News From the Food Front
My curmudgeonly father-in-law was recently heard to say:
“Mom no longer allows me to eat anything that has a label or comes in a package. That saves reading time that can be used to gather fruit and nuts.”
This is funny but also speaks to the problem of local foods. It is perceived as a step backwards by many. We have gotten very used to the idea that food is inexpensive and easy to come by. Preparation is easy because it is done by someone else. Pre-packaged, pre-processed foods are a godsend for people because we lead busy lives. We as a nation have shifted to the idea that food is not something we should spend a lot of time and money on.
Of course, we need to reverse this thinking and find a new paradigm, a new way of thinking about food. It is not an option to just pound junk food and fast food and pre-processed food because it’s quick, cheap and easy. Why not? Well, we are not a healthy nation:
…41% of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime…50% of Americans can be characterized as obese…1 out of 3 Americans will be diagnosed with diabetes, 2 out of 3 in the black and Hispanic communities…the generation growing up now will be the first ever to live shorter lives than their parents…
With these challenges in mind, I’ve been collecting some interesting news lately. I think it might be helpful to see these summarized in one place, listed as a barometer of the “local food movement”. Some are positive steps; others show we have a ways to go.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS):
- Amazingly, we learn in a New York Times article that large food producers (Gatorade, Kraft, Pepsi, Ocean Spray, Hunt’s) are slowly removing HFCS from recipes. The commodity price is dropping. Of course, they just replace it with sugar, so it is still a highly-processed, over-sweetened food, but at least consumers and corporations are becoming aware of the danger.
- In an important study, Princeton researchers prove HFCS is worse than sugar and causes excessive abdominal weight gain and a rise in triglycerides. Blame your spare tire on HFCS and take it out of your diet!
Overuse of antibiotics in farm animals:
- Former USFDA commissioner Donald Kennedy says: “More than 30 years ago, when I was commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration, we proposed eliminating the use of penicillin and two other antibiotics to promote growth in animals raised for food. When agribusiness interests persuaded Congress not to approve that regulation, we saw firsthand how strong politics can trump wise policy and good science.” This is New York Times news. Kennedy and other experts are calling for congressional bans on this overuse of chemicals in the animals that eventually become our food…and whose tainted effluent poisons our water supply and produces virulent “super bugs“.
- There is a blunt report just out from the President’s Cancer Panel, the epicenter of “mainstream scientific and medical thinking” that warns chemicals cause cancer and it encourages organic foods instead. But then we knew that, right? Duh.
- The USDA’s Office of the Inspector General warns that traditional meat processing contains dangerous chemicals. What can you do? Vote with your dollar and only consume meats that are processed and raised locally by small farms and processing plants that don’t use chemicals. Fortunately, those kinds of meats are out there and available if you research a little. Buy them at your local farmer’s market. Search online. Buy a meat share through a CSA. Stop eating chemicals. Duh.
- The good news? Yes, organic farming methods can feed the world. (study results here)
On fats, salts and sugars:
- “Betcha can’t eat just one” — Former FDA commissioner David Kessler writes in his book “The End of Overeating” that processed fats, salts and sugars produce food items that cause a brain reaction that makes eaters crave more.
- NPR just ran a two-part story on soda. Here’s part two which interviews kids drinking way too much soda. Listen to this and see if you don’t find yourself reaching for a glass of water!
- “The board of directors of McDonald’s has recommended that the company’s shareholders vote against a proposal to require that 5 percent of the eggs purchased for the chain’s restaurants in the United States be the cage-free variety.” McDonald’s and other large national chains aren’t exactly making the right decision here, but articles like this one point out that healthful, sustainable, ethical egg producing methods are at least being discussed in board rooms. Note in the article that Europe is banning caged chickens by 2012. We American consumers need to learn from this and demand better eggs. If you wonder about the health benefits (for consumers) of free-range eggs, read here. If you wonder about the health benefits for chickens, well, I can’t help you. There is nothing healthful about a battery cage full of chickens – imagine living in a closet with four of your friends.
- White House Garden — nothing more needs to be said!
- Maybe you missed the Jamie Oliver series. Maybe you missed the fact that Jamie Oliver, an English chef, came to the states, “adopted” a town that the Centers for Disease Control lists as the most obese in the nation, and managed to pull off six reality show episodes on ABC. Prime time. Friday nights at 8pm. In other words, people like Jamie and Michelle Obama are making food and exercise for kids a national conversation. No matter what you think of Jamie’s approach or results, I think moving the topic front and center is laudable. You can see the six episodes here or maybe just watch his short speech on Ted.
- Here’s a fun Chicago Tribune headline that says it all: “Chicago school officials plan to ditch doughnuts, Pop-Tarts”.
- Working with Melissa Graham of Purple Asparagus, I have brought the film “What’s On Your Plate?” to Chicago for screenings. There is a New York City school chef in the film and he makes an interesting historical statement that school lunch programs began after WWI in response to military recruits being too thin and malnourished to serve. Today, our military is saying: “Many American children are so overweight from being fed french fries, pizza and other unhealthy foods at school lunchrooms that they cannot handle the physical rigors of being in the military, a group of retired officers say in a new report.” (full article here) Interesting turn of events. I’m not really sure I want our military dictating our health decisions, but it’s interesting how little we’ve learned about nutrition since WWI.
- FoodCorps Here’s a great idea. Why not model something after AmeriCorps or PeaceCorps and do some good for our national food systems? “The vision for FoodCorps is to recruit young adults for a yearlong term of public service in school food systems. Once stationed, FoodCorps members will build Farm to School supply chains, expand food system and nutrition education programs, and build and tend school food gardens. The ultimate goal of the project is to increase the health and prosperity of vulnerable children, while investing in the next generation of farmers.”
- Do not throw your hands up in despair. Do something. Here’s a wonderful story about a woman in Michigan who took action to close CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) near her that were violating regulations and polluting waters. Lynn Henning story.
If you’re the glass-half-empty kind of person, you’ll read all this and say, “Yikes! All food sounds dangerous! What can I eat?! This is depressing.”
I encourage you to be a glass-half-full type this time. Seeing all these stories and headlines together shows me that local foods and healthful foods are a bigger and bigger part of the national conversation. These stories are not found on tiny blogs read only by those of us in the “choir”. They are largely from mainstream media outlets: NPR, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune. There are more of them every day. The glass is half-full and filling up!
Cheers! I’ll drink to that!