Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Return of the Minimalist

Earlier this evening I attended the kickoff event of Seattle Arts & Lectures at Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle.  Last time I was there I was onstage as Bastyr University's grad student commencement speaker, but this time I was in the rear row of the balcony to hear Mark Bittman's talk on "The Future of Food" followed by a Q&A.  In recent years Mr. Bittman has evolved from "The Minimalist" New York Times food and cooking writer into a voice for the food movement. His opinion column has raised important questions about the role of dairy in our diet, supported GMO labeling, and chronicled food pioneers from Maine to California, so I was interested in what he had to say.

Mr. Bittman is an important player in the current conversation around food, if for no other reason than he has a powerful platform upon which he can publish his views. Still, in person he is the least charming of the "food politics trifecta," with Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle far exceeding him in eloquence, likability and in my point of view, expertise. Yet there is something about his brashness, his everyman-ness, his minimalism that makes him more of a voice for the masses than either Pollan or Nestle. He paints a picture of Big Food as the Big Bad Wolf and hails Big Government as the solution. He is optimistic about the potential for an alternative U.S. food landscape - one that relies on small and medium sized farms which employ primarily organic methods to support what will be an increasingly plant-based national diet  - but is comfortable asserting that it will either come about by way of democratic change or post-apocalyptic necessity. He freely admits that little will come of the next farm bill but encourages the audience to think carefully about who they elect to the House and Senate where many of our food battles take place.

It was a safe choice for the inaugural SAL event. Talking about the food movement to forward-thinking, composting, gardening, PCC-shopping, CSA members in Seattle is just about the least risky event imaginable. Though I was surprised at how openly political he was (publicly assuming that the entire audience would be voting for Obama - not unlikely, but still...) I was also surprised by how little he was willing to share. During the Q&A he was asked about his favorite vegetable and what he likes to cook and he seemed openly irritated by these lines of questioning. When the moderator Chip Giller of Grist asked about his transformation from writing recipes to writing about the food system, he insisted that was his interest all along but it was not until recently that he had enough of a following to actually get the Times to give him the space. Though his cooking columns were his bread and butter, and his cookbooks have sold thousands of copies, he was far less interested in talking about those, much to the chagrin of some of the fans present this evening.  At the end of the night I felt like he'd touched upon many issues - from junk food marketing to kids, the obesity "pandemic", farm subsidies for corn, wheat and soy to veganism, food workers right and immigration policies - mostly in a superficial manner, refusing or perhaps unable to bother going deeper into these penetrating questions and uncertainties regarding the future of food in this country and worldwide. To Mr. Bittman's credit he was staying true to his minimalist roots, keeping it simple and straightforward. His take away message was that in addition to doing our part and making food choices that we believe in, we need tighter federal regulations, more public health initiatives and more Democrats in Congress (and of course The White House) to achieve that.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Food & Money

Recently I was teaching a nutrition class to food bank clients and after introducing MyPlate asked them how they meal plan to ensure balanced meals. One client explained that he simply did not have the money to plan out meals in the traditional manner but based his meals around items from the food bank. We then spent some time sharing ideas and clever ways to build easy, affordable and healthy meals around a few staple foods. The exercise was a useful reminder that while some of us can decide exactly what type of meals we want to eat (ie. what am I in the mood for?), others must work with what is available.

The class was still fresh in my mind when I sat down to watch Food Stamped, a documentary about a couple that takes "the food stamp challenge" for a week, spending around $1 per meal while trying to eat healthy, well-balanced meals (read a nice review with great food budgeting tips here). The film features Shira Potash, a nutritionist who teaches cooking classes in low-income neighborhoods, and her filmmaker husband Yoav, who appear to be West Coast liberal Jews (not unlike me) with a preference for locally sourced organic foods. They do their shopping at Berkeley Bowl where they quickly learn some tricks to procuring free food. They hoard free samples, buy in bulk, painstakingly compare prices, forego many of their favorite foods, foray into dumpster diving and generally spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about food. For Yoav, in particular, food is always on the brain. He is never fully satisfied after a meal, and at the end of the project when the couple consults with a dietitian about their week's intake we are told that he has not eaten enough calories. Despite all their efforts and nutrition knowledge, they learn that for food stamps to provide the supplemental nutrition they are intended to requires a great deal of thoughtful planning and savvy shopping. Most people lack either the time or the know-how for such an endeavor.

As if that's not enough of a barrier, today the New York Times published a piece about Michael Bailey, a county health worker trying to improve diet and lifestyle habits among low-income residents of Oklahoma City.

Mr. Bailey argues that poverty is a big barrier to prevention. Hand-to-mouth living and the short-term thinking that often goes with it means many people are shopping at gas station minimarts where junk food is the staple. Exhausted mothers may let their children fend for themselves in such stores with food stamp swipe cards.“If you ask, ‘What would help your health the most?,’ people say, ‘More money,’ ” Mr. Bailey said.

And yet, a recent study shows that low-income families cook most of their meals at home and do not obtain them from fast food joints, as is commonly believed. When Share Our Strength released the findings they emphasized that most families are looking for ways to prepare easy, healthy meals for their families. (In another study last year fast food purchases were found to be more common among middle-income Americans.) Their Cooking Matters program aims to do just that, equipping teens, adults and families with the skills and resources to cook on a budget. (Full disclosure: I volunteer with Cooking Matters.)

Source: Share Our Strength

Emergency food programs like food banks, and supplemental programs like SNAP (food stamps) and WIC provide a tremendous net for many Americans.  While they help reduce hunger and the anxiety of food insecurity, it is only with additional education and training that they can be effective as nutrition and health promotion programs. To revise the old adage: Give a man a meal and he eats for a day. Teach him how to cook healthy meals on a budget and he can reduce his risk of chronic disease and dependence on the healthcare system for a lifetime. Or something like that.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Feel Good Bar

Last week I found myself in the energy bar aisle at the supermarket, faced with the increasingly challenging feat of choosing a good snack. With so many gluten-free, dairy-free options on the market, it's tough to decide which bar is best, considering that so many of them are not only promoting natural, unprocessed ingredients but also the social causes they support. This type of do-good marketing is a popular trend lately as corporate social responsibility is now a way to capture the conscience of consumers who can justify the cost of their purchases by feeling like it includes a contribution to a good cause.

Case in point: TOMS. They sell shoes. Their shoes aren't that great - they provide little to no support and they're not much to look at and yet over the years I've already bought several pairs, spending more money than I believe they are worth. Why? Because TOMS is not a company but a movement, one that donates a pair of shoes for every pair purchased, to a child in need in developing countries. Connecting consumers' spending choices to a larger social good has been a successful aspect of their marketing campaign and has caught on elsewhere too.
Back in the supermarket it was a chocolate banana flavored Two Degrees bar that caught my eye. Featured prominently on the label is the tagline "Is Good: Does Good," offering that "For every bar you buy, we give a meal to a hungry child." Immediately I felt justified in paying close to $2 for this bar over the others, suddenly thinking I would not only be feeding myself but someone else with this purchase. It's the same rationale I remember using when paying over $40 for my first pair of TOMS: my spending was elevated from a selfish act to a magnanimous one. I felt good about buying the bar and it tasted pretty darn good too. I only hoped that the RUTF (Ready to use Therapeutic Food) that was being provided to the beneficiary of my purchase was equally as satisfying.

An impressive infomercial about how Two Degrees bars address malnutrition

Both TOMS and Two Degrees are examples of a growing One-for-One movement where one person can directly impact another's life, in most cases someone in need who lives halfway around the world. But as I think of these business models, they would more aptly be called One-for-Two. Just as with Two Degrees bars, you buy one and feed two so that the double rewards of the purchase (ie. I benefit and so does someone else) empower us to feel good about our spending on multiple levels.  And while I don't believe the long term solution to hunger is in RUTF packets, they do address acute malnutrition and offer opportunities for us to engage in larger global health issues as we go about our daily lives.  Further down the line, it would be exciting to see smartphone apps that can scan items, see their social responsibility track record (in case it's not as clearly evident on the packaging) and encourage more of One-for-One (or as I argue, One-for-Two) model.