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Our Real Food Problem

Saturday, January 22, 2011

We don’t have a food system problem, but a problem of self-control. We can’t solve that with quinoa or locally grown, free-range chicken.

Divided We Eat,” a recent Newsweek cover story about class and income distinctions in our diet, may be the perfect example of what’s wrong with how we think about food. Written by Lisa Miller, the piece manages to accept every bit of the conventional wisdom about what is wrong with how we eat, without challenging a single assumption of New York foodies.

Miller is convinced that income disparity causes obesity. If only the poor could afford organic, locally raised food, we’d all be healthier. But Miller doesn’t explain how we could force them to eat that food. As a frequent visitor to a convenience store in a small, low-income farming town, my mind absolutely boggles at the size of government it would take to encourage my neighbors to share Miller’s breakfast of a hand-whipped, organic cappuccino and two slices of imported Dutch Parrano cheese. Miller is something of a farmer herself; never have so many axioms been planted in such stony ground.

Food is the newest battlefield in our culture wars. Now that the victory of the sexual revolution is complete, organic and local have replaced sex as the cultural dividing line. According to our culinary advisors, the only place left to improve the habits of the great unwashed is in the supermarket. Happy Meals have replaced Victorian morals as the best way to distinguish between those who are “cool” and those who subsist on starch and dreams of Sarah Palin.

A growing economy with lots of jobs leads to physical activity and responsible people, while generations on the public dole may result in the kind of inactivity that can cause obesity.

Miller begins at the breakfast table of her neighbor, a nutritionist who is feeding her son quinoa porridge sweetened with applesauce and laced with kale flakes. Tellingly, the article doesn’t describe what quinoa is. Those of us who live in the great food desert west of the Hudson aren’t familiar with quinoa, so I did a quick Google search. Quinoa, as it turns out, was a staple of the ancient Incas. Shockingly, the grain is typically not eaten whole, because the outside layer is bitter and acts as a mild laxative. This may well be why corn, also eaten by the ancient Incas, survived as a diet staple and quinoa did not. As for kale, most of us do know what it looks like. It’s often served as a garnish. People slide it around their plate until the waitperson takes it away. The first victims in the food wars are nutritionists’ children.

The second visit Miller makes is to a neighbor named Alexandra Ferguson, who keeps chickens in her backyard. We had chickens in our backyard when I was a boy, so I was glad to identify with at least one of the article’s foodies. While Miller conducts her interview, the chickens peer into the kitchen from the back stoop. I hope her neighbor wipes her feet before coming indoors. Saving the world through local food demands sacrifices, and a backyard covered with chicken droppings is clearly one of them. When the avian flu reappears, the first battleground won’t be large industrial buildings full of chickens but free-range birds interacting with well-meaning locavores and wild birds passing by … but I digress.

Ferguson believes that “eating organically and locally contributes not only to the health of her family but to the existential happiness of farm animals and farmers.” I’m pretty sure that most of the farm animals around here spend little time worrying about Ferguson’s contributions to their existential happiness, and I’m darned sure that we farmers don’t. Furthermore, Ferguson believes, correct food choices are necessary for the “survival of the planet.” She goes on to report that she spends several hours a day “thinking about, shopping for, and preparing food.” Not to mention collecting eggs and cleaning the back stoop.

Happy Meals have replaced Victorian morals as the best way to distinguish between the 'cool' and those who subsist on starch and dreams of Sarah Palin.

There is, of course, the obligatory visit to single mom Tiffiney Davis, whose family subsists on convenience food. Miller reports that doughnuts have been exiled from the family diet now that restaurants in New York City have begun posting calories. (It surprised Davis that doughnuts are high in calories? Only Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s rules about posting calorie counts saved her from jelly-filled, deep-fat-fried concoctions?) Anyway, the single mom reports that she still feeds her kids bodega food, including a muffin and a soda as her daughter’s breakfast. They eat takeout or McDonald’s several times a week. She doesn’t purchase fruits and vegetables because they’re too expensive and not fresh. Miller reports that Ferguson spends about $1,000 per month on food for her family, while Davis spends $400 per month feeding her brood. No comment appears about the Davis clan’s obesity level. It’s not clear whether Miller is too kind, or the reader is supposed to assume obesity from the diet description.

Miller acknowledges a dietary chasm has always existed between rich and poor, along income and class lines. She has a point. While poor people went hungry during the Great Depression, rich folks developed an interest in fad diets. One popular diet consisted of grapefruit, melba toast, and raw vegetables. It occurs to me, if not to Miller, that quinoa may be seen by succeeding generations as just as faddish as melba toast, but then I’m writing from the McDonald’s side of the great food divide.

The research Miller references is no better balanced than those fad diets. She relies heavily on a study that correlates obesity rates to income disparities. Japan, for example, has lower obesity rates than the United States, and incomes are less widely distributed there. She doesn’t mention obesity rates among Japanese-Americans, which is the first question that comes to mind. Sure enough, obesity rates rise among Japanese who move to the United States, but are still much lower than obesity rates among non-Japanese Americans. Genetics surely has more to do with varying obesity rates among different countries than wide spreads in income.

I’m pretty sure that most of the farm animals around here spend little time worrying about Ferguson’s contributions to their existential happiness.

Food stamp recipients have a higher obesity rate than the rest of the U.S. population. As Miller points out, diets purchased at convenience stores (or bodegas) can be much cheaper than meals prepared after trips to Whole Foods. That raises the important question: Is it possible to feed a family a nutritious and wholesome diet at an affordable price without quinoa and arugula? The problem with obesity is not that local or organic suppliers don’t provide nutritious foods at Safeway, but rather that consumers don’t purchase them. Industrially grown canned green beans and Tyson’s chicken breasts can be part of healthy diets, but frequent fast food is most surely not. Freshness has a lot to do with taste, but it’s quite possible to have a healthy diet without fresh mangoes, or even without locally grown apples. Davis can buy nutritious and non-fattening food at Safeway on her present food budget, but she chooses not to. It may well be that the reasons people must rely on food stamps rather than on their own earnings are the same reasons they struggle with obesity. A growing economy with lots of jobs leads to physical activity and responsible people, while generations on the public dole may result in the inactivity that can cause obesity. The number of Americans on food stamps is growing exponentially (up 17 percent in the past year and 53 percent in the past three years), due both to our present economic situation and eased eligibility requirements.

Between 2004 and 2008, according to researcher Adam Drewnowski, a market basket of politically correct foods increased in price by 25 percent, while the “least nutritious” foods only increased by 16 percent. Governmental spending on food assistance increased 33 percent in the same time period. Should we assume that “good” food increases in price faster than Cheetos because of how our food system is aimed directly at the poor?

Another explanation comes to mind.

As organic farming becomes more popular in the marketplace, the price of organic food will tend to rise faster. Bestselling books, Oscar-nominated documentaries, the Oprah show, and articles in Newsweek have all encouraged the top slice of our society to change its diet, thereby increasing demand for organic, local food produced by farmers with a social conscience (or, at least, a trendy ad agency). Surely this increase in demand is now surfacing at the cash register. Farming without technology lends itself to production in places with already fertile soil and low weed and pest pressure. The economics of raising a crop organically is completely different in the Mississippi Delta than it is in the arid areas of the Northwest near where Drewnowski does his surveys. It is an extremely safe bet that organic and local food will continue to increase in price faster than conventionally produced food as the production of those crops expands to places less suited for organic methods.

Organic and local food will continue to increase in price faster than conventionally produced food as the production of those crops expands to places less ideally suited for organic methods.

“Locally produced food is more delicious than the stuff you get in the supermarket; it’s better for the small farmers and the farm animals; and as a movement it’s better for the environment.” Miller provides no evidence to substantiate any claim made in that sentence. I’ll readily admit that the best-tasting food I eat throughout the year is what I raise, but I’ll grant our New York food experts absolutely nothing else. A rough proxy for the demands that food makes on resources is its price—the burden of proof is on Miller to show why organic food is easier on the environment than conventionally produced food, given the huge price premium organic foods bring. Conventional food may use more fossil fuel, but organic production is more profligate with land, water, and human labor. And we cannot assume that local food has fewer transportation costs or is necessarily fresher. Most of the transportation cost in food from farm to table is in the trip that begins with the retail purchase at a supermarket or farmer’s market and ends at the consumer’s kitchen. Local food may be fresher, but not necessarily: where I live, milk arrives sooner from New Mexico dairies three states away than it does from nearby Missouri dairies.

Miller spends a lot of time talking about nutritious food, but we don’t really have a nutrition problem. Beri-beri and scurvy are not endemic in American society. We don’t really have a hunger problem, either. Some 6 percent of American households are what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls “very low food security.” That’s a problem, but one extraordinarily difficult to solve with traditional food assistance. What we have is a fat problem. It matters not whether doughnuts made from industrially grown, highly processed wheat flour and fried in genetically modified soybean oil, or French pastries made from whole organic wheat and lightly sautéed in organic canola oil are a staple of one’s diet, if we insist on eating so many of either that we gain weight. We don’t have a food system problem, but a problem of self-control. We can’t solve that with quinoa or locally grown, free-range chicken breasts.

All the present critics of the food system rightly criticize Americans’ dinner habits: Our failure to make meals a center of family life, our preference for convenience over taste. In articles like Miller’s, the French are always held up as an example, and she does not disappoint. Fair enough. But beating the world over the head with your food choices takes the fun out of eating just as surely as treating food as fuel. Saving the world through your dietary choices is just too heavy a load for any enjoyable meal to carry. After all, it is just lunch.

Blake Hurst is a Missouri farmer.

FURTHER READING: Hurst reports “The 21st Century Land Rush” across the world, offers “The Sweet ‘n Lowdown on GM Crops,” and makes “No Butz about It” over critics of industrial farming. C. Peter Timmer imagines “A World Without Agriculture,” Jon Entine writes, “GM Salmon—Take a Leap of Faith,” and asks, “Will Science-Phobia Kill the Green Revolution?”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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