Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Please workplace tell me how I should eat

The Victoria University staff club is strange in many ways. It is tucked away in the library, undergrads aren't supposed to go there, and know very little about it. But, despite the secrecy, it is very unexciting - except the alcohol is quite cheap, and sometimes the food is nicer and less over-priced than the rest of the university.

The staff club also has a mission, and that mission is to tell the people who eat there how to eat. As you go down the corridor every side is telling you to eat Blueberries! Low fat! Omega-3 Oil! and so on. Then they usually have little plastic triangle display things on every table - the sort that some restaurants put wine or specials on, but the staff club puts advice on how not to eat too much. Including one that said: "Eat like an Eskimo" followed by lots of praise of fish. Where do you even start?

1. Eskimo? For reals? After that shall we play Cowboys and Indians with any natives we can find on campus?

2. Advice about food is so fucking ridiculous. Why on earth should we eat like we lived somewhere where almost nothing grows? The fact that human beings have been able to subsist on large parts of the planet shows how resilient we are, and what a wide range of foods (as a species) we can survive on. The fact that historically people living in some areas have eaten predominantly fish, while people living in other areas have had very limited access to fish, is a reason to shut up about the one true way of eating.

3. These are workers at the university and post-graduate students. Are we somehow expected not to be able to feed ourselves? Are we in imminent danger of death from a blueberry deficiency? Is there a special section on the health deprivation index about how badly off staff and post-graduate students at the university are?

The Fat Nutritionist has a great post about how the vast majority people on weight-watchers are based on their socio-economic-gender-ethnicity profile are already going to live FOR-EVER. The same is true for the majority of people who work at university or those with post-graduate degrees.*

I'm not suggesting that this information would be anymore productive in, say, a meatworks tea-room. But given that you can't get more urban-liberal-middle-class than the staff club at a university, and the behaviours that are described as 'healthy eating' are the behaviours of urban-liberal-middle-class women more than any other socio-economic group. What is the purpose of bombarding those most likely to be already aware, and following, the behaviours that have been designated 'healthy' with?

I would suggest that the purpose is self-satisfaction - the purpose is rewarding the virtuousness, as much as it's about compelling compliance in those who eat there (they are after all only posters - the staff club doesn't even sell that much fish). I want to explore this some more, and look at the impact that a moral model of food has on those who do not follow it. But I don't think it's a coincidence that eating-places are most likely to push these messages among those who are presumed to be already following htem.

* And this in itself is telling. As PhD Comics can tell us post-grad students subsist on instant noodles and free food that can be scavenged around campus. While this stereotype isn't entirely true, it does have a basis in reality, as post-grad students are lacking in both money and time - which makes acquiring nutritious food you want to eat tricky. And yet, post-grad students generally survive the experience, and go on to live to ages that befit their socio-economic position.


  1. Does your obection regarding 'eskimo' include the word itself, or is it specific to the stereotyping?

  2. As VUW staff member, can I just say that all that stuff is very weird. It's partly why I hardly ever go there.

  3. "Then they usually have little plastic triangle display things on every table...Including one that said: "Eat like an Eskimo" followed by lots of praise of fish."

    I just started at a new workplace and they have the exact same thing! though today the Eskimo triangles had been swapped for ones telling us about what ethnic food is ok (eg when eating Italian go for the tomato sauce pasta rather than creamy cheese sauce one, Indian choose the dahl over the korma etc)

    I don't have a strong opinion on them but wondered what you would think so was surprised to see this post. Regarding not having a strong opinion, its because they can easily be ignored (though that's not a good way to think about things I know), I'd probably have more to say if the range of stuff at the cafeteria was limited to "healthy" options but this doesn't seem to be the case.