Archive for October, 2007

The cultural consequences of fast food

Many of us know of chef Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse and an originator of California Cuisine. In her new cookbook, she promotes local, seasonal, organic, and minimally-processed foods, and a philosophy of paying attention to where your ingredients come from, taking time and care with your food, and eating with friends and family. These are all things I agree with. And I’ve spent time thinking about the health and environmental consequences of my food. But Waters elevates the importance of our food choices above the direct impacts of the ingredients. In an interview in Salon, she makes the most eloquent case that I’ve seen so far that food choices have cultural consequences:

When we’re eating fast food, we’re not just eating the food, we’re eating a set of values that comes with the food. And it’s telling us that food should be cheap. It’s telling us that food should be the same no matter where we are on the planet. It’s telling us that advertising confers value. That it’s OK to eat 24 hours a day. That there are unlimited resources. It’s telling us that the work of the people who grow or raise the food is unimportant — in fact we don’t even need to know. And all of those values are informing what’s happening in the world around us. We’re ending up with malls instead of beautiful places to live in.

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I can say this much about government work: there are a lot of meetings. My supervisor, for instance, spends probably 80% of his time in meetings. So far I’ve spent about 30% of my time in meetings. If I consider the time preparing for and traveling to meetings, responding to meeting-scheduling requests and follow-up emails, sometimes I’m surprised anything else gets done. And here’s the rub: most of these meetings are necessary. At least at the EPA, and probably at other government agencies and large organizations, there are so many arms doing different but related things, that if they don’t meet all the time, it leads to a lot of repeated work and unshared, useful knowledge.

But the sharing of work and knowledge makes up only a fraction of meeting time, of course. There are requisite digressions of a personal nature — usually about kids. There are digressions of a technical nature, my personal favorite and the type most common in academic meetings, but disappointingly rare in my meetings at the EPA. There is philosophical debate about big-picture issues, and philosophical debate about minutiae.

And so every meeting is supposed to have and Agenda and “Action Items” — the things that we will actually do as a result of the meeting. Different meeting-personality types will push different types of digression, and if you get too many of the same type dominating the meeting, you can expect the meeting to go very long. Thank goodness for the personalities who push the Agenda and harp on Action Items. I’m convinced that if it weren’t for these rare type-A meeting-personalities, the administrative end of the government would grind to a halt, gummed up by endless meetings running later and later with no Action Items in sight.

Although, interestingly, sometimes the digressions are the point. As in, by chit-chatting with a few staff members from office X, we are building rapport, so when our office criticizes the report from office X, we have support from the inside to temper the anger of the director. Or, by reminiscing about the good old days when we worked together in Region 8, I’ll find out who has moved in since, and what the new agendas and projects are. And let’s not forget this motivation: often, being in a meeting is easier than working.

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