Tl;dr we have to start talking about poverty

As I reach the end of this semester, I’m reflecting on how my views on creating a nourishing, sustainable, and just food system have been enriched by my education inside and outside the classroom.

What has been clear to me for some time is that the food environment, as determined by industry and government, is not compatible with my vision for public health. We produce and market way too much of the wrong foods and not enough of the right ones, the cost structure constrains nutritious choices even further, and we pollute and waste far too much at all levels of food production and consumption.

All of this is still true, and demands to be addressed by the private, public, and non-profit sectors. But, lately I’ve been increasingly confronted by another major crisis that is also at the root of our public health nutrition problems. I am talking about poverty, friends.

I wrote about my Public Health Nutrition class at the beginning of the semester here. I believe I wrote in that post that I had been waiting for this class during my time as an undegrad thus far with much anticipation, mostly because its title is common to that of the particular career field I plan to enter. I expected to know already a lot of the material about the public health nutrition programs run by the government (e.g. SNAP, WIC, the school lunch program) and I did, but what was remarkable was how much the course focused on poverty as a broader issue to frame the public health issues. For example, one of our big assignments was to read and write a paper on one of four books about poverty, none of them focusing especially on nutrition. We also had a guest lecturer come in and talk to us purely about the housing crisis in town next to the university.

When you think about it, it’s easy to see how poverty and the low affordability of things like housing and health insurance are incredibly critical to understanding food insecurity and diet-related disease. But not enough people are thinking about it. Before taking this class, I recognized the connection, but still lamented the flaws of the food environment far more than the miserable extent of poverty.

One of the concepts that the poverty assignment dealt with was flexible versus inflexible expenses. For instance, every month, people have to pay the fixed amount of their rent, utilities, and other bills. Those are the inflexible expenses. They they go to buy their food, and, depending on how much money they have left over, may have to compromise on nutritious foods in order to buy whatever will satisfy them for the least money. For low-income households, government programs like SNAP fill the gap to some extent but don’t typically provide enough to reasonably afford what public health advocates would prescribe as a nutritious diet, and are really only available to the poorest of the poor.

The thing is, food justice and access is so important, and so are welfare programs when they work, but it is equally important for people to be able to rehabilitate and support themselves financially and afford all of this nutritious food to which they may or may not have convenient access, on top of their fixed expenses. If all of those things sound like different names for the same problem, it’s because they are. Too many people are living in poverty (just watch this video about the horrifying income distribution in this country) for the welfare system to sustain itself.

And another thing: everyone demands that food be really cheap, but the externalities of cheap food cost way more in the long run than investing in better quality, nutritious food to begin with (as I lamented in this post). 

The way I see it now, there are two broad, intimidating goals to strive toward in this struggle:

  • Increase the capacity of the social safety net to support people in need with resources to achieve food security
  • Reduce the need for the social safety net by improving equality of opportunity for low-income and disenfranchised populations AND mandating a living wage

I definitely do not have all the answers with regard to how to reach those goals, and really don’t know how to do it in a politically acceptable way (although I do have some thoughts which I may elaborate on in future posts, and always appreciate comments).

Tl;dr: You can’t adequately address food insecurity or the diet-related disease epidemic without addressing poverty.

 

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Don’t waste viable food energy!

I think this Meatless Monday was quite successful. I have a good friend visiting from overseas, and he helped me cook, along with my mom. We had some people over last weekend and we had a ton of leftover tzatziki sauce, so I found a recipe in one of my mom’s cookbooks for fried eggplant with tzatziki sauce. We also had a lot of mint from this farm share I luckily got in on a few weeks ago, so we roasted potatoes with garlic and mint.

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The potatoes turned out especially well. The eggplant wasn’t as well received as the potatoes, but I really liked it. Regardless, no one missed meat, as usual.

I’m going to try to make this quick because I have to get up early for work but I really want to post this on Monday. The reason of the week for eating less meat is that it is inherently energetically inefficient. All energy that we can consume is originally captured from the sun by photosynthesizing plants. When we eat plant material, we get a proportion of the energy of which it consists. And then when animals (including us) eat plants, a lot of the energy goes to parts of the animal we can’t consume or gets released as heat. So we lose a lot of the original energy provided by the sun when we rely on animals for food. It makes very little sense for us to get a high proportion of our energy intake from animals. We can provide the necessary caloric intake for all the people of the world much more easily and efficiently on a plant based diet than on an animal based one. Such a high proportion of the grain produced in the US is fed to cattle, the meat of which feeds a much smaller number of people than the grain itself would. I hope all of that makes sense. It seems to me, what with the way the world’s population is projected to grow, that leaning towards a plant based diet is the only way to conceivably continue to feed the world.

 

Joining the Food Revolution

Today I finished two things: my third week at my summer internship, and a game-changing book called The Food Revolution by John Robbins.

As far as the internship goes, I really like it. The office is a perfectly pleasant, air conditioned place to be. I have my own cubicle (tehe). My supervisors are great and I feel like a respected member of the team. I don’t feel intimidated to ask questions, which is a relief for me. I’ve been assessing a bunch of vending machines on city property for compliance with nutrition standards and then entering in the data into a spreadsheet I created. I think I mentioned that it’s not exactly glamorous work, but it’s what needs to be done to make sure that the policy is being implemented correctly. I feel like I’m getting an idea of what it takes to actually enact a measure of city law that might not be the most convenient or cheap for everyone. It is slow going, but it takes these first steps to build up to….

a Food Revolution.

See how I segwayed there? Anyway, if you have taken an interest in what I’ve been writing, then you should ABSOLUTELY read this book.

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And I have been delighted to hear that many of you have liked what I write, so thanks! But also read The Food Revolution. Robbins informatively covers most of the problems of our U.S. food system that I find to be the most pressing, the reasons we need a food revolution:

  • the relationship between the conventional Western diet and obesity and chronic disease
  • the lack of adequate food safety regulations
  • the absolutely horrible ways most of the livestock grown for food are treated
  • the effects of unkind and unhealthy treatment of livestock and our health
  • the consequences of agricultural practices on the environment, natural resources, and climate change
  • the relationship between the current food system and world hunger
  • the need for caution toward and much better regulation of genetic engineering of food (by the way, look out for my next post on GMOs; I’ve been mulling it over for quite a while now)
  • through it all, the lack of regard of food and biotech corporations for the health of people, animals, and the environment

He is very convincing in his argument that we need a drastic upheaval of our current food system towards a more nutritious, sustainable, kind one for humans, animals, and the planet. In other words, the very reason I started this blog. He inserts two opposing quotes about each of the topics he addresses, which juxtaposes the food industry point of view and the scientific point of view very effectively to show that corporations, by design, do not have our best interests at heart. He is also very convincing that one solution that addresses all of those things is for everyone to eat fewer animal products, especially red meat. In fact, the reason I really want you to read it is that he gets across what I think is the most important concept in all of this:

“To me it is deeply moving that the same food choices that give us the best chance to eliminate world hunger are also those that take the least toll on the environment, contribute the most to our long-term health, are the safest, and are also far and away the most compassionate toward our fellow creatures.”

Isn’t that powerful?

Just beware that Robbins might seem a little superior in the way he describes his lifestyle as bare minimum and non-indulgent–he is not shy about revealing that he left a corporate fortune (his dad was co-founder of Baskin-Robbins) to lead a kinder life. He gets a tad lovey-dovey and spiritual but also writes a bit angrily at times. I think it’s warranted when you consider how screwed up things are right now. He certainly fired me up, anyway. The more I read, the more passionate I felt about changing food policy and people’s food choices. My boyfriend, after reading the beginning, thought Robbins was a little radical to expect to win over your average Joe. I didn’t think he was too radical, but I guess I’m a bit biased. 😉

The point is that this book will help you better understand these food issues. I’m really glad you read my blog, and I hope I can provide some conversational and personal insight into issues that you otherwise wouldn’t have been aware of. I like to think I’m a lot more informed than the average consumer, but John Robbins is a dude who knows a lot more than I do about everything about the food system, so give his book a read if you want to learn more. BE INSPIRED, I DARE YOU.

Viva La Chef

In case you were eagerly awaiting the news of my foray into meatless cooking–well, cooking in general really–it went very well! My mom has this vegetarian Italian cookbook. We picked two recipes from there and made a salad for good measure. I think it’s a good Meatless Monday model to have one legume, one grain or potato, and one non-starchy vegetable. I did a lot on my own, but my mom helped to move things along, show me how to cut things, add more oil and broth and spices when needed. I really want to learn how to do this on my own, but she just knows when to add more of things while I just tend follow the recipe to the letter. I did learn how to cut broccoli, how to mince garlic, and how to sauté things in oil. YAY! These are very useful skills. 

The more important thing is that my dad and brother, the usual carnivores, were very satisfied by their meatless meal:

Cannelini beans with tomato, garlic, and sage

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whole wheat spaghetti with broccoli and pecorino cheese

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all served with a caesar salad to start (made with a low cal yogurt based caesar dressing)

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I know those weren’t instagram worthy or anything, but I wanted to show off my handiwork. It was delicious, if I do say so myself. So there–you can have a delicious, healthy, and satisfying meal without any meat and a sparing use of dairy. Next week my dad wants me to make chili, so that’s what you can look forward to! 

Keep in mind that if we all kept Meatless Mondays, we would save the environment from some significant harms due to meat production, and free up a bunch of grain that could be used to feed the hungry. This is besides the health benefits that come from eating less meat, of course. So go forth and veg it up! 

Will you try Meatless Mondays?