Having at one time overdosed on Ovaltine at the bidding of Captain Midnight, I usually ignore food commercials. One recent variety of commercial, however, not only caught my attention, but baffled me -- until an old Henry Fonda movie gave me insight into what the commercials are really selling.

The vignettes which worry me are those in which food is consumed in the out-of-doors. I am not talking about the ads featuring picnics, backyard barbecues, or camp-fire cookouts. Those familiar outdoor meals seem to have fallen into disrepute with the advertising industry and usually serve only to tout stain removers and property insurance.

No, I am upset by the al fresco setting for meals properly reserved for the breakfast nook or dining room. What is especially strange is that the well-appointed tables are always at such a distance from the house, seen only in the distant background, if at all.

Take, for example, a commercial where 10 (count 'em 10) members of an extended family, clad in robes and slippers, joyously crumble cereal into breakfast bowls in the middle of a wheat field. There is no farmhouse in sight, just acres of wheat. Why have these people chosen to slog through the barnyard and across the north 40 to eat breakfast, when most of us refuse to face the elements one minute earlier than necessary to make it to the Metro stop?

Equally puzzling is the frozen fried chicken advertisement in which a family gathers for what is apparently a Sunday dinner with the grandparents. The table, laden with steaming dishes, covered by a white cloth, and set with good china, is placed on the very edge of a great swath of lawn. The pillared homestead is a good quarter mile back.

Why are these folks enduring bugs, heat, and the threat of being overtaken by kudzu instead of relaxing in what must be an ample dining room in the big house?

The giants of the food industry are smarter than mere mortals. (Did you realize there would be a market for Cool Whip?) There must be a reason for this al fresco nonsense and I beleive I discovered that reason one weekend as I read the real-estate section while watching Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in the movie version of John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath . (It's about, you'll recall, a dispossessed Oklahoma farm family surviving the Depression under the guidance of a stalwart ma.)

Here's the way I see it: Inflation plus monstrous interest rates have driven the cost of houses beyond the reach of us whose grandfathers didn't devote themselves to raping the environment. Apartments are being converted to condominiums faster than you can say tax shelter. A great number of us soon will be like Steinbeck's Okies: homeless. We, like they, will be dispossessed wanderers, forced to live out of our cars. The food industry is preparing us for this change in our lives while making sure that their products sill will be in demand.

Look at the smiling people in the commercials. They aren't sulking because they don't have a roof over their well-groomed heads, and they certainly don't let being without a permanent abode change their eating habits. They still have their morning cereal even if they have to lug chairs and bowls into a field owned by a German-based agribusiness. They still eat packaged fried chicken for Sunday dinner even if they have to rent a patch of lawn for the table.

With these splendid role models provided by the food industry and our good old American true grit, we shall come smiling (and munching) through the new hard times. Wouldn't Ma Joad (and General Mills) be proud?