“You are what you eat.” While this phrase has been used time and again to over-simplify the understanding of our diet, it is a small glimpse into the subtle yet pervasive ideology that links cultural identity with food. When you say, “Italian,” I think, “pasta”. When you say, “Chinese,” I think, “white rice”. When you say, “Spanish,” I think, “tortilla”. When you say, “American,” I pause, reflect on our diets, and eventually think, “fast food”.
As humorous as this connection may appear, what does a deeper exploration of this association say about the American lifestyle? Millennials are asking this question and many are not satisfied with the answer they’re finding. Before we look at the change in Millennials’ attitudes towards the American diet, let’s look at when fast food became so ingrained in the American identity.
Most people would likely credit the start to the infamous golden arches that revolutionized American dining. Little do Americans realize, the start of fast food runs parallel to the invention of the car. These two industries are so intertwined that when we think of fast food, we think of anything being served out of a window and into a car.
Fast food started off in 1920s with the rise of curb service and drive-through windows soon following. As the industrial assembly line for cars was perfected by the 1950s, so were the standardized menus, production methods, and unified advertising strategies of fast-food leaders such as McDonalds, A&W Root Beer, and White Castle.
By the 1960s, an important element of fast food history was created—the infamous kid’s menu. Child-oriented marketing began with the simple kid’s menu and quickly spread to the lure of free dollar toys and crowded plastic playgrounds. Due to the family-oriented culture in America at that time, fast food restaurant trips were fun and affordable family outings that offered culinary delights for all ages.
Baby Boomers and Generation-X grew up under this notion that fast-food was a family affair. Unfortunately, as this ideology continued to grow, so did the American appetite. Restaurants’ portions began to double and triple. “Super-sized portions at restaurants have distorted what Americans consider a normal portion size, and that affects how much we eat at home as well,” said Dr. Elizabeth G. Nabel, director of NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
But the problem is not only how much Americans are eating, it’s what they’re eating. Due to the expectation for fast service, food production turned into a methodical system that required consistency, recalling images of identical parts that filter through an industrial assembly line. Fast food restaurants began using antibiotics, hormones, artificial flavoring, and other unnatural enhancements to ensure consistency in their ingredients. The child-oriented marketing of fast-food restaurants paid off as Baby Boomers and Gen-Xs grew up and continued to eat at their favorite childhood restaurants. For a period, the family-oriented connotation of fast food dining that characterized Americans’ fond childhood memories overshadowed the increasingly detrimental health effects.
However, as people continued to incorporate these foods into their family’s and their lives, the fast-food dining experience eventually gained a new connotation. The notion of fast-food was enticing to the common American who is too busy to prepare meals. Unfortunately, the negative effects of feeding into this lifestyle became apparent. The average American’s waistline began to grow at an alarming rate. Fast-food became fat-food.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, by the turn of the century, two out of three adults were considered either overweight or obese. One out of three children and adolescents ages six to 19 were considered to be overweight or obese. The reality of these statistics is alarming and many individuals are speaking out against this trend. While there have been numerous studies and campaigns dedicated to speaking out against the unhealthy lifestyle that the majority of Americans have fallen into, the voice resonating from one generation stands out against the rest.
The generation labeled, Millennials, born between 1981-1997, are using organics to fight back against the lifestyles of their grandparents’ generation and the lasting effects on their parents’ generation. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) conducted a survey of more than 1,800 households throughout the country with at least one child under 18. Results showed that parents in the 18- to 34-year-old range are now the biggest group of organic buyers in America. This influential and progressive generation is determined to change the landscape of America’s food industry one organic meal at a time. The Millennial shopper significantly values the healthiness and quality of the food that they provide for their families, and specifically their children.
One can’t help but wonder what has caused Millennials’ strong surge of dedication to the organic lifestyle?
Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the OTA comments, “Our survey shows that millennial parents seek out organic because they are more aware of the benefits of organic, that they place a greater value on knowing how their food was grown and produced, and that they are deeply committed to supporting a food system that sustains and nurtures the environment.” While many would agree with Batcha’s response, I believe we are missing something deeper.
The Millennial is a progressive generation that values adventure, creativity, transparency and innovation. If what you eat is an indication of who you are, the Millennial diet could not be farther from past generations’ fast-food frenzy. Fast-food is known to value saved time and money over quality. Contrastingly, the organic process is based on the belief that quality is worth extended time and care; the USDA organic certification process takes a total of four years before a farm can classify their products as organic.
Millennials may be dedicated to the organics movement because it offers an opportunity to reshape and individualize their identity from that of their grand-parents and parents’. By aligning themselves with organics, Millennials are aligning themselves with the values that the organic lifestyle embodies—transparency, integrity, and sustainability. They are fighting back against the industrialized, corporate lifestyle associated with the fast food industry that dominated their parent’s generation. Who knows; if you are, indeed, what you eat, then redefining your diet might have the ability to reshape an entire generation’s identity along the way.