Edible America: How and What We Eat

Allen Pietrobon

This presentation will look at the history of American cuisine since 1945, to examine a few key events that radically changed how and what Americans eat. Over the past 70 years, the country transformed from a relatively wholesome and nourishing food system, to what a critic might call a “Cheez-Whiz food culture,” laden with fats, sugar, and ultra-processed unhealthy foods. Today, six in ten American deaths can be attributed to diet-related causes. Even the Dean of Public Policy at Duke University has said that Americans currently live in a “toxic food environment.”

How did this come to be? And is it really that bad? We’ll explore a few crises — how the race riots of 1967-68, and the economic problems of the early 1970s — led to policies that attempted to help solve these challenges, but instead led to a radical change in what Americans eat. From 1967 to 1999, spending on fast food went from 14.3% of eating out receipts to 35.5% as the government partnered with major food corporations to flood the landscape with cheaper, faster, more highly processed (and unhealthy) foods.

Professor Pietrobon will explore the past 70 years of American food history, as well as the political and public fights over what and how we eat. He’ll examine the unintended consequences of how choices by the government, ad agencies, and major food corporations helped to transform America into what food writer Greg Crister calls “the fattest nation on earth.”


Discussion Questions: 

1)    On one hand, our modern food system feeds billions of people. On the other, it degrades the environment, tortures animals, and produces commodity crops that aren’t necessarily healthy. Where do you fall in this debate?

2)    The U.S. government helped to fund the construction of fast-food restaurants in inner cities. Was that the right decision? What alternatives could there be to meet the dual goals of providing access to food and jobs in underprivileged neighborhoods?

3)    Why do you think what we choose to eat has become so politicized in America in recent years?

4)    Should the government take more of an active role in regulating “bad” foods? Or do you think it is ultimately up to consumers to make better choices about the food they consume?

5)    In your own lifetime (or between your parents’ and your generation) have your food habits changed? How?