The Economics of Eating “A Good Diet”

The Economics of Eating “A Good Diet”


It’s great to welcome to the program today,
Margo Finn, who teaches in the applied liberal arts initiative, the university of Michigan and wrote a book
titled discriminating taste, how class anxiety created the food revolution. Margo, so great
to have you on today. Thanks for having me. So this is super interesting to me, uh, for,
for a number of different reasons including that because of my background, I sort of have
lived in a number of different food cultures and um, have, have read a lot about conspicuous
consumption and the different ways in which sometimes people choose to, uh, display either
sort of cultural knowledge or, or, uh, in sometimes some cases monetary status. So let’s
go back a little bit. At what point did there start to be sort of multiple food cultures
that started to correlate with some class elements of society as well? That’s a great question. I think that there’s
probably been a relationship between how people eat and their social class as long as there’s
been social classes. Um, and perhaps even before there were, you know, the kinds of
groupings that we were recognized as social classes. Today, food has always been associated
with power and hierarchy and how you express your identity. Um, so it’s, it’s not like
there was a moment where all of a sudden people started performing class through food. Food
has always been a way that we express who we are in relation to other people. So it’s
always been available as that vocabulary to express class. What are some of the examples about a belief about food
that results from or connects to economic anxieties or concerns? Um, let, let me see if I can think of a contemporary
example. So one that I, I sometimes use is the affinity for kale, which we tend to recognize
right now is something that’s um, sort of a symbol of the alternative food movement.
It’s seen as something that’s healthy and virtuous. Maybe not that delicious. Although
you’ve got people who will, you know, who will advertise that they’ve got a great massage,
kale salad or something like that. But the way people are talking about kale, it’s got
this weird symbolic power to like kale mean something about you. And people are using
that, I think sometimes to express that they have this interest in health interest in sustainability,
but it’s also going along with a certain food culture that we do associate with the upperclass
right now. So to advertise the way people do on tee shirts and shopping bags that you
know, like kale to the victors. There’s one that you see in Michigan, um, is a way of
trying to express that you’re a part of this elite food community or that you have these
concerns that are true of the elite food community. That’s interesting because, so there’s this
idea, so kale is a good example in the sense that you said that very clearly kale is associated
with certain economics, but it’s not totally clear that kale tastes that good. And there’s
sort of a question Mark around whether it actually does or doesn’t taste good. Is there
a divide in terms of whether the sort of more, whatever we would call them, more elevated
foods economically, are actually better tasting foods? And is it really just a matter of preference?
Can we even assess that in any kind of empirical way? I, I don’t know if there’s any such thing
as like an empirically good tasting food because we, we eat food but we eat food with stories
and the stories that we tell food tell us whether or not. So we could say that yes,
there’s maybe an innate preference for sweetness, but you’ll also get, and this is I think more
true among the upperclass a real sense that too sweet is not good. It’s infant tile or
it’s or like genuinely disliked. I don’t like super sweet things, right? Because I’ve been
either taught that I’m not supposed to or I’ve acquired different tastes. So what I
think happens is that people get motivated to like different things or motivated to try
different things. So I’m not saying that like rich people are pretending to like kale. I
think that they may have had more of an incentive to develop an affinity for it to try that
massage kale salad and find out that if you eat it enough times or if you think of it
in a certain way, yeah, you might really like it. I don’t think they’re faking that they
like kale. I think that there are reasons that they like kale that are connected to
what it might say about them and not have anything to do with its health or what it
actually tastes. I I, I mean I, I wonder how much of this has
to do with the preferences that are sort of instilled at a young age in this sense, which
is that we know that the, the foods that are cheapest per calorie are often foods that
contain subsidized corn being one example. So when you look at the products that have,
for example, a lot of high fructose corn syrup and are cheaper per calorie or some of these
other products, it seems as though if for economic reasons at a young age, those are
the foods that one becomes accustomed to, that that probably has a big role to play
later on in life. In terms of preferences, I think that there is a sense that people
have an affinity for, for, you know, the foods that they ate as kids that you get used to
certain tastes, but I’d be wary of oversimplifying that narrative. I think that that’s actually
a story that we like to tell about poor people, right? They can only, they, they eat this
junky food cause they can only afford this junky food and they’re making an economically
rational choice to get the cheap calories. And then that’s all they know how to like
and eat. And I don’t buy any part of that narrative. Everybody eats junk food when people
of all social classes, particularly as kids. Um, and that doesn’t mean that people eat
that way. Their whole lives. Many people’s eating preferences transformed. So the rich
people who are eating kale right now as adults mostly I don’t think grew up eating kale,
his children, I don’t think that they, um, were given their kale, you know, in the 1950s,
1970s whenever they grew up that that just wasn’t a part of the food culture in the same
way. And certainly wasn’t, there wasn’t a sense in the 70s that we need to feed kids
kale to do this taste education that people will talk about now. And yet many of those
people grew into adults who really loved their massage kale salad. So people do change their
tastes over time. Right? I think you’re definitely right. I guess the
question would be whether the tastes might change for more people, were they not may
be constrained by economic factors when maybe some people’s preferences start changing,
but I guess it’s, it, it could be some part of all of these, uh, anecdotally or to some
degree, I, I, I guess I’m not sure. I’m thinking out loud here. Yeah, I think the one thing that’s interesting
is because food does so many different things in taste, us do so many different things that
we can, we can say these things that have a certain truth to them, right? Like people
like familiar flavors. Oh, that’s true. But people also like novel flavors, right? So
people seek foods that are comforting that they grew up with, but they also seek foods
that are adventurous and new to explore new things. So I think, you know, we can, so when
we tell these stories about why do people like the things they like, um, one thing that
we have to be careful about is falling into the, there’s very easy narratives, but they
can also conflict it just like the idea that we’re all eating better, we know so much more,
so much more information and on the other hand, Oh, we’re eating junk and it’s crap
and our food system has been terrible. Those, you know, those both can’t be true. It can’t
be, everything is getting better. We’re learning more. And also somehow we’re forgetting all
of our ancestral wisdom. Like those don’t both get to be true. Well, it could be economically stratified,
right? Where you, you see a larger and larger divide between, I mean, that’s in a sense
what you’re talking about when you talk about the appeal of kale to certain people, but
not everybody. We could simultaneously have more information about what’s good to eat
and growing numbers of people who are suffering from obesity and food related illness because
of inequality. Some of the assumptions people make about
obesity and how it correlates with social class. It’s really complicated. So it’s true
that among white women, rich white women are much thinner than poor white women. But it’s
not as true if you look across race divides and if you look across gender divide, so among
um, Latino men and black men, the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to be obese.
And it’s, and the, I, I forget what the relationship is with black women. I believe that Richard
Black women are thinner, but it’s maybe not statistically significant in any case. So
it’s not the case that just poor people are fatter. There’s some real differences in how
those demographics are changing and it’s not even clear that people are getting so, so
much fatter. People have gotten fatter somewhat, um, in the last, you know, 40 to 60 years
depending on how you’re counting. But it’s not a huge amount. It’s not everybody. And
it’s certainly not just the poor. So is it that poor people are eating junk food and
getting better and better while rich people are learning more about food and eating better
and better? I don’t actually think either of those things are true and when we look
at things like who eats fast food, it’s everybody right across the income spectrum about everybody
eats about one fast food meal a week. It’s not like it’s the poor people eating fast
food and the rich people aren’t. Where do specialty diets fit into this? And
that could be specialty diets that, I mean I guess we could categorize them a few different
ways. You would have some, whether they are for health reasons or for other reasons or
a mix kind of depends. But we’re talking about everything from a veganism and vegetarianism,
gluten free, which is increasingly popular. Paleo, there are now some prominent people
who have tried the carnivore diet. Um, and different versions of that fruitarian ism,
ketogenic diets are those. My instinct is, and I’m glad that you’re pushing back against
sometimes what seems obvious is not true. My instinct is that there is a certain degree
of privilege associated with some of those choices. Where does that fit into the conversation
that we’re having? Well, I, I do think, I think you’re right.
I think that we at least there’s a cultural sense that these are the kinds of diets that
it takes a kind of privilege to pursue. Many of them involve, um, eating foods that are
more expensive, especially if you’re talking about paleo, low-carb, those are the meat
centric diets. It’s really hard to do that cheaply. So I think there you do have to have
a certain kind of economic privilege and also maybe access to knowledge and more than that,
I think even access to the kinds of cultural rewards. So I think some people are really
rewarded for trying new diets and for aspiring to different things where whether it’s health
or ethics through their diet. And I think for some people the incentives and the rewards
aren’t there, right? In some communities to eat vegan is not going to be rewarded. It’s not going to be seen as an admirable
choice. It’s going to be seen as weird or antisocial or fussy or picky or bizarre. Those
things aren’t going to be, so you’re, you’re not going to be as likely to try if that’s
the way your community is going to see it. And if that’s the way people are going to
react to you as if people are going to react with like, Oh, you look great and Oh, that’s
so good for you and Oh, I couldn’t do that. You know, like, just a different kind of reaction
that people get for those diets. So you, you mentioned the fast food element
that, that there are a wealthy people, middle-class people, poor people, and generally speaking,
the amount of fast food consumption seems to be similar. How do we, uh, explain the
positioning of fast food across the economic spectrum? Uh, when Donald Trump was running
for president, there was a lot made of these having buckets of KFC on his private plane.
He loves his taco bowls and he loves Hispanics. I mean, that was a whole other fiasco that
we could talk about. But in any case, the taco, regardless of his feeling about Hispanic
people, the Trump tower taco bowl was really great. Where does the fast food element fit
in culturally and economically? I mean, I think fast food does have a different
meaning for people depending on where you’re located. So it is true that when poorer people
eat out, they’re more likely to eat at a fast food restaurant because full service restaurants
are more expensive, but they’re not necessarily going to be eating fast food a whole lot because
fast food isn’t that cheap, right? The average fast food meal costs about $7 and the average
meal cooked and eaten at home costs between two to $4. So it is true that poor and working
class people eat more meals cooked at home because they can’t afford to eat up. Even
at fast food restaurants, if they do eat out, they’re more likely to eat at a fast food
restaurant than a full service restaurant. Right? So Richard people have this option
of fast food restaurants and more elaborate restaurants. And when they choose fast food,
they’re not choosing, you know, to go eat a meal out. They’re choosing the quick convenient
thing. That’s often true for poor people too. Whereas they have the option of the nicer
restaurant meal as well. Yes. I mean it was, so when I lived in New York
city, I would sometimes walk by all of garden and it was packed and all of garden in New
York city is not universally less expensive than an actual local Italian restaurant. And
I remember at the time really giving some thought to that and imagining, well maybe
there’s tourists who know all of garden and they don’t know what’s a reliable local Italian
place. Like there has to be more than just the economics of it. When the price seems
to be relatively similar. I wonder what you would make of that. Well, yeah, there’s all kinds of things going
on, right? Who thinks that the, um, holding the wall are family owned or authentic Italian
restaurant is definitely superior. Right? What, what class of people is going to think
that, um, that even if in fact sometimes a lower price at a family restaurant is going
to signal to them authenticity and perhaps the promise of better tasting food then then
all of garden, which is a chain and because it’s mass produced is sort of inherently barred
from having authentic credibility. So there’s just, I do think that it’s the story and what’s
going to appeal to two different people in the story is familiarity. And maybe, I mean
a lot of people love all of garden, right? Like the free or the, the endless breadsticks
and the salad and the soup. It’s good food and you know what you’re going to get. And it’s the same thing every time. There
are some people who that’s going to appeal to. And I do think that there are class dynamics
to that too. Whether or not you value familiarity and reliability and something that’s going
to be pleasing to you and your whole family, or whether or not you value having an adventure,
trying something new, doing something that might be authentic and exotic that might expose
you to some other kinds of people that you then can return to your safe life. But you
had a, you know, some adventurous experience. These are in some ways maybe their personality
things, right? It’s not that there aren’t people who are adventurous eaters, even if
they have extremely, um, you know, limited means, but it does mean that there’s just
different rewards that are going to motivate different people. And it’s not clear to me
that it’s the rich people doing all the good things and the poor people doing terrible
things. Are they thinking different stories? Our diets within the same culture right now
obviously if we can compare the average Japanese diet to the average Kenyan diet, they will
be very, very different. But within countries, within cultures, is the range of diets way
more disparate now than it was in times past? Or has or, or is that not necessarily the
case? That’s a, that’s a good question. It’s a big
question. Um, I think it depends on what you’re talking about, right? Like there’s been military
conquest and globalization, global encounters that have changed how people eat for a long
time and whether there’s homogeneity within countries or empires, depends on the moment.
It depends on how many people are being grouped together, how big the country is. Um, I think
you, you know, with the, with the more rapid movement of people in foods and ideas, you
may get more diversity within some places, but on the other hand you’ll hear people talking
about the industrialization of food and maybe that’s sort of flattened out the way some
food cultures look or, or made things more homogenous. That’s, um, there’s, there’s kind
of so many moving parts. It’s a hard question to answer. It’s a good question. Oh, we’ve been speaking with Margo fin who
teaches in the applied liberal arts initiative at the university of Michigan. The book is
called discriminating taste, how class anxiety created the food revolution. Margot, really appreciate your time and super
interesting stuff. Thanks so much for having me.