Bigger, Faster, Cheaper

These three words, when used in combination, say a lot about the American society in which I was raised. For some of my generation, this is nothing less than a philosophy of life. The most obvious manifestation of Big, Fast and Cheap is seen in the ways we have processed and packaged our food.

As a young kid, the emerging fast-food restaurant was a marvel. Predictable food I liked (a lot…in fact, too much), could be packaged and presented to me in a convenient manner, and was cheap enough that my Mom found it less of a hassle than making me lunch. Could it get any better than this? There was a toy with the meal I could play with and then break quickly when I was bored with it. Even better, in those early days, there was not a fruit or vegetable anywhere in sight.

What I found interesting was that over time, bigger gradually became the most important factor. Not so much for kids, but for adults. After a few years, what was once a “small drink” became the size for kids, while the size of the cups seemed to grow enormously with time. The “super size” portions also began to impact French fries and sandwiches as well, with bigger containers and taller stacks of meat and cheese. When bacon was introduced it became the icing on the mounding cholesterol cake.

Early in my adulthood I often saw a plumber in my town eating at one of the local fast-food establishments. He and his son seemed to be there every time I happened to stop in for a quick lunch. One day, I saw the son, but not the father. I noted his absence to the friend I was with and the woman behind the counter told us he had recently died of a heart attack. He was not that old, but she noted that he regularly ate two meals a day there with his partner son, who seemed to be keeping the tradition alive.

I remember the instant drink Tang. I just checked to see if it still exists, and it remains on store shelves. As I drank Tang at the dinner table, my parents would pull down a different jar with something called instant coffee. I had no interest in their beverage choices at the time, but as a coffee drinker today and knowing how fresh brewed and specialty coffees have captured the taste and caffeine needs of our nation, I find it hard to believe that such a beverage ever thrived. Yet, I checked on the top brands of instant coffee and they are still on the shelves.

I have sometimes wondered if I could live without a microwave oven today. There are times when I am tempted. In my house we choose not to eat much in the way of processed foods, so the microwave often is a tool for defrosting and reheating. Yet, a trip down the frozen food aisle reveals stacks of frozen ready-to-eat meals of various shapes and sizes.

These aspects of our food culture have been lamented by many who express alarm regarding the accumulated health concerns we are generating. The impacts on our healthcare needs and economy are not only enormous, but also incredibly complex. Like many aspects of our world, intervention on one dimension creates consequences for others. An entire food industry today is rooted deeply in our collective affection for bigger, faster and cheaper.

As I write, I am sitting in the kitchen of our home. Across the counter, my wife, Tammy, has a meal in the slow cooker she set in motion in the early morning, and she is braiding two loaves of fresh bread that will be placed in the oven shortly. I wonder if maybe there are some changes beginning to emerge. I note that our daughters are drawn to drinking water, eating fresh fruits and vegetables, and often look for creative ways of preparing food they enjoy eating. That may be the result of our personal family character and commitment. Yet, there seems to be more happening as I observe college students on our campus.

At the beginning of the school year, we have a program during the week where we welcome new students to the campus and the local community called Dinner on Us. This is a special event where groups of students are welcomed into the homes of faculty and staff to enjoy a meal together and feel a sense of connection. Some choose to cook a meal for the students on their own, but our dining services also offers to prepare a pasta and salad meal along with beverages and desserts. We hosted a group at our home and I was interested in the selection and amount of food they consumed. College students have a reputation for eating a lot of food. I still think that is true for some. Yet, when all was said and done, most of the students asked for water instead of a soft drink. The sweetest desserts were left on the tray. Plenty of pasta remained in the pan, but the salad was completely gone.

For me, food is a lens on our broader culture and society. Perhaps we are seeing emerging trends where there will be a growing interest in the social and nutritional aspects of food and less on the individual convenience of bigger, faster and cheaper. That may mean the experience of spending time preparing and eating food will grow. Gardening and home-cooking seem to be on the rise in some parts of our culture, and choosing a restaurant for the quality of food and the social setting may begin to impinge on our pattern of opting for the quick food fix. Such a trend could indicate some positive things about our culture that would not only lead to better health, but also to stronger communities.

I must confess, however, that one student at our dinner event had a plate almost completely empty. When Tammy inquired about what he liked to eat, he responded by saying he mostly ate candy and cereal. He also noted he would probably spend some time at one of the local fast-food restaurants. This is clearly a work in progress.

About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. My wife Tammy and I have two beautiful daughters, Emma and Greta. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.



5 responses to Bigger, Faster, Cheaper

Carol Wilson says:

Hi Mark, I met you at my 50th reunion (class of 61) and found out that you were a ‘born again’ Christian. I was a missionary in France for 36yrs. Actually I’m in Florida for a couple of weeks staying at present with a friend who graduated from Nyack (your Alma Mater). I don’t always read your articles but enjoyed this one because I try to eat correctly (living in France helped because they eat much healthier than Americans (lots of fresh fruits and Veggies).

In that Central is a supposedly Christian College (it was a mission field when I attended) I’m wondering why you don’t bring Christ into your articles at times?????? Living in Des Moines I meet people from Pella and most of them are very disappointed with CUI and the lack of Christian witness there. I know that they now have an FCA and InterVarsity but why is it not often mentioned? Carol Wilson

Don Huffman says:

Dear Carol,
I too was at Central in earlier years -from ’56 through ’96, and remain interested in Central by choice. While I am well acquainted with your position and feelings regarding Central as a “Christian College”, I do not share your disappointment, nor do I think it is accurate to say there is a “lack of Christian witness there.”
Historically, and today, Christianity includes a diverse group of believers. Groups such as FCA and Intervarsity represent one polarized group of believers, but often overlooked are those lesser-outspoken individuals and groups who commit countless hours of “Christian service” to efforts supporting the feeding the poor and needy and other supporting values and recognition which are clearly from a rich Christian perspective, and with an impact often not recognized by those who apparently accept a more limited view of Christian commitment.
Central is obviously valued by many religious groups and individuals who feel one’s behavior and support of traditional Christian values need not be expressed nor limited to an overt stance sometimes evident in “born again” advocates who may have a more limited view of what this actually means in a theological sense.
Examination of Central’s initial charter in Iowa as an educational institution clearly states that there shall be no bias in selection of students, faculty or formal instruction based on religion, gender, nationality,or race. Those of evident good moral character are to be accepted. I am proud and supportive of those many students, faculty and administrators who still accept the wisdom of this stance with regard to the expectation of a Christian college and faith heritage.
Central is certainly faithful to a Christian tradition held by many believers as necessary to promote an effective educational impact in our society. More limited views are understandable, but not the only legitimate expressions of faith.

Don Huffman says:

In a completely different context, I agree that food is a lens on our broader culture and society.
From a historical perspective, it has always been this way, from our early hunter-gatherer ancestors, and before humans began cultivation of crop plants. We are in fact both a product and benefactor of food.
Food is more than a lens as the ultimate requirement for development of any modern society, and it is certainly one of the factors which initiated the migration of humans from our African origin to the current races of man, of nations and societies.
We Midwesterners have thrived on the importance of food items as one
of the largest items of international trade and commerce.

Andy Thompson says:

Don: I think a vital part of faith is sharing The Good News. Even though it seems that Evangelical Christians are one of the few groups it is socially acceptable to denounce, I’m afraid you’re generalizing a bit when you refer to their “limited” views. What exactly makes the Intervarsity group “polarized?” Is it intolerance for their message? Growing up Lutheran, even an “Evangelical Lutheran,” sharing one’s faith was considered impolite or somewhat of an imposition. But sharing your religious perspective on a college campus should be welcomed as part of the diversity that is the mantra in virtually every school these days. It seems that many things have displaced religion as the center of people’s lives. There are alternative “faiths” such as environmentalism, extreme fitness, or even social justice as it applies in a secular sense. Each of us wants in some way to affect things for the better; a strong Christian faith is a force for good. Probably one of the greatest examples I can give is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

In terms of my own faith journey, I always appreciated that the chapel was right in the center of Central’s campus; you’ll recall Jade and I were married there by Dr. William Paul. His Christian perspective on the great thinkers profoundly affected me. I’m not “limited” by my faith; it is an integral part of who I am, and Christ remains a role model none of us sinners can quite live up to. But then, that was the point of his sacrifice, wasn’t it?

Don Huffman says:

Dear Andy,
I certainly agree with you that sharing is a vital part of faith. I do not denounce evangelical Christians, though in my view, theirs is not the only acceptable, nor even the most compelling perspective of Christian witness on Central’s campus, nor in our greater U.S. society.
Many of the other “faiths” you mention may indeed be secular, but it is evident that much of their impact comes from a religious tradition which I think is evident from their leadership.
I also agree that the chapel located in the center of Central’s campus conveys a clear message to all that Christian values are taken seriously and deeply at Central. Bill Paul was a close friend, and, along with many others, including your parents, we shared many thoughts and ideas of a basic religious nature when we served on Central’s faculty and staff together.
There is, in my opinion, a further important consideration: What precisely is the theological basis and meaning for “born again” concepts among Christians? Though unstated in many cases, what committed Christian is not in fact “born again?” Is it only the outspoken zealot, or is it in fact true of any person who accepts the tenants of Christianity as primary in their life and thoughts, and which then directs their participation in our larger society?
Best regards to you and your family,
Don H.