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the politics of food

A cloudy Sunday provided a relaxing day of study yesterday. I’m excited to dive into Sandor’s world of fermented foods and drinks –his approach is very accessible and practical.

These words from his introduction struck a chord with me:

“Moving toward a more harmonious way of life and greater resilience requires our active participation.  This means finding ways to become more aware of and connected to the other forms of life that are around us and that constitute our food–plants and animals, as well as bacteria and fungi–and to the resources, such as water, fuel, materials, tools, and transportation, upon which we depend.  It means taking responsibility for our shit, both literally and figuratively.  We can become creators of a better world, of better and more sustainable food choices, of greater awareness of resources, and of community based on sharing.  For culture to be strong and resilient, it must be a creative realm in which skills, information, and values are engaged and transmitted; culture cannot thrive as a consumer paradise or a spectator sport.  Daily life offers constant opportunities for participatory action. Seize them.”  Sandor Katz

If you pay attention to any news source, or to advertising, or to any nutrition-specific publication, chances are good that you’re very confused about what to eat.  Actually, it’s much stronger than just paying attention: if you’re walking through life with your eyes open, you are constantly being shouted at about what kind of food (and food-like substances) to put in your body.  Beyond the obvious (Soda! Chips! “Meat”!) onslaught of big business advertising, we have headlines like this one yesterday from NPR:

Billed as clarity, but only adds to general confusion–now we are supposed to incorporate the glycemic index into our daily lives? (Not to mention the language “may help keep weight off longer than other diets” that has failure built right in!)

The most recent confusing food news is the study on organic food from Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy. “Based on data from 237 previously conducted studies, the Stanford report concluded that when it comes to certain nutrients, there is not much difference between organic and conventionally grown food. ” (source)

But…of course that’s true! The wisdom of the plant remains through many layers of pesticides and human intervention.  (Though humans are trying to intervene with the wisdom of the plant, but I’ll save my thoughts on GMO and Monoculture for another day.)

However, the study also found that “organic foods have 31 percent lower levels of pesticides, fewer food-borne pathogens and more phenols, a substance believed to help fight cancer.” (source)

So what does this study mean/who is it for/why does it matter? I agree with Alice Waters that this study misses the point–conversations about the nutrient density of foods or the gylcemic index aren’t going to fuel a food revolution because they’re not exciting.  Those conversations don’t account for taste, or beauty, or sharing a meal with friends.  They don’t address the eater as an intelligent being capable of listening to his body, and they certainly don’t communicate that food is love.

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To know what to eat, we need to change the conversation–to something that’s more palatable, accessible to anyone getting in touch with their taste buds. These are some great starting places for new conversation:

and

  • “Eaters must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.” Wendell Berry

and

  • “In the pursuit of great flavor, you’re attached to great ecology by definition.  A delicious carrot, a delicious slice of lamb, has attached to it these decisions in the pasture/in the field that are both thoughtful and intensely ethical.” Dan Barber

image // my lunch

“I didn’t intend to seek out organic local food.  I was looking for taste. Taste is what’s going to get us to eat seven portions of fruits and vegetables a day.  To not consider taste and quality in this whole discussion is to completely miss the point about food.”  Alice Waters on the organic study from Stanford.  More thoughts coming tomorrow.

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This definition of “Good Food” from FEAST Together is really resonating with me:


But who has the privilege of eating this way?  The beautiful carton of local eggs above was purchased at Marche for $4, and they were the best eggs we’ve ever eaten.  I feel perfectly at peace paying over 2 times the amount a standard carton of eggs goes for because this is the way I have chosen to feed my family after much research on our current food systems.  But I recognize that this is a privilege, and I find that fact very disturbing.  “Justice for eaters” certainly does not mean that the most affordable food happens to be processed, denatured, and filled with additives.  “Nourishing for our planet” means limiting or not using pesticides.  Where can we find food that meets all the criteria?  I reached for an organic head of cauliflower at Publix before quickly drawing back upon discovering that it was $6. SIX DOLLARS.  That is privilege, and I certainly cannot afford to shop that way.  I will pay $4 for eggs but not $6 for cauliflower because it seems to me like organic sections of chain grocery stores are a niche market and they can raise the price accordingly, whereas local/free-range eggs are usually around the same price.  As I sort my way through all of this, I find I am getting more lost and feeling somewhat hopeless about the state of our food systems in America.  We have a very long way to go–because it’s not just about making sure every plate has food on it, but also about making sure the “food” on the plate is actually contributing to the health and nourishment of the eater.

While it is easy to feel hopeless, there are people doing this extremely difficult work and there are amazing organizations committed to food justice all across the country.  Here are a few that make me proud to call Nashville home:

http://www.feasttogether.org/

http://www.thenashvillefoodproject.org/

http://encm.org/

http://www.communityfoodadvocates.org/

http://secondharvestmidtn.org/

I have an ongoing discussion with a friend about the ethics of our food stamp system.   We discussed this article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/justin-stoneman/post_868_b_720398.html)  about the corporate politics that govern our food systems: in particular, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and its sponsors (Coca-Cola, Hershey’s, PepsiCo, to name a few).  It would appear that these powerful people are working together to feed their wallets by keeping America unhealthy.  If you are limited to $30 in food stamps per week, will you not choose the most affordable options to feed your family?  So then is the answer to begin mandating what foods should be “allowed” with food stamps (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/20/nyregion/ban-on-using-food-stamps-to-buy-soda-rejected-by-usda.html?ref=nutrition)?

I’m interested in the point of view that taking the right of choice away strips free will.   I feel like there is much more effort needed than just teaching people how to make healthier food choices–I don’t believe people think sodas are healthy.  It runs deeper; as a culture, our relationship to food and to our bodies is so skewed. While changing what EBT covers would make sense on the one hand, it also feels like a violation of rights to me. Then again, I know there are already restrictions in place, like no alcohol and no non-food items like toilet paper, and adding a no sugar/chemical-laden beverages makes sense..but what about sugar/chemical things like kids breakfast cereal? Or anything with hydrogenated fats? We are in a world where synthetic, “food like substances” (thanks Michael Pollan for the term) are ruling, and they are all contributing to the fat/sick/nearly dead people we have become.  It’s overwhelming–if you and i walked through a typical grocery store and collected only whole foods/real foods for EBT, what percentage of the store would we get? Something like 10? Maybe?

While pondering these things, I came across another article that seems to bridge the gap ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-katz-md/food-stamps-healthy-food_b_984684.html?ref=diet-and-nutrition).  People that rely on the food stamp system are not necessarily uninformed about the health risks of highly processed food, but are desperate to feed their families right now.  But as this article points out, we are all losing:

“There is…substantial overlap between the population relying on SNAP (which has grown tremendously during this period of economic hardship) and the population relying on Medicaid. And so, we are also on the hook for a vastly larger allocation of tax dollars to Medicaid to pay the costs associated with poor health, and propagated by poor food (among a short list of other major influences).

Again, I am okay with using some of my hard-earned dollars to make sure my neighbor can receive medical care he or she can’t otherwise afford. But let’s face it, in this scenario, everyone loses.

We, the taxpayers, lose; we are spending some of our heard-earned money to create a problem, and more of our heard-earned money to — at best — only partially fix it. We are billed twice, and aren’t getting much reward for our pains.

The government loses because this inefficient allocation of funds siphons money away from other worthy causes: everything from education, to military preparedness, to the maintenance of our increasingly questionable infrastructure.

And the SNAP participants lose the most of all. They are the ones left to struggle with the combination of poverty and chronic disease.”

The system is broken.  We have the ADA telling us what foods we should eat, but we know they are fueled monetarily by producers of unhealthy “food-like substances.”  We have neighbors living in poverty eating these foods because they are the most affordable (and sometimes they just taste good–a bag of nutritionally-void, MSG-filled Doritos tastes damn good).  And then our neighbors eat so many delicious Doritios that their weight increases and their health declines and medical care becomes a necessity.  And taxpayers pay on both ends.  Rinse and repeat.

So, a solution?  Obviously a system so broken requires deep healing, and a quick solution isn’t readily available.  I think awareness is a good first step.  Dr. Katz offers a good second step in his article.

What comes next is up to each one of us.

To begin, an excerpt from Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer–this is a conversation between the author and his grandmother regarding the extreme lack of food during WWII:

“I became sicker and sicker from not eating, and I’m not just talking about being skin and bones…It became difficult to move…

“The worst it got was near the end.  A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn’t know if I could make it another day.  A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.

“He saved your life.”

“I didn’t eat it.”

“You didn’t eat it?”

“It was pork.  I wouldn’t eat pork.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why?”

“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”

“Of course.”

“But not even to save your life?”

If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.

 

In our culture of convenience, we tend to ignore the moral complexities that exist within our relationships to food.  To make matters more complicated, these “moral complexities” exist in every level of food consumption, from fast food to bags of spinach in the grocery store.  The fast food example is more obvious; at this point we have all seen pictures of factory farms, and if we are oblivious to what goes on in that world, it is because we choose to be  so.

The regular bag of spinach at the grocery?  Spinach is one of the “Dirty Dozen”: vegetables that have the highest residue of pesticides, and therefore are the most important to buy organically.  Enter what I believe to be a two-step moral dilemma:

1. When you purchase vegetables that are not organic, you expose your body to pesticides and put your own health at risk.

2. When you purchase vegetables that are not organic, you support growers who are not treating our shared planet with care.  Heavy usage of pesticides has compromised the health of the soil, which directly contributes to loss of nutrients in the food grown in it.  Even more troublesome is the toxicity added to the environment by non-organic farming practices.  (For further study, see this Top 10 list of reasons to support organic.)

Let me put my whole-hearted support behind this statement of the incredibly wise Wendell Berry:  “Eaters must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.  This is a simple way of describing a relationship that is inexpressibly complex.  To eat responsibly is to understand and enact, so far as one can, this complex relationship.”  (Bringing It to the Table)

 

If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.

What matters for our lives and our health is the life history of the food we consume.   What matters for the earth is the life history of the food we consume.  What matters for generations to come is the life history of the food we consume.  In self-defense, in defense of the ground you walk on, in defense of your children and children’s children, learn where your food is coming from, and at what cost.

There is much to save.

 

 

Long ago, there was a connection between farm and table.

A beautiful thing would happen: a tomato would grow, and would be picked when it was ready.  Simple.  It might be eaten right away, or it might be preserved to be eaten in the later, cooler months.  That tomato, grown close to home and eaten or preserved when ripest, was in turn working a little magic of its own; cleaning the liver, purifying the blood, detoxifying the body in general, encouraging digestion, and possibly reducing the risk of certain cancers (lung, stomach, prostate) and heart disease due to its phytochemical lycopene (source).

Real food has real health benefits, just as synthetic and highly processed foods have disastrous health consequences; this is not new information.  Why then, on a daily basis, are we consuming foods containing things like “brominated vegetable oil”?  Brominated vegetable oil is used in soft drinks to keep the flavoring oils well-blended and to provide that “cloudy” look (source).  BVO is soybean oil combined with the element bromine and has been associated with headache, fatigue, memory loss, and this one time, a man lost the ability to walk after drinking too much cola and had to have his blood cleaned to reverse the effects.

Clearly, there is a problem.   But I find even defining what that problem is to be difficult.    Are we merely a culture that values ease and comfort and synthetic food sources?

If you are looking through the lens of poverty, then inaccessibility is a problem.  There can be no sound food judgment where there are no healthy food options (i.e., no grocery store within a half mile to a mile, also known as a food desert).  Additionally, we happen to be living in a time when a thin wallet means a thick belly; cheap, highly processed and refined foods are fattening us up, making us sick, killing us.

Another very clear problem is the widespread misinformation and false advertising about “food” that exists in our culture.  Certainly, no one is touting the wonders of brominated vegetable oil, but synthetic substances like artificial sweeteners and margarine are often encouraged as healthy alternatives.

There are so many aspects of food culture, of our relationship to food.  Real food (and perhaps a definition is in order: by real food, I mean food that was grown in the ground and will eventually rot) is healing and nourishing.  Eating real, living food will lay a strong foundation in your body to fight diseases, and in many cases avoid them altogether.

I am no expert on health, but I am in charge of my own well-being.  I started this blog as an outlet to share the things I am learning about health and wellness and the healing power of food, as well as stories of food traditions and recipes from my kitchen.  I will draw often on the following often, as they have greatly influenced the way I think about food, health, nutrition, community, food traditions, eating… ::

Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition by Paul Pitchford

The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia by Rebecca Wood

The Jungle Effect by Daphne Miller, M.D.

Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food by Wendell Berry

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan

The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

 

Here’s to exploration!

 

“The food industrialists have by now persuaded millions of consumers to prefer food that is already prepared. They will grow, deliver, and cook your food and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it. That they do not yet offer to insert it, pre-chewed, into your mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so.” –wise Wendell Berry, from Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food