8 Apr 2011

Food and Health

Posted by annmcolford

I am increasingly convinced that our food choices—and the public policies that support and encourage those choices—are the basis for our health, or the lack thereof, both as individuals and as a society. Simple casual observation of the people around me, here in my community, provides overwhelming proof of the American obesity epidemic, especially among low- and moderate-income families and among the young. In decades past, poverty-driven malnutrition meant lack of food, lack of calories; today, the least-healthful foods are the least expensive (and the most abundant), meaning that a person can be both overweight and malnourished. Making healthful food choices is not simple, convenient or cheap.

Yet again, food writer (and farmer) Tom Philpott wades right into the discussion with his post on Grist.org, “The American Diet in One Chart.” Working with data provided by the Civil Eats website (another good source of mindful food-related information), Philpott analyzes the numbers and finds an astonishing 23 percent increase in per-capita calorie production by the American food system since 1970—calories that have landed on our well-padded hips. He points the finger at inexpensive corn and soy, a legacy of Nixon-era ag policy. These two commodities get turned into sugar (high-fructose corn syrup) and fat (soybean oil), two staples of modern American industrial food. Adding sugar and fat to processed food products helps to retard spoilage and makes the products taste better.

Eliminating even half of those extra sugar-and-fat calories from processed foods would bring total caloric intake back down to 1970 levels, he says. And while that’s desirable, I can’t see our nation’s food manufacturers voluntarily reducing their reliance on cheap corn and soy. And that leads to the second part of Philpott’s post, about the irony of the Mediterranean diet—a healthful way of eating, centered on whole (not processed) foods, that evolved out of poverty and scarcity and yet now is priced at a premium.

After noting this irony, he doesn’t take the thought further, but this is something I’ve been wrestling with of late: Why are good-quality vegetables and fruits, grown without chemicals in a way that’s healthful for both the environment and the people doing the growing and harvesting, so bloomin’ expensive? (Relatively speaking, that is; Americans still spend a lower percentage of our income on food than just about any nation in the world.) Same goes for meat that’s not filled with extra hormones and God-only-knows what else. I would love to buy meat only from local producers whose practices are ethical and sustainable—and while that would be an ethically pure choice on my part, it would not be personally sustainable, given my current income level. And so I compromise: I buy the high-quality local stuff when I can (Olsen Farm, Rocky Ridge; Emtman); I fill in with more affordable regional products (like Painted Hills beef and Draper Valley’s Ranger free-range chicken) for the bulk of my purchases; and every once in a while I grab a bargain that is, shall we say, lacking in provenance.

The irony, as Philpott noted, is that locally produced whole food used to be the less-expensive choice. Our grandparents (or perhaps great-grandparents, for you young-’uns) grew some of their own food, or they bought most of their groceries from nearby sources. Only a few of their food items came in a box or a can—and those that did were special treats, not foods for mass daily consumption. Cooking meals from scratch using seasonally available meat and produce was the norm, not because it was a cool, artisanal thing to do, but because it was the only really affordable choice for most people.

But then our lives changed, becoming more hurried and harried. Food manufacturers stepped up and filled the demand for quick and easy food products. Fast-food culture boomed. The small family farms that served earlier generations largely disappeared. Public policy encouraged a glut of cheap corn and soy—which the manufacturers and fast-food purveyors used to make cheap, quick meals. And now we live in a land where fresh produce and quality meats are considered somehow elite and un-American.

(Back to Grist.org for moment: Pig farmer Bob Comis addressed some of these issues, both historical and contemporary, in a post a couple of weeks ago entitled, “Forget farmers markets—I want to sell my pastured meat at Price Chopper.” It’s well worth a read. He also talks about the premium prices on pastured meats, in “The omnivore’s other dilemma: expanding access to non-industrial food.” I will be following his future posts with interest.)

For me, it all comes down to food justice. People with fewer financial resources than average should have access to healthful foods at a reasonable cost; so should your average middle-class grocery shopper. As a civilized society, we should make that our aim. Anything else, to my mind, is shameful.

Next: Enough pontificating; back to the kitchen.

PS: Civil Eats also posted a piece about a recent study linking ADHD to dietary choices—more food for thought, if you will.

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