The health crisis here in the US is reaching a critical point. There are drugs in our drinking water, sick cows in our meat supply, and additives in pretty much everything. We’re seeing huge increases in diabetes rates and bowel disease. We are not a healthy country.
The food industry isn’t entirely to blame: pollution, occupational exposure to chemicals, and lack of time/money to exercise are part of it too. You can’t simply blame one industry, but the overall effect of all of these factors is that we are exposed to a brew of chemicals unprecedented in human history, and we don’t know exactly how it is affecting us. You can study, say, the effects of dioxin exposure through tampon use; but what happens to someone who’s exposed to a multitude of chemical products through tampon use and food additives and pesticides and polluted water and industrial chemicals released into the air? How do you control for all that? You don’t, you can’t, so we’re reduced to guesswork. And a lack of proof means that the government can’t or won’t curb the corporations that pollute. (See Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream for more on this.)
So what do we do? (Solutions after the jump.)
Much of this we can’t control on an individual basis: it will require government regulation and possibly a mass protest movement to see any serious curbs on industrial pollution.
However, the one thing that we know helps is good, fresh food. Eating fresh food, especially whole grains, fruits and vegetables, instead of processed foods is probably the best thing you can do for your health.
Well, no. Here’s why:
-Fresh food is expensive. Whole Foods has the nickname “Whole Paycheck” for a reason. Our distribution systems are no longer set up to deliver fresh foods to people; they’re set up to deliver processed foods with long shelf lives. We used to have the milkman; now we have Coke at McDonald’s. And global food prices are rising sharply thanks to increased oil prices, climate change and diversion of food resources to ethanol production.
-Fresh food can be difficult to obtain. If you live in the right place, you probably have access to a farmer’s market or two, as well as a Whole Foods or other health food store. If you live in the suburbs, you probably have access to some supermarkets. But if you live in a poor neighborhood, you aren’t likely to get a supermarket– you’ll have to make do with convenience stores. That goes for people in poor rural areas as well. And if you don’t have a car, you’ll have to find a way to get to a grocery store on your day off (if you have one) and get your groceries home.
-Fresh food has to be cooked. Which is all well and good if you can work at home, or if a member of the family can stay home and handle the housework, shopping and cooking– but let’s face it, the vast majority of families either don’t have two adults, or can’t afford to have an adult stay out of the workforce. It takes at least two incomes just to survive these days. And when you’re working full time, it’s just not realistic to expect to come home and whip up a fresh gourmet meal from scratch. Which is why so many people eat at McDonald’s– what, you thought people just went for the delicious food?
-We don’t know what fresh food tastes like. Kids raised on convenience foods grow up to think food has to be sweet or salty to taste good. They often won’t eat vegetables when they do have the opportunity, because they’re not used to their tastes and textures. And those kids, as grownups, feed their children the same way. If you’re never taught to cook, don’t eat at restaurants that serve classic dishes, and don’t include fresh food in your diet, how can you teach your kids to do otherwise?
If you’re incredibly determined, willing to spend a significant portion of your budget on food and a significant portion of your time cooking, you have someone with whom to divide the labor, and you’re highly organized and resourceful, it is possible to eat a healthy, fresh/whole foods diet as a working-class person. But it’s hard. Joe and I try to do it. We struggle, and some weeks we fail. When things get difficult, you’re stressed or sick or working extra hours, it’s easy to find yourself eating takeout (or– let’s be real here– bags of Oreos).
So what’s the solution? Here are some of the ideas currently in play:
-Ad campaigns. TV networks, the government and plenty of other entities are telling us to exercise and get healthy. These ads have three problems. One, they don’t do a damn thing to solve the practical problems outlined above. Two, they focus on encouraging exercise (a good thing) instead of dietary prescriptions (eat less sugar, don’t drink pop, cut back on meat), which are guaranteed to offend the food industry. (For an in-depth analysis of how such concerns affect the USDA’s Food Pyramid, read Marion Nestle’s Food Politics.) Three, their focus tends to be on weight loss rather than overall health (not the same thing).
-Pressuring food companies to offer healthy alternatives. McDonald’s is now serving salads and fruit, and food retailers are racing each other to offer Whole Grain Froot Loops and vitamin-laced Diet Coke. Problem is, an additive-laden sugar bomb with a small amount of whole grains in it is still an additive-laced sugar bomb. As Marion Nestle says, while demolishing this concept in her book What to Eat, “Why not get your vitamins from food?”
-Food banks. These are great in theory, but in practice they’re often stocked with unhealthy, additive-laden foods– shelf-stable foods are generally a requirement for food bank donations, and the government products that supplement them are often of low quality. Food banks are also overextended right now because of the economic downturn and budget cuts by the “compassionate conservative” Bush administration. However, if food banks could partner with farmers’ markets to offer fresh foods, they could be a great resource for getting good food into the hands of the people who need it.
–Community gardens and urban farming. This is a great idea that’s beginning to spread. It’s a low-cost way to allow people who don’t have their own land to grow vegetables and herbs. It’s a great way for kids to learn about food, and you’re more likely to be invested in the idea of eating well when you’re actually growing the food yourself. It also encourages neighbors to get to know one another and to share knowledge. It is a serious time commitment, though, and not everyone can manage that. When it works, though, community gardens can be a great resource. In my neighborhood, we have both community gardens and an urban farm, Greensgrow, which supplies fresh local produce to just about every restaurant in the neighborhood. You can also sign up for farm shares, and pick up a bag of produce every week in season. It’s a lot of money to lay out up front, but it does save in the long run.
-Connecting farmers and inner-city grocers. This idea is being pioneered in San Francisco, where community groups are exploring new ways to get the food to the people:
The programs vary from the Mobile Market in West Oakland, where high school students drive the red and purple truck through neighborhoods to sell farm-fresh produce to residents and learn about running a business, to farm stands in schools and hospitals in Richmond and Berkeley, designed to serve people who don’t live near a farmers’ market or affordable store. In San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point, organizers have brought a healthy produce section back to a grocery store that used to focus more on alcohol and Fritos.
These programs, many funded by government agencies, often bypass traditional distribution channels to work directly with farmers in ways that haven’t been seen before.
-School gardens. Berkeley, CA restauranteur, chef and all-around lefty food icon Alice Waters has been instrumental in getting a number of school garden programs started, and the idea is being adopted all over the country. Kids spend a class period every day working in the school gardens, and learning about nutrition, cooking and growing food. They eat the vegetables they cook (for many, their first fresh vegetables) and start broadening their culinary horizons as they find out there’s more out there than just food from a box. Check out Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé’s Hope’s Edge for an in-depth look at school gardens in Berkeley.
-Public cafeterias. This idea doesn’t exist yet (to my knowledge) in the US, where it would probably be denounced as communism– but if this is communism, sign me up. The Lappés also profile this one, which exists in São Paolo, Brazil. The São Paolo government took the radical step of declaring food a basic human right. They then sponsored a cafeteria in the city and stocked it with fresh food from local farmers. It’s pay-what-you-can– those who can’t afford to don’t pay, but the cafeteria’s fresh, tasty food attracts large numbers of people who can and do pay, and it actually makes money. Imagine the possibilities for such a solution in American cities! What if you could take the kids by the neighborhood cafeteria for dinner on a busy night, instead of waiting in the drive-thru line at Burger King?
These are a few solutions. If they’re implemented, they could change many people’s lives for the better- but they’re not going to solve the problem entirely. We need both large-scale social change and small-scale solutions, and we need to start thinking creatively about how to rehabilitate our national diet.
So let’s brainstorm. What kind of solutions do you envision in your neighborhood, in your workplace, in your school? How can we make eating fresh, healthy food a real option for working people? How should we change (or bypass) the food distribution system? If we see more national disasters like Hurricane Katrina, how can we enable communities to feed themselves (since, clearly, we can’t count on FEMA)? What are some ways to help people improve their diets during an economic downturn? Let’s get creative and see what we can come up with. Leave your comments below!