The healthy, sustainable diet

26 May. This article still attracts a lot of traffic, probably from search engine results. It seems rather topical given the widely reported projected increases in the price of food and petroleum products and the conflict between the human food and ethanol fuel uses for corn. I’ve also updated the PeaceBang link.

The Rev. Victoria Weinstein, writing as PeaceBang, is a dear friend with whom I ordinarily agree. She wrote:

I’m just wondering this honestly, and with no sense of judgment (quelle surprise!), but honestly, as middle and upper-class Americans are running around trying to eat organic everything and grass-fed beef (if they eat beef) and full-moon harvested herbs and drinking biodynamic wine, isn’t it true that most of the people in our country are still eating mostly crap?

Shouldn’t we be working on justice issues that make basically, minimally healthful food available to more people before scurrying about trying to fill our own larders exclusively with organic and perfectly nutritious foodstuffs?

I certainly hear some judgment there: the kind of hand-wringing directed towards one’s peers where overstatements can be accepted as cheery ribbing. I hear twee stereotypes which conflate motives and aspirations.

Let me tell you where I’m coming from. I’m middle-aged and chunky. I’ve had to live on very little money in the past, but — even though I am currently unemployed and temping — Hubby and I enjoy a high quality of life and this extends to our foodways. Our bedroom literally overlooks the Whole Foods, so we shop there for food quite a bit. And the local Safeway. And the CVS two doors down from the Whole Foods. And the little neighborhood bodega. And the Seven-Eleven. And the farmer’s market on Sunday. We also eat out quite a bit. None of these gets a majority of our trade.

Likewise, I am making a bejeweled potato salad for lunch tomorrow — new temp assignment; who knows if they have a microwave? — from farmer’s market potatoes and Whole Foods frozen organic vegetables. But I just had a CVS brownie in a fit of palliative stress eating. I can work both sides of the street. Like Paul, I do not always do what I want, but I have a general idea of which way I want to go.

But as for food buying choices, I gladly spend more on farmer’s market goods — if they are staples and not highly processed — if it supports regional and local agriculture, organic or not. I’ll spend more because I’m in a position to do so; not all can.

Why? I fear that diminishing petroleum reserves are going to lead to a more difficult agricultural future. Less petroleum and gas means more expensive fertilizers, pesticides, food processing and transportation. Food will cost more in real terms. Climate change may mean what grows well in one place may no longer grow as well. Long-term food security probably means having food produced in as simple and local a way possible, and having to make do with less. Whether this comes in twenty or fifty or a hundred years, I would rather do my part to prepare today. Our cheap, bad food situation may be a historical blip.

So I buy locally to support some farmers who need to be supported or they won’t grow produce for the Washington retail market. If more support these producers, they will expand their operations and entice others to enter farming. As with electronics, early adopters pave the way to greater availability and affordability, if not to the same degree! Unlike electronics, if traditional food-production skills aren’t preserved now, we are likely have less folk-knowledge to use later. Buying locally is as much an investment as an option; it is hardly sexy to tramp to Dupont Circle in the snow to buy potatoes and apples, so I don’t think I’m deluding myself. And I try to buy local goods to a great degree each week.

But in the interim, what of healthy diets for those without access to good quality food? Similar issues apply. First, people have the freedom to eat badly and make mistakes. Second, low-quality food is most appealing because for very little money you can be full and feel satisfied. (Little Debbie was my friend at college.) It is also convenient because it is often ready-to-eat or nearly so. The damage it does it capitalized and deferred. Whole foods — in the old sense of the term — are never going to be as fast and convenient, and I can hardly imagine they’ll be as cheap; if the two ideas of food compete on this basis, bad food will always win.

Rather than casting the issue as one of justice, eating wholesome food seems like a matter of attitude and understanding. Good food needs to be an appealing option, and the best way to do this is to encourage opinion-shapers to adopt better foodways and offer an experience of better foodways and education. Ministers ought to be opinion-shapers. So ought parents. I fear though that we had better get some more popular musicians on this campaign. (Which isn’t so bad. Morrissey has lead me to eat less meat.)

One problem, I think, is that most Americans experience food passively, and so little appreciate it. Quality is not as much an issue. But we do have the ability to appreciate an experience — this is how Starbucks continues to make money on over-roasted beans and syrup-topped confections — and the best place to experience good food is in the home. We like to be entertained by our food: family holiday meals and cooking shows are the evidence here.

So we can teach cooking. We can encourage dining together. We can speak plainly about ancestral foodways — which almost by definition are healthier than today’s — with pride. Without an appreciation for good food, there will be no market for it. I think a lot of small retailer know exactly what does sell and that’s why they sell so much junk.

I think the issue is less about justice than capacity, and once there is a greater capacity to respect healthy food, we can move on to issues that need political solutions.

Originally published 6 March 2007.

15 Replies to “The healthy, sustainable diet”

  1. Very interesting take on this issue. You took this to a place I didn’t expect, and it’s given me some things to think about.

    I didn’t quite know how to respond to PB’s posting (and also, I can’t reply to Blogger posts right now anyway). I try to eat healthfully and realize that I’m privileged to be able to eat the way that I do. I’ve seen the crappy food sold in crappy little corner stores in poorer sections of big cities, with their sorry excuses for produce and ridiculously high prices.

    At the same time, I think people in our country who are not flat out broke (e.g. homeless) eat poorly because the market has been structured in such a way to make it appear easier to eat that way. When I look at the price of processed foods like Hot Pockets and hot dogs, I have a hard time believing that they’re cheaper than a couple pounds of rice and beans would be. Not even organic rice and beans! But when was the last time you saw a commercial for just plain old rice and beans?

    To my mind, the biggest problem here is the way in which people don’t challenge what is being marketed to them. I have friends who have been on extremely limited budgets, but still ate high quality food. They accomplished this through things like sharing the job of cooking meals with friends, eating soups made from inexpensive ingredients like lentils, joining a food coop, finding a spot to garden, or splitting the cost of weekly deliveries of organic vegetables with roommates or neighbors. Unfortunately, this kind of behavior is perceived as “alternative” and we RARELY see it encouraged in mainstream media or in our institutions. I’d love to see middle schools and high schools offer classes on How Not to Have to Buy Everything You Need from the Mall.

    What I see you talking about in your post is “community,” and in our society – filled with people buying their own individual everything, completely ignorant of their neighbors’ names – we are not taught how to address these kinds of issues together. So we just take whatever is doled out to us – whatever seems most convenient. Even if it is actually MORE expensive (e.g. individualized portions of yogurt vs. a whole tub of yogurt).

    When I was a kid living in new york city, my mother used to go to all the way to another borough to slaughter the chickens we occasionally ate. Later, my parents would drive out to the only health food store on Long Island for meat substitutes, or seek out 7th Day Adventist churches that had (vegetarian) food stores . This was to keep us in adherence to our religious dietary laws surrounding the killing of animals for food. I saw members of our community splitting the cost of a calf or lamb or goat, and then several of them driving out to the country to kill the animals, skin it, divide it up, and bring it back in little white paper parcels. We’re not talking middle class or upper class folks here. Would it have been easier to just go to Pathmark or A&P? Of course! And that’s exactly what most people did. But some people talked to each other, discovered they had shared needs and concerns, and found a way around the mainstream institutions. They created their own systems.

  2. I responded over at PB, and I have written just now before I read her, on my blog about a recent community gardening organic gardening seminar I went to and its metaphors for spiritual living and the organic church movement…. But Scott after reading your post, all I can think about is the power of communion and the theology of the shared full meal. We eat everytime we gather here at The Living Room Church, and I am looking forward to raising these issues with others and hope it leads to some real transformational work; I think it will help folks with other addictions and so much else that might be holding them these days.

  3. I really like the Whole Foods stores and they are a must in any of my visits to the US. BTW it is also a good place to meet other UUs, you just need to keep your eyes and ears open ;-). And it is one of the few places in America where you can find real Spanish serrano ham, one of the Seven Wonders of the Food World (although at mind-boggling prices, I am sorry to say).

  4. Jaume,
    I am such a sucker for Whole Foods! Never tried the serrano ham there …. I’m not much for pork, but if it’s as amazing as you say ….

    Liking the thought of the “shared full meal.” Will have to check out your blog again to learn more ….

  5. I do not know about the WF serrano ham because it was so expensive and I only needed to wait for a few days before I could enjoy it at home, but you are certainly invited to taste it when you can visit Spain. 😉

  6. I just wrote that so that I could get Scott and Hafhida and Ron and Jaume to write all their wonderful comments.

    No, but seriously… I shop at WF, too, and eat there frequently. I think my bitchiness comes from feeling kind of helpless about how many choices we do have and how many choices a lot of other folks don’t have — and to echo Hafidha, how much junkie food choices are marketed to everyone as the “easier” choice.

    Is there going to be a trickle-down effect here to less economically advantaged communities, or are we obligated to spread the gospel, as it were, and to ask the questions about what kind of food is available to all of us?

  7. We can speak plainly about ancestral foodways — which almost by definition are healthier than today’s — with pride.

    Yeah, well, your name nothwithstanding, your ancestors must not have been Scots. Haggis, lard and blood pudding, washed down with many deep draughts (and understandably so) of uisge beathe, anyone?

  8. I eat a bowl of salted, but otherwise plain, steel-cut oat porridge every day. Rather healthy, and very Scottish, even if I’m not.

  9. Yes, as I recall, one of “A Prairie Home Companion”‘s regular sponsors is Mournful Oatmeal, whose pitch line is “Calvinism In A Box”.

    All the oats in Scotland can’t begin to ameliorate the rest of the Scottish diet, unfortunately. It’s no wonder they liked to strip naked, paint themselves blue, and come rushing out of the glens swinging broadaxes at anything that moved. Not only is it more glorious to die bravely in battle than in your sleep of a stroke, but if they died before supper, they wouldn’t have to eat it.

  10. But what of the neeps and tatties? And the Scots have one of the few vegan sausages out there: the white pudding, when made of a non-animal fat.

    And of oats — yes, they have a certain Calvinist quality to them, but less Auld Kirk and more, ahem, Regular Baptists.

  11. Barbara Kingsolver’s new book on eating locally — “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral Miracle” — got reviewed in today’s NY Times Book Review, and the reviewer says Kingsolver fed her family for a year for under 50 cents a head per meal. Alas, she grew much of her own food — not possible for us apartment dwellers. But even something like joining a CSA usually means you wind up getting produce more cheaply than buying it at the supermarket, and the produce I buy at the local farmer’s market is half the price I pay at the supermarket. I keep thinking that buying local foods ultimately will wind up being cheaper.

    [The New York Times issued a title correction. Ed.]

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