Home-Eating - An Historical Allegory

               A long time ago, families ate primarily at home. Mothers, or sometimes fathers, cooked meals in their own kitchens and served them to their families at a special table designed for that purpose. Many years ago, that all changed in favor of the system we have now, but it did not happen all at once. Such a cultural shift was accomplished through several smaller shifts in the structure and public perception of eating.
                It all started when a significant enough segment of the population began struggling to afford food for their families. In fact, the cost of food had always been somewhat of a burden to all but the wealthiest. Some families spent nearly one third of their income on basic nutrition, while others could afford delicacy without sacrifice. Rich families were able to effortlessly keep themselves healthy and strong, which put the weaker poor and middle class at a disadvantage because of the lack of good nutrition. That wasn’t fair, of course, since everyone has the right to food.
Thankfully, a solution was reached, through democratic process. Since food is a basic right, government must provide it. In fact, our beautiful state determined that feeding its citizens was the top priority and thus the best investment we could make in a positive future. After all, who would be healthy enough to work in the factories and offices if most of the people were starving? If there were no healthy workers, the economy would collapse, which would hurt everyone. It was decided that 5% of the income of each state resident would be pooled in order to provide nutrition for all.
At first, the communities came together to decide how to feed everyone with their pooled money. The typical community opted to build a cafeteria and hire a few cooks to prepare large meals for everyone. This allowed the community to buy food in bulk and feed its members most economically. It also allowed mothers some additional freedom, since they no longer had to spend hours each day in their kitchens. As a side benefit, the cafeterias provided social opportunities for all. Citizens no longer had to set appointments, or drop in on one another in order to socialize. Community cafeterias, though not a perfect solution, were a smashing success.
But there were problems. Inequality reared its ugly head again. Since some communities had higher incomes, their 5% came out to a lot more than that of a poorer community. Accordingly, the menus and portion sizes differed greatly from one cafeteria to the next. One might serve primarily rice and beans, with the occasional wilted salad, while another, only five miles away, would serve chicken cordon bleu! Poor families, sick of beans, tried to sneak into other cafeterias for a little variety and chance at a healthier life. That didn’t work out very well, of course. If too many people had gotten away with such shenanigans, the poorer cafeterias might have been shut down for good, sabotaging the original objective of feeding everyone. Instead, the state decided to equalize eating by collecting all the money and then redistributing it to the individual cafeterias, proportional to the population they served.
Since funding was now being distributed equally by the state, naturally, the state needed to be sure the money was being spent wisely. After all, everyone in the state was paying into this, so there needed to be some accountability. And how best to accomplish that than by setting forth minimum nutritional standards? Now, let’s be clear, the state was not going to tell you what to eat. No, these standards were simply to specify certain protein/carb/fat ratios and perhaps the number of fruits and vegetables that must be served. No one was going to say you couldn’t have pizza sometimes or that you had to clean your plate. (Even cafeterias used plates back then.) Furthermore, these were minimum standards. Each cafeteria could, at the discretion of its elected board, determine higher standards. In order to administer these standards, the “Department of Square Meals” was created. To make things a little more fun and get people on board, round glass plates were replaced by the square paper trays we know and love today. That way, people would know they were getting the required “Square” meals.
The standards were a problem for some people who had allergies or dietary restrictions. So naturally, the cafeteria system came up with a system for handling those people. If you couldn’t handle standard cafeteria fare for one reason or another, you could apply for an individualized eating plan (or IEP). Now, if you went that route, you could end up with less nutritional value, but at least you were getting something to eat. And if you didn’t like what you were given, you could simply request changes in a few months at your IEP review. There was always something for everyone. Granted, the cooks didn’t really care for IEP’s. Most people could eat in “assembly line” style, so IEP’s made a lot of extra work for the cooks. They were willing to do it, of course, because everyone has the right to eat, but too many IEP’s made the job particularly stressful.
As a side note, I should add that certain segments of the historical economy were changing at this time as a result of what has come to be known as the public cafeteria system. A hundred years ago, before public cafeterias, there used to be a thing called a “restaurant.” This was a private “cafeteria” of sorts. The building would be owned by one person who would hire his own staff and serve food to paying customers. Imagine paying for private food! Who can afford to do that anymore? Furthermore, these restaurants were unique. Since the customer paid for his or her own food (and for the staff to cook and serve it), there were no state standards dictating what foods could or could not be served. Customers could order whatever they liked, and no two restaurants were same. Of course, these restaurants catered to the rich, and not everyone could go, so they made things quite unequal. At first, the rich still preferred restaurants to the public cafeterias. But as time went on and people got more used to the idea of publicly funded eating, most restaurants shut down. There are still a few, in areas with very high income, but they are typically only for the snooty families who think they are better than everyone else. As public cafeteria food has, according to some, become more and more boring, and less and less nutritious, there have been a few brave souls who have tried starting up new restaurants, but they don’t last long. Very few families can afford to eat there, and, even if they could, they would rather spend the money on other things, while there is free food at the cafeteria.
For most of the history of public cafeterias, participation has been mandatory. The reason for this is obvious. Depriving self or family of food is widely considered bad for public health. Not many people know this, but missing more than 3 meals per week at the cafeteria (without a restaurant exemption, of course) can result in fines and even jail time. While it may seem extreme, jail is probably the best place for people who won’t go to the cafeteria, since three square meals per day are served to inmates. In recent years, however, small minorities have started to retreat from public eating. This was worrisome at first. Families worried about fines and jail time, and the communities worried about the health of their friends. These rebels were insistent, however, and exemptions to the mandatory cafeteria laws were obtained.
Families quit the public cafeteria for a variety of reasons. Some felt that their IEP’s were not satisfactory. Others wanted more variety of foods. Still others felt that the nutrition provided, though adhering to the rigorous state standards, was subpar or did not support their nutritional philosophies. Some of these families had parents who had studied to be cooks. Others had not. Some simply wanted to eat at home in peace and quiet, so the cafeteria came up with a sort of take-out or delivery program. If families wanted to be more independent, they could at least obtain leftover square trays and menus from the local cafeteria. The state did not worry too much about these families since at least they were getting properly shaped nutrition. There were a few extreme families that rejected the cafeteria menus, however. These were the strange ones who might eat soup for breakfast and pancakes for dinner! Worse still, they insisted upon bringing back the round glass dinner plate! How horribly outdated! Plates might have been good enough for our ancestors on the farm, but in today’s society success and health depends on square meals.
These rebellious families, who referred to themselves as “home-eaters,” had some difficulties at first, since family housing generally does not include kitchen and dining areas anymore. They had to be creative with their space or remodel. Some remodeled their houses to include tiny versions of the industrial cafeteria kitchens and brought in cafeteria benches and tables. Others cooked outside and sat on the floor. Many families found it difficult to prioritize their space for eating. It was all horribly unequal!
Another challenge faced by home-eaters was a lack of resources in obtaining food. Since most people eat at cafeterias nowadays, grocery stores and food suppliers cater mostly to large culinary operations. So at first, it was difficult to buy just one loaf of bread rather than a case, or one gallon of milk instead of a 55-gallon drum. Many home-eater families resorted to growing and making their own food and raising livestock. Talk about old-fashioned! Most people could not understand why these families go to such great lengths to provide meals when there was a cafeteria just down the street! Nevertheless, as the movement grew, more and more resources became available to home-eaters who were willing to pay. Now there is a full spectrum of available foods for home-eating families.
As if that weren’t enough to deal with, home-eaters also have financial issues. Not only do they have to seek out, obtain, and prepare their food themselves, but they also have to pay for it! Everyone pays for the cafeteria system, of course. If we didn’t, most of us wouldn’t eat. But these families pay first for the cafeteria and then again for their own food. Every once in a while, someone tries to get a law passed that would reduce the cafeteria contribution for home-eating families by a meal’s worth or two per week. Thankfully, those laws do not pass. The cafeterias are always hurting for funds, so anything taking money away from them would mean less food for everyone. Incredibly, home-eating families claim they could pay for all their families’ meals for the tiny amount these laws would give them! Yeah, right! If they want to do their own thing, they will have to do it on their own AFTER paying their fair share for the cafeteria. Public eating benefits everyone after all, not just those who eat there.
Although there will always be a minority who want to revert back to the distant past for their eating traditions, our society is immensely advantaged by our current system. It took many years and a lot of hard work to get the public cafeteria system to where it is today. And the Department of Square Meals is always working to improve the diets of the citizens in our state.


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