Friday, October 23, 2009

Thoughts on Food

While I was pregnant with Petunia, I suddenly wanted to understand more about where the food I ate came from, and to formulate some sort of coherent opinion about what I should be eating and feeding to my children. These days, my thoughts on food are more along the lines of wondering how long I can get away with eating so many cookies and watching for correlations between Petunia's fussy periods and my diet (so far, I suspect that too much lemonade in my diet may make her fussy. I haven't done the experiment to see if she has the same problem with dairy that Pumpkin had- given our experience with Pumpkin, I decided to just eliminate dairy from the start and add it back in when Petunia is about 4 weeks old.) Still, I thought I'd write up my thoughts on food from my earlier reading, before I forget everything I learned in the fog of newborn-induced sleep deprivation.

I had read some books about food earlier, and read two more during this period. Here's my food reading list:
  • Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, by Marion Nestle. She has written a lot about food and food politics. I read this one a long time ago, as part of a work project I was doing. I came away with the distinct impression that our approach to food safety in this country is driven more by politics and what is convenient for our food industry than by what science tells us about how to best keep our food safe.
  • Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser. This one has a definite agenda, and is trying to convince you of the evils of our current system. Therefore, I found it a bit one-sided and often found myself wondering about the counter-arguments that were never made. However, it was still an interesting read. I also read this one a while ago, but a bit more recently than the Nestle book.
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver. This book is a more personal story than the others. It documents how Kingsolver and her family lived on food they grew on their small farm for a year. I found it very thought-provoking, but also a bit sanctimonious at times. I also wanted more balanced information about some of the issues it raises- the author's opinions about food policy issues are often stated as facts. Kingsolver and her family clearly believe passionately that we should eat more locally, and they were able to make changes to live the lifestyle they believe in. It is less clear how to translate this into action that an average family could take.
  • The End of Food, by Paul Roberts. This was definitely the most satisfying of the books for me. It presents a more balanced discussion of the issues, and includes plenty of references. If you only have time to read one book on food, this would be the one I'd recommend. It will give you the information you need to formulate your own opinions- although the author also presents some of his own opinions.
I learned a lot from my reading. For instance, The End of Food has a fascinating discussion of how the addition of meat to our diets has made us bigger and healthier- there is a reason that societies become more carnivorous as they get wealthier. Of course, Americans now eat far more meat than we really need, but I don't think that the solution to our food problems is to all become vegetarians.

So, after all of that reading, what do I think about our food system? Well, I think it is under strain. I think that our approach to food safety is insane. I'd love to see a more rational, science-based approach. For instance, the way we feed our cattle favors the growth of the pathogenic strain of E. coli that causes potentially serious illness (0157:H7). Both Food Safety and The End of Food make the point that if we switch cattle from corn feed to grass or hay before sending them to slaughter, we could significantly reduce the risk of E. coli contamination. Corn feed leads to a more acidic cow stomach, which favors the growth of the of the 0157:H7 strain. This strain can withstand the acidic environment that kills the other strains of E. coli. Unfortunately, this also means that our own acidic stomach environment provides no protection against 0157:H7.

I also think that we are insane to routinely dose our livestock with antibiotics. We do this because it makes them grow a little bigger on the same amount of feed. However, we are essentially breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the process- bacteria will evolve to survive in the presence of the antibiotics. To decrease the risk of this practice, there are some antibiotics that are reserved for human use only. However, given the fact that many different antibiotics work by blocking the same bacterial processes, this seems like a poor safeguard to me.

I routinely buy organic meat, eggs, and milk because these are antibiotic-free. However, it is a lot harder to buy grass-fed beef- my local supermarket does not carry it, and neither does the speciality meat market down the hill from me. I'd have to go to a store in a different part of town to find it, and we frankly just don't have the time right now for that amount of shopping. Grass-fed beef is a bit of a hot item right now, though- several buger joints in town advertise their use of it. This makes me hopeful that I'll be able to buy it in my local stores soon.

Beyond the safety of our food, there is the question of whether we have food security- i.e., do we have enough food to feed everyone, and is that food supply reasonably robust? The End of Food argues rather convincingly that our food security is shaky. Our agricultural industry is very specialized and we are over-reliant on corn and soy. In fact, most farmers plant the same few strains of these crops, which have been optimized to work in our industrialized farm setting. Roberts argues that we should diversify our crops. He makes the case that more medium-size farms, all innovating in their own ways will provide us with a more secure food supply. There are aspects of our government's food policy that work against the development of such a system. I don't feel that I understand our food policy well enough to have firm opinions about how we should change it, but I do think that we should try to include all of the costs of food production in our system- including the environmental costs of our heavy reliances on petroleum-based fertilizers.

So what should I feed myself and my family? I do not have the time (or land!) to make the sort of changes Kingsolver documents in her book. Nor, frankly, do I have that level of interest in gardening. Hubby and I will continue working our office jobs, juggling the demands of work with the needs of our family. We do not have time to shop in four different stores to get our weekly groceries- most weeks, we're lucky to make it to the one supermarket. I have a picky toddler who likes store-bought chicken nuggets but turns her nose up at my home-made breaded chicken strips. I do not have the energy or the desire to fight her on this. I'm mostly happy that there is some meat she is willing to eat. (She also like bacon. She's such a health nut.) Given all of this, I've come up with the following ideas for how we might change our eating habits, once we emerge from the survival mode neccesitated by having a newborn:
  • Eat less meat. Hubby and I both like meat, and we've gotten a bit lazy about including vegetarian meal options in our plans. Unfortunately, I'm a picky eater, too, and am not a big fan of beans (its a texture problem) or fish (I just don't like the taste). Still, I'm a grown up. I can try to get better at this.
  • Eat less processed convenience food- within reason. Pumpkin gets to keep her beloved tortellini and chicken nuggets. But we'll try to introduce more home-made items.
  • Try to buy more regionally. The End of Food argues that locally grown doesn't always make sense, but that it does make sense to try to buy food from your region. I think Pumpkin would enjoy a trip to a farmer's market now and then, and we would all benefit from trying to eat fruits and veggies that are in season in our hemisphere, rather than paying for items imported from the other side of the globe. However, we won't outlaw the imports- we'll just make them more occasional treats.
  • Set up a backyard garden. I have an herb garden now, and we're working to make space for a bigger garden. I think it would be fun to have a garden with Pumpkin (and Petunia, as she gets older). Next on my list of things to grow are tomatoes and zucchini. We may also plant a citrus tree. Citrus trees are thirsty, but we can use our gray water to help water it.
These seem like reasonable steps that I can take without turning my life upside down. Real change, though, will probably need to come from Washington- and I just don't have the time right now to push for that.


  1. You can get grass-fed ground beef at Trader Joe's now.

    Citrus trees are not thirsty. In fact, overwatering is their main cause of death. Some people water their established citrus trees only monthly during the dry season and not at all during the rainy season.

    We planted both a Meyer lemon and a Mexican lime trees in 2000. The lime tree died from the record rainfall in 2005. We don't water the lemon tree at all now, though I hose off the leaves every 2-4 weeks. Our landscaper says that citrus likes to breathe through their leaves. Air pollution residue needs to be rinsed off biweekly. They like to be fed quarterly. That's all we do.

    Our lemon tree is now surrounded by artificial turf that doesn't get watered. It looks much healthier now that it doesn't get watered by the sprinklers twice a week.

  2. This is a topic that fascinates me. Years ago I decided to become vegetarian (possibly just to bug my mother) and spent quite a long time learning everything I could about food and how to eat properly. I spent a lot of time worrying about how I was doing things wrong, and how eating particular things could hurt me, and finally realized that I was doing more damage by worrying than I was by eating junk food occasionally.

    Now I'm no longer vegetarian, but I know how to cook vegetarian, so that isn't quite so scary anymore. I'm not picky about where I get most of my food, but meat is a really big issue for me (for all the reasons you mention, plus the risk of mad cow disease), and we've switched over to grass-fed beef. After doing a bit of digging around, I found a couple local farms that deliver and it winds up being only slightly more expensive than the grocery store (we did have to find friends to share it with since they only deliver large quantities and we've only got a regular sized fridge/freezer). Probably the easiest way to find something like this, if it isn't on the internet, is to show up at the local farmer's market and ask the folks selling meat if they deliver. Even if they don't, they will likely take your order and have it waiting for you at the market. Now we've lucked in to a local farmer's market that claims it will keep running all through the winter, so we can just keep a week or two worth of meat in the freezer rather than having to buy in bulk.

    Mostly though, we just try to do as much cooking from scratch as is reasonable. If you aren't too crazy about beans, I'd recommend trying chick peas or red lentils. They are the least bean-like legumes I've found. The chick peas are quite bland and have a nice texture and I was really surprised by how much my little one likes them. Red lentils go completely to mush and make a great addition to soups - you get your protein without even noticing it.

    Thanks for sharing all your thoughts on this :)

  3. I planted a small garden when I was home on Fall Break last week. Any tips on the basil? Mine is not doing very well right now. Everything else (tomotoes, rosemary, peas, carrots, and beets) are all doing well right now.

  4. MrsHaley10:53 AM

    We're with you, Cloud, on a moderate approach to local/organic/all-natural eating. I try to be the most vigilant about the balance & quality of what I feed my baby & toddler. I was so scandalized by Pollan's books and inspired by Kingsolver's, but, like you guys, I have neither the time, energy attention or resources to spare to mantain the kind of garden Kingsolver woulda pprove of, nor the kind of shopping habits Pollan espouses.

    I think it is SO IRONIC that I live in rural farmland, yet it is next to impossible to get organic meats/poultry/dairy or even produce, for that matter. Farmer's markets and roadside stands abound, but every last thing is grown conventionally. How awkward that it's in urban areas where you can get the kinds of foods you'd think I'd be able to pick along the side of the road around here?!? What does that say about our food system?

    Anyway, we are doing what we can without getting compulsive about it. Yet.

  5. Anonymous2:59 PM

    I've probably mentioned this before, because I'm a huge fan, but Deborah Madison's Vegetarian cooking for everyone is one of the best cookbooks I've ever used - and it is not an all-bean, all-tofu kind of approach. Lots of dairy, though there are ways to make them vegan if necessary. Some recipes are very simple, some more complicated, almost all delicious. We noticed we feel better when we eat less meat. Eating vegetarian forces you to put more diverse vegs in your diet.

    We are also pretty serious about local/ organic - sometimes we worry less about the organic than the local, sometimes vice versus. For example we live near an actual dairy that sells their milk to the local shops- it is unbelievably divine. It's not organic, but it's hormone free and humane, and that's enough for us.

    Also a good source for non-anti-biotic, humanely raised meat is at farmer's markets. You see a lot of meat vendors now, their stuff frozen. We've gotten amazing grass fed beef and pork that way (for a fraction of what you pay at Whole Foods).

  6. @badmomgoodmom- I'll have to check for grass-fed beef next time we're at Trader Joe's. We do not have one in our current neighborhood, but make monthly trips to stock up on our favorite things- Hubby is particularly fond of the NZ cheese.

    I don't know why I thought citrus was thirsty. Maybe because I grew up in AZ, and we had to water our citrus there?

    @Today Wendy- Thanks for the tips about potentially palatable legumes. I do like hummus. I've never tried red lentils. In a weird twist of fate, Pumpkin is apparently very fond of the refried beans they serve at day care, so I've said that I'll suck it up and we can add those to our home menu.

    I've yet to see meat at the farmer's markets here, but I haven't been to one in a while. Maybe that's changed.

  7. I felt the same about the Kingsolver book. That it was fascinating to watch their year in progress, but thinking it was total bullshit (to be frank) to think that two average suburbanites, say a lawyer and a teacher, could devote the same number of hours to this project as a tenured professor and a writer. And while I understand that bananas or other imported fruits are not the most ecological choices, when *average* people go to the store, isn't it better that they choose fresh whole foods instead of processed junk? First let the people eat produce, then try to impress them with regional/local choices.

    And now we live in a place where the bananas are local. So, phew, that's off our conscience.

    I know nothing about the water needs of citrus, but considering that Israel usually gets zero precipitation for the months April-September, I'm going to go with "doesn't need much." Because the fame of Jaffa oranges and the like go back to the middle ages, long before sprinkler systems and such.

    Red lentils make a great soup for the winter! With a baguette you're totally in business.

    One of our favorite vegetarian meals is to saute onion and garlic, add a can of black beans, a can of corn, and a can of diced tomatoes. Stir in 3 cups cooked rice (1 cup raw). Spice with cumin, black pepper, and hot-making item of your choice (tabasco, red pepper flakes, etc). Serve in wraps/tortillas topped with shredded cheese.


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