Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Is It Safe?

Earlier this week it was hot, hot, hot in Seattle and that put food safety on my brain. As I rode by Super Jock 'N Jill, the temp read 90 degrees, a rarity in these un-air conditioned parts. First thing when I got home I went into the kitchen to save the perishables. After last summer's heat wave, when the wine in my house turned to vinegar, I learned my lesson and stored nut butters, oils and wines in the fridge or basement. Yesterday I did the same, shortly after returning home from observing a cooking class at Lifelong AIDS Alliance, where food safety is a major concern for the those with vulnerable immune systems. Then came the news: 228 million eggs were recalled today due to a salmonella scare.

I've been meaning to write about food safety for a while now. Monday mornings my inbox is regularly flooded with FDA food safety emails. An alarming number of these emails consist are food safety alerts and recalls. Mexican food lovers should beware - apparently salsa and guacamole are linked to many cases of foodborne illness. If you too want to know about the latest recalls, undeclared allergens and foodborne illness, there's an app for that.

Until you suffer through your first bout of food poisoning it's hard to take food safety too seriously. I'd been warned about raw eggs my whole life but never heeded cautions against licking the bowl. Then I watched friends get sick with salmonella after tasting bad brownie batter. Raw fish didn't phase me until one fateful night when it did, leaving me bedridden for three days. And even though I started to take food safety a bit more seriously, I would still only think about it in the context of raw animal products. Then the news reports began: contaminated spinach, peanuts and tomatoes, causing people to eliminate these from their diets entirely. As though vegetables needed any more bad press.

I started to understand a bit better when, earlier in the spring, I was working on a project about broccoli sprouts for my Bioactive Compounds class and encountered all forms of warnings about the safety of eating sprouts. Why sprouts? Not because there's anything inherently unsafe about them - in fact, they pack an especially strong nutritional punch - the seeds, grains and legume have to be cared for when they are soaked, rinsed, sprouted for the couple of days it takes to grow them and they can become moldy. The real issue is seed contamination, so that if you have a reliable seed source and sprout your own seeds, and take the necessary precautions, there should be minimal risk.

Food safety is a huge issue. If you've seen Food, Inc. you know there are so many deaths linked to foodborne illness. The infamous incident featured in the documentary took place right in my neighborhood. Four people and died and hundreds were sick after eating tainted food at a Seattle Jack in the Box, a fact that makes me cringe every time I drive by any of the fast food chain's locations.

Last week, this CDC Report was released, focusing on the instances of foodborne illness outbreaks from 2007. So how does this help me in 2010? It may not, but it may increase your awareness about the risks that are out there. Sure, you've heard it before - it's ideal to know where food is coming from. This is not just because this will connect you to the land, to your grower, to the natural world in some spiritual way, but because in a very practical way it means that when press releases announce a tainted crop of tomatoes, spinach or peanuts, you will know whether or not it will impact you. I would also guess that when you know exactly where your food comes from, you know who is accountable and how the food is produced, you're less likely to have to worry.

Here's a link to the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition's tips for food safety at the farmer's market.

Eat safe!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mother Nature, Mother Goose

Now that the sun has returned to Seattle I am obliged to take advantage of mother nature's gift, rather than sit in front of my computer. But while I was thinking about yesterday's post about the rising obesity rates in America, my attention was redirected to the current issue of malnutrition in India. The irony of course is that there is enough food to feed everyone on the planet but the uneven distribution through corruption and politics has led to overnutrition for some and undernutrition for others. If I were a cartoonist I would borrow Mother Goose's nursery rhyme and illustrate it like this:

Jack Sprat could eat no fat
His wife could eat no lean
And so betwixt the two of them
They licked the platter clean.

Oh, that food justice were so simple!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Drowning in Statistics

Just one week ago The New York Times featured a piece on the continued rise of obesity in America. The article reports that more than 1 in 4 Americans was obese in 2009, with obesity rates of 30% or greater in nine states, all in the South. Furthermore, it is likely these numbers are underestimates since research was conducted via phone surveys, and people tend to believe and report that they weigh less than they actually do. The concern seems to be that programs and measures intended to curb this trend are inadequate and failing.

We've heard it all before - Americans are getting fatter, and faster than originally thought. Still, I was amazed when I was in my parents' home last month and rummaging through my old closet and came across a paper I'd written my sophomore year of college on - you guessed it - the rise of obesity in America. Back then I had not even declared a major yet, but was dabbling in cultural studies, everything from film to Jewish studies to philosophy to sociology. I was enrolled in an honors program that required me to take a writing-intensive science class in the spring, where we had to write a 20-page paper and make an hour-long Powerpoint presentation on a current issue in the science arena. Fellow classmates chose the environment and the genome and I chose obesity. This was nearly ten years ago, and emerging data compiled from the late nineties by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) was already triggering alarm bells among public health officials, so that the NIH released a guide for treating overweight and obesity.

Back in 2001, as now, I learned there were various hypotheses attributing the causes of obesity to everything from genetics and biological factors to behavioral, economic, social and political ones. It was while researching the topic that I first read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation with both horror and fascination. The rise of the fast food chain coincided with the influx of women to the workplace, the decline of physical activity and the increase in obesity.

The role of the media is no less significant in this picture. Movies, television shows and magazines still project images of unrealistically skinny woman as the prototypes for beauty. While there has been a modicum of backlash in recent years, most notably through Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, the iconic beauties in our culture are predominantly tall, thin and modelesque and fail to represent any sort of achievable norm. Still, in a perverse way, one might think that the persistence of skinny as beautiful in our society would encourage people to lose weight. Instead, it fosters a culture of inadequacy and depression, and fuels a multi-billion dollar weight-loss industry (in 2008 the number was $40 billion).

Public health officials want people to lose weight in order to be healthier, as obesity related diseases and medical costs are growing concerns, especially in hard economic times. And many people want to lose weight, but are motivated by slightly different goals, largely cosmetic in nature. With diet books like The Belly Fat Cure and Skinny Bitch reigning on bestseller lists we are a nation obsessed with weight and appearance. I'm reminded of the line that opened every episode of the dark and twisted FX drama about plastic surgeons, Nip/Tuck: "Tell me what you don't like about yourself", a question that reeks of self-loathing.

I've painted a fairly grim picture of the situation but I'm not really all that cynical. In the face of overwhelming statistics about obesity, each person has the ability to make a tiny dent in shifting these trends by refusing to become another number. These dents will come in the forms of daily personal decisions about what we eat, ways we spend our time and how we move our bodies. And it only takes a small but committed change (what Lewis Pugh, in talking about climate change, might call "a radical tactical shift") to make a (statistically significant) difference in the long run. All that is lacking then is the education, awareness and inspiration to enact those changes. In studying nutrition I hope to help out with the education and awareness. And when I need help with the inspiration part I know I can rely on TED.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

If Not Now, When?

A few months ago my housemate noticed that part of our ceiling was cracking in a disturbing way. We notified our landlord who hired a contractor to fix, what turned out to be, a leaky roof. The contractor said he needed to wait until the rain ceased so he could begin the work. The rains ceased on July 5 but it wasn't until yesterday that the contractor came back to look at the house and set up a time to repair the damage. Early next week, he said.

It started raining again today.

I use this story to illustrate a point that can be hammered home in so many ways. Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today. It's a lesson I need to hear more often. A lesson I learn too often. A lesson reinforced today by the rotten fava beans I found in the back of my fridge, the ones I had gotten from my CSA 2 weeks ago, the ones I was sure I would use to make foul. By the potatoes I found shriveled up in the drawer. By the now softened carrots I had once been so excited to dip into freshly made peanut butter.

For me, the past month has been full of conditional statements. "I'll finally have time, once I..." Once I'm in New York. Once I get back from New York. Once I get back from camping. Once I finish unpacking. Once my housemate moves out. Once I find new housemates. The list goes on and on. Life is busy. Once and again, time flies.

But thanks to Congress, one of the unexpected ways I've been able to measure the passage of time this summer has been through the upcoming deadline for the re-authorization of the Child Nutrition Act on September 30th. Incidentally that marks my first week of classes, the first week I will resume formal study of nutrition after a much-needed summer hiatus. Hopefully by then, Congress will have passed a new bill promising more funding to improve programs like the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs through farm-to-school and other programs that will boost the quality of food provided. It will be the first time Congress increases funding for child nutrition since 1973. This past week the Senate took the first step by unanimously passing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act at the urging of some pretty powerful people. Now it's time for the House to finish the job by voting on the Improving Nutrition for America's Children Act. Chances are this won't happen before the summer recess which begins next week. But if we nudge our congressmen enough, they might just be counting down their vacation days as I am.

In the meantime, I am taking advantage of a rainy summer day by cooking and preparing this week's CSA veggies in time to enjoy their fresh, straight-from-the-earth flavors and colors before they are forgotten and pushed to the back of the fridge. I am returning to my blog once again, ignoring the excuses and distractions that keep me saving for later all the points I would like to address today. And I am making a list of all the things I still hope to accomplish this summer so that when I start school the last week in September, it is filled with that sweet feeling of a summer well-lived so that I am ready to tackle the nutritional challenges of the year ahead, with a new Child Nutrition Act signed into law.