Is healthy and sustainable food only for the privileged?
BATAVIA, Ill.—In the food deserts of America, the place to shop for groceries isn’t the local supermarket (there aren’t any): it’s the corner liquor store.
There’s a two-tiered, class-based food supply in the United States, and access to food that is healthy for both body and environment is far from democratic.
In most areas, a mother can use food stamps to buy a bag of Cheetos for her children but not a bag of apples from a farmers’ market. Thanks to our nation’s agricultural policies and generous subsidies for corn, a heavily processed, health-busting, environment-destroying meal of burger-fries-and-soda is now plentiful and cheap—cheaper oftentimes than a pint of simple, pesticide-free berries (if you can find them). Even in areas where fresh produce and organic options are available, how many have the luxury of choosing, say, a $6 quart of organic strawberries at a place like Whole Foods?
Those were some of the barriers to the sustainable food movement discussed in a lecture given by Chicago Tribune food and investigative reporter Monica Eng at the Batavia Public Library earlier this month.
“Who is looking out for some of the sickest, who are also the poorest, among us to make sure that this isn’t just a movement for the well-off? Eng asked. “How do we make it a movement for everyone to help create a healthier nation in general—healthier soil, healthier air, healthier kids?”
That’s one of the biggest themes emerging in a sustainable food movement centered around foods that are healthy for people, animals and the environment, Eng says. Only 1-3 percent of the U.S. food supply is organic, and the premium for organic can be steep: anywhere from 20 to 40 percent more (or even six times more, Eng has found). For those without the access or means to buy organic, the main option available is food produced by conventional, mostly industrial, agriculture—what Maria Rodale, author of the book “Organic Manifesto,” calls “chemical agriculture.”
Industrial agriculture yields a supply of food that’s plentiful and cheap, but loaded with hidden costs and ticking hazards. Not just for the poor, but for us all.
Eng has spoken to experts who warn that conventional agriculture will deplete our nation’s soil in the first half of this century. Also, scientists say that the factory-farm practice of feeding antibiotics to healthy animals—which accounts for something like 70 percent of all antibiotic use in the U.S., Eng said—breeds antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” like MRSA, which kills more Americans each year than AIDS.
And then there’s the issue of genetically modified foods, which drew the most questions and comments from the audience of approximately one hundred. Eng believes that all of us have eaten genetically modified food without knowing it. In the U.S., genetically modified foods are not labeled, as they are in most other countries. “The Japanese Prime Minister has said, ‘We’re not going to be feeding genetically modified foods to our kids. Let’s let the American kids be the guinea pigs and see what happens to them,’” Eng said.
Eng’s lecture shed light on a U.S. food system turned on its head: an up-is-down, black-is-white world where the age-old staples of life—fruits, vegetables, whole grains—are the new luxury items, and the former luxuries—meat, processed foods, heat-and-serve meals—are now the cheap staples of the masses.
“In other countries, you couldn’t afford to eat a TV dinner or a Totino’s pizza every day. But they’re so cheap here,” Eng said. In the U.S., “bad food is cheap food.”
The question is why? Why are fruits and vegetables so expensive? Why is a meal of hamburger, fries and soda so cheap?
At the heart of the problem are U.S. Department of Agriculture policies that even its Chief Economist, Joseph Glauber, describes as “foolish and unhealthy” and “not economically sound,” Eng said. There is a huge disconnect between what the USDA subsidizes and what its Food Pyramid says we should eat. The USDA recommends that 35 percent of our diet come from fruits and vegetables, but fruit and vegetable growers received only 0.4 percent of all USDA subsidies during the years 1995-2005. Only 24 percent of our diet should come from meat, nuts and dairy, but the meat and dairy industries received 74 percent of the subsidies—three times the amount we’re supposed to be eating.
Also, fruits and vegetables are considered “specialty crops” and thus subject to tariffs, which further drives up prices. But not corn: Corn is heavily subsidized, making it very inexpensive for the food industry to sweeten our food, and fry our meals, and feed the factory-farmed animals that end up in our supermarket aisles and on the Dollar Menu.
If we are what we eat, then we’re a nation of corn—because that’s the street drug being pushed on every corner, every store aisle, in every school lunchroom.
If that sounds hyperbolic, consider the following: 25 percent of all groceries in an average supermarket contain corn, according to the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. Eighteen percent of the human body is composed of carbon; in the typical American, 69 percent of that carbon comes from corn, according to a 2007 CNN article by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. In other words, the typical American is more than 12 percent corn—that’s more than the amount of hydrogen (10 percent), the third largest element of the human body. Deconstruct the typical school lunch and it’s easy to see why: there’s corn in the meat, corn in the bread, corn in the sweetened drinks, corn in the processed cheese, corn in the oil that fries the potatoes. The list could go on and on.
And studies are showing that we get hooked—literally addicted to these kinds of fatty, sugary, processed foods. “[Scientists] look at the dopamine responses in your brain to fatty foods and it’s the same as with cocaine addiction,” Eng said.
Addiction may be the goal, according to the book “The End of Overeating,” by David Kessler, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Kessler accuses the food industry of engineering the levels of sugar, salt and fats in our food to create recipes for addiction: an addiction that keeps Americans trapped in the feedback loop of craving, buying, eating. Not unlike the tactics once used by Big Tobacco to manipulate smokers.
And cheap corn is what keeps the gears of the industrial food machine turning.
The glut of corn is making us fat and sick. But the driving ethos of the food system isn’t health: it’s cheap calories. It’s all about getting the most calories per cent, the most bang for your buck in an all-you-can-eat-buffet culture.
“Food is cheaper in the United States per household, and as a percentage of our income, than any other nation in the world,” Eng said. “It’s mind-boggling.”
This ethos of cheap calories is promoted by USDA policies and produces school lunch programs that are penny-wise but, quite literally, pound-foolish. Once non-food-related costs such as transportation and labor are deducted, only about $1 is being spent on actual food, per meal, under the USDA’s National School Lunch Program. Although the U.S. Senate is considering an increase of 6 cents more per lunch, that hardly seems sufficient to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic, which has experts predicting that today’s children will be the first generation in U.S. history to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.
“Growing healthy habits in our kids is not the top priority,” Eng said. “The top priority is, ‘How cheap can you do it?’ But we have to have other priorities. If we don’t spend the money now, we’re going to be spending it later.”
Because in the end, we all pay when a class-based food supply makes Americans sick. According to the Centers for Disease Control, obesity-related healthcare alone costs us $147 billion annually, half of which is footed by the taxpayers.
And class is a factor in the childhood obesity epidemic. Rural areas are suffering from the highest rates of childhood obesity in the U.S., due in part to the decline of farming and the poverty that follows, according to a 2005 article by the Associated Press: “The only other place where researchers are finding obesity rates similar to rural America is in the poorest, most troubled urban neighborhoods, suggesting that poverty may be the overriding cause.”
Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was recently quoted in The Atlantic magazine on the subject of obesity: “I began to see that while we’ve got food stamps for people and we’ve really conquered hunger in America, all these people on food stamps are obese.”
And that’s a problem for the Department of Defense. The irony of the USDA’s National School Lunch Program is this: It was started in 1946 in response to DOD complaints that recruits were malnourished and too skinny; now the complaint is that recruits are too fat and can’t even run a mile, Eng said. Now there’s a push to spend the funds necessary to provide the DOD with what it needs: skinnier recruits.
Indeed, policy makers are increasingly focusing on the problem of obesity in the United States. But again, the focus seems to be on calories. Eng knows of experts who see 100-calorie Oreo packs as “one of the biggest success stories in the healthy eating movement.” One such expert “wants to make it a win-win for businesses and our waistlines” and is “proposing to the Senate that the food industry reduce the calories they give to the American public by 20 percent by 2020 and [in return] they’ll get a rebate on their advertising time for ‘healthy’ foods,” Eng said.
While some are pushing fewer calories as the solution, there are those who believe the future lies in alternatives like “organic Twinkies.”
But are organic Twinkies really the answer?
That’s debatable, Eng said. But it seemed a fitting question to ask on what was, coincidentally, the 80th birthday of the Twinkie, the notoriously shelf-stable sponge cake created in Schiller Park, Ill., as a cheap snack for Depression-ravaged consumers, during a time when cheap calories perhaps made sense. Organic Twinkies would be free of pesticides and thus better for the environment, certainly, and better for the health and safety of the workers who farm the ingredients, Eng said. But the nutritional value—or lack thereof—remains largely the same. And then, of course, there’s the overriding question of price: Who can afford that organic Twinkie?
Also, the organic label can be used in self-serving ways by the industry; it can be applied to foods that meet organic standards but violate the spirit of sustainable agriculture. (If a “free-range” chicken is only free-range for the final two weeks of its seven-week life, and is then diesel-trucked to a store 3,000 miles away, how “sustainable” is that, really?) Even the term “sustainable” can be suspect: “To many people, ‘sustainable’ means ‘We sustain our profits,’” Eng noted.
But organic or not, the Twinkie still epitomizes what’s wrong with the American diet today; it’s still “the archetype of all processed foods,” according to the book “Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats,” by author Steve Ettlinger. Organic food can still be processed food. And yes, Twinkies also contain corn: eight of its 39 ingredients are derived from processed corn.
But processed foods are just one facet of a complicated problem that must be attacked from multiple angles, Eng said.
As TV chef Jamie Oliver learned in his reality-TV experiment, “Food Revolution,” you can indeed spark a revolution by serving healthy meals cooked from gourmet vegetables and free-range chickens to schoolchildren weaned on reheated factory-made pizza—but not the kind Oliver intended. An overwhelming number of children complained, and many dropped out of the school’s lunch program. Access to healthy food is one thing; acceptance is quite another.
“Will they eat it? That’s the ten-thousand-dollar question,” Eng said. “People pretty much agree it’s going to require cultural and generational shift. You’re going to have to get kids to say, for some reason, ‘I want these sprouts, and I want some cabbage. I don’t want the nachos.’ And you’re going to have to get parents to say, ‘I want to be chopping and washing and cooking fruits and vegetables, and paying for that.’”
Education is one key, Eng said. “According to surveys, after kids have nutrition classes and gardening classes, they go home and tell their parents: ‘I like broccoli, Mom. I just realized today that carrots and broccoli and apples can be good. I’ve only had terrible ones, or none at all in the past, but I realize these are good.’ So we are seeing some changes. Whether or not their parents are going to buy it and make it is another question.”
There are things we all can do to help, Eng said. The more people buy organic, the lower the prices for all. That will help get organic options onto the shelves of Wal-Mart, say, rather than just Whole Foods.
And the middle class is crucial to bringing prices down, says Gary Hirshberg, founder and CEO of Stonyfield Farm, the nation’s largest manufacturer of natural and organic yogurt. Hirshberg says increasing the organic food supply in the U.S. from 3 percent to 10 percent would make a huge difference in price and a huge difference for the environment.
In the meantime, consider this suggestion from Eng: “Buy the ugly fruit; buy the ugly vegetable. Because the reason [the industry] spends all this money on genetically modified and tons of pesticides is because people don’t buy the ugly stuff, people want food to look perfect.” Remember, that industrially farmed apple only looks super red and blemish free, Eng says, because it has been “through all sorts of shenanigans.” Ugly produce may be discounted at organic markets or donated to needy organizations through what are known as “market basket programs.”
Also, learn how to select and cook some of the cheaper organic options. Organic beans, barley and other whole grains are not that expensive, Eng says. “That could be one of the solutions: Get people to understand that healthy food does not always have to be expensive food.”
Because organic and locally grown foods may seem like luxury items to many, but in the end, cheap and unhealthy food may prove to be the most costly indulgence of all. Those at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid may suffer the greatest hits to their health and local environment, initially. But eventually, the damages are bound to trickle up. And we, as a country, should perhaps consider the morality of essentially letting the disadvantaged among us serve as the canaries in the coalmine.
Eating healthy food is the cheapest and most effective form of healthcare there is; for many, it’s the only form of healthcare that’s within reach. And yet, more than 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, have no access to fresh food on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, where is the health insurance industry investing its money? Fast food—something low-income areas usually have plenty of. Researchers at Harvard studied 11 large insurance companies and found that they owned nearly $2 billion of stock in the fast food industry, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health. So the same companies that are selling us life, disability and health insurance are simultaneously placing their bets on the very thing—cheap, unhealthy food—most likely to make us die sooner, or suffer a disability like diabetes, or rack up massive bills in healthcare.
It’s enough to make a person want to seize a pitchfork and storm the castle.
Don’t be surprised, though, if the hands holding those pitchforks turn out to be rather small. And they won’t be wielding pitchforks; they’ll be holding garden hoes, and tilling the soil of school gardens.
“It really is going to be the young people who are really going to drive this movement, and actually influence their parents,” Eng said. “We’ve got the most eco- and health-aware young people that we’ve ever had. The more young people get involved in this, writing about it for their school papers, demanding their cafeteria have better food, I think it’s going to really influence what comes next.”