If there’s one thing all the contributors to this site apparently have in common, it’s a conviction that America’s health problem is a matter not just of medical care but of diet. We need, and in particular lower-income people need, to eat less fast food and more veggies (say Harold, James, Mark more than once, and I’m sure I’ve missed a lot; Mike appears to disagree on the margin, as would I, but I doubt would endorse the supersized American norm).
Since fresh veggies are expensive and hard to obtain in poor neighborhoods, lots of programs have focused on creative ways to solve problems of convenience and cost by bringing the consumers closer to the farmers: community gardens, produce trucks, unconventional farmers’ markets and so on. Frankly, though, most of those things are small-scale, expertise-intensive, and hard to replicate. And none solves the problem that fresh produce spoils quickly if one doesn’t plan meals carefully (as many working people don’t, in fact can’t), thus multiplying the effective price of veggies actually eaten.
Matt Yglesias has the right solution: go frozen. Though I gag at his preferred meal of microwaved frozen Brussels sprouts with no seasoning (no surprise that he lost sixty pounds eating that!), his commenters suggest all kinds of better options, from sautés to roasts—and rightly point out that those who sneer at frozen veggies often haven’t tried them lately; they’re much better than they used to be. I would add that even if such easy cooking is beyond people (though it shouldn’t be any harder than frying a piece of meat), Cholula can make even the boiled stuff taste good—and Americans eat more salsa than ketchup these days anyway.
Matt is frustrated that “California-based foodies have produced some kind of mass hallucination around the subject of fresh vegetables.” I think that’s more right than he realizes (says this California-based foodie). On this policy issue, like many others, those most affected are the poor, but those in a position to propose creative solutions are social entrepreneurs whose enthusiasms track the problem only tangentially. Gardens and farmers’ markets make for great photos and warm the hearts of donors to whom green living is more vivid than, say, Type 2 Diabetes. But that doesn’t make them the easiest route to better diets for tens of millions of harassed urban people with no money and less time. I’m not saying regular people can’t or shouldn’t appreciate fresh produce. I’m saying that teaching them to do so involves huge up-front costs and a learning curve that we don’t, if we care about health, have time to climb.
The market—I don’t mean Hayek; I mean Ralph’s—knows something on this, and our public health education should adjust its nutritional advice to what it knows. Frozen vegetables exist for a reason: they keep, they’re cheap, they’re easy to transport and to stack in a freezer, and stores can stock lots of different kinds at very low risk of having to throw them away. I’m as grateful as anyone to Alice Waters for the quality of my restaurant meals. But public health should be geared to chez Citizen, not Chez Panisse. Let’s not make the Whole the enemy of the good.