Saving Thanksgiving from the 70’s

By: Karen Howard, CEO and Executive Director, Organic & Natural Health Association

Recently, I had a conversation about ‘natural’ food with my colleague Wendy Hirschhorn, CEO of Wendy’s Bloggers who shared with me that moms, according to her survey, believe that both natural and organic foods should be less expensive than conventional food, and they want to know why they aren’t.  I was immediately transported back to the day when processed foods became cool.  I remember it well, because that’s when my mom quit cooking meals from scratch. I decided to journey back in time and explore when cooking went out of vogue.

I was surprised.  Processed foods appeared way before my time.  The mother of them all, Twinkies, came to be in 1930, Kraft macaroni and cheese followed, with Spam arriving in 1937.  Minute Rice, cake mixes, and Kraft cheese singles were introduced in 1950.  TV Dinners came next in 1952, with Swanson’s sales increasing from 5,000 to 10 million dinners in one short year.  Tang, the most exciting drink to hit my kitchen and every camping trip I went on, was introduced to the market in 1959 (after it was used by NASA to mask the funky taste of water produced in space for astronaut John Glenn).  It wasn’t until NASA’s Gemini mission in 1965 that Tang gained popularity. While all of these foods were staples in the Howard household, it was the 70’s that completely changed how we ate. 

We ate a lot of Hamburger Helper at my house, starting with its presence in 1971, and consumed equal amounts, sadly, of Tuna Helper beginning in 1972.  Tony’s frozen pizzas became the alternative to going out.  I only remember complaining when Mom skimped and bought frozen potpies with no bottom crust.   The Food Network lists Hamburger Helper as the number three fad food of the 70’s.  Why?  Women going into the workforce (convenience), high meat prices caused by increased fuel costs and a corn blight (less expensive), and spot on marketing of the technology, (taste and speed), the same arguments for today’s processed food consumption.

Coincidently, or not, by the 70’s virtually every home had a dishwasher.  In 1978, the microwave oven became a part of the consumer price index and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, today more than 90 percent of households own one.  Processed food comes now comes in single size.  Organic food comes to us processed.  In the rush to make life ‘simpler,’ we’ve abandoned stoves and chucked our knives. 

So why is organic and natural more expensive?

  • Organic and natural can’t consistently compete with economies of scale in mass production of conventional food.
  • Preservatives enable products to stay on the shelves for long, long, long periods of time, unlike organic fruits and vegetables that have shorter shelf life.
  • Sourced ingredients like sugar, wheat and corn enjoy government subsidies and price supports. 
  • Technology enables crops to be produced in large quantities without concern about seasonality.  
  • The artificial flavors and colors American’ foods are cheap.  Kraft mac and cheese has $500 million in annual sales.  Annie’s sales, while growing are just over $200 million a year.

On the cusp of Thanksgiving, I’ve made trips to several stores and bought out the farmer’s market.  I will make pumpkin puree for pie, mash organic potatoes, and roast a turkey from Goff’s Content Farm I named Charlene.  I am grateful for this.  I would be more grateful if everyone thought it was cool to spend part of everyday chopping in the kitchen, and could afford to know the name of his or her turkey’s farm.

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Biography: Karen Howard, CEO and Executive Director of Organic & Natural Health Association, is a visionary and results-focused leader who has spent more than 30 years working with Congress, state legislatures and healthcare organizations to develop innovative healthcare policy and programs. She has held a variety of executive positions, including serving as professional staff for a Congressional committee, and has policy expertise in the diverse areas of integrative and complementary medicine, managed care, healthcare technology and mental health. An advocate at heart, she has worked to strategically advance the mission and vision of organizations through effective advocacy and strong collaboration.

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