The Death of American Equality

Obligatory Hibiki reference

I. I was recently chatting with a friend who lived for some time in Japan. I asked them what they liked best about her experience, and received a surprising answer–not the cartoons or the music, the fabulous city of Tokyo or the tasty food, neither the ancient culture nor the attractive people (though I am sure they appreciated all of these things)–but the equality.

In Japan, they said, there is much more of a sense of community harmony, of everyone being in the same boat. There is much less explicit class consciousness and people are more willing to help each other out. It’s not uncommon to see little old ladies out sweeping the street in front of their houses to keep their neighborhoods looking nice.

Remember when getting your daily nutritional needs met was considered a good thing?

II. In Where Have all the Fast-Food Playgrounds Gone, Lawrence writes:

On a Saturday afternoon at a McDonald’s in Brooklyn… The Playplace, during what should be prime Saturday afternoon birthday party hours, is empty and locked. … this McDonald’s looks like it stopped trying to attract kids in 1995. …

Today, these standard modular play structures — padded floors, platforms, polyurethane foam piping, a single plastic slide — are probably considered boring after age 9. At another McDonald’s, on Brooklyn’s Rockaway Beach, the indoor playground has been removed and replaced by more seating. At a Chuck E. Cheese’s near Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, a place where playgrounds are admittedly secondary to a casino of kids’ games, the usually standard play area is gone, too. …

According to Technomic, a food-service research and consulting firm, families with kids going to McDonald’s fell from 18.6 percent in 2011 to 14.6 percent in 2014.

Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, thinks that we’re unlikely to see fast-food restaurants focusing on playgrounds again anytime soon. “I’m not sure that they’re becoming a thing of the past, but we clearly don’t see growth in the opportunity for restaurants,” Tristano says. “Brands like Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s, who have indoor play places — we’re not necessarily seeing them expanding and, in some cases, when stores are being rebuilt, they’re no longer including these play places.”

There are multiple reasons for this shift, including people having fewer kids and more kids opting to play video games at home rather than head to the playground, but one of the biggest is classism.

Back when we were kids, McDonald’s was simply seen as a tasty, affordable restaurant that catered to families with small children. I’m almost certain I attended birthday parties there.

McDonald’s still offers birthday parties, but today the idea seems… declasse. Not that the kids wouldn’t enjoy it– kids today have about the same opinion of McDonald’s as I did–but their parents would disapprove. On parenting forums you often hear moms proudly proclaim that the dreaded “fast food” has never passed her offspring’s lips. Fast food is roundly excoriated as unhealthy crap, unsuitable for children–even though a Happy Meal is probably better for you than an organic, cruelty-free Whole Foods cupcake.

"I'd rather have humans do back-breaking labor in the tropical sun to grow, harvest, and refine sugar can than steal an egg from a chicken!"
Not actually a health food.

III. The folks over at Modern Mom.com have some recommendations for “Healthy Halloween Candy Alternatives,” like:

Snack bars – Some snack bars taste so good they can be confused for candy. KIND bars, made with all natural ingredients, are not only healthy but also available in indulgently delicious flavors like KIND Dark Chocolate Nuts & Sea Salt, Dark Chocolate Cinnamon Pecan and Healthy Grains Bars in flavors like Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate and Vanilla Blueberry (which are also gluten-free!).

Guess what. If it tastes like candy and is covered in chocolate, it’s candy.

Fruit covered in caramel/chocolate – Freeze bananas and drizzle with a tad of melted dark chocolate or cover apples in homemade, low-sugar caramel.

Again, chocolate is chocolate. It doesn’t stop being chocolate just because you throw a banana at it.

Natural fruit snacks/wraps – Trader Joe’s Organic Fruit Wraps are a perfect example of a flavorsome snack that is good for you and your kids. These wraps are 100% fruit and low in sugar.

Do you know what chemical makes fruit taste so good? Fructose. Fructose is sugar; (-ose is a suffix meaning “sugar.”) Your body metabolizes it into glucose just as easily as it metabolizes table sugar (sucrose) into glucose. These are not low in sugar; they are low in sucrose. You are not fooling your body with this verbal trickery.

Fresh fruit – Always the perfect, healthy treat to offer.

Oh, sure, because you want to be that parent. The one with the apples on Halloween. Why not hand out toothbrushes while you’re at it?

Pumpkin and yogurt parfait – Kids love parfaits, so simply layer fat-free vanilla yogurt with canned pumpkin mixed with pumpkin pie spice and a teaspoon of brown sugar. Top with a few chocolate chip morsels.

“Fat free” yogurt has as much sugar as ice cream, and this thing has a spoonful of added sugar. Guys, sugary yogurt topped with sugar doesn’t stop being sugary just because you mash in some pumpkin. (Even if you’re trying to avoid “fat” for some reason, most candy doesn’t have much fat in it.)

And don’t get me started on the notion that “kids love parfaits.” Maybe your kids love parfaits. Mine prefer foie gras topped with Cheerios.

I’m not saying you should feed your kids a bunch of candy. I’m saying don’t be classist about what is and isn’t healthy. It’s not healthy just because it comes from Whole Foods, and it isn’t unhealthy just because it comes from McDonald’s. (For goodness’s sakes, they serve salads.)

The folks who make their kids sugar-drenched organic parfaits in order to keep them away from the dreaded M&Ms in their Halloween bucket are the same folks who denigrate fast food.

This isn’t my picture and I don’t know where it came from, but wow that could totally be me and my friends.

IV. I have a certain fondness for old-fashioned playgrounds. Modern ones have their advantages (plastic slides won’t burn your legs,) but they feel incomplete without see-saws or merry-go-rounds. When it came to McDonald’s, I loved that guy with the giant hamburger head you could climb inside (mostly I tried to figure out ways to get through the bars and get on top of it.)

To tell the truth, I am not that fond of McDonald’s food–I mostly like them for their playground. In the midst of winter, I am thankful to have a warm, dry place where my kids can play and we can all get something to eat. We once celebrated and appreciated such places, just as we once celebrated the manufacturing jobs that once allowed Americans to enjoy the greatest economic boom the world has ever seen.

Today the middle class is shrinking and the working class is destined to be poor than its parents. Global poverty has plummeted, but American wealth inequality has been steadily increasing since the 70s. (Coincidentally, average wages have been stagnant ever since the beginning of mass, low-wage immigration from 3rd world countries.) And politics has become more divisive and dived as we’ve turned into a nation of snobs, turning up our noses at people once considered brothers.

V. The article on disappearing fast-food playgrounds speaks positively of efforts to pass playground-cleaning regulations:

Dr. Erin Carr-Jordan, a playground sanitation vigilante and, more formally, the founder of Kids Play Safe, a research organization “committed to protecting the health, safety and well-being of children,” was banned from eight Phoenix-area McDonald’s in 2011 presumably for swabbing play areas for germs. A cross-country journey during which she tested the playgrounds of six national chains in both high and low socioeconomic, rural, and urban areas turned into a crusade. …

Surprisingly, there are no state or federal regulations for playground cleanliness or maintenance, and they’re not regulated in many counties and cities. Carr-Jordan has been working to change that, successfully doing so in her home state of Arizona. Kids Play Safe recently partnered with Chuck E. Cheese’s to, according to a press release, “collaborate on common goals to provide a safe healthy play environment for kids.” Chuck E. Cheese’s is the first major brand to work with Kids Play Safe, which could be a small step forward to improving the reputation of restaurant playgrounds.

Just look at this family, all dressed up and having a fun time

I am extremely sympathetic to the desire for clean playgrounds. Nothing ruins a lovely afternoon like vomiting all evening. But legal regulations aren’t going to get you there. Faced with a choice between risking fines if their minimum wage barely-English-speaking employees incorrectly clean the playground or just not having a playground, restaurants will opt to go without.

I propose an alternative solution: return to the simpler playgrounds of my youth. Free-standing structures exposed to the wind, rain, and sun do not harbor germs in the same way as humid, enclosed tubes and pits. The older playgrounds were probably cheaper, as well, and had more personality.

Finally, I’d like to note that I am not really trying to shill for fast food, but examining a change in the way society approaches food marketed to middle and lower-class people.