Wednesday, September 11, 2013

On Current Food Dilemmas

I have a confession.  In a world that worships multitasking, I am a terrible multitasker.  It's why I have this love/hate relationship with writing.  I love to write and yet I find it impossible to sink into the necessary train of thought and then be interrupted by other things.  I need space and time in proper vast amounts in order to bang out something I'd let the world see.  So sometimes, when wayward brothers are moving back in with me and chickens are confused and lay their eggs internally and cats eat rubber bands and the rest of life marches along without me, I put off the writing portion of work or fun or in this case, school.  Today I find myself with a couple hours of uninterrupted alone time.  The chicken is reintegrating with the flock and they're no longer trying to peck her to death so I can leave her unattended.  The brother is out and all the rubber bands are picked up while the cat is sulking in the bedroom.  So while I actually did the readings for session 2 several weeks ago, I still remember them well as I've been letting them roll around in my mind and jotting down thoughts that come to me.

In The Changing Significance of Food, Margaret Mead wrote about the poor going hungry which is certainly a dilemma that remains today.  However, this issue seems to have evolved right along with our other dilemmas.  The minimum wage class, surviving on government assistance, is also surviving on subsistence farming.  The cheap corn and soy in processed food form are what's for dinner on poorer tables all over the country...Rice A Roni, Campbell's Soup, Hamburger Helper.  While some of us may throw these on the table occasionally for lack of time or because of a delayed shopping trip, welfare families everywhere are eating nutrient-deficient chemical cocktails for nearly every meal because they are more affordable than real food.  Why? Subsidies on corn and soy.  Mead was surely on the ball to recognize the potential disaster in the modern concept of food as a commodity, and only secondarily as a necessity to life.
"A second major shift, in the United States and in the world, is the increasing magnitude of commercial agriculture, in which food is seen not as food which nourishes men, women, and children, but as a staple crop on which the prosperity of a country or region and the economic prosperity - as opposed to the simple livelihood of the individual farmer depend."
Further, she talks of

"...difficulties that arise because we are putting food into two compartments with disastrous effects; we are separating food that nourishes people from food out of which some people, and some countries, derive their incomes."
The lowest earners buy the cheapest, unhealthiest food and although they may not be starving, they suffer the lifestyle diseases associated with cheap food such as nutrient-deficiencies, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and auto-immune illnesses.  Meade also says,

"But food affects not only man's dignity but the capacity of children to reach their full potential, and the capacity of adults to act from day to day."
She was speaking in terms of people not having access to food but many of today's first-world poor have plenty of access to cheap, harmful foods that are linked with allergies, ADD, behavioral problems, headaches, trouble focusing, hormonal disorders, and irritable bowel syndrome.   What affect does this have on man's dignity?  On our developing children?  How does this affect day to day life for the people that can't afford better?  Is this better than starvation?  Or is it just the modern face of first-world poverty?  Meanwhile, Meade's description of poverty at the time can still be seen lurking in some political groups today.

"Before, the well-fed turned away their eyes, in the feeling that they were powerless to alleviate the perennial poverty and hunger of most of their own people and the peoples in their far-flung common-wealth.  And such turning away the eyes, in Britain and in the United States and elsewhere, was accompanied by the rationalizations, not only of the inability of the well-to-do  - had they given all their wealth - to feed the poor, but of the undeservingness of the poor, who had they only been industrious and saving would have had enough, although of course of a lower quality, to keep "body and soul" together."
I call it the "let them eat cake" attitude.

Another subject I was surprised to find in Meade's work was mention of the destructive powers of modern agriculture on the land.  I was not previously aware that this was even a blip on the radar back then.  She says

"Divorced from its primary function of feeding people, treated simply as a commercial commodity, food loses this primary significance; the land is mined instead of replenished and conserved.  The Food and Agriculture Organization, intent on food production, lays great stress on the increase in the use of artificial fertilizers, yet the use of such fertilizers with their diffuse runoffs may be a greater danger to our total ecology than the industrial wastes from other forms of manufacturing.  The same thing is true of pesticides."

Indeed.  More food dilemmas.  Modern agricultural practices have decimated the topsoil.   Runoff poisons waterways and people and creates an enormous deadzone in the Gulf of Mexico.  It is suspected that the popularly used neonicitinoids are causing colony collapse disorder and bee die-offs are becoming commonplace.

There are so many small farmers doing it right.  And yet there are so many agribiz farmers doing it wrong.  Less than 1% of farmland in the United States is organic farmland and 40.8% of total land is farmland.  I've driven through Iowa in the summer when the fields of biotech corn stretch for unfathomable miles in all directions to the horizon...rows of unnaturally large corn, standing like soldiers.  The scale of pollution is almost leviathan.  The money and power driving the machine of agribusiness seem invincible.  But money is the key.  Consumers provide the money.  Which brings me to Mark Bittman's A Food Manifesto.  He recommends

"Encourage and subsidize home cooking...We should provide food education for children, cooking classes for anyone who wants them and even cooking assistance for those unable to cook for themselves."
Now that's an idea I could get behind subsidizing.  The only way to bring down the poison-peddling giants is to create informed consumers who reject the processed food in favor of whole, clean foods.  When the demand for cheap, low-quality food diminishes, the company money that keep grocery store shelves stocked with it will dry up. In fact, ending the subsidies as Bittman wishes for, would free up billions of dollars to implement new ideas and fund new subsides to reform the food system.  Bittman definitely proposed a good many solutions on a topic rife with problems, however, I take issue with his recommendation to expand the powers of the FDA.  The FDA is routinely staffed with former biotech executives, and is basically one giant conflict of interest in bureaucratic form.  Corruption and collusion has created a revolving door between the FDA and Monsanto.  Giving a corrupt organization expanded power seems dubious to me.  This seems to be more of a political issue than a food issue but it certainly effects everyone who eats.

On another note, of all the assigned readings, I think I found Our National Eating Disorder by Michael Pollan to challenge me the most.  My choice to only buy organic has strong emotional roots.  I was as clueless about food ten years ago as I am clueless about astrophysics today.  It was the shock of family illness that led me down a scary rabbit hole of hidden truths about food and how it affects health.  This illness that seemed so easily aggravated or alleviated by food cultivated a heightened awareness of what particular foods do to your body.  I stopped eating for pleasure or taste.  I stopped leaning on tradition.  I separated myself from my food intuitions and relied solely on little green and white organic symbols emblazoned on the labels.  I relied on ingredient lists and even had foods chemically tested to ensure their safety.  I researched the companies that produced and grew food to evaluate their ethics because I'd learned that even labels didn't tell the whole truth about how some companies produced their products.  This was fear-based thinking in its purest form and it was the foundation on which I built my passion about food.  Luckily I met a man who loves to cook and eat.  He brought the sensory experience back into cooking and eating.  He reminded me it is a pleasure to eat.  Not a risk.

Pollan's piece made me realize just how much I've been separated from my own senses when it comes to food.  Sure, there's still the pesticides, insecticides, BPAs, GMOs, arsenic, ammonia, pink slime, artificial colors and flavors, hormones, and antibiotics to avoid but now that I've established my foodways...I know which brands are safe and where to get clean meat and vegetables...I can relax.  While I don't follow a fad diet, I've followed my chosen organic diet with the zeal of fad dieter.  I've relied heavily on science to defend and explain my choices and yet all along I have been deeply conflicted.  Pollan quoted Harvey Levenstein in a passage that sounded familiar,

"...that taste is not a true guide to what should be eaten; that one should no simply eat what one enjoys; that the important components of food cannot be seen or tasted, but are discernible only in scientific laboratories; and that experimental science has produced rules of nutrition that will prevent illness and encourage longevity."

He then commented

" The power of any orthodoxy resides in its ability not to seem like one, and, at least to a 1904 or 2004 genus American, these beliefs don't seem controversial or silly.  The problem is, whatever their merits, this way of thinking about food is a recipe for deep confusion and anxiety about one of the central questions of life:  what should we have for dinner?"
At the top of my list of Food Commandments is "do not eat anything with GMOs, antibiotics, hormones, artificial anything, pesticides, insecticides, or anything irradiated and always buy certified organic if available".  After that is "never buy or eat factory meat".  Next in the hierarchy is "try not to buy anything in cans containing BPA" and then, "only cook with oils (such as ghee and coconut oil) that don't oxidize when heated and release free radicals into the body".  That's where the confusing food science comes in.  There's the oil thing.  It doesn't seem to be common knowledge.  I often wonder if it's correct.  Then there's the conflict between whole grains and no grains.  I've had homeopathic doctors recommend that I eat whole vegetables (with seed and peel) and whole grains to keep my blood sugar steady.  The whole state of foods is supposed to keep blood sugar from spiking.  Then there are the paleo-heads who say grains are the devil, period.  One should eat lots of meat and vegetables.  But then some say those vegetables should be raw.  And others say the you shouldn't eat meat at all.  That we're not designed for it.  Then there's those who only eat fish?  I love fermented drinks and foods and thought for sure that such an ancient, trusted food would be safe but the alkaline dieters say "Nope.  You're wrong.  Probiotics are bad for you."  I'm researching this for a book right now and knee-deep in confusion.  There is so much food "science" floating around right now that unless you accede to relegate your food preferences to something like religious belief and subscribe to one of the cults, you will be attacked by all your friends who've joined up to different sides.  I have paleo, gluten-free, vegetarian, raw, and alkaline zealots as friends.  Some of them have taken up arms because of health reasons, others to follow a self-proclaimed expert, others to react to a dirty food system.  It's all very confusing.

When Bittman said " we eat...may in the end be just as important as what we eat", it was as if my fairy godmother had tapped me with her wand and given me explicit permission to stop worrying that I might be eating the wrong thing.  That particular essay reminded me of the more salient aspects of having a passion for all things food.  Leave the buying decisions at the market.  Cook with tradition and love.  Experiment.  Enjoy leisurely meals with friends and loved ones.  Let your senses guide you once in a while.

I enjoyed our readings.  And now I'm off to cook dinner.

Please forgive my lack of a bibliography.  It's late and other things are calling to me.  I've mentioned or linked to sources where appropriate.


  1. Laura, Great post! When you start to look at all of the recommendations from various experts, as Pollan said that people are only too eager to follow is so overwhelming! I think demonizing one food type over the other is not the answer. However, what to do? When so many nutrients have been bred/stripped completely out of our food. The big one for me right now is grains. With gluten intolerance becoming epidemic, I believe it is directly related to the quality that big ag now produces in the name of abundance. I keep trying to find sources for whole unadulterated grains to make more of my own. Your closing statements are perfect. We need to do our best, have passion, enjoy family, and 'let our senses guide us once in a while.'

    In reading your 'about me' section, I could feel how your journey began. My mom was diagnosed with MS in 1990, after being symptomatic for 10 years preceeding and doctors failing to diagnose her. After many experimental and toxic treatments (beta seron), she sought out Eastern philosophies for healing. She spent time with Depak Chopra and embraced ayurvedics, she practiced Qi Gong, and became very in-tuned with natural supplementations. She thinks that her environment growing up under high tension power lines is what caused her immune system to begin to be her enemy. Had I been an adult at the time, the current state of our food system would have been my approach. Though she is careful what she eats, now, 35 years in, I wonder if she can make the big mind shift?...I hope your mom is doing well facing the challenges of this frustrating disease.

  2. This is awesome, Laura. If we were being graded, you would be top of the class for sure! I think I allowed myself gut reactions to the readings, but didn't pull them together in the same way that you did. I think your two weeks of mulling over the readings were actually really good for you and for us. Thank you!

    I felt much as you did, like I feel more confused than ever. It's interesting, I think I liked the Pollan better than the Bittman - I was bothered with the entire notion that we need a food manifesto, I think. But sadly, we probably do. And although I think I face slightly different issues in Denmark than in the US (there is WAY less processed food on our grocery shelves), we all face western issues of over-consumption and being manipulated by big business (here, the largest pork processor is trying to strong-arm their employees into accepting big pay cuts or they threaten to move even more of the processing abroad). It makes me wish I loved bacon less. That's probably the main processed food we consume at our house, tho' I try to buy it from the awesome butcher that's in a nearby town and not the plastic packages of water-filled crap available in the grocery store. I'm not sure how I went off in that direction...anyway, this is great and I'm going to read it again and continue to think about it. Well done and thank you!

  3. Amy - I agree! Demonizing certain foods leads to the koala "syndrome" we read about. We lose balance. I really do get annoyed at diets that leave out whole groups of foods. It just doesn't seem like a balanced approach. The grain issue is definitely one worth looking into. I've done some reading on how heirloom and ancient grains are much kinder to the body and easier to digest. All this genetic manipulation from the plant's original state turns it something our stomachs have not evolved to handle. I think our mothers would get along famously! Mine, in addition to the diet approach, also found eastern medicine and chi gong to be a huge help. In fact, she cleared up her brain lesions completely in a very short three year period and was up and walking again. Unfortunately, the stresses that she's had come into her life in the past few years have caused her to relapse but she's very determined and working through what she feels to be the more emotional part of the disease...coping with stress better. I also hope your mom is doing well these days. 35 years seems a long time indeed but it sounds like she has some of the most important tools for dealing with it.

    Julie - You flatter me! I really do think the mulling is what made the connections. I'm a slow thinker, generally. It's why I prefer writing to talking. I wonder about other European countries. In your experience, have you noticed that the US has more processed food in general? That pork situation sounds awful. (Sometimes I really question the wisdom of globalization, although I don't like to say that aloud.) And it is a pity because really, bacon is just absolutely amazing. I can't imagine a world without it. However, I'd like to see a world of nitrate free bacon. Bacon is always a good direction to head in.

    Thank you both for the comments and feedback!

  4. Thank you for this submission. What struck me most was that you are the first to write from the perspective of "having" to make a choice vs. "wanting," although I believe that we all know that if we don't do something now ~ about our own diets and about taking a stand on how our food is grown and processed ~ there will clearly be less and less choices, for us or for our children. It can be so overwhelming. How do we achieve balance without, as Pollan suggests, looking at our food simply by the numbers. I am glad to hear that you have found a way to put pleasure back into your food experience ~ it shows that balance can be achieved and that gives me hope...

    1. Thank you Cyndy! This group has really started to give me some perspective I didn't know I was lacking. I didn't realize that other people started to make better food choices for reasons other than health and the fact that they do gives ME hope. It means people are learning and being proactive but all the overwhelming issues make it harder to hold on to that element of joy that eating brings. I think one of the ways people are doing that is with the slow food movement and things like dinner clubs (which I would love to do someday).