A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

Whom Can Parents Trust?

How the erosion of trust in America reaches as local as your family table.

A recent piece on NPR about the slow but steady erosion of trust in America made me wonder how this trend affects parents. Since the 1960s, people trust less and less in all the major institutions of this country, from government down. When asked whom they trust, Americans tend to list sources either close to home—"family" was mentioned frequently—or really, really far away...like God. The topic seemed fairly abstract to me until a professor being interviewed cited an example that caught my attention, for obvious reasons: When you trust your child's teacher, education is a seamless and efficient process. When you stop trusting the teacher for some reason, you have to get involved in all the minutiae—checking homework, asking exactly what your child learned every day, and so forth—which makes the process far less efficient and also, I'd argue, much more unsettling for the parent. Once you lose faith in a teacher or a school, it's very difficult to stop yourself from questioning every decision they make, large or small. When they break the trust you shared, the process works much more poorly.

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Occupy Wall Street is a clear and current example of how this erosion of trust is playing out in our society—though the protestors have been roundly mocked for their lack of a platform, the drama they're enacting on their increasingly public stage is this diffuse: Whom to trust? Many Americans trusted that the government would do the right thing in this financial debacle, from holding the perpetrators accountable to shielding the innocent from its consequences, but neither of those things happened. As a result, people feel abandoned and defenseless, and are searching to express that feeling of powerlessness.

This trust vacuum affects parents in a myriad of ways; one area it plays out in on a daily basis is in how we feed our children. There was once a time when parents knew what to feed their children: they fed them the food their community ate. The dishes they knew how to cook were the ones they'd eaten as children, and that's what their children ate in turn. But as the communal mode of raising children began to give way to the relatively isolated way families function today, and people increasingly moved away from the communities where they were raised, that trusted influence waned. So the feeding of children was up for grabs—science, government, agribusiness: each group of "experts" vied for the ear of American parents seeking guidance. Ann Hulbert's excellent book, Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, details the power struggles between different people and groups as they sought, essentially, to become that trusted voice parents lacked. Makers of baby formula, for example, now widely mistrusted, were for a very long time the most trusted experts on what was best for children.

These days, we have no Dr. Spock, no government nutrition program, no food company in whom we can place our faith fully. When even "scientific" studies of nutrition can be counted on to reverse themselves with predictable regularity, whom can we trust to tell us the right way to feed our children? I'd wager that those parents who are still most firmly connected to the food traditions of their own childhood have the easiest time with this dilemma: they are part of a lasting, proven cycle of feeding that stretches back generations. But continuing food traditions—and I do really mean daily meals rather than only holidays—is difficult. Some of us no longer know what our traditions are because they were broken so long ago; others don't have the time to prepare meals the way earlier generations did. Others may feel that current health guidelines make it impossible to continue feeding their children the foods they grew up on.

So parents find themselves frantically consulting various sources, from pediatricians to mothers' groups to the media, trying to find the best way to feed their kids. In an era when so many parents don't even know how to feed themselves anymore—how many adults do you know who are unequivocally happy with the way they eat?—parents are, at best, left to ping-pong between often conflicting sources of information. And I'd argue that the problem is connected to the larger trust issue: when so many previously trusted sources have let us down, to whom are we supposed to listen? When even Michelle Obama's seemingly laudable anti-obesity initiative is attacked by politicians, what source is above the fickle winds of change? It seems we need more than ever to find someone to trust, someone who can tell us how to do right by our children.

What I cooked this week:

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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