole foods. Instead of donuts or a full fast food meal at 10:30am, we need to learn to eat certain foods at appropriate meal times.  Allergy-friendly playground snacks for the picnic table include:
    • Cut up fruit (depending on the fruit, no kiwi, mango, or pineapple please)
    • Carrots, celery, green beans, edamame
    • Pretzels, graham crackers
    • NOT foods with milk, egg, nuts, or seafood, or processed on the same equipment
  • We need to learn to not limit ourselves to our top favorite foods like apples and grapes year round, but rather eat moderately in season. That first strawberry will taste that much sweeter in June if you've been waiting for it.
  • We need to gather family and friends for meals. We need to learn to pause for thankfulness -- to God, to growers and distributers, to the hands who prepared the food. We need to learn that food is sacred; where would we who have tiny, grumbling tummies be without God. We need to learn that eating is soul feeding, pouring out God's love into other's hearts through encouragement and relationship.
If you have a food story related to this post,
please leave a comment or link below.
What else would you suggest for a healthy American food culture?


  1. Thanks for writing, Jenny! Well-said. Thanks for sharing the details of how food is viewed and eaten in our cultures. Very interesting. A challenge for us to eat healthier and more appropriately, teaching our children to do the same.

    I struggle so much with my daughters' food allergies, because in our society - food is everywhere and is a part of every single social event we attend. But our food allergies also make every social event we attend, an unsafe and possibly life-threatening situation to my children. It is very frustrating. And I can't tell you how many times, in our three years down this allergy road, we have had similar experiences like the ones you've described. Sad to see our kiddos miss out when there seems to be a better way.