Is Fast Food a Feminist Issue?

An article by Emily Matcher that appeared recently in the Atlantic entitled “Healthy, Affordable Fast Food: Feminism’s Holy Grail” concludes with the question “I think cooking is great. But why should ‘more home cooking’ be a better answer than ‘healthier take-out’?”

The piece is a response to a New York Times magazine article, which explores the tastiness of various fast food options and the future of health foods in this market as it rapidly expands. Where the piece falls short-sighted, Matcher argues, is its scope.

The NY Times article envisions fast foods as merely snacks or on-the-go meals. Matcher, on the other hand, believes that having truly affordable and healthy fast food options would revolutionize family life. She goes on to ask the reader to imagine how often he or she would choose fast food if we lived in a world where a tasty, nutritious dinner was available for under $6 (the average cost of a home-cooked meal).

I agree with Matcher’s position, and would even take it a step further regarding its inclusion. Such a repositioning would impact not only family life for couples and single parents, but also a struggling generation of college students and millennials. A generation often characterized for embracing progressive green and sustainability movements would likely embrace a movement for healthy, affordable, and sustainable fast food.

Matcher delves in to describe a widely acknowledged cultural value, that of home cooking, and how entire careers have been made off of promoting the importance sit-down family meals (the value of which is not rooted in research, she adds), and the fight against childhood obesity. Regarding cooking as an ingrained value, she writes, “Yet America, even as it reaches for convenience, has the deep seated belief that cooking is a personal obligation, and that shirking this obligation is lazy, harmful, bad.” 

Of course, the food movement is largely tied to class, and she argues that the impact of this food revolution would unburden these families while providing them with healthy options.

If you read the comments below the article, you’ll see a number of people taking more issue with the title than the ensuing content. Are family issues necessarily feminist issues? It does an incredible disservice to deny a linkage between the buckets of “family” and “feminism” or depreciate the value in exploring their interplay. To do so is to ignore a historical context of women’s role in the nuclear family unit; regardless of the progression of women’s rights since the 50s and the breakdown of numerous social conventions, the family unit (even if not defined by two heterosexual parents with children) exists within a cultural vacuum in which women are linked to household work. And although the gap between men and women’s household labor has shrunk, the numbers are still not in women’s favor: while men do put in about five hours of work at a job while women put in about four, women make up for it at home with about four hours of work to men’s 2.7. Some people will say women prefer this kind of work, and some of them are right. But we must keep in mind that American men and women are making their choices within a vacuum of culturally constructed traditional gender roles.

Further, we can’t explore these roles and expectations, and the potential for a radical shift in the fast food movement without discussing its relation to race.  A wonderful article on Black feminism, “Your Feminism Ain’t Like Ours, Because We Are Raising Quvenzhané,” touches on many themes that also relate to issues of food, gender, and the family. Author Duchess Harris discusses how critiques of Michelle Obama’s influence, valued for dogmas of “home-grown vegetables” and fashion, ignore a long-standing history of black feminists who have asserted their family roles within a framework of racism and gender oppression, centuries before second-wave feminism. 

“…the choice for a Black woman to focus on her family is not some kind of reversal; it’s an important assertion of value, part of a Black feminism that white women historically have never understood or supported,” Harris writes.

No woman should be demonized for choosing to be a homemaker and preparing home-cooked meals; and I’d argue this has been a serious and justified complaint in feminist history, as a failure to include and understand non-white feminist systems within internal frameworks. And by the same token, no one who finds this household labor burdensome and unsavory should be demonized.

Ultimately what the healthy fast food revolution indicates is that we must provide families with healthy options they can afford in a time-frame that works for their lifestyle. We must finally let the choice of how to prepare food for the family and divvy up household labor be rooted in just that: a choice.