Monday, September 2, 2013

Paradoxes & Dilemmas

This weeks Blog Camp Goes to MIT assignment involved four readings all with the question what are our food dilemmas now?  Interestingly, the readings spanned a great deal of time, from 1942 through as current as 2011.  These writings can be broken into say three food groups;
  • diets- fads and why we are so susceptible
  • production- a trichotomy between mass production, crop manipulation, and hunger
  • culture- the significance of food through time and how it is viewed
I have found over the last several years that my focus has been firstly on learning and teaching my family about healthy food systems, and has grown into how to disseminate that information through our local community, all while knowing baby steps start at home and ripple out from there.  It is alarming that as a result of how our food is produced; stripping it down one nutrient at a time, a reliance on processed foods, and a generalized lack of food sense,  that our children are now expected to have shorter life spans.

Let's start with the first 'food group' ~ diets.  In Michael Pollan's article dated October 17, 2004 titled Our National Eating Disorder printed in the NY Times, he discusses multiple thoughts regarding diet over time.  He begins the article and weaves throughout reflections on the almost knee-jerk reaction that people have when accepting and trying each and every new 'fad diet' out there.  At the time this article was written, it was the height of low/no-carb dieting.  But there are mentions of other doctor or dietitian recommended eating methods, and basically "Americans will get behind any diet as long as it doesn't involve eating less food."  That is truly and honestly it.  In this super-sized, fast, pre-packaged society that we live in it is far too easy to take the path of least resistance...especially if it is advertised as wholesome.  In order to produce the most for the least our crops have been bred, fertilized, and insect repelled so much that the nutrition has been almost completely stripped from them.  But hey, that is a-OK, because when these raw materials are processed, they are 'fortified' with things to reintroduce some fragment of what we have depleted.  Why are we so married to the latest and greatest diet craze?  I'll come back to a solution in the third 'food group'.

The second 'food group' I will touch on a bit is production.  Margaret Meade's 1970 piece on The Changing Significance of Food, looks in depth at our implementation of mass production and how that made it easy for us to manufacture "on terrifying scale, foods and beverages that were guaranteed not to nourish."  Once again seeing that easy and cheap ingredients can make a lot of filler disguised as 'food product' (haven't you seen that phrase on a label before)?  As a striking counter balance to this wealth of efficiently used farm land and production capabilities, is the fact that there is still so much hunger all over the world, as well as here at home.  "Those who are not fed will die, or in the case of children, be permanently damaged.  We must balance our population so that every child that is born can be well fed. We must cherish our land, instead of mine it, so that food produced is first related to those who need it; and we must not despoil the earth, contaminate, and pollute it in the interests of immediate gain."   This can in part begin to be accomplished by looking to and finding value in more local agriculture (small family farms) and eating a diet based more on seasonally and locally available foods.

In Mark Bittman's NY Times article A Food Manifesto of the Future, he points out several key areas that can help us begin to re-focus our priorities.  "Markets-from super to farmers- should be supported when they open in so-called food deserts and when they focus on real food rather than junk food."  During the research for a Co-op grocery store that we are trying to get open in our community, it was found that a large section of our town was considered a food desert.  Though it includes a very wide demographic, the inner city is wholly included in it.  People having good food choices in close proximity to their homes is vital in building a healthier future.  "Encourage home cooking. (Bittman says), When people cook their own food, they make better choices.  When families eat together they're more stable.  We should provide food education to children."  It is shocking how many children can not identify a raw vegetable!

I know that there is a major complaint out there that produce from the farmers market is not financially feasible for many families.  What we have been learning since we began this journey is to look.  There are many amazing foods available at very inexpensive prices.  Buy in the season and put it away.  If canning is too expensive (equipment is an initial investment), most things can very effectively be blanched and frozen.  As an example, we bought 3 dozen ears of sweet corn from the farmers market yesterday for $7.95.  This netted us 20 pts. of corn at 39 cents for 16 oz.  A typical can of corn is 12.5-15 oz.  This is a tremendous value for something that tastes astonishingly better than what you can buy at the store....for more money.  What did we invest?  An hour or so of family time to get it done...not a hardship.

Our third 'food group' is one of the most important.  It involves the culture of our food, how we eat and the importance we place on eating.  Michael Pollan discusses the "French paradox".  This is a fascinating concept to me and over the last year I have read a great deal on the subject.  As I discussed here and here a defined food environment is where eating is about taste, savoring, enjoyment, and mostly family and friends.  Portions are controlled, food is eaten slowly, snacking with the exception of the  goûter (what we call linner..the little meal between lunch and dinner) is taboo, and kids are exposed to a variety of foods and expected to eat what they are served.  As an experiment, we introduced the concept to the goûter last year and the kids were excited for it every day.  This summer I let it slide a bit, and one of the first things that I heard the kids discussing with the return of school was that they would get their linner back.  Hmmm, feeling a little guilty here, but I am thrilled that it made such an impact.  They eat their meals better and without complaining, and they do not snack in between (so they are hungry for their meal).  Though we in the US have regional specialties and dishes, we have no defined food culture, no standards for the importance of the meal and how food is to be enjoyed over conversation and not just inhaled without tasting, so we can move onto the next event.

As you can see from this not so brief dissertation, that there are many dilemmas when it comes to food.  I have not resolved any of them here, just pointed out some of my ongoing concerns.  If we want to reverse the growing trend of shorter life-spans and earlier onset of disease, we should look closely at what and how we consume that stuff that sustains us, and maybe aspire to do it more thoughtfully.


  1. i think the readings made me feel a little bit overwhelmed by how much needs to be done and like our small efforts simply aren't enough, especially when i abandon them to suit the level of my hunger for a good avocado.

    it was a little scary that the whole corporate farm thing was already an issue in the 70s when margaret mead wrote her piece, because that's done nothing but get worse, much worse.

    and while i found pollan prophetic, i also feel like we've moved on to a degree in the nearly decade since he wrote...there's a much bigger focus today on GMO and there is a stronger movement of farm to table going on.

    i wonder about the impact of the big polytunnels being used in places like minnesota to cultivate out of season. are they environmentally defensible in view of the energy needed to power them? and do the cucumbers they produce under artificial heat and light conditions taste ok?

    i don't have answers, but the pieces were definitely food for thought.

  2. Julie...Yes, I find it all very overwhelming. I too was particularly struck by Meade's thoughts, she was spot on and saw where things were heading. I think what made me most worried, is that the concerns I have are not new ones at all, and some of the most destructive things seem to ever increase. But I agree, the farm to table and non-GMO movements do seem to be gathering steam. Maybe it is that it took a generation to really begin to see the negative effects (at least medically), and really open eyes.

    The poly tunnel is an interesting question. What is the lifespan of one? Can they be upcycled once they have outlived their greenhouse use? And over their lifespan, even if a petroleum product, do they still reduce the footprint by reducing the food miles for many people? Interesting!!

  3. First, I must say that over the past couple of years I have seen you "walking the talk" with all that you have done with your farm ~ the food you grow, the fun you have storing it, the meals you enjoy ~ and to hear about your taking a new approach to eating with the kids is also enlightening. While I do not farm or garden, I live in an area where I can purchase and support those who do (one farmer told me once that I am just as important to the process, alleviating my guilt a bit). And how about guilt? Food is so relative to our feelings ~ no wonder it is easy to feel overwhelmed when finding out our simple pleasures come at a cost beyond the cash register. All I can say is that we have taken many first steps, and though they may be small, they are are in the right direction, and that is progress...

  4. I loved Mark Bittman's suggestion of encouraging home cooking! So much is lost when a family doesn't cook: togetherness and connection, having a food culture to pass down through the family, vital lessons on survival and resourcefulness for the children, healthy eating habits, giving home more of that safe, sanctuary feeling, wide-sweeping empowerment.

    I have also heard many say they can't afford to eat healthy or shop at the farmers market. This really does astound me, as I regularly haul home literally pounds of produce for a fraction of the regular grocery store cost. I suspect this is really more about habit and comfort zones than cost.

    Your linner idea is very appealing and I just may borrow it.



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