Friday, November 27, 2009

Ways to improve the food movement

Focus on what matters:

-Health: Obesity-related illness is not a myth. Exercise is unlikely to be the key to fixing this, so public-health-wise, concern regarding diet does make sense. If this can be fixed ala Pollan via switching from corn subsidies to no subsidies or efficient ones, so be it, but I know nothing about agriculture and so will stop before my local, organic foot makes its way to my mouth.

-Taste: Taste is relative. Kind of. But if the idea is to eat more fruits and vegetables (and, depending which week, seafood), the fact is that produce can be anything from delicious to inedible depending what condition it's in - unlike, say, cake, which ranges from very good to good. The Alice Waters method for vegetables works great, but only works if the vegetables themselves are non-disgusting. The way to get everyone eating better is to get better-tasting healthy food into stores.

-Price and availability: If you're rich and live in Berkeley, seems getting good food isn't a problem. If you're anyone else living in this country, chances are it is. The issues of class and region, then, are key. (I'd also like to declare a moratorium on self-righteous lectures in the national press on 'eating local' from journalists in the Bay Area. Have they seen the markets here? Do they understand that we're lucky these days to find kale? And this is Manhattan...)

-Sustainability: Local or organic? Veganism or meat raised right? Whichever it is, someone should figure this out, so those wishing to eat in a way that's environmentally sound can do so rationally, as opposed to the 'ooh, it's like organic, yum' line of thought.

And not on what doesn't:

-Slowing things down: Some people enjoy spending five hours at the dinner table, cooking slowly, savoring each bite. Others don't. It's not immediately clear to me why the second group needs to adopt the habits of the first. Sure, eating too quickly might correlate with eating fast food which might mean obesity and so forth. But the non-savorers might also be those who simply don't care about food as much as the savorers, who'd rather spend their time doing something else than sucking on a lentil. For some, busyness translates to fast food and so on; others point to the busiest times in their lives as the slimmest. In other words, if we should all be eating less, it's not clear that slowing down our food consumption and attempting to derive a greater proportion of our pleasure from eating than from other activities will necessarily help the cause. (Also, to Maira Kalman - what's wrong with "fast walking"? Of all the facets of modern life, isn't this one we ought to encourage?)

-Knowing the ins and outs of farm life: We are asked to know where our food comes from. This is a different matter from knowing whether our food is produced ethically, sustainably, etc. It is now considered particularly honorable to know what goes into growing vegetables, to know not only if animals were raised and (if for meat) killed humanely but exactly how they are butchered, milked, etc. It's all quaint and charming, but really, why does it matter? If the point is that farmers work hard, the same could be said for so many other jobs that benefit us all but whose inner workings no one asks us to contemplate. (My building, for instance, has 10,000 floors. Someone had to have built it, and this was surely more strenuous than grading a stack of 18 French essays.) While it helps to have consumer representatives on the case, we don't each of us, individually, need to know where our food came from. (And, for David Lebovitz - the woman haggling over cilantro while "holding a very expensive Louis Vuitton handbag" could well have been wearing a fake. The presence of the letters L and V on a purse do not necessarily imply thousands spent. No one can tell the difference, or at least, I can't, but my purse is unadorned and from H&M circa 2004, so I might not be the best example. A good test in this case would be whether she went on to put her purchases in the bag, using it like a canvas tote.)

-Europhilic locavorism/terroirism: It is entirely possible to eat well - ethically, taste-wise, health-wise - without having any nostalgia whatsoever for small-town life or a particular village in Tuscany. (Do I repeat myself?) If the very thought of a fantasy version of Provence is what motivates you personally to put down the Fritos, go for it, but the same notion is a turn-off to others who might otherwise get on board.

7 comments:

Petey said...

"But the non-savorers might also be those who simply don't care about food as much as the savorers"

The correlation between folks who eat quickly and who don't care much about food and folks who eat a poor diet and have obesity problems is astonishingly high.

One can offer various plausible cause and effect scenarios for why the correlation is high, but the correlation remains high nonetheless.

I'd say the most plausible scenario is that in a society of calorie abundance, folks who don't care much about food satisfy their appetites with fat and sugar, while folks who do care about food are able to find ways to satisfy their appetites via other methods of food happiness.

If this scenario is correct, getting folks to care more about food actually does improve the general welfare.

"Sustainability: Local or organic? Veganism or meat raised right? Whichever it is, someone should figure this out, so those wishing to eat in a way that's environmentally sound can do so rationally, as opposed to the 'ooh, it's like organic, yum' line of thought. "

I'd say this should go in the "What doesn't matter" column, at the consumer level.

Individual consumers are essentially lacking the tools to make rational decisions here. This is a job for governmental bodies to make policy such that consumers are nudged in good directions.

Is tuna depletion a genuine problem? Fine. Reduce tuna catches at a society-wide level, prices will rise, and less will be consumed. Is factory farming of cows a major contribution to global warming? Fine. Tax the emission component of cows, prices for beef will rise, and so on...

Britta said...

Petey,
I'm not sure how you know that there's a correlation between speed of eating and obesity. Are there studies? Or is it just based on the stereotypical images of someone wolfing down a cheese burger vs. someone savoring a tasty dish? I feel this is part of the snobbery that posits that fat people don't/can't really enjoy high-quality food, but must rather be stuffing their faces with cheap, chemically-altered processed food. The truth is, you can be fat on foie gras, chocolate mousse and carmelized onions if you eat to much of them, just as much as you can on ding dongs and McDonald's. Indeed, in Portland, most of the overweight people I know, even the morbidly obese people, are all excellent cooks and food snobs of the highest degree. They're fat because, for whatever reason, they consume more calories than they burn. That these calories come from roasted vegetables, quiche, and stuffed eggplant does not make a difference in size or weight.

I was going to say, the thing that kind of bothers me about slow food is it posits a dichotomy between healthy and delicious vs. convenient. Yes, some people can and do spend a long time making meals, but most people simply don't have the time. However, if you think eating well involves several hours of food prep, you're probably more likely to give up on trying to eat anything healthy. In truth, you can make many tasty and healthy dinners in less time than it takes to heat frozen pizza or a microwave dinner. As long as you own things like garlic, olive oil, canned tomatoes, and pasta, you can make pasta with tomato & garlic sauce in about 11 minutes, or the time it takes to cook the pasta. This is just one example, but there are tons of pasta dishes and stir fries that can be made in 10-30 minutes, which is probably the time you have to wait at the drive through. It's not always the fanciest thing, but it's definitely healthier, tastier, and cheaper than a microwave dinner. Instead of saying, you need to set aside lots of time to cook, the movement could say, for the same amount of time and less money, you can make your diet healthier, and I'm sure lots of people would be interested.

Petey said...

"Indeed, in Portland, most of the overweight people I know, even the morbidly obese people, are all excellent cooks and food snobs of the highest degree. They're fat because, for whatever reason, they consume more calories than they burn."

Sure. Simply caring about food won't make you thin absent some other items added to the mix.

But caring about food is sort of a necessary precondition to being thin while simultaneously getting a good level of satisfaction from your meals.

-----

"As long as you own things like garlic, olive oil, canned tomatoes, and pasta, you can make pasta with tomato & garlic sauce in about 11 minutes ... drive through. It's not always the fanciest thing, but it's definitely healthier, tastier, and cheaper than a microwave dinner."

See, that's kinda the point I'm trying to make.

If you care about food, you spend the 11 minutes playing with the olive oil and garlic and pasta.

If you don't care about food, you get the drive-thru or microwave dinner.

Phoebe said...

Petey,

Like Britta, I'm not sure where you've gotten the information that non-savoring leads to obesity. Was the bold meant to be a link?

"I'd say the most plausible scenario is that in a society of calorie abundance, folks who don't care much about food satisfy their appetites with fat and sugar"

It's possible not to care much but to still care a bit, or to not much care about the sensual experience of eating but to still care about not becoming obese. You seem to be conflating two kinds of 'caring about food' - one of which is caring what you put in your body, the other of which is getting particularly intense pleasure from eating. I disagree with those who think the latter in some way prevents obesity - if anything, it might contribute.

"But caring about food is sort of a necessary precondition to being thin while simultaneously getting a good level of satisfaction from your meals."

This is a bit circular, no? If you don't particularly care about food (and, again, that doesn't necessarily mean the extreme of not caring at all and indiscriminately shoveling in whatever has caloric content and won't kill you immediately), you don't care about "getting a good level of satisfaction" every last time you eat. Maybe sometimes, but not all the time. Some - not all, but some - thin people are that way because they get less intense pleasure out of food.

Britta,

You're preaching to the converted re: the merits of pasta and canned tomatoes. But I think Petey's wrong that this is a meal that the food movement (of which he seems to be naming himself, if not a representative, a follower) would consider evidence of 'caring about food.' It's not 'slow,' because it doesn't take long except compared to Lean Cuisine, because it's probably (at least in my household) going to be eaten quickly, and because such a meal typically tastes good enough but is not one whose every morsel anyone who'd not previously been starving would savor sensuously.

Phoebe said...

And, I forgot...

Petey,

"Individual consumers are essentially lacking the tools to make rational decisions here. This is a job for governmental bodies to make policy such that consumers are nudged in good directions."

Agreed, kind of. This is the best solution, and consumption should not all have to fall into the category of 'voting with your dollars,' as with David Lebovitz signing up for a CSA he sort of admits is overpriced and unimpressive but oh, think of the farmers... But in the mean time, individuals should be able to make ethical choices if interested in doing so. As in, maybe Hummers should be specially taxed (for all I know they are, because I know nothing about cars), but should consumers really be left in the dark about whether an SUV or a bike is a better choice?

Petey said...

"You seem to be conflating two kinds of 'caring about food' - one of which is caring what you put in your body, the other of which is getting particularly intense pleasure from eating."

The two items are conflated by nature.

Here's the concept:

- You look at cultures that managed to create yummy cuisine without the luxury of being able to have lots of livestock.

- You emulate them.

Take the famed "Mediterranean diet" that got endlessly studied. It involved Greek islanders during and immediately after WWII when conditions were highly impoverished, and thus great creativity was needed to create a satisfying cuisine with limited resources.

You then recreate the process by creating a satisfying cuisine while intentionally limiting your resources.

This offers folks a way to get yumminess in a way that nudges them toward thin. Flavor and enjoyment replaces meaningless calories.

In a world with unlimited easy to shovel calories readily available, the only two ways to avoid obesity are self-denial or food creativity. And food creativity requires caring about food.

"if anything, (caring about food) might contribute (to obesity)"

Again, sure.

There's nothing inherent in caring about food that bars folks from being gourmands.

But for the majority of folks who find themselves with an unpleasant choice between obesity and lack of food satisfaction, caring more about food can light the way to a middle path.

"I think Petey's wrong that this is a meal that the food movement (of which he seems to be naming himself, if not a representative, a follower)"

I'm not a representative or a follower.

The Food Movement™ c'est moi.

Après moi, le dessert.

Julia Hodges said...

Hi Phoebe!! I love your blog, I've been reading it for a couple of months, but have never replied to your posts until now.

Considering "food happiness", one thing to think about is mental health. I feel, in my opinion, when one is depressed, the first things they go for are starches are sugars, and fast food just happens to be that. Not only that, but when you're depressed, cooking can be a chore and a little lonely if you're only cooking for yourself (which I usually do, and have experienced that until I found a small interest and love in cooking). And for me, at least, when I cook, I take my time, I feel like I try to make something new, let alone good, because you can only do so much with pasta and stir fries.

Also, I don't know where I know this statistic from, but Americans, in general, spend a lot less money on food in comparison to, I think, 10 years ago. If that is true, I wonder where the extra money is going to...mortgages perhaps? I really don't know, I feel too young to really have a full grasp on where every penny goes to because my mother still helps me out (on insurance and car payments...I'm trying really hard to remedy that).

However, I think the bigger issue when it comes to food is with community transportation and local foods (I'm a Pollan fan, what can I say, not that he revolutionized locality or anything). I live in a town that has a huge bike culture and local food culture, but it's also quite poor and the poor parts really do rely on Kroger and chains and it's funny that the upper middle white class take advantage of the good parts. I really do feel like if transportation was better...or if car culture was somehow stunted and say...trolley or subway culture was better, things in general, not just food culture, would be better.

But then again, Manhattan is very much different than the south. I'm near DC, and they have quite a few local farms and markets that try so hard to reach out, but they only seem to reach out to upper middle class. If they reached out to the lower class...would you think that would make such a difference? I feel like it would.

It seems like, to me, that you would have to go knocking on all the doors in the bad parts of neighborhoods to really get a response. I won't lie, that'd be scary to do...it'd be worth it though.