Sunday, February 10, 2013

Spoiled Milk

Since the start of the school year I've been working part-time as a nutrition educator funded by the SNAP-Ed program. SNAP-Ed is the educational arm of the food stamp program, providing nutrition education to those who receive SNAP benefits. In addition to providing programming and resources in food banks and other adult ed venues it extends to schools as well, with school eligibility determined by the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches (a direct reflection of household the income levels, whether or they are actually SNAP recipients). This was not my first foray into federal nutrition programs, after all, I worked with the National School Lunch Program and WIC during my dietetic internship, but last month was the first time I felt the direct impact of Washington decision-making on my daily life.

Remember the fiscal cliff? The term which permeated the media around the new year has since been supplanted by the dreaded sequester.  Somehow amidst the frenzy I missed reports on the last minute measures that were taken by Congress to avoid the cliff, which it turned out would affect my work. The greater fiscal cliff actually contained several mini cliffs, including "the dairy cliff," described in this news byte:

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In addition to all budgetary concerns, our nation was on the brink of a 100% + milk price hike. As 2012 drew to an end and the 2008 Farm Bill was about to expire without the passage of a new one, Senate and House agriculture chairs and committees worked to successfully pass a nine month extension. The resulting bill provided little reform but did address the milk price debacle. Civil Eats reported:
The so-called “dairy cliff” that could have seen milk prices rise to $7 per gallon because of an automatic reversion to a 1949 government price protection system was averted, but not in a way that support the actual dairy producers.  Instead of using the language from the Dairy Security Act that was brought up earlier this year, the bill merely extended the current Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program that stabilizes prices while benefiting milk processors.  

How was the MILC extension funded? By unexpectedly slashing the 2013 SNAP-Ed budget by $110 million.  I learned this when I returned to work following winter break and found that the unexpected cuts to this year's budget reduce the number of hours I can teach and the amount of time I can put into collaborating with school staff around nutrition education. While this presents an immediate challenge to my state of employment, the real losers here are the SNAP eligible who are now denied nutrition education. The Public Health Institute issued this statement in response to the cuts:

“SNAP-Ed helps low-income Americans make healthy choices on a limited budget, reduces their risk of chronic disease and obesity, and optimizes the economic and nutritional value of SNAP benefits. SNAP-Ed programming has proven that investment in nutrition education can enable SNAP to effectively address the dual challenges of improving nutrition and food security among low-income populations. This funding cut to the program undermines and weakens a critical component of our nationwide efforts to promote healthy eating and prevent chronic disease just as investments to prevent obesity and promote healthy eating are beginning to show results.

So milk prices will remain artificially low for consumers and oddly, dairy farmers barely benefit from this deal. The government is heavily invested in dairy prices and the MILC program provides a safety net for farmers when milk prices dip too low or cost of feed rises too high (as it has this year due to the drought). But at what cost?

When considering this situation it's hard not to ponder the role of dairy in our national consciousness.  Dairy has long warranted its own food group, justified its high calcium content rather anything inherently "dairy" about it despite the fact that milk remains one of the eight most common allergens and causes digestive complications in the 40 million Americans who are lactose intolerant.  True, it is fortified with vitamins A & D and is a staple in the American diet but it has fought to remain that way through effective marketing strategies. The dairy industry benefits from many federal nutrition programs, including the NSLP and WIC programs. The dairy council, at least in Washington State, is closely tied with SNAP-Ed and positions itself to partner with schools by creating nutrition education materials and offers a free $20 allotment to anyone teaching nutrition. It even uses the domain name which is conveniently similar to - the official website of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. How is it that the dairy council has positioned itself as a nutrition authority, telling the public how to eat?

While it's true that I don't consume dairy products, I am not entirely opposed to it. But I do think dairy's role in the American diet is highly problematic for the reasons mentioned and for many more. When dairy farmers are struggling and the high price of milk costs our nation its nutrition education and disease prevention programs, it's time to rethink our model. Hopefully the 2013 Farm Bill will allow for some much-needed reform. We have until seven and a half more months to figure it out.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Philly + Farming + Fracking +Food = FNCE

Last week I flew to Philly for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' annual Food & Nutrition conference & Expo (FNCE).  After following the conference on Twitter last year I was excited to see if all the buzz was genuine or critical hype. I had to see it for myself.

The opportunity to attend FNCE presented itself when I took on the role of co-editor of the member newsletter of the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group (HEN DPG). I'd joined HEN after hearing many of the dietitians I admire rave about it, and with a focus on sustainable and accessible food and water systems, it is one of a few groups of dietitians who practice with the larger intention of creating a more just and equitable food system based on the belief that healthy soil produces healthy food which nourishes healthy people (a syllogism I borrowed from J.I. Rodale).

As a newly registered dietitian, I felt like a bit of a phony joining a leadership team and attending a conference with thousands of professionals who have far more experience. But from the moment I boarded the plane in Seattle I knew I was in for a treat. As I waited at the gate I looked around at the other passengers. It was clear that many others were dietitians too. So I wasn't surprised when the woman seated next to me on the place opened a folder with the conference logo on it. I mentioned that I too was headed to FNCE and we began to chat. She and her husband were heading there together, as they did nearly every year. We became quick friends and decided to make our way together from the airport to the city center. I was mortified when, aboard the train I realized I had no cash on me. But when the conductor came around my new friends paid my $7 fare. I was touched by their generosity. "Pay it forward," they told me. Still, I mailed them back their money earlier today.

And so it continued. On my first night in town I met the HEN leadership team I'd been corresponding with via email and conference calls and I was invited into their inner circle. It was an amazing experience to meet and speak with dietitians whose work I'd admired for years. Voices were familiar from podcasts and interviews and lectures I'd heard in the past. While I was clearly the new girl on the block I was welcomed as though I belonged and I marveled at the generosity of my colleagues. Later, as I tried to explain the feeling to my mother I remembered an incident that I hadn't thought about in over twenty-five years. When I was in kindergarten I boarded the school bus at the very last stop and could not find an available seat. I walked further and further along and could feel the lump forming in my throat as I searched for a place to sit. When I reached the back of the bus a group of eighth graders saw me and snatched me up. They must have seen my distress or thought I cute and they squeezed me in on the seat between them. For the rest of the school year I never had to worry about finding a seat. I knew the older kids had my back. FNCE was like that for me, only the support of the HEN members extends well beyond the conference.

In the various sessions I attended I heard dietitians speak about the inspirational work they are doing in their communities. I spent hours in the evenings debriefing with intelligent, civic-minded RDs about the field, the Academy and the future of our profession. I visited the Rodale Institute and an organic dairy farm. I attended a film "feastival" where I learned about the horrors of fracking (truly frightening! educate yourself!) and a non-GMO event in support of CA proposition 37.  At a breakfast one morning honoring leaders in integrative and functional nutrition I had the chance to thank the dietitian who had inspired me to study nutrition five years ago. Life had come full circle.

And finally, the expo did not disappoint. (Well, actually it did!)  I tried samples of more gluten-free items than I ever could have imagined and took pictures of the infamous booths of industry adversaries whose sponsorship undermines the work of dietitians everywhere. Had I not gone to into the expo I might now have believed all the critics who said that industry had infiltrated the profession. But then there was the program, with its alarming number of industry sponsored presentations and research. While I chose to spend most of my time in the sessions that appealed to me, I enjoyed following the live-tweeting of dietitians who were vocal in their criticism of these obscenities. (Three sessions sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association? Really?)

I left FNCE knowing that there's a growing movement within dietetics that is trying to shift the internal and external focus of our field, to empower communities to take charge of their health and the health of the planet. I was inspired by their work and honored to be considered a colleague. Looking forward to Houston next year! A line I never thought I would utter...

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. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hunger Pangs

With this past weekend's release of The Hunger Games DVD, it seemed not entirely inappropriate to discuss the movie on a blog centered of all things food.  Over the past few months I have peppered my summer reading with The Hunger Games trilogy, mistakenly believing it was light fare. These highly engrossing page turners are anything but light. They provide a sort of post-apocalyptic look at a fragmented society divided into distinct districts that are enslaved to a gluttonous and frivolous group of wealthy rulers in the Capitol who amuse themselves with a televised fight-to-the-death competition of peasant children of Panem each year. It's Shirley Jackson meets Cormac McCarthy meets the Olympics. Though written for an adolescent audience the books have become bestsellers amongst kids and adults alike and as all bestsellers do, they spawned a movie franchise as well. At the forefront is protagonist Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl who cleverly survives the Games and sparks a rebellion while sharing her every thought and conflicted feeling about her deceased father, her innocent younger sister, her broken healer mother and her two love interests with readers.

I made a point to read the entire series before seeing the movie, lest my mental images be corrupted by someone else's casting and style decisions. I was glad I did, not only for this reason, but because the film is less tightly framed around Katniss's character development and emotional experience. And also, because it proves once again that Hollywood can take a subversive novel and turn it into eye candy.

It’s hard to resist looking at the parallels between the alternate world of Panem and the reality we inhabit today. The all-pervasive media, the competitive reality-television, the fabrication of images through highly stylized fashion, interviews and back-story and the obsession with power, money and material goods is something that one needn't look to fantasy literature or the movies to find. The concept of hunger, an issue worldwide and in this country as well (where 1 in 6 Americans is food insecure) is explored far more thoroughly in the books than onscreen, and while The Hunger Games  movie is promoting the anti-hunger work of partnering agencies Feeding American and the World Food Programme, it doesn't make clear what the causes of hunger are (the organizations' sites and bonus materials do). The social inequities that keep the rich well-fed and the poor starving with government mandates of monoculture-type local economies was evenly conveyed in the books and could have provided a more interesting and compelling visual narrative. Instead, the movie succumbed to the very same tendency the book rails against by favoring style over substance, image over content. 

The Hunger Games provides a great opportunity to engage audiences in a dialogue about media literacy. What is the veracity of images conveyed to us? Whose hidden agenda controls those images? What agency do we have as viewers to change the types of images we are fed and expose the power players who work to promote the status quo?  It's a worthwhile exercise to ask young adults (or anyone, really) who read the book about their impressions of the film. What were some of the differences? What was left out of the film and why? Why were these choices made by the screenwriter/director/producer/studio and what can we learn about the role of media in shaping our social consciousness? Critical takes on popular works are some of the most potent and exciting way to  take a mediocre work and elevate it to an important classic while promoting our engagement as active viewers. Watching The Hunger Games left me hungry for this type of discussion. It may not have started yet, but there's always the sequel...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mastering the Art of Cooking

When I moved to Seattle I was determined to learn how to cook. Sure I already knew how to bake salmon, boil pasta and roast vegetables, but I wasn't comfortable in the kitchen, didn't speak the language of cookbooks (braise? blanch? julienne? chiffonade?), didn't own the right appliances (food processor? immersion blender?) and was terrified of dried beans. I remember confessing this to the man was not yet dating but would later marry. I had just burned another pot and ruined an entire batch of soup. "I can't cook," I explained in frustration. "Anyone can cook," he said matter of factly.Julia Child would have agreed.

Today marks 100 years since her birth. She is remembered by chefs, celebrities and lay folks alike for bringing cooking - specifically French cooking - to the masses in a straightforward manner that was also joyous and celebratory.  It's true that my only memories of her from childhood are brief blips on the television (accompanied by an oddly high-pitched voice) as I quickly flipped channels to a some more flashy and exciting programming, and it was only later on in life that I met the woman through her work and her legacy. Years ago when I read Julie Powell's Julie and Julia, the famed blog-turned book-turned movie, I grew interested in Julia Child, having discovered small bits of information about her. She was over six feet tall, she was in her thirties when she got married and she signed up for classes at the Le Cordon Bleu to learn to cook because she was bored living in Paris. It was enough to drive me to read My Life in France and learn more about her personal life. She adored her husband. She valued taste over nutrition. She built a successful writing and television career later in life.

photo source

I have never read Mastering the Art of French Cooking and probably never will. But I'm inspired by Julia Child because she didn't take herself too seriously and believed that anyone could cook. She pioneered cooking programs, paving the way for the Food Network and celebrity chefs, for better or worse. And she taught people like me how to have fun in the kitchen.