Amid all the debate surrounding local foods, consumer health and preserving our regional agriculture the biggest hurdle of all might be the issue that we are not talking about–time! All the locally produced food in the universe will only be valuable if people have the time to buy it, prepare it and eat it.
According to the USDA Economic Research Service’s publication, How Much Time Do Americans Spend on Food?, we spent just 33 minutes/day in food preparation during 2006-2008. Oh, and that includes cleanup! Even more discouraging, apparently almost half of our population is spending no time at all on food preparation.
In contrast, most studies from the mid-twentieth century estimate that Americans (read women) were spending between 2.5 and 3.5 hours/day on food preparation. The additional 2-3 hours would make quite a difference in the average weekly menu. I consider myself a pretty sophisticated cook with above-average kitchen skills and I could certainly pull together one simple meal in 33 minutes but 3 meals starting from raw, local ingredients in just half an hour would certainly challenge my abilities especially if I tried to maintain it for seven days a week.
In thinking through the demons of our current, much-maligned, food system — prepared foods, fast foods, foods high in fat, sugar and salt–most have come about because of consumer demand. It is easy to fall into the habit of speaking as if manufacturers created these foods and then created the demand when, in fact it was actually consumers demanding foods that were cheap, easy to store and fast to prepare. Of course now we have ramped-up marketing firms that are seeking to continue, and grow, the sales of these foods. Still, we consumers must be held accountable for the foods that find their way into our shopping baskets and dinner tables.
So while there is enough blame to go around for our country’s poor eating habits the elephant in the kitchen might well be that we are so busy earning a living that we’ve lost touch with what it actually takes to have a life. Consider the following:
- Most food preparation still falls to women.
- As women have moved into the work-force they have fewer hours to shop, cook and clean up.
- Available time is the most consistent factor in food preparation decisions.
- Low-income women working full-time still spend less time than those not working but the gap is smaller, presumably because these women cannot afford to substitute money for time (purchasing more pre-made foods)
- Food Network is one of the fastest growing cable channels so clearly we are interested in food and find time to watch others cook.
- We are spending more and more money on kitchens and gadgets that we rarely use yet many lack basic tools like knives and sturdy pots and pans.
The one bit of good news is that older women spend more time cooking because they are working fewer hours outside the home and have more time and disposable income. Since the baby-boomers are just entering the early years of retirement we may see a uptick in the hours spent on food preparation. Unfortunately these same boomers will have smaller families to cook for and there is only a small window of time before their financial security will diminish that disposable income.
So, the question for all of us invested in the local food movement might well be, “Who does have time to cook?”