Still working on that Food Revolution

hummingbird-nectar-no-red-dyeI know it’s not Thursday, but I wanted to throw back to a blog I wrote a few years ago on another website. I bought a hummingbird feeder for my mom the other day, and was looking at the various nectars for sale at the store. It was depressing. Most of them had artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives, and were heftily priced to boot! Is it not enough that we are poisoning ourselves with processed food–now we have to poison tiny birds too? For goodness sake, all you have to do is mix sugar and water together and put it in the feeder.

The experience reminded me of a blog I wrote a few years ago, so I went back and read it. I found that everything I was thinking at that time is still timely and important to me, so I thought I would share it with YOU! Now that I am back in the U.S. and teaching about sustainability, I find it all the more imperative to continue stressing that the decisions each of us makes for ourselves and our loved ones builds the foundation for positive changes in society. That said, feel free to read on if you are as concerned as I am about the future of food, health, disease, and the world.

July 16, 2010: An American Food Revolution–is it coming?

Last night, Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” premiered here in Australia. The television show follows Jamie’s efforts to improve the health and eating habits of residents in Huntington, West Virginia—rated the ‘unhealthiest’ city in America based on government disease and death statistics. Obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes are rampant in the town, as they are throughout America (especially so-called “middle” America). These health traumas correlate directly to the abundance of consumed fast food, deep fried foods, and empty carbohydrates. In other words, blatant malnourishment. Not undernourishment, but a consumption of inadequate vitamins and minerals. When he gave the statistic that this generation of children is expected to be the first to die at a younger age than their parents due to obesity-related health problems, the severity of this problem really hit me.

I watched as Jamie visited the local elementary school, and was appalled to see that the same barely edible food that I had blindly ingested as a child was still being served at public schools. Jamie was equally disgusted, especially upon finding that children were being served pizza for breakfast. Preservative filled, meat stuffed, greasy frozen pizza at that. I won’t even go into the wasteful (and dangerous chemical-filled) packing materials and plastic/Styrofoam lunch trays, utensils, etc. That’s fodder for another blog. Now, I never ate breakfast at my elementary school, but I did purchase school lunches from time to time, and I clearly remember the square slabs of rubbery pizza stuffed into little plastic and cardboard boxes, topped with runny cheese and pieces of crunchy “meat”. White bread, white cheese, brown meat. All full of preservatives, fat, and empty calories, but severely lacking in essential nutrients.

As a child, you can be forgiven for choosing pizza over salad. Children don’t often understand the importance of healthy, balanced eating, especially if they haven’t been raised to appreciate such basic values. They just want what tastes good, and even more than that probably, they want what their friends are eating. They don’t want to be the weird one eating green stuff. But what is not forgivable is the federal government, state government, and school districts of America who have a complete disregard for our modern understanding of health and the direct links between food consumption and preventable diseases. Most adults fret about cancer, while in the meantime more than two thirds of Americans are overweight or obese but are completely ignoring the influence of diet and exercise.

I was ashamed to witness the defensiveness and outright hostile response of Huntington residents to Jamie’s attempt to spread awareness about responsible eating and cooking. It’s embedded in human nature to defend our beliefs and habits even in the face of undeniable contrary evidence, and never was this more blatant than on the first episode of Jamie’s show. Despite the abnormally high obesity and death rates in the country, many residents felt threatened by someone suggesting they change their lifestyles (ahem—similarities to climate change, anyone?), even if it would benefit themselves and their children to do so. Even as high up as the district officials responsible for planning school menus, defensiveness and distrust were thrown at Jamie even though he was completely clear about his goals and intentions.

Of course it’s not particularly the school cooks’ faults, nor the schools themselves. It comes down to the outdated, invalidated government dietary regulations for school meals. Jamie’s frustrating experience during his first week at the Huntington elementary school made this clear. He prepared roasted chicken, brown rice, fruit, and vegetables for the children—a perfectly balanced, flavourful meal in which he used all fresh spices, herbs and other ingredients. Yet he was penalized for not having ‘two servings of bread’ on offer. Apparently, the other lunch option, the greasy thawed out frozen pizza (which was recycled from breakfast the day before as this day’s lunch), fulfilled the two bread servings, and so was allowed to be served (no one seemed to care about the quality of the bread servings—e.g. the fact that they were preservative filled white bread, which has nearly no nutritional value).

“Look at the regulations now,” says Renee Hanks, food service director for the South Colonie School District in Albany. “The U.S.D.A. requires so many carbohydrates that we’re throwing whole wheat bread at them. We’re throwing extra crackers at them. If they aren’t out and active they can’t handle all those calories.” So few people question this policy, which blows my mind! As for many things American, the school lunches came down to quantity, not quality. I hung my head as I listened to the events unfold, because as a child I witnessed first hand these same kinds of pre-cooked, unwholesome meals. At the time, I ate them unquestioningly (as queasy as it makes me to think of it now). But now, I know better. As should parents—or at least they should be concerned enough to want to know more about their children’s diets and how they can improve them. How can you not question sugary pink milk, or rubbery salt-filled nuggets and pizzas preserved with mono- and diglycerides, especially when your children are getting fatter and more sluggish by the month?

A few people have taken issue with school meals elsewhere in the country, in particular the efforts led by Alice Waters (see photo, right) in the Bay Area, California, to improve the quality of school lunches and teach children about the food they eat through edible gardens. I think this should be a compulsory requirement for all schools, and would fundamentally change (read: improve) the way we understand and respect food as we grow and age. My French flatmate explained to me that in France, dietitians and chefs visit every school and as part of the curriculum children are taught about basic food ingredients and how to cook. On top of this, each year they spend an entire week dedicated to food education. They are fed balanced meals made with whole foods, and the majority of it is still subsidized by the government. As a result, most children grow up with a stronger appreciation for real food and how to balance healthy and indulgent eating. And, surprise, surprise, they eat their veggies instead of dumping them in the bin. We desperately need a country-wide program such as this in American schools, and even more-so it should be extended to educational programs geared for parents. Time and again we are faced with images of American children who cannot discern a tomato from a potato, or who think carrots grow on trees. The combination of student gardens and healthier meal options at a few trial schools throughout the country show that childrens’ interest in learning and ability to concentrate are greatly enhanced with these programs, but yet they still have not caught on in most places.

For some reason, our government seems averse to supporting preventative healthcare programs, such as nutrition education, despite the billions they would save on the cost of medical treatments for those with diabetes and related weight disorders. Instead of subsidizing surplus powdered milk or artificially flavoured frozen concoctions, the government needs to sponsor healthier options for children, as do many other Western countries. Some policy makers are trying to increase government budget spending on food-to-farm programs and student gardens in schools, but they keep hitting a brick wall in the legislature. According to the NY Times, a Senate committee recently cut by more than half President Obama’s proposal to spend a record $10 billion more on child nutrition programs over 10 years, including school food. The government just isn’t getting it. A shift in American culture towards this kind of preventative care would be paramount and uplifting. Children would have natural energy (not the ADD kind that is overly medicated), would be healthier, fitter, happier. Parents would be better educated, proud of their efforts, and live longer to enjoy watching their children grow up healthy. Food would once again become the centrepiece of culture in a positive way, rather than as an enemy to overcome with yo-yo diets and artificial sweeteners. This is the utopia I imagine, folks! But the fact is, it is incredibly possible. In the face of so many seemingly insurmountable battles (GE foods, health care reform, carbon emissions), what we feed ourselves and our families lies at the root, at the crux of it all. And we can be in control of it. We can even, together, demand more control over it in schools and public facilities. We can demand that our children be treated with respect rather than treated as cattle.

I think it all starts at the individual level—not with schools or districts, but with families. Parents and kids at home. Jamie himself, unable to win the hearts of the elementary school staff despite his honest intentions, decided to make individual connections throughout the town and had remarkable results. He met a pastor whose concern for the community’s health matched his own. He encouraged a family who relied on fried and frozen food to bury their deep fryer and begin preparing simple, healthy (and might I add, cheap) meals together. These last images provided a spark of hope that the roots of positive change can indeed be sewn, one at a time, in the hearts of responsive people. No right-minded person wants to contribute to their own or their children’s death by what food they prepare. But as it stands now, many are eating the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes a day in terms of the negative health value in the ‘foods’ (I use the term loosely) they choose to consume.

I say it begins with the individual. And it must. Children learn first and foremost from their parents’ habits. But from here it must spread to the community, then to local, then to national regulations on food standards and education. Ignorance should no longer be an excuse for disease. Nor should budget. There is too much information about healthy eating while staying within a reasonable budget, whether as an individual or as a school district. I hope that the efforts of people such as Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters develop roots that spread the country and improve our standards of living for future generations.

There are hundreds of links I could suggest if you were interested in learning more, but I will just start with a few:


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