Thursday, July 31, 2008

Libby dusts off an old standby, the Family Meal

One of my main interests is people’s eating habits. The late writer Laurie Colwin once summed it up well:

I’m not very curious about what people had out. I’m interested in what people have in, because I’m very interested in people’s domestic lives. I used to think I was fretting away my time, but the fact is, what is more interesting than how people live? I personally can’t think of anything. Maybe war or death or something, but not to me.”
I’ve spent a lot of time asking people who they eat with, what their daily meals are like, and how often they eat together as a family. So, I couldn’t help but comment on Libby’s new campaign to get families to eat more dinners together – and of course, to include Libby foods in those meals.
Parents and kids who visit the promotion's site will also find the "Top 5 Reasons to Get Back to the Table" (better grades, nutrition, confidence levels, etc. for kids); a database of easy, low-cost recipes featuring Libby's vegetables; and tips on planning meals and saving time and money at the grocery store - some from "Total Mom" author/TV personality Hannah Keeley.
Indeed, there’s definitely a new science that tries to support those claims. A recent University of Minnesota study found that adolescent girls who ate with their families at least five times a week during middle school were much less likely to drink, smoke or use marijuana five years later. The same, alas, did not hold true for boys. Even the researchers are not really sure what that means, so forgive me if I’m not quick to jump on the Return of the Family Meal Bandwagon. Most of the data shows that people do make an effort to eat family meals, perhaps not every night, but in a regular and sustained pattern. So why is Libby marketing nostalgia for something that isn’t really gone?

History shows that worries about family dinners come back like the tide whenever there’s certain kinds of social upheaval – let’s see which ones apply today: war (got that), economic downturns (got that), changes in men’s and women’s work and home roles (got that, too) and, oh yeah, rising food prices (got that, too!).

It’s really not surprising: concerns about the family are part of the social and economic concerns of the broader society. What even historians tend to forget is the role of advertising in helping to fuel those concerns, especially around the dinner table. In the early ages of advertising, the food industry tried to convince women that their performance as mothers and wives depended on choosing the best brand of canned foods for the family. Laura Shapiro, author of Something from the Oven convincingly demonstrates how into the 1950s, food ads were unusual in just how many kinds of insecurities they manipulated. After all, you need to be a Total Mom to be able to work 40 hours a week, deal with a budget, and come home and make dinner every night. That’s why advertising has always tied women’s maternal adequacy with a mix of “add love, but make it more convenient.” (I'd like to be able to say we've progressed enough for them to market this to the "Total Dad," too, but I'm not seeing any signs of that in these campaigns.)

So, Libby’s attempt to promote its canned goods in this manner is a longstanding cultural tradition. What’s different is that the tide has changed: it’s very difficult to sell canned vegetables today when fresh are shipped quickly across the globe, making asparagus available year round. So, tastes – or at least the arbiters of taste -- have moved away from the canned and towards the accessibility of fresh. The movement to get people to eat fresh, local food is gaining ground.

But Libby’s rather unabashed promotion of its canned vegetables flies in the face of so many things. At the same time, it recognizes that sooner or later, the ability to buy fresh and continue to buy whatever produce you want out of season may be more difficult for people under the economic crunch. It’s not surprising that the family meal has returned – articles about comfort food are just around the corner, waiting for the fall weather and heating bill crunch. As Libby rightly knows, smart moms are already thinking about stocking up on canned goods before the recipes start asking for pureed pumpkin. How about some pie?

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