Home > Diet & Nutrition, Social Media > Processed Foods, A Rancher Inquires

Processed Foods, A Rancher Inquires

While doing chores this morning my Droid vibrated to signal incoming data of some sort. My general rule of thumb is to ignore all incoming data until after chores and after my son is fed. However, I was in the pickup returning from checking cows, so I checked. It was a tweet from Rob Smart:

@JeffFowle How do #farmers feel about highly-processed foods dominating supermarket shelves? #ProFood #AgChat

An interesting question, I had my own thoughts on the issue, but the timing was perfect, after taking my son to preschool on Tuesdays, I usually stop by the local bakery. Our bakery is a hot spot for farmers and ranchers to stop in for a cup of coffee and talk some local news, weather, politics and sports before continuing with their day. This would be an opportunity for me ask some others about their thoughts on the matter.

Country Bakery, Etna California

Local Coffee Stop

I dropped my son off and stopped at the Country Bakery. Sure enough, a farmer and a couple of ranchers were enjoying coffee.

Question: “What do you guys think about processed foods?”

Answer: “You’ve gotta process it a bit or the critters can’t digest it enough.”

Response: “No, in stores.”

Reply: “You’ve gotta have smaller quantities available so folks who don’t have enough critters to justify buying bulk can get what they need.”

Response: “Hang on guys, I’m talking about human food, in the grocery store.”

Reply: “Oh, (pause) I suppose I’d answer the same for humans, ‘cept instead of being able to digest it, I’d say most people can’t cook it anymore due to time and skill.”

Interesting, the correlation between feeding livestock and humans is very similar. This supported what my thoughts originally were.

If you think about when the increase in processed foods hit the stores, it was around the same time that there was a household shift from a single wage earner to two wage earners. There was no one at home to actually prepare meals. Families increased their involvement in activities outside the home and decreased the available time in the home for actually cooking and eating. People starting demanding food that was quick and easy to heat and eat.

I noticed this change locally in the mid 1980’s, particularly in the beef industry. There was a shift downward in demand for brisket, chucks, roasts and rounds, yet these cuts were still coming off the steer, what could be done with them to make them sellable? After lengthy research and development, these whole cuts were broken down, cooked, mixed with vegetables, spices and sauces and used to make a variety of microwavable dinners; value was added back to the product. Interestingly, the new processed, quick heat and eat products were offered in a variety of sizes and ethnic flavors. Products were introduced to meet specific demands in specific regions.

After my short conversation at the bakery, I also decided I wanted to go check out our local supermarket. The word “dominate” in Rob’s question had me wondering, were processed foods actually “dominating” the shelves?

This was the first time I had really ever evaluated the shelving in our local market. Typically, I have a list, I grab what is on my list, I pay and I leave. This time, I walked and observed. Just inside the door, along the front wall is the dog food and alcohol. I continued along the south wall, the chilled goods, all meat, and dairy products. The only processed foods were the cheeses and yoghurt. The facing shelving contained soups, crackers and cookies. 

The west wall was split, one-third beverages, beer,soda, milk and juice and two-thirds fresh fruits and vegetables.

The north wall was split in half, bread products and frozen goods. Its facing shelving was peanut butter, jams, canned beans, salad dressings and condiments.

Aisle one held canned fruit, vegetables, juices, pastas, and hot sauces.

Aisle two contained baby goods, household goods along one side and paper products with ten feet of candy.

Aisle three was split with one whole side devoted to hygiene and health products and the other breakfast cereals and foods.  

Aisle four is where I find coffee, spices, sugar, flour, jello, pudding, oils and baking mixes.

The last aisle contained cleaning products and pet supplies and food.

With the exception of about ten feet of freezer space and four feet of chilled space, the choices for “heat and eat” food were limited and the prices for those foods were not something I would be willing to pay. Perhaps our store is unique, but I did not come away thinking it was “dominated” by highly processed foods.

Certainly, nearly three aisles were devoted to preserved, canned and dried goods, but not what I would consider “highly processed.” I know that as a family we will shop for food once a week and usually buy enough fresh fruits and vegetables for consumption during the week, but also pick up the frozen and canned vegetables and fruits as well as dried goods. Maybe other stores are different, but our local market seems to provide basic staples and minimally processed items.

I think the bottom line comes down to personal choice and priorities. Some families make a deliberate choice to have one or more sit-down family suppers each week. Some family’s make the decision to constantly eat on the run, which I do not think is healthy way to live, but it is their choice. I, for one, am thankful for frozen hot pockets and burritos that I can wrap in tinfoil, throw on the manifold of whatever piece of equipment I am using and have a quick bite and keep farming.

As a wrap up on processed foods, I have the following thoughts:

  1. Processed foods add value to products that many people either do not want to take the time to cook, or they do not know how to cook it.
  2. Stores tend to stock what their customers buy, so perhaps percentages of processed foods on the shelf vary depending on the demographic.
  3. I for one am thankful for the ability to be able to buy canned and dried goods at the store because even our family is often short on time when it comes to meals.
  4. Unless our economy and society as whole experiences a major change, easy to prepare and “quick, heat and eat” products are going to be in demand.

What are your thoughts on processed foods and their presence in your local store?

  1. February 8, 2011 at 10:58 AM

    I remember seeing a show on the History channel that said that before microwaves and processed foods, the lady of the house spent something like 20-30 hours a week just preparing food for the family. Our modern lifestyle of two working adults with kids involved in sports and other social activities couldn’t survive without processed foods.

    • commonsenseagriculture
      February 9, 2011 at 9:00 AM

      Families are definately more involved than they once were. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Samantha
    February 8, 2011 at 11:38 AM

    I agree with mus302. I think the availability of foods in the supermarket represents in some aspects, who we are as a society. Many Americans are overworked, over committed and want things like food to be available fast. And honestly, I also think most people know that a diet laden in highly processed foods is not good for overall health–but that doesn’t stop most people from eating them.

    • commonsenseagriculture
      February 9, 2011 at 9:01 AM

      Society has changed its priorities. You make some good points. Thanks.

  3. February 8, 2011 at 11:39 AM

    Thanks for the post. I’ve thought about this, and am grateful for convenience foods. However, I try my best to provide at least a meal a couple nights a week that came from the outer perimeter of the grocery. More money from those foods go back to the farmer. I’m positive it’s a bit healthier, too.

    • commonsenseagriculture
      February 9, 2011 at 9:04 AM

      We try to have at least three suppers each week that utilize minimal “processing.” Easy to do with meat all the time, vegetables & fruit in the summer, tough during the winter. 🙂

  4. February 8, 2011 at 12:08 PM

    Insightful post, Jeff. I don’t have a family, and I think that affects my eating habits. The busier a person gets, the easier it is to push off “real” cooking. One of the ways in which I try to avoid the ease of highly processed foods is to not have a microwave. I still eat convenience foods, but I think the absence of a microwave in my kitchen has really been a benefit in reducing my dependency on heat-and-eat items.

    • commonsenseagriculture
      February 9, 2011 at 9:06 AM

      No microwave is a good idea. I’m not sure we’d survive with the amount of left-over re-heating we do…lol. Thanks for sharing.

  5. zweberfarms
    February 8, 2011 at 12:50 PM

    If you look at the evolution of processed foods it is a fascinating history. At one time one was viewed as an elitist if they could afford a box of Betty Crocker cake mix. Now those that choose to eat whole food diets or shop at farmers’ markets are now the “elitists” Jeff, your grocery store is much different than ours (unless I am shopping at the natural foods co-op. Our typical store has a small open area of whole produce, meats and fresh bakery. The rest is aisle after aisle of boxed and processed foods. We don’t live in a food desert either. Whether this is right or not is a different question. I am one who believes “everything in moderation.” I shy away from processed foods solely because we have a history of heart related problems in my family and I like to reduce the amount of salt I eat. Also, I love to cook and thankfully have the time time and knowledge to do so. When I was single and living on my own, packaged foods were MUCH easier, but I know I wasn’t eating healthy either.

    • commonsenseagriculture
      February 9, 2011 at 9:08 AM

      Thanks for sharing about your store Emily. I have noticed some major differences in layouts when I travel. Safeway, for example, is very effective at providing what the demographic of the store demands most. I went in one in Sacramento and another in San Francisco. They were as different as night and day…lol. Thanks for sharing.

  6. February 8, 2011 at 1:46 PM

    Perhaps it’s perspective of what “processed” foods are. If we take out all condiments, all canned meats, all boxed “ready in an hour” meals how often would people shop there? I know of a store that has strictly fresh foods – vegetables, fruits, honey, nuts etc – many don’t support it because they ‘have to stop at the store for (whatever) anyway.’ No more spaghetti sauce – if you want it you must cook it from scratch? Seriously? How is that allowing food choices? I have a choice of the 99cent can of spaghetti sauce or making it from scratch depending on season, time, finances and more.

    • commonsenseagriculture
      February 9, 2011 at 9:14 AM

      Great points Jan. It comes down to how much time someone has to prepare their meals. I personally do not have the time (or want to take the time) to make my own noodles, but sauce, yes!

      • February 9, 2011 at 9:37 AM

        Agree! But it’s also nice to have the option! We joke here about “little frozen icy thingies” and “big frozen icy thingies” (chicken strips & beef patties usually) that are “fast food” – when we don’t want to cook but need to eat or like last night when I look up and it’s 630, half hour to agchat and dinner’s not started. 🙂 So Tuesday’s usually our “fast food” night at home. Iwouldn’t want to live on it every night – but if it’s “icy thingies” or spaghetti or a quick sandwich – usually it’s not the latter! It may be for me but Paul’s been out working & is hungry…so meet in the middle!

  7. February 8, 2011 at 2:26 PM

    At one point does a food become “processed” anyway? Jan, your comment about cooking from scratch … no, no, no … you’re “processing” from scratch.

    • February 8, 2011 at 10:47 PM

      Was thinking on this topic & fixing dinner tonight – how much pasta would drop in popularity if everyone had to make homemade egg noodles in different shapes to have it? Instead of making dinner in 20 minutes it’s making the noodles first then making dinner. While we have the eggs to do so – big difference doing it because you want to and doing it because you have to. How many would rely on peanut butter sandwiches on the “don’t want to cook much” nights instead of heat/serve meats or other meals?

  8. February 8, 2011 at 4:44 PM

    In my opinion “processed food” is items on the grocery shelves that have high sodium and lots of preservatives. I make a concerted effort to avoid those ingredients when cooking at home. We have quit eating out at restaurants for lunch, instead having potlucks with the other business owners downtown. It’s hard when you have a career and a family to balance the time to cook….when choosing processed food we try to pick the lesser of the evils. LOL

    • commonsenseagriculture
      February 9, 2011 at 9:17 AM

      What ever happened to potlucks? I can remember in the 70’s and 80’s going to potlucks at least 3 times a month. Very rare these days. Great idea to have them with other businesses. Thanks for sharing Joyce.

  1. February 9, 2011 at 3:28 AM

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