It’s (Not) All In the Taste

So far, my internship hasn’t produced much blog material, but today I took a break from the somewhat monotonous assessment of vending machines and helped out with a taste test. It turned out to be a much more thought provoking experience than I would have guessed.

The city just switched vendors for its machines, so there are a bunch of new “healthier” products offered that city employees may not have tried before. Here’s a picture of a typical snack machine on city property:


The health department and the vendor wanted people to be able to try the healthier snacks for free so they would be more inclined to buy them if they liked them. After posting flyers on all 18 floors of this building that houses most of the city government departments, we set up a table on a random floor by the elevators. I cut up some cereal bars and granola bars for people to sample, and we dumped out chips from individual bags into bowls. There were surveys for people to fill out after they had tried everything, about their preferences and about their attitudes about healthy eating and the vending program in general.

There was a huge turnout, so much so that we ran out of two of the snacks, and plates, and surveys. There were a range of reactions and attitudes about the snacks from the employees. For example,  some people loved the Kashi Hummus Crisps; some people thought they tasted like “flavored cardboard.” Some people were excited about there being more healthy snacks offered; some people were eager to tell us about their pursuit of healthy eating in general. Some people were adamant that they didn’t care what was healthy as long as it tasted good. One woman apologetically told us “I don’t like anything that’s good for me.” Another woman seemed quite annoyed with our efforts to offer healthier options; she said people don’t want to eat the healthy snacks. I told her maybe they should, and she replied that “It’s fine to eat fatty stuff at work.” It was really hard not to respond to that, but a confrontation would have been pointless in this situation.

What struck me about that interaction was that some people are still completely blind to the importance of good nutrition.

Another feeling I had was guilt. I felt guilty the whole time because I was pushing these snacks as “healthy” when honestly they are barely recognizable as food at all. A Nutrigrain bar is half as many calories as a chocolate bar, but it’s not really any more nutritious. Pirate’s Booty is more natural than Cheese Curls, but it’s not filling and also completely processed and refined so that you don’t recognize its origin anymore. These are not the fresh, whole foods from which I believe people should make most of their diet. The machines don’t even offer any mixed nuts or dried fruit. A Baked Lays bag of chips doesn’t give you a serving of vegetables or fruit or whole grains or protein. It’s fewer calories than regular fried potato chips, but to me they’re still pretty much empty calories.

I had to appease my guilt with the assurance that these snacks are in the right direction. I do suppose I’d rather someone eat Pirate’s Booty than a package of Pop Tarts. But how much does it suck that those are the choices most people face because either they don’t know that whole foods are the best for them or they feel they can’t afford whole foods?

Actually, if there was one thing on which all the employees seemed to agree, it was that the snacks in the machines are way too expensive, “healthy” or otherwise. I’ve heard this at most of the sites I’ve visited as well. All chip-like bagged snacks are 1.50, and all bar-type snacks are 1.25. I admit that this is a bit ridiculous, especially considering that only about 6 chips come in a bag. One woman said something like, “I like the idea of healthier snacks, but they’re way too expensive. Like, why do we have to suffer if we want to eat healthy?” I wanted to say to her, Honey, you hit the nail on the head.

One of my ultimate nutrition and food movement idols, Margo Wootan of Center for Science in the Public Interest, has said that eating healthfully in our world is like swimming upstream. I am fortunate enough and have enough information and intention that eating healthfully feels pretty easy for me.  It’s so ingrained in me now that I couldn’t imagine living any other way. Before today I knew in theory that it was hard for most of the public, but today made me confront Margo’s metaphor in person.

Going forward I need to be able to sympathize with the average American who has no clue how to overcome this unhealthy food environment if I have any hope of affecting real change.

What’s a barrier to eating healthfully for you?


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