Thursday, October 31, 2013


Political Mayhem Thursday: The Politics of Food

On Tuesday, I had the wonderful experience of talking about narcotics policy at Harvard Law School.  I walked in and there were more people than seats; I wasn't sure I was in the right place (I think it had more to do with the excellent food than me).  As at Stanford earlier this month, the Q & A session was great-- I suppose that when you engage some of the smartest students in the country, that is the result.  It sounds like I get to go back in February, which I really look forward to.

After the talk I shared dinner with my former student at Baylor Law, Tim Swearingen.  The food was amazing-- crab chowder, duck meatloaf, and some chocolatey thing with frangelico ice cream (thanks, Tim!).  Boston has high standards for food.

Food is important to me, because I really enjoy it.  I eat meat-- all kinds of it.  Still, I do realize that there are environmental costs to the way I live, including the way I eat.  Obviously, I haven't made the choices some others have, to avoid meat and other foods for health and environmental reasons.

Is this a major issue to anyone out there?  If so, I'd like to hear your view...

I was really hoping this was a post about the Farm Bill and it's history!
Those cows look worried!
Actually, we could talk about the farm bill! That thing is really messed up every time-- so many odd incentives packed into it.
Long before Michelle Obama planted vegetables at the White House, more precisely in 1995, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame stated the Edible Schoolyard and before that, the “eating local” movement. It all sounded good, but I couldn’t help being turned off when I saw chef Waters on PBS promoting her Edible Schoolyard project and demonstrating the wonderful simplicity of making a simple salad from a bountiful array of fresh produce laid out for all to be inspired and awed. Among the bounty, a crafty wooden crate full of fresh porcini mushrooms. And that was where she lost me…that crate of magic fungi alone most likely worth an entire month food bill for one of the kids in her video. I couldn’t help but end up skeptical. Fast forward to Michelle Obama’s edible garden propaganda and our local green markets. I don’t know about the local green markets in your area, but if one goes shopping to green markets in the New Jersey, Connecticut, New York area they better be prepared to donate a gallon of blood and all the contents of their wallet. If one wants to buy local dairy products and/or meat, donating a kidney would have to be added to emptying the contents of their wallet.
Joke aside, I honestly don’t know what the politics of food are when one single heirloom tomato at the market costs as much as a piece of steak at the supermarket…ugh, and a month long worth of Happy Meals.
Glad your talks went so well. I would like to have been in attendance.

As for food policy and personal choices, I have been a vegetarian since 1988. Initially, this choice grew from a lifelong discomfort with the idea of eating animals. I don't know from where this came as nobody in my family, or among their friends, was a vegetarian. The more I embraced vegetarianism, the more I came to understand the important ecological aspects of this choice. While I am not a judgmental eater, I do know that my food choices have a much smaller impact on the planet and are more sustainable than those of omnivores. I try to eat locally grown food and eat organic whenever possible.

More recently, I have moved from being a vegetarian to enjoying a complete vegan diet. This was also motivated by the same constellation of factors influencing my choice not to eat meat, plus I wanted to see what impact elimination of all animal products would have on my cholesterol levels. The impact on my blood levels has been dramatic. I have lost weight and I feel much better after having eliminated all animal products from my diet. I also feel better psychologically when I do not ingest animal products. (I view that as probably a personal quirk, but it is nonetheless an important part of why I do not consume animal products.)

I do not judge or condemn others who have not made these choices, but I think they are worth considering for issues involving sustainability, environmental degradation and health.

I will also note that just mentioning that I am vegan to many people will result in quite open expressions of disdain and even condemnation. While I know that many vegans and vegetarians can be like this to omnivores, I have seen that this judgmental behavior is a two-way street.
Marta, you identify exactly what is at the root of some of the problems-- technology has made bad, unhealthy food cheap and healthier ones more expensive (generally-- carrots are still pretty darn cheap!).

Michael, I admire intentional choices like yours, and hope to hear from more people who have done the same.
Prof. I agree with you that Happy Meals being cheap are the bane of poor people’s health, but I do not agree with the implication that meat is bad food. Meat should not be cheaper than vegetables and that is where the politics of agro-subsidies has to be reformed and with that an entire culture that got to the point where a respect for food instilled in kids at a young age is practically inexistent (the amount of food waste I got to witness since I came to America is mind blowing to me). But going back to the implication meat is bad food…proteins are essential for the human body to function (not just for the building of muscle and tissue damage repair, but the proper function of the cell cycle which is the root of all evil when it gets disrupted) and while proteins can be found in a number of legumes, a small portion of meat along with a healthy portion of vegetables is the way to a healthy balanced diet for humans. Becoming a vegetarian is a good choice only if one is properly informed that giving up meat is only the beginning of a much more complicated lifestyle, as root vegetables, greens and pasta are poor sources of protein and the first staples new vegetarians run to for sustenance.
I have had a vegetable garden the past few years. Each year I try to expand it and add more food. I usually don't have to buy any lettuce from April-June or Sept-October. I've grown green beans, peas, kale, bok choy, kohlrabi, tomatoes, peppers and TRIED to grow califlower, broccoli and and a few other things.

this year I was overrun by deer and rabbits. So I may have to eat venison locally if I want to eat vegetable locally
It's funny that you posted this today. I recently began reading Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America. He seems to focus on food and ecology and being conscious of and responsible in the way we eat and live. His ideas have broader applications though. It's already making me evaluate my decisions in these areas more.

Also, food is very important to me too. It's not a real meeting if there's no food involved...
I've been eating a vegetarian diet since college (a long time ago), and I do it for environmental reasons. Simply put, eating lower on the food chain is gentler on the environment, particularly when we've got 7 billion mouths to feed. I understand that many folks don't want to or can't eat an entirely vegetarian diet, and that's OK. They can choose a different way of reducing their "ecological footprint." For a more detailed answer, check the greenmomster blog. Regarding the local food movement, I just finished reading a terrific book by a fellow W&M grad (go tribe!), Gaining Ground, that talks about food production from the farmer's point of view. Definitely worth a read if you're wondering about the cost of local food, etc. I'll post a review on my blog soon!
It worked!!!! I was really hoping this post would get the attention of the Green Momster, and it did!
It did seem right up my alley; couldn't just continue to lurk! In case you ever decide to cross over from the Dark Side, we've always got those meat-free recipes for you!
Recently, I have started forgoing all sugars, most carbohydrates and most dairy products, the latter because I learned I am lactose intolerant, otherwise I would consume high fat/low lactose/hormone free, organic dairy (heavy cream, butter, full fat plain yogurt, cream cheese and sour cream, etc.) for protein and healthy fatty acids. I eat minimal amounts (3-4 ozs. daily) of fresh and cold water caught fish and seafood, or organically raised poultry or meat for the protein, although organic eggs are a major protein source for me. (Cardiologists are increasingly backing away from believing eggs are harmful to heart health.) A big part of my diet has become healthy fats such as coconut oil, some nut oils, avocados, and olive oil (but never for cooking because it has a very low burn point) and lots of green and cruciform vegetables as well as tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, etc., plus fruit berries on occasion.

What prompted me to embark on what is basically a ketogenic diet is learning about the importance of healthy fats containing medium chain triglycerides, and about the alarming amount of sugar we are often unwittingly consuming* due to the rise in processed foods and modified grains, and what this has meant for our national health since the 1960s -- dramatic increases in obesity, diabetes, ADHD, autism, inflammatory and auto-immune diseases (arthritis, heart disease, Crohn's), certain cancers, Alzheimer's disease (now referred to as Diabetes III by numerous researchers), etc.

The average 21st century American consumes the equivalent of 60 to 70 teaspoons of sugar a day; in the 1800s that number was two teaspoon equivalents. Even sweet corn seeds have been modified and sweet corn is now 25% sweeter than it was just a few years ago. Breads, pasta, and starchy vegetables are readily turned into sugar in the body and stored as harmful white fat unless one is very active. Sugar in all its forms, is the only food substance to cross the blood-brain barrier and it induces cravings stronger than opiates. Remarkably, when one gives it up, the cravings go away quickly.

I am someone who loved to cook and bake creatively, and I feel like a clumsy toddler as I learn to do it very differently using almond, peanut and coconut flours to make our low carb breads, as well as low carb healthy sweeteners such as erhyritol and stevia to make "healthified" desserts. It is not an easy transition for someone who cooked intuitively, rather than scientifically.

So many Americans are living longer (due to modern medicine), but often malady-filled, lives which now I am inclined to believe is primarily an outcome of poor diet. Too many school children are obese or hyperactive or suffering from brain fog because of poor diets. These trends have produced serious societal and national financial problems (poor school performance with life long burdensome outcomes; rising costs of health care and insurance; loss of productivity, etc.) I believe it's important I be a productive member of society, rather than a societal burden to the extent I can knowingly avoid it.

Re: the farm bill, too much modern (and highly productive) farming is making us less healthy -- hormone and antibiotic filled dairy, meats and poultry; corn syrups in everything and cows, designed to consume grasses, made fat quickly on corn then butchered young before their livers burst from their diet; hormone repercussions from soy protein and oils in an overwhelming amount of processed foods, etal. Big Ag needs a big overhaul.

*Note: A handy calculation to use in discovering how much sugar one is consuming: check food labels for the grams of carbs per serving; subtract the grams of fiber per serving if any; divide the result by four to yield the number of teaspoon equivalents of sugar in a serving. Example: Creamette's Penne Rigate > 42 gr. carbs - 2 gr. fiber = 40 gr. net carbs, divided by 4 = 10 teaspoon equivalents of sugar in one 2 oz. (3/4 cup uncooked) serving of pasta.
Anyone want some arugula? We have a bumper crop this fall. Also Radicchio... salad for us. I still have some tomatoes on the vine but I doubt they will turn red until I bring them inside. We keep a kitchen garden - small with mostly herbs year round and then grow things we like - cucumbers and okra.

No seriously reading these comments we all make very personal decisions about our food and some of it has to do with geography.

Last week I bought a dozen farm eggs from my yoga instructor $3. That's ok for me as they will last a while. And yes, they do taste better if you are a connoisseur of eggs. If I were feeding a family I might opt to keep chickens. Living in the country this is an option.

Marta doesn't have that option living in NYC and I wandered the Union Square Farmer's Market years ago and it was pricey then. I think the cost of gas and tolls to get into the city probably factor into that cost which is a shame. I will note that the prices at our local farmers market also seem high - choosing to shop that way is a lifestyle choice and a commitment. We don't go very often. One must make smarter choices to fill in the gaps at the regular store.
Mmmm…Christine, too bad I’m not anywhere near those goodies you grow and are willing to share. Here I volunteer a quick recipe to use up the arugula and tomatoes. Make a pesto with the fresh tomatoes, some sundried tomatoes if you have or tomato paste (for a deeper tomatoey taste), walnuts, garlic, parmesan, salt, pepper and olive oil. Boil your favorite shape pasta, mix with the tomato pesto, add a generous mountain of arugula and finish them all with a drizzle of olive oil and some extra flakes of parmesan if you wish. The ingredient proportions are “by eye” but trust me that it cannot go wrong. Enjoy!
Thanks for the recipe Marta. I have a stash of sun(oven) dried tomatoes in the hydrator. Never thought of using tomatoes for pesto. Also have plenty of basil
There is a related topic here about poverty and obesity.

I appreciate the grow local movement, but it butts heads with aspects of economics that I'm not qualified to prove up. Economies of scale and that type of thing. Though none of that is to say we should not have gardens in our cities. We should.

My perception is that the jump from processed food to fresh food is much more important that the jump from fresh food to organic food, and it is much more doable for those living in poverty, or those simply on a tight budget.(law students)

But I could be wrong. I have prejudices and I have probably not given the organic movement the study it deserves. Still, I'm a skeptic. When I compare a trip to Whole Foods with a trip to the Rainbow Supermarket, or Aldies near the ghetto, I can't justify the level of self-centered consumerism going on.

And yes the stores I'm thinking of do have fresh(ish) fruits and vegetables available for a good price. Though of course they are more expensive then whatever 99 cent prepackedged meat(ish) product might be available.

David - agreed. The best place to start is to replace processed (easy) snacks with an apple or a piece of fruit. Add some green beans to the dinner plate.

Actually a better place to start is for grocery chains to open in blighted areas so there is fresh food available.

With regard to organic... again a personal choice. But the reality is none of us asked big-agra to poison our fresh food with pesticides or fill our meat with antibiotics. I don't have the list readily available but there are some fruits and vegetables that they feel it is better to buy organic because of how they are grown and the ability of the peel (skin) to absorb the pesticides.
That's an excellent point, David Best...
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