Morton Marcus: An entire month to celebrate frozen foods

In the complex culture of the United States, March is dedicated to Irish-American Heritage, Women’s History, the Red Cross, and Frozen Foods. (Lest we be neglectful, March also offers special days for Certified Nurses, Single Parents, and Poultry.)

This recognition of Frozen Foods began when Congress authorized President Ronald Reagan to declare March 6, 1984, as Frozen Foods Day. No doubt, the AFFI (American Frozen Food Institute) played a role in expanding a day of recognition into a full month.

County Business Patterns for 2019 lists only 1,928 establishments and their 166,000 workers producing Frozen Foods in the U.S. The number would be larger were it not for the exclusion of ice cream and ice in their many forms from the Frozen Foods category. This quirk in the data arises because those products are intended to be consumed as frozen. Go figure.

Frozen Foods are a minor, but increasing, portion of total food consumption by households. However, business and institutional uses of frozen foods are also of considerable and growing importance.

Frozen Foods rely on a complex of linkages between food producers and the ultimate consumer. Obviously, refrigeration from the farm or factory to the home or restaurant is necessary. (If my memory is correct, in the movie East of Eden, starring Hoosier James Dean, refrigeration of boxcars was the key to getting lettuce to distant markets.)

Yet it was the dramatic addition of an enlarged freezer section to the domestic refrigerator after WWII that made Frozen Foods increasingly a part of everyday life. Now ice cream could be stored in the kitchen and the ice cream delivery truck’s familiar bells disappeared from the city streets.

Frozen Foods had an impact on many facets of life. They provided year-round access to seasonal fruits and vegetables, thus enabling healthier eating. They decreased preparation time for snacks and meals. Thus, they were instrumental in changing patterns of family life where the dinner table gave way to the TV tray and dining alone.

Most importantly, perhaps, Frozen Foods enabled those who had limited cooking skills to widen their dietary choices. In addition, women, who were trained and knowledgeable about food preparation, were able to reduce their time engaged in cooking.

This development fit with the increased labor force participation of women. Likewise, frozen foods enabled men, who had less experience in food preparation, to assume more involvement in that activity.

The unimaginable happened when frozen pizza hit the market, adding yet another alternative to enjoying America’s favorite all-in-one meal.

Hoosiers can take pride in the achievement of a farm boy from south of Kokomo, who put the tiny frozen onions in with the frozen peas. Ed Kelley’s many innovations enabled him to provide an endowment for his alma mater, now known as the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.