The Food Dispensary isn't a new concept, the actually concept is hundreds, if not thousands of years old. The only thing that has changed is what kind of food, and how it is dispensed. The petrol era had soup kitchens and bread lines, and before that, there were communes where peasants could exchange manual labor for meals. The requirement of work has since been discarded as menial labor is now the domain of droids and clones. The Food Dispensary is the go to place in the Cosmic Era to quite simple, get something to eat.
The Heart of the Beast
At the center of a stand alone Food Dispensary is an organic polyforge that 'constructs' the food to be dispensed. The food is brought in as a nutrient enhanced paste which is then colored, flavored, textured, and then shaped into the desired product. There are different paste bases, aquaculture provides minced krill and fish products and kelp/seaweed based products. Hydroponics and myocoproteins create synthetic plants and meat substitutes, and barrels of plant starch are easily whipped up into simulacra of potatoes, carrots, and any other starchy vegetable.
The end product is a minimally packaged container of food that is on par with a military MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) and are easily prepared. A Food Station microwave is often the only appliance needed as the Food Dispensary is designed for minimalist kitchens and close to zero cooking skills.
Merits of the F&D
Availability - F&D food is very cheap to make, has low logistical costs, and is technically nutritious enough to survive near indefinitely on. Being quick and easy to produce allows for anticipated spikes in demand to be easily met without building up huge stockpiles.
Shelf Life - once packaged, F&D goods can last for months or even years.
Ease of Variation - the bulk of the F&D products are almost identical, on the chemical level. Emulating certain food types, flavors, and so forth is entirely the work of a very small amount of chemical additives. Trends, flavors, ethnic cuisines, and so forth are easy to handle, and easy to distribute, so that the general populace doesn't tire of the same limited food choices.
The widespread adoption of the Food Dispensary model across the Atlantic Federation and allies has seen the near collapse of hunger and malnutrition among it's citizens and residents. Tied with the relative ease of getting body modifications, with fat reduction or calorie controlers being popular, has seen a strong trend of improving the health of the population. Overindulgence is less common as Brand Loyalty additives like Rhapsody encourage repeat business rather than relying on base food triggers like dousing food in large amounts of fat, salt, and sugar.
The F&D has come hand in hand with the widespread adoption of synthetics. Kava was formulated to replace organic sources such as coffee and tea, sugar alcohols replace sweeteners like sugar and honey, and many so called junk foods have become calorically neutral. It looks like a potato chip, it crunches like one, and it tastes like one, and is available in 108 flavors. It is actually a dash of starch and plant cellulose, with flavor dust and crunch additives. The same goes for sweet beverages like soda. With synthetic sweeteners, the caloric value has vanished. It is nothing more than fizzy, flavored, colored water.
Eat Recycled Food, It's Good for the Environment and Okay for You
Many synthetic foods, especially the non-digestible ones, are easily reclaimed from waste processing facilities. Once reclaimed and sanitized, it is relatively easy to turn the material back into a food shape.
Cons of the F&D
There are two massive cons of the F&D. Culture is very frequently expressed through food, how it is made, how it is presented, and how it is eaten. The differences between two cultures can be almost completely alien to each other based off of their food. The F&D is mass produced, and the food that is being made is emulating cultural themes and motifs, but is in no way representative of them. Picking up a bag of Spicy Nacho Doritos is in no way representative of the Mesoamerican culture, and that is where the F&D is. Cultural foods produced through the system are sanitized, streamlined, and engineered for appeal and consumer approval. The culture of food fades away as everyone is eating the same bags of food, just in different shapes, flavors, and colors. The second con is the divorce of humanity from it's ability to cook and being close to the food chain. The concepts of farm to table, heirloom vegetables, and other things like organic and antibiotic free free range ethically sourced meat are simply gone. Meat doesn't come from animals, it might be a carcinoprotein, grown from tumor cells, or it could be a mycoprotein grown from fungus spores in warm water. Produce was more likely to be printed that picked. Seasonings and spices are synthetic.
The Cosmic Era, despite it's flash and dazzle, and arcanotech lens flares, is becoming increasingly homogeneous. Where previously the residents of Addis Abba would sit around a low table and eat kibi and sufta with their fingers, and the people of the Caribbean would have soups and barbacoas of the stranger parts of animals, the Americans with cheeseburgers and pizza, the citizens of the Federation have reduced these cultures all to flavorings.
The concept of the F&D is spreading. The utility of the food production and distribution, and the way culture can be corralled through control of the cuisine has not gone unnoticed. F&D type dispensaries are starting to pop up in the PRC, and the ACPS.
The companies that back the food supply have a hand in controlling the culture and attitudes of the general populace. There are always two sides, and the corporations are hold both. They are providing the intellectual properties and flavoring blends behind popular franchised F&Ds. This allows them the advertising channels through to the population. They can, through simply economy of scale, determine what is cool and what is so yesterday. On the other side, there is the counterculture resistance to the McCorporate F&D, the movement that looks at slumming in the geofronts, and the favelas to find what the poor people eat, where they aren't feed by machines.
The Food Dispensaries started in the geofronts and favelas, where there were large numbers of poor people who needed to eat, and were detached from a cooking culture, and the ability to engage in agriculture. There is the dark romantic notion of people eating rat burgers, and whatnot in the geofronts. This just isn't the case, as the waste recycling of the Cosmic Era has in many places all but eradicated rats, along with targeted viral weaponry. In those places where rats survive, there simply aren't enough to provide a food source. So, the infamous rat burger exists only in fiction. The only difference between the arco F&Ds and the outside dispensaries, is that the arco locations have the luxury of choice of flavors. The poor people left to flavor and dress their food, since it is closer to Tastee Wheat, S'Meat products, and so forth.
The Future of Food
The Future of Food in the Cosmic Era is rather bleak. The mainstay food is produced in dispensaries, where poor people come in on foot and collect their allotment, while the wealthier classes inside the arcologies have their food allotment delivered by machines, or they pick it up from a parcel station. 'Eating out' is done at kiosks and food carts, casual dining and fancy restaurants are a thing of the past, as much a piece of petrol era as strip malls, gas stations, and expansive parking lots. Food itself is more often than not cultured, manufactured, and produced, rather than grown. A petrol era grocery store would appear as a limitless cornucopia of food, a nigh infinite variety to chose from, complete with vast amounts of waste, redundancy, and vapid consumerism.
Man Versus Food
The television show Man vs Food showcased an increasingly overweight host traveling from restaurant to restaurant to indulge in their eating challenges, ranging from the gluttonous to the sadistic. This is a sort of hyper-American highlight reel of food-utainment, but it is largely how the Cosmic Era views the eating habits of the entire Petroleum Era. There is far less representation of ethnic foods, and when those do appear, they are strongly Americanized, of colossal size, and being devoured by a heavy seat man breaking out in a food sweat.
Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives
Another popular program was Triple D, in which a frosted haired hawaiian shirt wearing senior dude-bro traveled across the country exploring the local eateries. This ranged from the truly impressive fixtures of local culture, to places that were very much Man v Food in their offerings. This further feeds into the image of the Petroleum Era, a self-unaware dude-bro driving in a muscle car from eatery to eatery, indulging in all the food available from one coast to another.
The showcase of Andrew Zimmern, Bizarre Foods sees a heavy set American traveling around the world to indulge in the cuisines of the local people. Initially played for the gross factor, eating eyeballs, shipworms, offal, and other ghastly offerings, the show shifted more towards a less Fear Factor, and more places you would want to go, rather than stuff to eat versus starvation. To the Cosmic Era there are few things more mocking that a fat middle aged man wandering through the poorest parts of the world, where food is often hard to come by, and eating it in a daredevil fashion.
Food Allergies and Eating Disorders
Food allergies and autoimmune disorders became increasingly prevalent in the late Petroleum Era. There are a number of theories that surround the phenomenon, and many of them are considered offensive or deliberately derogatory of the people of the era. The prevailing theory is that early efforts at creating GMO food stock were poorly done, and was increasingly damaging the nutritional and absorptive value of the stock. The end result was a rapidly increasing segment of the population that was unable to eat said foodstocks.
The second and third theories are closely related: trendy diseases, and inferior genetics. The first theory plays on the notion of Collective Obsession Disorder aka mass hysteria. A few people developed autoimmune disorders that garnered them a bit of attention, but was generally not life threatening. Then, it becomes trendy to have the self-diagnosed version of the disorder, garnering the same special attention. This theory is supported by the massive spikes in 'trendy' mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, being on the autistic spectrum, and so forth.
A number of eating disorders, almost completely unknown outside the industrialized first world, emerged in the middle to late Petroleum Era. These included anorexia, bulimia, pika, and others. These revolved around body image, and social expectations and proved disastrous. As the decadence of the Petroleum Era came to a head, the ideal woman was in her middle teens (14-16), hairless from the eyelashes down, and 100 lbs or less in weight. While there were a few who fit into this mold, most did not, but were driven to try to fit into it. This turned to reckless diets, extreme surgery, and massive psychological stress that emerged as the eating disorders. The Cosmic Era has avoided this in two different directions. Reaching a certain body ideal can be attained through genetic augmentation which is generally safer than binging and purging, lemon diets, and suppository addiction, and through self aware body image. Obesity is a largely a thing of the past, while advertising has shifted away from the borderline pedophilia of the Petroleum Era. There are certainly still disorders and trendy diseases in the Cosmic Era, but they more revolve around CogNet use, technology, and robotics issues.
There is a 'genetic supremacy' that is gaining ground in the Cosmic Era. This currently small faction believes that the peoples of the Petroleum Era were undermined by their inferior genetics. While in the most literal sense, there is some truth, as genetic screening was in it's infancy in the petrol era, and it would be centuries before science and medicine advanced to the point of editing hereditary diseases out of the genome, but this is not the basis of the supremacist argument. Instead, the argument goes that the massive population was never culled at any point, and people with disabilities and genetic defects would breed with each other, insuring that their defective genes were passed on, instead of trying to breed them out with good selective pairing. This lead to more and more of the population being defective. Autism, Downs, autoimmune disorders, deafness, blindness, and so forth was not properly contained. Anyone could, and did, breed with anyone, leading to a polluting of the genome.
The Supremacists very quickly lead into the Nazi eugenics programs and notes of which races are superior stock and which are inferior.