There are four clear threats to the modern family and possibly civilization at large; cell phones, video games, the internet, and junk food. We allow the first three because they are cheaper than tutors, private schools, and nannies. Indeed, games and gadgets support a kind of electronic autism where neither parent nor child speaks to each other until the latter is old enough to drive. With junk food the threat is more complicated; a fusion of chemistry and culture. In combination, internet social networks and poor diets seem to be conspiring to produce a generation of pudgy, lazy mutes with short attention spans.
Culture begins and ends on a plate. A proper wake is followed by good food and drink for good reason; a testament to life even without the guest of honor. We eat to live and then we live to eat. From the earliest times, food played a key role in the spiritual and literal growth of families and a larger society. An infant bonds with its mother while nursing; families bond when they share food. We define hospitality with friends by inviting them to break bread – or share a refreshing adult beverage. Alas, eating plays a central role in both civility and civilization.
Contrast this elevated role for food versus the fast food approach common in the United States. I recently led a discussion in my introduction to sociology class about the social forces that lead to having a fast food society where around one-quarter of American adults eat fast food each day. Here are some of the ideas we came up with:
-Americans don’t have time for food preparation and eating as we are too busy doing/prioritizing other things.
-Fast food is cheap (particularly in the short-term) and convenient.
-Food is the United States is more about finding sustenance or nutritional content as opposed to sociability. (I’m thinking of Michael Pollan’s work here.)
-Americans love cars and driving and what could be better than going to a restaurant without ever having to get of the car? (Imagine the outcry if more communities like this one in South Dakota bans eating while driving.)
-Fast food is made possible by changes in the industry where it is now easier to draw upon food sources from all over the world. (The book Fast Food Nation does a nice job describing some of this process.)
-Fast food places offer a homogenized and familiar experience.
-There is a lot of money to be made in fast food.
In other words, there are a variety of social factors that influence why and how we eat. There are not easy fixes to changing a fast food society.