There have been many shocks for me since returning to America after more than two decades of living in an Asian culture. I'm sure that it is not that things have changed, but rather that I was so thoroughly a part of the culture before that these matters did not appear to be strange enough to note previously. Of course, things have changed, but overall, I think it's just that I got used to how things were "there" and forgot how they are "here".
When it comes to food, I've noticed that there are aisles upon aisles of frozen food and processed food in the U.S. This isn't entirely a reflection of our taste for such food (though it is that as well), but also the change in lifestyle that has come about because people are so over-booked that they don't do slow food much anymore. What is worse, a lot of that processed food is cheaper than real food. I used to think that was an excuse people made, but it's very clearly a reality. It's not just about the macaroni with powdered cheese in store brand boxes that provide cheap carbs and calories at a tiny price, but cans of soup, packets of ready-made meals, and entrees of processed meat in fried breading that are ready for the toaster oven at a fraction of the cost of that raw skinless, boneless chicken breast meat.
My husband and I have not had the time or mobility to visit a lot of the typical shopping haunts of people who live on lower incomes, but the biggest shock for us came when we made a trip to Target. Not every Target carries food, but this one did and the fresh food sections were tiny and expensive while the junk food areas were huge and full of items that could be had for a song. When we bought diet soda that was on sale for a very good price (yes, I drink diet soda and it hasn't had a negative impact on my weight loss), the store gave us a free half gallon of ice cream.They didn't offer a pound of apples or a half pound of cherries, but rather ice cream.
I was stunned by how cheaply one could eat food that wasn't really food and how much pricier it was to buy real food. It's not that you can't buy "real" food cheaply, but that it's far less attractive, far more troublesome, and requires pretty sophisticated knowledge of cooking. While one of the cheapest and most nutritious foods you can make is beans, few people have the time or inclination to deal with them. I've actually eaten beans about 5 times a week since coming home, but that's because I've been welcome to eat food from my host's pantry and it is full of various kinds of beans that she bought but didn't have the time or desire to prepare. I'm sure she's not alone in her good intentions and weak follow-through.
Beyond the poor folks who find that they have better and cheaper access to nutritionally poor food options, I've noticed that even affluent people eat poorly and convince themselves that they're eating well. My in-laws are fairly well off people, and they still eat what is easy, though definitely from a better grade of processed food. They'll concentrate on deli potato salad from an expensive store, organic canned soup, and protein bars rather than cheaper fare, but there is still a lot of processed and pre-prepared food in their lives rather than real cooking with real food. They believe that, as long as it's labeled "organic", and it is missing any of the hot-button "bad" ingredients of the current era (trans fats, HFCS, etc.), then it's "healthy".
In short, I'm shocked at how easy it is to eat poorly and how even people who are educated are eating badly and convincing themselves otherwise. Lara bars, sugar-packed Greek yogurt (and most of it is!), frozen and canned processed vegetarian meals, and protein powder-based drinks and smoothies don't make your diet a good one. It's still not "real" food for the most part.
I'm certainly not one to pine about the "lost art of cooking", but it has really come home to me that people have lost the art of eating well. They are so accustomed to processed food that they not only don't think about cooking from whole foods, but they find the tastes of such things strange and unpalatable. People are so indoctrinated in the chemical tastes of prepared food that food from scratch tastes "weird" to them.
As my readers know, I am far from being any sort of "food saint", and feel that all sorts of food have a place in modern diets. However, I think that the place currently occupied by real food is very small and getting smaller. The sickness of America's food culture is so deep and wide that I have to wonder if there will ever be a cure. Obesity isn't the worst consequence of it, but it certainly is one of them. We have a lot of work to do, and little of it has to do with losing weight. It has to do with finding our way back to being in touch with food in a way which brings the hands of people back into the process, and removes the machinery.