How to survive a sweet tooth

It was the first time I had heard the word “organic” used as s derogatory term. Picture this:  I am walking down Newbury Street, and suddenly a man in a Pret a Manger polo hands me a pretty hefty container of oatmeal to promote the chain’s arrival to Boston. (Really, Pret a Manger? You think I’m going to buy something after you give me a full-sized breakfast? And really, Pret a Manger? You think the best way to lure new customers in is by handing them unsweetened oatmeal?) Anyway, this guy about ten feet ahead of me on the sidewalk halts, turns, and proclaims: “What is this organic $!#&?”

I got to thinking about this culturally-constructed divide we have in place in the United States: junk food  = tasty, healthy = gross. As a kid, I know I remember feeling like vegetables were something I had to choke down so I could get to the good stuff.

Maybe this dichotomy is a mode of coping with the inability to afford healthy food. The fact is, though, that pizza and French fries—food you might find in school lunches—are both cheaper to produce and consume and cooked to ensure a salty, pleasing flavor. Kids learn from an early age that while some foods are good for your body (or so Mom says), other ones taste really, really delicious. It’s easy, then, to throw our hands up and accept a growing epidemic of obesity and addiction to junk food. However, my anxieties were fortuitously addressed in a New York Times article from this weekend about the ways in which countries like Hungary are getting serious about changing the way people choose to get their calories.

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Hungary’s government is responding to a public health crisis; two thirds of Hungarians are overweight or obese. (This compares to one third of American adults and 17% of American children). Daley quotes a Hungarian shopowner: “‘You see the kids come in after school and pick up the bags of potato chips, and then when we tell them the price, they put them right back,’ Mrs. Devenyi said. ‘We are selling about 10 percent less of certain brands.’”

Why hasn’t this solution taken root in the United States? If I’ve learned anything about global health, it’s that ensuring health sometimes requires compromise and sacrifice. In this instance, nutrition can and should take the place of consumer choice. Daley mentions Mayor Bloomberg’s criticized decision to ban 32-ounze containers of soda, among other initiatives that have met backlash in New York City. I decided to investigate a little, and happened upon an article that ABC news ran today. In this article, Liz Neporent details the costs and benefits of junk food companies responding to the detrimental health effects of their wildly successful marketing strategies. Neporent cites a statistic from the Archives of Internal Medicine that “An 18 percent tax on pizza and soda would lead to a 5 pound weight loss per year for the average American.” Other ideas from the Mars company (big-time manufacturer of candies like Reese’s and Milky Way) include shrinking portion sizes. I can imagine that Americans will receive this about as kindly as the disgruntled oatmeal man. After all, bigger is always better. In my opinion, the underlying problem continues to be that people feel they do have choice over what they are eating—but that’s a blog post for another time.

Sources:

Photo taken from: http://www.sciencenewsforkids.org/2009/10/junk-food-junkies-2/

Daley, Suzanne. “Hungary Experiments With Food Tax to Coax Healthier Habits.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 Mar. 2013. Web. 05 Mar. 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/world/europe/hungary-experiments-with-food-tax-to-coax-healthier-habits.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html

http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html

Neporent, Liz. “Candymaker Pledges to Fight Obesity.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 05 Mar. 2013. Web. 05 Mar. 2013. http://abcnews.go.com/Health/candymaker-pledges-fight-obesity/story?id=18651140

Do or donut: there is no try

Each and every EPIIC symposium boasts a plethora of Dunkin’s doughnuts. This year the selection included heart-shaped, cream-filled Valentine’s day leftovers. As my mother pointed out, these probably been around for longer than the average doughnut. Throughout the four-day conference, I tried to tune into the turbulent dialogue surrounding the presence of these innocent-looking pastries. To eat or not to eat?

Some reactions I heard were:

“This is a global health symposium. I can’t believe there are doughnuts!”

“I don’t really want one but I’m bored. My stomach is bored, too.”

“Well, you know what they say. Free food, no calories.”

People were constantly milling around and glancing longingly at the lined-up collection of chocolate, glazed, and jelly, presumably running through internal debates about the consequences of giving into the temptation of one (or more). This made me think about the competing messages in this situation: on the one hand, our society values getting the bang for our buck.  Eating something in a public setting without paying for it is equivalent to winning the lottery, especially for college kids. There’s the expression “no such thing as free lunch,” and these doughnuts represent the success of cheating the system. On the other hand, doughnuts are notoriously indulgent and symbolize indifference to health and self-restraint. They were accessible and numerous, and in the end it seemed like most people ate as many as they wanted.

A wake-up call

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My life is currently being consumed (more food puns!) by the EPIIC symposium, focused this year on the theme of Global Health and Security. For this week, I want to reflect on a speaker from last night’s panel on food insecurity, nutrition, and conflict. Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund began his talk with an Oromo proverb: “You can’t wake a person who’s pretending to sleep.” He was referring to climate change and food production, and the fact that the world’s population (particularly those of us living in wealthy countries with exponentially larger carbon footprints) recognizes the crisis that faces us as a global community, yet remains resistant to change. Some of the figures he gave were stunning: In the next 40 years, humans will need to produce as much food as has been produced over the last 8000 years. Also, a cat in Europe can have a larger carbon footprint than the average African. A CAT.  Clay put forward the ultimatum that either we need to come up with ways to improve food production technologies or dramatically change the ways that humans consume food.

These types of lectures, and the topic of climate change in general, usually leaves me feeling hopeless and panicky about our inevitably disastrous future. My generation will become the policymakers and consumers that will carry the blame for the destruction of the environment and the deterioration of living conditions for billions of people. One unique question that Clay brought up was the question of agency: should people have the choice to buy products that actively harm the environment? Isn’t taking that choice away the most responsible option for governments, lobby groups, and manufacturers? Perhaps this is just my socialist-leaning side speaking, but I appreciated the boldness of these suggestions. The impetus for extreme change should be on countries like the United States, who have a disproportionate impact on the environment—that, ultimately, will most severely affect the developing world.

This reminded me of a principle I learned this year in EPIIC: sometimes, ensuring health requires limiting freedoms. For example, during a viral outbreak, government or health officials might need to impose a mandatory quarantine. Climate change, and the way we consume food, needs to be framed in the same light. Individual decisions have intensely important repercussions, and dialogue about producing and supporting harmful needs to include the mundane everyday. I know I often use my dollars in ethically and environmentally compromised ways because I don’t feel accountable. To me, limiting consumer choice and market freedom is inevitable—it’s just a question of how long before we take the actions of individuals seriously as part of the global community’s collective action to reverse the damage that privileged populations have incurred.

 

Clay, Jason. “Food Insecurity: Hunger, the Environment, and Conflict.” EPIIC Symposium: Global Health and Security. Tufts University, Medford. 21 February 2013. Lecture.

Photo taken from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/world/globalfoodcrisis/

Preparing for the zombie-pocalypse

With Nemo blowing into town this weekend, the dominant advice is to “hunker down” and invest in an emergency food supply. I rode the T from Tufts to Newton on Friday in pursuit of a maggot-free place to weather out the storm with home-cooked meals and dishwashers. Many of the people crowded onto the train were toting armfuls of plastic bags filled with canned soups and boxes of cereal. This was an opportunity to consider decision-making about the foods we eat within a unique context: panic.

 After poking into the phenomenon of stockpiling foods with unlimited shelf life, I encountered Auguson Farms Deluxe Emergency Food Storage Kit (http://www.samsclub.com/sams/augason-farms-deluxe-emergency-food-storage-kit-1-year-1-person/prod1970426.ip#desc). There’s certainly an irony in billing dehydrated potatoes, powdered eggs, and freeze-dried brocolli florets under the name of a farm–as if this will help the smart people in their bomb shelters hearken back to the nostalgic time when the Earth’s surface was more than firey just debris. However, what stands out to me most is that this “kit” is a reflection of our culture’s emphasis on plenty and excess when it comes to food. Sam’s Club is clearly catering (pun intended) to the demand for hoarding and ensuring abundance. It’s not as if there is a reason to compete for resources or prepare for anything other than a vague notion that the world might end at some point. It might be a fascinating ethnographic endeavor to interview this product’s consumers and find out their motivations. On the bright side, Auguson Farms includes “one can of Vegetable Garden Seeds that is capable of producing over 2,300 pounds of fresh vegetables,” so that the intrepid few who invest in this emergency kit can start a more sustainable initiative after the End of Days. Image

What’s local got to do with it?

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As someone who is setting out to learn more about responsible decision-making surrounding food, this week’s readings were a solid introduction to the environmental and social issues linked to food in cities. The authors promoted the notion of self-reliance, a concept I have never heard of before. According to Grewal and Grewal, who propose a strategic plan to implement widespread urban agriculture in the city of Cleveland, local self reliance means that “localities should be able to obtain at least their basic necessities, if not more of their goods, from within their own physical footprints.” (Grewal and Grewal 2). The idea is to increase production innovation in urban centers, so that cities do not rely on the import of food from long distances and reduce the environmental impact of globalization. Utilizing empty plots of land and other spaces also has the potential to create jobs even in a suffering economy. There are numerous grassroots (lol) organizations working on this initiative already, but they can’t make the paradigm shift toward self-reliance happen alone. A theme that emerged is that these well-meaning organizations need to partner with powerful, resourced actors like the government and consumers to work toward the goals of health, equity, local economic development, and preservation of the environment.

My relatively cynical question is, do enough people care? Barring the outside concerns of finding skilled farmers to manage these projects and making an urban farm’s outputs more affordable than shipped, mass-produced alternatives, is buying local really an American value? In my opinion, Americans have a core appreciation for the absolute divide between production and consumption. Cities are places where goods go to be bought; an urban farm is a cultural paradox because the things that grow could be perceived as contaminated by the mechanical, the unpredictable, the crowdedness and impurity.

By contrast, during my time in Cambodia I heard and witnessed the sentiment of self-reliance and food multiple times. In rural areas, personal fish ponds and small fruit tree groves (even one or two in a family’s yard) are ubiquitous. I was surprised to learn that this is also the case in the cities, if you can afford it. People strongly prefer to pick a mango off the branch from their window, rather than buying in the market. I was told that mass-produced fruits and vegetables are never to be trusted because you don’t know where they came from; they could transmit illness, carry unknown chemicals, and a variety of other concerns. I filed these expressions in the folder in my brain called “Quirky Cultural Conceptions” and proceeded to drop mad riel on fruit stands, sampling every mysterious new fruit I saw. All that changed when I bit into a sapodilla and my mouth went numb from the chemicals in its flesh. I’m not sure how common an experience like that is, but it helped me to understand a societal value of self-reliance and mistrust of produce with unknown origins. Another factor that I think marks a crucial difference between the US and Cambodia is dependence on infrastructure. Given Cambodia’s history of population displacement and oppressive governments, it is possible that the simple fact of going to the market and buying food is not taken for granted. Growing bananas in walking distance of one’s home is not just a health concern, but a means of ensuring survival and independence from the way the world may change.

Stateside, we have a long way to go before more than a small cohort of Whole Foods shoppers understand the necessity of finding more responsible solutions—of making produce locally grown and available.

Grewal, Sharanbir S. and Grewal, Parwinder S. Parwinder S. Grewal, “Can Cities Become Self-Reliant in Food?Cities 29 (2012): 1-11

Image taken from http://www.permaculture-media-download.com/2012/04/feeding-soul-at-jones-valley-urban-farm.html

Bon appetit

My name is Rena and I started this blog for my New Food Activism class. Throughout the semester, I will be posting my ruminations on all things food-related–past and present, organic and deep-fried. I’d like for my focus to be on the relationship between race, class, and nutrition in the United States. I’m interested in how people in low-income areas or “food deserts” negotiate the challenge of eating healthfully without the abundance of options that I am lucky to have. I want to find out about social services, institutionalized feeding events (like school lunches), and the meaning of food movements in communities that can’t afford to buy into the pastoral ideal of raw, pure, organics.