Unsavory Materiality: The Aesthetics of Institutional Food
Few dimensions of the material world have more sensory, tactile, and visual impact than food, a point that seems confirmed by the rich food studies scholarship, food advocacy groups ranging from sustainable agriculturalists to local food champions, and the avalanche of desserts on Pinterest. Nevertheless, somewhat less attention has focused on diners’ experiences of institutional foods: that is, mass-produced foods like the cheese pizza and tater tots clouding elementary school cafetoriums; the nutritionally balanced but unsightly purees scooped onto hospital plates; and the reheated frozen food adorning plastic prison trays and military mess halls. Observers have long dissected a widespread sentiment that such meals are perceived as unappealing and discarded in massive quantities, but much of this attention fixes on food waste and does not always confront why we find some foods so unappetizing in the first place.
An enormous amount of food photography acknowledges the desires projected onto food and the depth of emotional sentiment invested in images. A 1996 survey of institutional diners examining negative perceptions of such foods found that consumers rated the “manner of food presentation” lower than every other factor; despite recognizing that many consumers found institutional foods visually unappetizing, though, the study focused on how that reception mirrors our negative stereotypes that precede their consumption, devoting little attention to the ways our visual and sensory interaction with food shapes its consumption. Observers often seem unable to fathom the idiosyncratic ways we actively perceive, eat, and discard food, and they routinely fail to understand that much of the desire we deny institutional foods is linked to their visual aesthetics.
A massive literature examines school lunches, but it tends to revolve around nutrition analyses and the connection between diet, impoverishment, and childhood obesity. Much of that scholarship and popular commentary on school lunches aspires to manage children’s eating behaviors, or it descends to moralizing about mass foodways and skirts the ethnographic complexities of taste, aesthetics, and food. Hospital patients are subjected to similarly unappealing food choices, and observers spend much of their attention quantifying waste of the roughly $5 billion spent on hospital food each year. Nutritionists have long bemoaned the enormous amount of weight patients commonly lose: nevertheless, a 2000 English study concluding that more than 40% of hospital food is not eaten at all; a second study found that 38% of all hospital food was wasted; a 1995-2003 study of Danish hospital and nursing home food reform programs found no significant improvements; and a study of food waste in nursing homes found that 60% of residents consumed less than their daily caloric requirements.
Nearly all of the scholarship and popular commentary on institutional foods at least contemplates the appearance of food, but it routinely looms simply as a dismissive aside. Some of this reflects research methods that revolve around surveys and quantification, which often reduce diners’ visual assessment of foods to “opinion” and conduct no systematic ethnography with food consumers. Even the best scholarship still tends to psychologize food consumption and our responses to food’s aesthetics, especially among those most unpredictable of institutional diners: kids in public school systems. Visual appearance of food is enormously difficult to assess systematically: the aesthetic cues for an “unappetizing” food are fueled by a complex mix of experience, socialization, and personal idiosyncrasies, and much of our emotional feelings for certain foods are relatively inchoate or clumsily articulated. Food waste, in contrast, is much easier to quantify and serves as a somewhat shocking rallying point for many activists: a 2014 study indicated that in 2010 a stunning 31% of the edible US food supply at retail and consumer levels—133 billion pounds of food–was discarded. Much of that prodigious waste can be blamed on a terribly inefficient production system, but we appear to have somewhat less systematic insights from consumers dissecting why we discard so much theoretically consumable food.
Driven by personal experiences and the understanding that food’s aesthetics matter, blogs often confront the visual dimensions of institutional food quite systematically; in the case of blogs that focus on institutional foods, they routinely illuminate the distinction between a nutritionally balanced meal and a visually appealing one. In April 2012, for instance, Scottish primary student Martha Payne launched Never Seconds, a straightforward photograph and commentary on each of her daily school meals. After the site received over 2 million hits by June the school system forbade her to continue the blog, arguing that “it misrepresented the options and choices available to pupils . .. we had to act to protect staff from the distress and harm it was causing. In particular, the photographic images uploaded appear to only represent a fraction of the choices available to pupils, so a decision has been made by the council to stop photos being taken in the school canteen.” However, within a day the school was forced to retreat after an international outcry against the ban. Notes from a Hospital Bed is a similar long-term hospital patient’s photographic documentation of hospital food offerings and a challenge to identify dishes in a contest he calls “Hospital Food Bingo.” Hospital Food Review was a cancer survivor’s assessment of hospital cafeteria food that likewise included many images of appealing and unappetizing meals alike.
Martha Payne’s blog on Scottish school meals is simply one of the pages that leverage the aesthetics of institutional meals for various causes. School Meals that Rock includes a series of lunch photo pages that aspire to photograph school food in appealing forms; the page considers the aesthetics of food, but primarily to demonstrate how photographs can positively represent school lunches. A host of students and grumpy parents have taken to twitter to post somewhat more explicitly politicized pictures of unappetizing American school lunches and attack First Lady Michelle Obama’s support for American school lunch reforms.
Institutional dining choices are governed by far more than aesthetics alone, of course, but many kids in cafeterias, patients on hospital wards, and soldiers in mess halls face a highly standardized diet characterized by modest but consequential visual cues that make such meals unappealing. Given all the money invested in institutional diets and the dietary consequence of school lunches, prison meals, and hospital foods, it makes sense to also think broadly about the idiosyncratic sensory and emotional dimensions of foodways. Assuming people will eat in rational and predictable ways is perhaps wishful thinking if not simply naïve, and we certainly might secure some more substantive insights into the sensory dimensions of institutional foodways with a more sustained ethnographic and material focus on consumers.
Thanks to my student Jason Greene, whose Master’s research on hospital food waste and sustainability gave me the idea for this post. He bears no responsibility for its shortcomings.
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Bacon Chop image from Notes from a Hospital Bed
Digestible Meal image from Scrubs
Patients Hospital of Redding ad image from Marsha Diamond Pinterest
Shepherd’s Pie image from Never Seconds