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Unsavory Materiality: The Aesthetics of Institutional Food

A 2008 image of Cheeseburger Macaroni served at a Virginia school.

A 2008 image of Cheeseburger Macaroni served at a Virginia school.

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. Read the rest of this entry