I'm filled with rage at the state of our food system.
This isn't a new thing, but I've been ignoring it recently. Yesterday I went to Willy St Co-op for the first time in months. I was blown away to remember how much good, real
food is locally available, sustainably produced and ethically sold. Sold for a price that make most people's eyes widen in shock. Welcome to the real cost of food. Maybe I should write a book--"The Real Cost of Food Diet Plan." When you know what you're eating, when you understand what goes into the production of your food, and you see that value translated into the language we all understand--the food dollar--you begin to eat differently. You treat food differently, you treat eating differently. You eat less and enjoy more; eating isn't quick, and it isn't cheap. As I heard Michael Pollan say last year, "Eating is a profound and sacred act." Food is sacred. Eating is a holy rite. How have Americans come to get it so wrong?
"8 COMPLETE MEALS UNDER $4.00!!!" the Culvers bilboard promises. The words make me sick. If people took even two minutes out of their inane lives to think about it, they'd realize that you can't get
a "complete meal" for less than $4.00. And since Culvers isn't lying about the price--oh no, they'd get in trouble with the law if they did that--the lie is in the idea that what they're offering is a complete meal. Is that it's even food
at all. Think about it. Think about what goes into running a restaurant: the general overhead of the building, paying the employees something like a fair wage, and then the food product itself. To cover all those bases and still sell food for cheaper than you can get it in the supermarket means they're selling you the lowest of the low. Taking every shortcut on the books to deliver you empty, valueless food loaded with salt and sugar that prey on your biological predilection for fats and sweets. But while this "empty food" is filling up your waistline, it's leaving distinct holes as it tries to fill your body's true
needs. The way agriculture works these days, farmers rely entirely on synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to pump up their produce and poultry to record-breaking sizes in record-breaking times. And the result is that they're depleting the soils they farm. Think about it: A plant starts as a seed. Magically it turns into something to eat. The "magic" of that process is that the seed is taking in nutrients that it transforms into plant mass. A plant grown on "empty" soil--on dirt, basically, dead dirt with no microbial activity and no stored nutrients--has to depend on the cheats of modern agriculture to survive long enough to make it to the supermarket because it's not getting the nutrition it needs to grow and prosper on its own, and the result is that it doesn't have those nutrients, that food value, to deliver to you when you eat it. In other words, you now have to eat three apples to get the nutritional value of one apple. And in the meantime you've eaten more food mass than your body's designed to handle before it feels satisfied. (Not to mention the poisonous chemicals you've consumed, but I'm not even going to touch that here.)
So to recap: When food is cheap, it's because it's cheap.
You're getting no value. When you shop at the Juniors department at Kohls, are you shopping for a garment you're going to wear and treasure for the next ten years? No--you're looking for something cheap, that's fashionable now, that you'll send to Goodwill before it falls apart.Because it will fall apart. But it's cheap enough that it doesn't matter. Food's like that--only it does
matter. Like the poor apple that had to grow up on the crutches of Roundup
to make up for its poor nutrition, those of us subsisting on the Western Diet
are falling apart. Susceptible to dozens of diseases and diet-related health problems that never troubled our ancestors. We eat empty food, consume empty calories, and instead of feeling satisfied we are still craving something.
We interpret that craving, rightly, as needing more food. But it's not just more
food, it's better
food that we need. So we eat more empty calories in attempt to reach a level of satiety. Unsatisfied, we still want more. So we eat more. Spend more. The fast food industry wins, and in the meantime our population is falling prey to to this horrifying slew of diet-related problems. Obesity. Adult-onset (oops, I mean "type 2") diabetes, and the general poor quality of life that comes directly from not having the fuel we need for our brains and bodies. The health care system is already straining under the weight of these completely preventable
problems, and we are going to start really paying for it.
Eating is a profound and sacred act. It is not quick, and it is not cheap. Look at the percentage of income spent on food around the world. The US's figures are ridiculously low. Unsustainably low, as fossil fuels begin to run out we won't be able to keep on our roller coaster binge of oil-drenched foodlike substances. France and Italy are two obvious examples of countries where people eat well and are happier and healthier than Americans as a whole, and their food dollar percentage reflects that. Along with the classic example of the word-association test. Show an American a picture of chocolate cake and ask for an association. "Guilt" is among the top responses. Ask a French or German person, and "Celebration" or "Party" is likely to crop up. Our entire attitude towards food is broken. I don't know what to do about this, and I know I sound preachy. But once in awhile it strikes me how ridiculous this whole situation is: "The only thing Americans fear is inconvenience," a farmer quotes his foreign college roommate in the fantastic food movie "Fresh." And it's true; Americans as a whole are obsessed with health, and with being thin. And yet we're the most unhealthy, overweight nation in the developed world. And it's because we can't take an hour a day to thoughtfully prepare real food for a real meal. There are all those stats, like "Kids who eat breakfast do better in school" and "Kids who eat family dinners are more likely to talk to their parents about their problems." And yes--the nutrients facilitate all that. But giving your kids a whole-wheat pop tart isn't the key, I don't think. It's the associations and attitudes that we cultivate about food and eating. I'm not remotely religious any more, but I still feel this urge to take a moment to be still, and thankful, whenever I sit down to a "real" meal, especially if I had a hand in making it. It's because growing up, that's what we did. We prayed before we ate, we held hands and were cemented as a family around a table full of food. Every once in awhile we had a "reading dinner" where we would all bring our books to the table, but we never watched TV while we ate and we rarely went out. Because of this I have a really good and, I think, healthy relationship with food and meals. A friend of mine recently told me that she thinks a lot of her issues with food, that lead to overeating and weight/body image problems as she got older, sprung from the tense, unfriendly environment of the dinner table. I imagine the same thing is true of kids who were forced to eat all the "good" food on their plates before they could leave the table, or before they could eat the "bad" food. This assigning of moral value to food mystifies me, and using food as a treat, as reward for behavior or grades, as for a dog who doesn't have powers of higher reasoning, just exacerbates the whole situation.
In my opinion.
Yes, let me add that qualifier: In my opinion. Because I don't have answers; I don't know where we should go from here. I don't know how to cure a nation of its addiction to oil and fast, cheap belly-fillers. A nation where type-two diabetes has become such a norm that it's almost a lifestyle, with its own magazines and websites and support groups. "Diabetic living." I don't know what to do about this. I guess I have to believe that choosing to live differently will make a difference, because otherwise, what's the point? What's the point of this moral high horse I'm sitting on. It's uncomfortable up here, and everything's more expensive, and the view is depressing. And yeah, right now I'm craving a big bag of greasy, salty fries from McDonalds, and there's one right up the road, and it'd only be a dollar, and what harm could a handful of fries really do, anyway?
I don't have a good way to end this. So I guess I'll just leave it at that.
Obvious Reading List is Obvious:
*In Defense of Food
by Michael Pollan
*Interview with M. Pollan that's easier than reading a book :)
A fun, easy read where M. Pollan lays out what his mantra, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants," looks like in action.
*Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
A gem from Barbara Kingsolver that will show you how beautiful growing, preparing and eating your own food can be.
*"Fresh: New Thinking About What We're Eating"
The film features my guru, Michael Pollan, and my sister's guru, Joel Salatin, as well as local hero Will Allen. Movie Review