America’s Perplexing Relationship with Food

Food is very big business in America, and that means companies and brands with immense advertising and PR heft competing for consumer dollars. On the surface, this strikes most Americans as harmless; it’s capitalism, after all: It’s the way things work.

But on a deeper psychological level, most consumers perceive food not only according to their specific likes and dislikes, but within the context of an unnatural vacuum created by decades worth of marketing campaigns from food growers, distributors and sellers.

For example, we like our food to be flawless; why else would so many supermarket customers spend time examining melons, tomatoes and onions as if they’re precious stones? Our trained eyes also like big, colorful displays of food lining the aisles, and we don’t see overwhelming portions as sources of waste but ways to get more for our money. So a little excess occurs every now and then; no big deal, right?

Well, consider this quote from a recent article in The Washington Post:

“Americans throw away up to 40 percent of their food every year, cramming landfills with at least $165 billion worth of produce and meats at a time when hundreds of millions of people suffer from chronic hunger globally, according to an analysis released Tuesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council.”

This isn’t your mother’s heartfelt (and accurate) explanation of why you should eat your vegetables–that number is $165 billion, with a ‘b’, and it offers some compelling insights into how Americans relate to food. We generally think of food as a very simple thing. Our country is currently mired in a deep economic slump, ongoing wars, a sense of political lethargy and a general disdain for wasteful spending on both Wall Street and Main Street, so it’s odd that Americans are so cavalier and confused about wasting food. We can’t claim we didn’t know, because our trashcans are full of wasted food and, according to the article, we feel guilty about our behavior. So what’s going on?

PR professionals know to study the very perceptions at play rather than looking for people, companies or brands to blame. Perhaps Americans feel a sense of comfort and security when surrounded by perfect food. Our ability to eat excessively reminds us that we live in a land of plenty and that hunger is not–and will almost surely never be–a part of our lives. Perfectly-formed food provides the same false sense of reassurance. Flawless food may look better, but that doesn’t mean it tastes better—shiny, genetically-altered apples the size of softballs don’t usually have the flavor of their truly organic counterparts, which often come to us scratched by the ground on which they fell.

All PR challenges are human, which means they can be fixed. So tell us: why does the American public have such a strange relationship with food? What can be done to improve it for our own good?