March 24, 2010
The itinerary of a recent business trip routed me through LaGuardia Airport for a plane change. It was dinnertime, so I wandered over to what passes for a food court at LaGuardia to survey the usual dismal choices. This being New York City, the food vendors are required to show the calorie content of each item on their menus. The numbers do not stack up well for red meat: every sandwich or dish containing beef or pork weighed in at several hundred calories, and most of them vaulted well above the thousand-calorie line. I settled for something lighter, as I imagine many a LaGuardia traveler does. What I ate was tasteless, but at least I didn’t feel like I had a fatty brick in my stomach as I flew on to Florida.
A hospital cafeteria I’m familiar with here in northern New England also posts the calorie (and fat) content of the various foods available. Here, red meat looks better. A few months ago the hospital’s administration decided that a hospital cafeteria really ought to promote healthy eating, so out went all the fried foods, all the bags of potato chips, all the doughnuts. There are few remaining high-fat items – a cheeseburger is one – but consumption is discouraged by the pricing: the healthier the food, the cheaper it is. Salads are dirt cheap, even when you build a big green mound for yourself at the salad buffet. Veggie wraps cost practically nothing. Wraps filled with lean, thin-sliced roast beef are cheap too. A nice portion of grilled salmon fillet served with salad costs just four bucks, and the cafeteria manager told me he now sells more salmon fillets than he did of the previously most popular item, which was fried chicken tenders. When the tenders disappeared along with all the other fried foods he got some complaints, but they died out quickly, he said, and no one ever complains about the salmon.
The problem at the airport isn’t really that the frightening calorie counts posted for the burgers, sausages, pork burritos, fried chicken sandwiches, etc., are driving customers to wraps, salads and fruit cups. It’s all the toppings that are added to the meat: glops of fatty mayonnaise, slices of oily cheese, fat-streaked bacon strips, “secret sauce” that’s almost entirely fat, etc., all of which launch meat-bearing foods into the caloric stratosphere. Meat naturally carries some fat, but why must these airport purveyors load up their sandwiches with more and more of the stuff? Don’t they want to sell these things? When you see a single bacon cheeseburger weigh in at a couple of thousand calories – and that’s without the fries everyone always orders too -- you’re not really encouraged to think in terms of healthy eating, you know? Oh well, thinks the industry, we sell plenty of bacon cheeseburgers in the millions of places where calorie counts aren’t required on the menu.
But the reason why all the unhealthy additions are added to certain fast-foods, calories be damned, is because the meat itself is sub-par. It’s as tasteless as mud. Bacon, cheese, fat-thickened sauces, oily marinades – it’s the only way to put any flavor into these cheap meats. Trying to watch my fat intake these days by ordering an unadorned fast-food hamburger always dampens my usual sympathy for the meat industry: Without fail I wish I’d gone for the salad instead or, even better, not walked into a fast-food joint in the first place.
At airports you don’t have much choice, though, if you are hungry. Why airports typically offer such awful food choices is a mystery, unless you consider that most things about air travel these days is equally awful. But I think the meat industry has an opportunity here, actually. While I don’t expect the industry to increase the quality, and thus the cost, of typical fast-food fare, since that market is determined by price, the situation at airports, cafeterias and the like is a bit different. How about a marketing and promotion campaign, in conjunction with airport foodservice, that brings some healthier and better-tasting meat products into airport food stands? There’s a bit less fear in pricing with airport vendors than there is the fast-food shark tank, because a large portion of travelers spends company money, not their own. Moreover, the industry not only knows it can produce these products at affordable prices, it would be doing travelers a real favor. Imagine: honest-to-goodness decent food at an airport! So let’s do it. Or we can carry on as usual and risk losing out to the salmon again.