Measured against the Dietary Guidelines recommendations, two recent ERS studies find that consumers are underspending on vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and low-fat dairy and overspending on refined grains, fats, sweets, and convenience foods in the grocery store. Food choices when eating away from home are even more of a nutritional concern. Policies that promote healthy foods and make them easier to identify on store shelves and in restaurants may expand both demand for and supply of healthy food options.
This put me in mind of a number of recent articles and a debate from last year.
Most recently NPR did a piece on how NAFTA impacted American’s eating habits.
Walk through the produce section of your supermarket and you’ll see things you’d never have seen years ago — like fresh raspberries or green beans in the dead of winter. Much of that produce comes from Mexico, and it’s the result of the North American Free Trade Agreement — NAFTA — which took effect 20 years ago this month.
. . . Of course, for consumers fully committed to buying local, that also means buying only what’s in season.
“I don’t have much fruit in the winter — bluntly,” says Joan Gussow, a nutritionist and author who has been the “matriarch of the eat-locally-think-globally food movement.”
Gussow eats mostly dried fruit in winter and whatever vegetables grow near her home in New York’s Hudson Valley. By selling fruits and vegetables bred to travel long distances, she says, NAFTA has helped train people to value convenience over flavor.
“It’s meant that people don’t know anything about where their food comes from, and they don’t know anything about seasons,” Gussow says. “And so they really have settled — as they have with tomatoes — for something that is really like a giant orange golf ball.”
Jaime Chamberlain disagrees. He says the produce industry has made great strides in packaging and shipping more flavorful fruits and vegetables from Mexico. Don’t knock availability — celebrate it, he says.
“We should be teaching our children that nowadays, you’re able to enjoy strawberries even though you’re in the dead of winter in January,” he says.
I have loads of respect for Joan Dye Gussow (and her books on my bookshelves), but given the gap between what we should be eating and what we are eating it’s hard for me to be too critical of anything that makes fresh produce more available and more affordable.
One weaknesses I see in food movement (everywhere, really) is the tendency of people to universalize their own strengths, values, temperament, experience, etc. It’s nice that Joan Gussow can put gardening and cooking at the center of her priorities. That isn’t so easy for others.
In theory, farmers should be poster children for the locavore movement. They have fridges and fields (or home gardens, in the case of some larger farms) stuffed with gorgeous produce. But such proximity to local food does not automatically translate to the plate. The evidence is perhaps most extreme in California’s Central Valley, where a startling 80 percent of farm laborers – many of whom are recent immigrants living in low-income communities – are obese. But the disconnect impacts farmers of all kinds.
. . . Rachel Kaplan, 35, of Powisset Farm, a CSA farm in Massachusetts, shares a similar sentiment. “At the height of the season, it is a feat in and of itself to sustain the energy to work let alone come home and start preparing food.” Even more to the point, she adds: “A lot of the times cooking comes at the expense of sleep.”
Nick Hagen, 28, a fifth-generation farmer at Hagen Farm in North Dakota, says eating in the fields also poses logistical challenges. “Throughout our wheat or sugar beet harvests, there is no time to stop for lunch. I typically have one hand on the tractor’s steering wheel all day, and fish around in my lunch box with the other.” Hagen ends up eating a lot of one-palm foods like peeled hardboiled eggs and plain beans packaged in a container he can “hold and almost drink.” Apples are in; oranges, which need to be peeled, are out. “I can occasionally manage a banana,” he said.
Hagen, who has a gluten intolerance that forces him to be creative about his in-field meals, manages to eat fairly healthily, if not excitingly. But for many farmers, this lack of time translates into less-than-ideal food choices. “You see a lot of running to the gas station for chips, soda and coffee, which helps farmers stay awake during the crazy hours,” Hagen says.
Bryan Austin, 53 of Dover Farm in Massachusetts, agrees. “Our bodies need energy and modern foods like potato chips (fat), coffee (caffeine) and cakes (glucose) give instant energy,” he says. “Last year, I ate store muffins for breakfast, drank three cups of coffee a day and always had some candy as a snack – awful!” Bryn Bird, 29, a second-generation farmer at Bird’s Haven Farms in Ohio, says, “The summer is the most unhealthy time for most of the farmers I am social with,” she said. “My family lives on pizza all summer.”
So much for the virtues of growing your own food. Farmers working long, frantic hours can’t find the time to cook, never mind such foodie pastimes as pickling and canning. How can we expect our high achieving professional friends or two job juggling low income friends to find the time to do well planned grocery shopping, to cook, to do dishes, clean the kitchen and manage the composting produce in their crisper drawers?
I love cooking. I get great pleasure from it. I love teaching people to cook. I happen to have an amateur interest in nutrition. But I can’t and don’t expect my priorities and pleasures to be universal. I certainly don’t expect anyone to extrapolate public health policy from the idiosyncrasies of my priorities and pleasures.
That’s why last summer’s essay by David Freedman “How Junk Food Can End Obesity” was such a missed opportunity. The piece inspired a ton of conversation, almost none of it was particularly productive.
The problems with Freedman’s piece were legion.
The linkbait headline inspired a counter headline, “Bunk About Junk Food“, from David Katz MD that implied that he had a major bone to pick. He didn’t. Swapping the phrase “Convenience Food” for “Junk Food” would have likely settled the matter for Katz. Freedman has an anachronistic fear of fat that completely sidetracked Tom Philpott’s critique. Meanwhile, Philpott’s agreement with the central premise was buried at the end and only briefly mentioned. Freedman took his contrarianism to absurd levels. He claimed that Pollanites are hurting Big Food’s efforts to market better options by not pitching in and BUYING those products. He set up a ridiculous straw man by conflating Pollanism with the most brain dead, consumerist products sold by Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. That inspired a well deserved, but counter productive backlash.
Stripped down to it’s essentials, Freedman’s case is hard to argue against. Katz characterizes Freedman’s hypothesis this way: “We can improve diet and health using the very foods we already know and love.” I would put it another. Do you believe that lowering the sugar, refined carbs, while increasing the fiber and nutrients by significant levels in convenience and fast foods could move the needle on health outcomes for Americans? This is the essence of what makes a successful public health intervention. Small, impactful, widely adopted changes. Emphasis on widely adopted.
Here is Katz:
We can, indeed, have better chips. We can have better cookies, crackers, cereals, and pasta sauces. If they are only a tiny bit better, it won’t matter much. But if they are meaningfully better, the net effect across the expanse of food choices we make can add up to something very meaningful indeed — including, as noted, a much reduced risk for obesity, chronic disease, or premature death. This, I think, is what Mr. Freedman meant to say.
This is where I see a beautiful opportunity in the place of potentially ugly and unproductive discord. We will always eat. Unlike tobacco companies, which can disappear entirely, food companies of one kind or another are here to stay. And so they will either be part of the solution, or part of the problem.
Mr. Freedman is saying — and I agree — that they can be part of the solution by providing us better choices. But for that to matter, they will need to be truly better choices — not another bait-and-fake. We’ve had more than enough of products that boast of some nutritional virtue on the front, while revealing the far homelier whole truth only in fine print.
Here is Philpott:
I don’t object to a kinder, gentler form of corporate fast food—I would applaud the the industry if it made a serious push to ditch its old “supersize” profit model and promote less caloric foods.
But Philpott can’t help but continue:
But the fact remains that highly processed diets have a history of ruining people’s health, and “real food” diets have the opposite track record. They may yet prove to be the best strategy we have for addressing our mounting diet-related health troubles. And hey, real food can be pretty convenient, too—check out Bittman’s old Minimalist column. And fast food itself has a history that long predates its takeover by corporations.
I don’t disagree with this so much as groan at the predictability of the sentiment and its irrelevance for people who don’t need more recipes. They need better frozen dinners, grab and go meals and better burgers.
Sadly, Freedman’s contrarianism meant that much was written about what he got wrong. People barely touched on what he got right. Instead of extending the conversation he was trying to start, it became all about the fights he had picked. Unsurprisingly, when Mark Bittman came back with approving reports of new and improved fast food, he didn’t catch nearly as much grief. Part of that was being a member of the tribe in good standing, but good manners help.
Where to go with the problem Freedman poses? Let’s come back to the chart that we started with. Aside from our out of control sugar consumption, the biggest problems the chart shows are how few vegetables we are eating, followed by the sugar we are over eating.
Convenience and fast foods are a less than ideal vehicle for increasing vegetable consumption. Frozen dinners aren’t so hard, but the central issue is grab and go foods. What I would love to see are whole grain, veggie packed ploughman’s pies; chickpea flour, veggie samosas; multigrain grilled vegetable burritos; and footlong grilled veggie sandwiches on hearty rolls. It’s not that hard to pile vegetables on a whole grain pizza and garnish it with a healthy dusting of chopped herbs and arugula. Meanwhile Bittman has pointed the way towards a pretty damn good black bean burger that sneaks some mushrooms into the mix.
This Thanksgiving, Be More Grateful than Wasteful
Dana Gunders | Switchboard | NRDC | November 13, 2013
Nationwide, consumers will purchase around 736 million pounds of turkey this Thanksgiving, of which about 581 million pounds will be actual meat. The USDA reports that 35% of perfectly good turkey meat in the U.S. does not get eaten after it is purchased by consumers (and that’s not including bones). This compares with only 15% for chicken. Why is so much more turkey wasted than chicken? “Possibly because turkey is more often eaten during holidays when consumers may tend to discard relatively more uneaten food than on other days,” the USDA writes.
And unless we take action to prove the USDA wrong, we’ll be throwing away about 204 million pounds of that meat and about 1 million tons of CO2 and 105 billion gallons of water with it. Per pound, the resources needed to produce that turkey are equivalent to driving your car 11 miles and taking a 130-minute shower (at 4 gallons/minute).* The price tag on that nationwide will be $282 million, according to prices from the Farm Bureau’s annual Thanksgiving price survey. And that’s to say nothing of the vast amounts of antibiotics used to produce turkey meat, leading to antibiotic resistance, which you can read more about here.
This T-Day, Buy Less Than You Think
Dana Gunders | The Switchboard | NRDC | November 20, 2013
Here’s a hint: Buy less than you think. If you’re hosting anything like the average Thanksgiving dinner for ten, almost a third of that dinner will go to waste this year.
In fact, across the nation, about 204 million pounds of turkey will get thrown away over this Thanksgiving. This costs us money – about $277 million as a nation – and is a waste of all the resources it took to get that turkey to our table. Resources for which, in theory, we are supposed to be celebrating on this exact holiday!
How many resources? Depending on which estimate you use, that amount of discarded turkey required over 100 billion gallons of water – enough to supply New York City for 100 days — and created somewhere between 230,000 – 1 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions.
And it’s not just turkey. If we apply the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates of how much food is never eaten to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual informal survey of the cost of Thanksgiving dinner, here’s a tally of what actually gets wasted over the average Thanksgiving dinner for ten:
This Thanksgiving, Shop Smart: Buy a Turkey Raised Without Antibiotics
Sasha Lyutse | Civil Eats | November 22, 2013
This Thanksgiving, you can do your part to support farmers who are keeping antibiotics working for people by shopping smart. By choosing USDA Organic or turkey sold under a “No Antibiotics Administered” label, consumers can reward turkey farmers who are using best practices. Under the organic standard, meat producers are not allowed to use antibiotics, with some exceptions. The “No antibiotics administered” or similar labels, such as “No antibiotics ever” are regulated by USDA but are not verified. These claims are more reliable if they are coupled with a “USDA Process Verified” seal. Also consider other labels, such as “animal welfare approved” and “certified humane,” which mean that antibiotics were only used to treat sick animals.
But shoppers beware: “All Natural” has nothing to do with how an animal is raised.
USDA plan to speed up poultry-processing lines could increase risk of bird abuse
Kimberly Kindy | The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Nearly 1 million chickens and turkeys are unintentionally boiled alive each year in U.S. slaughterhouses, often because fast-moving lines fail to kill the birds before they are dropped into scalding water, Agriculture Department records show.
Now the USDA is finalizing a proposal that will allow poultry companies to accelerate their processing lines, with the aim of removing pathogens from the food supply and making plants more efficient. But that would also make the problem of inhumane treatment worse, according to government inspectors and experts in poultry slaughter.
What’s for Thanksgiving? Hopefully Not More Crippling Pain for Poultry Workers
Rena Steinzor | The Huffington Post | November 26, 2013
Thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), ever the mindless booster of corporate profits, that turkey at the center of the table already disappoints both expectations, and if USDA has its way, matters are about to get much worse. Hiding behind disingenuous promises to “modernize” the food safety system, USDA has decided to pull federal food inspectors off the line at poultry processing plants across the nation. No new preventative measures to ensure that poultry is free of salmonella would happen. And already crowded, bloody, stinking lines would speed up dramatically — to as many as 175 birds per minute, or three birds/second. Workers who suffer grave ergonomic injuries from the repetitive motions of hanging, cutting, and packing the birds would endure conditions that are two or three times worse than the status quo.
Sen. Tester asks USDA to postpone plans to finalize poultry inspection program
Kimberly Kindy | The Washington Post | November 12, 2013
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester wrote to the USDA secretary last week, asking that he postpone plans to finalize a new poultry inspection program, saying to move forward now is “misguided and premature.”
Tester (D-Mont.) also asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to suspend agreements with foreign countries that are now allowed to use the alternative inspection program for meat they import into the United States. Millions of pounds of contaminated meat from plants using the system were either recalled or rejected by USDA inspectors over the past two years.
Is The Butterball Turkey Shortage For Real?
Tom Philpott | Mother Jones | November 20, 2013
Butterball is vague about the reasons for the shortage, citing only a “decline in weight gains on some of our farms.” In other words, the turkeys that Butterball’s contract farmers raise aren’t growing as quickly as expected.
Let’s talk turkey! Tom Philpott will be holding a live Twitter chat the Thursday before Thanksgiving—look him up at @TomPhilpott starting at 3:00 p.m. Eastern, November 21. Ask him anything—from cooking tips (two words: dry brine) to the latest dirt on industrial turkey.
This is odd. If there’s one thing the modern poultry industry has mastered, it’s fattening millions of fowl extremely quickly. And turkeys have been getting bigger and bigger for decades. “[T]urkeys have increased in average weight annually for at least the past 40 years,” the US Department of Agriculture revealed in a 2005 report. The USDA added that the average weight of a turkey at slaughter jumped from 18 pounds in 1965 to an enormous 28.2 pounds in 2005—a 57 percent increase. By 2012, the average had inched up to a hefty 29.8 pounds. This is not an industry that’s typically plagued by size issues.
Illinois farmers put the pumpkin in your Thanksgiving pie
Peter Grey | Harvest Public Media | November 26, 2013
Why is Illinois the pumpkin state? Mostly because Libby’s brand is the canned pumpkin king. The company is owned by Nestlé and says 8 of every ten cans of pumpkin sold last year was Libby’s.
So it comes down to fertile pumpkin soil – and gravity.
“Pumpkins are heavy and, of course, expensive to transport.” said Roz O’Hearn, with Nestlé’s prepared foods division. “We have tested growing pumpkin in other areas, and we just find the Morton pumpkin just to be perfect for our purposes.”
In Vermont, A Wild Game Church Supper Feeds The Multitudes
Charlotte Albright | The Salt | NPR | November 26, 2013
The colonists supplied the fowl, including, possibly, duck, geese, and turkey.
Diners head into the Bradford United Church of Christ before the start of this year’s Wild Game Supper. Food writer Calvin Trillin has dubbed the event “the superbowl of church suppers.”
A pretty tame menu, actually, compared to the venison, bear, moose, rabbit, pheasant, buffalo, and boar served up at an annual event in Bradford, Vt., that food writer Calvin Trillin has called “.”
For almost 60 years, adventuresome carnivores from all over New England have lined up outside the white-steepled United Church of Christ in the center of this close-knit hamlet along the Connecticut River. A couple of decades ago, volunteers fed 1,200 people in one day, but that proved unworkable, so now seats, reserved well in advance, are capped at 800 for $25 a plate. Proceeds benefit the church’s capital fund, and charity.
Holiday Classic Dishes: Braised & Roast Turkey
Michael Ruhlman | Ruhlman.com
My view is why mess with what works? For important occasions, the rule is: go with what works. And of all my years roasting a turkey, I’ve found that the braise/roast method works best, as I wrote last year.
The reason is that this method solves the two great Turkey Conundrums: 1) how to have both juicy breast meat and tender dark meat, and 2) how to serve it all hot to a lot of people.
Answer: the roast/braise method.
Three years ago, I was chatting with my neighbor, the excellent chef Doug Katz (Fire Food & Drink), and he described how he cooks the turkey in stock up to the drumstick so that the legs braise while the breast and skin cook in dry heat. Last year I tried it and it works brilliantly.
[My twist on this is to separate the legs and thighs from the breast and wings. This makes it easier to fit into a container to brine, but more strategically, it allows me to give the dark meat a 45 minute head start in the mire poix and braising liquid. At the 45 minute mark I put my buttered and season breasts right on top with a loose foil cover. 30 minutes before it’s done I take the foil off to brown the skin. Best turkey off my life and one of the most complimented meals I’ve ever served.]
Cranberry Sauce and Thanksgiving Gravy
When Thanksgiving Meant a Fancy Night Out on the Town
John Hanc | Food and Think | Smithsonian
A few years back, when she was the director and librarian of the Pilgrim Hall Museum, Peggy Baker came across a fascinating document at a rare book and ephemera sale in Hartford, Connecticut. It was a four-course menu for a luxurious dinner at the Hotel Vendome in Boston for November 29, 1894 – Thanksgiving.
Appetizers consisted of Blue Point oysters or oyster crabs in béarnaise sauce. The soup is consumee Marie Stuart, with carrots and turnips; or, a real delicacy, terrapin a la gastronome (that’s turtle soup to you).
The choice of entrees included mousee de foie graise with cauliflower au gratin, prime ribs with Yorkshire pudding, Peking Duck with onions and squash and…a nod to the traditionalists…roasted turkey with cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes.
Then, salad—at the end of the meal, as they do in Europe—followed by a plethora of desserts: Petit fours, plum pudding with maple brandy sauce, Neapolitan ice cream; mince, apple and pumpkin pie, and almond cake with maple frosting. To round out the meal, coffee or sweet cider with assorted cheeses and nuts.
Baker’s discovery of this belt-busting tour de force sent her on a mission to shed light back on a long forgotten chapter of the history of this holiday; a time when wealthy Americans celebrated their Thanksgivings not in the confines of the home with family, but at fancy hotels and restaurants, with extravagant, haute cuisine dinners and entertainments.
“I was thoroughly entranced, having no idea any such thing existed,” recalls Baker. She began collecting similar bills of fare from other establishments, in other cities.
“It was like an anthropological expedition to a different culture,” recalls Baker, “I wasn’t aware people dined out as a regular annual event for Thanksgiving. It was just so foreign to me.”