“People like you are why everyone thinks good food is elitist!”

For your weekend reading pleasure I insist that you read Tracie McMillan’s wonderful piece, “9 Things You’ve Never Heard About America’s Food.”  Here’s a taste:

“It drove me mad when I started to hear foodies wax rhapsodic over local produce, going on to imply, not-so-subtly, that to buy it was a measure of character and moral standing. I grew up eating processed food during the week, fresh stuff on weekends–that’s how it works when you’re being raised by a working, single dad–but that didn’t mean my family didn’t care about food; it was just what was easiest. And the families I now reported on? They cared about their meals and health, but they were mostly eating what was easy–readily available, affordable, tasty. My family and the ones I reported on weren’t immoral. We were just broke and stressed.”

Read it all here! And then get Tracie’s book!

The Food Companies Own You

Did you hear a bit of buzz about potatoes being banned from school lunches and tomato paste on pizza counting as a vegetable?

That was part of Congress’ push-back against new regulations proposed by the Department of Agriculture, which administers the National School Lunch Program.

Instead, Congress wrote a spending bill that has done the following:

~refuses to allow the USDA guidelines to limit starchy vegetables–including corn, potatoes, and peas–to two servings per week. (The goal here was to cut down on french fries, which many schools serve daily.)

~allows the USDA to continue to count two tablespoons of tomato paste as a vegetable, as it does now. The USDA wanted to require that only a half-cup of tomato paste could be considered a vegetable–but that’s much more than goes on pizza.

~requires “further study” on USDA sodium-reduction requirements. (seriously.)

OK. So why would Congress block measures to make school lunches healthier?

Quite simply, because Big Food Companies make big money from processing food. As Lucy Komisar wrote in the New York Times this weekend:

“Schools get the food free; some cook it on site, but more and more pay processors to turn these healthy ingredients into fried chicken nuggets, fruit pastries, pizza and the like. Some $445 million worth of commodities are sent for processing each year, a nearly 50 percent increase since 2006.”

So let’s say a district gets a box of chicken worth $10 for free as part of the USDA commodities program, and it’s up to them to prepare the stuff. Or they can contract with Sodexho, or Aramark, or some other multinational, who gets the free box of chicken and turns it into a box of chicken nuggets that costs over $30. There are big profits to be made in processing.

I think Jamie Oliver said it most clearly on Jimmy Kimmel:

the food companies of America own you…these moron frozen food companies — pizza industry, french-fry industry — have basically bought, bribed, bullied Congress, who have completely let everyone down, into basically making it okay to feed [students] french fries every day.”

Any wonder childhood obesity continues to rise?

And let’s not forget: it’s the poorest kids who most depend on school food for their nutrition.

Our kids deserve better than this.



Why ‘Childhood Obesity’ Isn’t the Real Problem

Are you ready? I’m going to get critical of Republicans.

And Democrats.

Because while everyone loves a partisan controversy, on this issue, folks on both sides of the aisle are cowed before food industry drones who have shareholder interests–not public interest–in mind.

if I squint, the red person and ball looks like a diver that has been decapitated.

Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign (which, if anecdotal evidence is telling, is doing more to provoke anxiety in healthy-weight kids than to help kids who are actually at risk for diet-related disease) wrings hands about “the epidemic of childhood obesity” and wonders how we got here:

Thirty years ago, kids ate just one snack a day, whereas now they are trending toward three snacks, resulting in an additional 200 calories a day.

Portion sizes have also exploded – they are now two to five times bigger than they were in years past. {…} in the mid-1970s, the average sugar-sweetened beverage was 13.6 ounces compared to today, kids think nothing of drinking 20 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverages at a time.

The average American now eats fifteen more pounds of sugar a year than in 1970.

I need to point out a few things about the above excerpt from the Let’s Move! website:

1. It points out that consumers eat and drink more (including more sugar): consumers are the agents.

2. It mentions “sugar-sweetened beverages”–but not soda by name–that’s not an accident: the soda lobby would never allow that! And how would kids be getting those sugar-sweetened beverages? Couldn’t be because there’s SODA at SCHOOL, could it?

3. It says “portion sizes have exploded” as if they did it all on their own!

4. It notes that kids are “trending” toward 3 daily snacks but fails to point out WHY that is–namely, the fact that cheap, unhealthy snacks are EVERYwhere–like in school vending machines.

5. It talks about Americans eating “pounds” of sugar as if we’re sitting there eating out of a bag of granulated sugar–it doesn’t point out that there’s sugar (or, more accurately, high fructose corn syrup) in spaghetti sauce, hamburger buns, ketchup, and pickles, not to mention all the more obvious places.

These may sound like the observations of a curmudgeonly former English teacher (which they are, because I am.) But in fact, these omissions and ‘weasel’ words are very telling. Purposeful vagueness all over the Let’s Move language. Why?

Because the food industry won’t let anyone in or near government point out what’s really going on.

More fundamental than these vaguely weasel-y communications is the whole framing of the discussion in terms of OBESITY as the problem.

As Michele Simon points out in her book Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How to Fight Back:

“If you think about it, obesity is only one symptom of a much larger, underlying problem: a profit-driven, corporate-controlled food supply. We should devote our energies to fixing the root problem (the food system) rather than squander our precious resources on symptoms like obesity.”

(Plus, as Simon points out, people can have diet-related diseases like hypertension and diabetes WITHOUT being obese, and NO ONE is helped by reinforcing the stereotypes and biases that go along with calling people “obese.”)

One of the things that could be done is to persuade food companies NOT to advertise unhealthy foods to kids.

Children have a hard time distinguishing reality from fantasy. Children are naturally drawn to sweets and salty snacks, especially if cool characters are on the packages or promoting them on TV. As parents, all our “eat your veggies!” messages can get drowned out by the sheer attractiveness of junk.

Which is why I’m pretty annoyed at the GOP for blocking proposed guidelines that would’ve boiled down to this:

“By the year 2016, all food products most heavily marketed directly to children and adolescents ages 2-17 should meet two basic nutrition principles — they should contain foods that make a “meaningful contribution to a healthful diet” (such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein, eggs, nuts and seeds, or beans) and they should limit nutrients with a negative impact on health or weight (saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars and sodium.” (source)

Doesn’t seem like a whole lot to ask, does it?

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) seems to have been especially outspoken at the hearing, saying that these guidelines amounted to “government” supplanting the role of parents in monitoring children’s eating. The Congresswoman got lyrical, remembering her mother forcing her to eat liver once a week because it was good for her. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) “helpfully” noted: “the problem is in our world today, we just don’t take the time to do what we need to do.”

Or maybe the “problem” is that Rep. Mack gets much of her campaign finance from the TV industry as well as a good bit from farm/food processors. (Rep. Barton gets plenty from TV as well as the health industry.)

Not advertising junk food to kids is one small thing, but it could go a long way. And taking a stand shows respect for children–and their parents–who could do with a few less confusing advertisements in their lives.

[Processed food (and that's almost everything that you didn't cook yourself from scratch these days) has been as powerfully implicated as a destroyer of health as have cigarettes. The tobacco lobby worked just as hard to keep government from pointing the finger toward the real culprit there, too.]

one of the few kid-ads I can cheer on!

Don’t hold your breath waiting for someone in (or near) government to say something pointed, like “don’t eat stuff that comes ready to eat in a package” or “drink soda once a week at most” or “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Better yet, let’s not listen to anything those folks have to say about food. They’re not really working for us, after all.

(And–did you know?–advertising AT ALL to children under 12 is illegal in most of Europe.)

DARE to keep kids off…junk food?

{I’m away this week, but will continue to do some (re) posts. This article originally appeared at Christianity Today‘s women’s blog, her.meneutics.}

Amelia Brown, principal of the William D. Kelley School in Philadelphia, recently called on parents and Operation Town Watch Integrated Services (which helps neighborhoods fight crime and drug deals) to position themselves strategically around corner stores around the school. Their mission: to keep kids from buying junk food and encourage them to eat a real breakfast at school.

Since becoming principal last August, Brown has focused intently on improving the diets of her students. She began by urging corner stores to refuse to sell candy and sodas to kids in the morning, with mixed results. Brown, convinced that junk food is to blame for the headaches and stomachaches that consistently undermine academic performance, as well as for the steadily-increasing “flab” of older students, noted that she’d have no choice but to organize boycotts of the stores that wouldn’t stop selling to students.

Brown’s efforts seem extreme, better reserved for the fight against underage smoking, say, or illegal drug use. After all, we’re just talking about soda, candy, and chips. Or are we?

As The Times noted, we’ve known for a long time that cravings for sugar, salt, and fat are inborn; even newborns can’t resist the taste of sugar. Those “primal” cravings are exactly what the food industry capitalizes on, endlessly engineering, testing, and retesting products for “hyperpalatability“: an elusive quality that renders edibles both irresistible and addictive. PET imaging shows these kinds of foods work on our brains in ways similar to heroin, opium, and morphine; it’s thought that they even stimulate the release of dopamine, which prevents the brain from turning on the “brakes” that would normally prevent us from overeating. Maybe Brown’s calling in the neon-vested, walkie-talkie equipped neighborhood watch isn’t extreme after all.

I, for one, admire her courage, especially considering how particularly vulnerable children are to the promises of advertising. I can remember walking through a store with a young friend who spotted a box of candy decorated with pictures of Shrek. “Oh, I bet those are good,” she said. (She was a fan of the film and all of 4 or 5 years old at the time.) Young children, especially, aren’t easily able to distinguish between fact and fiction, and the implied promise that a certain sweet breakfast cereal will cause magic animal friends to appear at the table with them isn’t clearly fantasy in their eyes.

Children are vulnerable in other ways. Their quickly growing bodies and brains need optimum nutrition for good development, and they are, to a much greater degree than adults, forming habits and tastes that will stay with them for the long haul. If their taste buds are trained on processed food and sugary drinks, that’s what they will expect, want, and crave.

The tasty junk that tempts our nation’s kids and adults alike were once rare and expensive treats, if not entirely non-existent. Now the opposite is true. Junk food is cheap and ubiquitous. Processed foods create larger profits for food producers than non-processed foods, though they are among the cheapest items in the supermarket. Calculating the cost-per-calorie, carrots are four times more expensive than potato chips, and sodas contain some of the cheapest calories in the place — which is why the most obese people in America are also most likely to be the poorest. Whereas childhood obesity was once a rarity, it is becoming tragically common, and every bit as serious as underage smoking, drinking, and illegal drug use.

In conversations about obesity rates, the concepts of personal responsibility and self-discipline come up again and again. There are those who will look at Brown’s efforts in Philadelphia and charge her with failing to prepare kids to face the real world, where they’ll be free to buy and eat what they want. But I tend to look at it in a different way. Bearing in mind the substantial evidence demonstrating that industry-engineered foods are addictive by design, and considering that children are very vulnerable both to the pull of palatability and propaganda, I consider that perhaps God would be pleased to have us plead the case of these children — to act boldly in their defense and to push back against the system that would just as soon have them addicted to junk, on diabetes and ADHD meds, and desperate to lose weight.

Jesus said that when we feed the hungry, we are feeding him. Today’s poor, like many of those Philadelphia kids, are more likely to be suffering from an excess of bad food than a lack of any food. So it’s worth considering: How do we serve them as if we were serving Him? Maybe by taking simple steps to bring healthy lunches to schools, supporting your local food bank in adding fresh produce to their regular distributions, and encouraging your church to commit to serving wholesome meals in its own communal life. There are lots of things you can do to help ensure that the most vulnerable are fed — and fed well. And as is true (almost) always, it’s a good idea to begin your efforts at home.

Who Would Jesus Feed?

A recent study from the US Department of Agriculture noted that more than one in five children in the United States lives in a household that struggles to put enough food on the table. Among Latino children, says the organization Bread for the World, it’s more than one child in three that’s at risk for hunger. Ivone Guillen, immigration policy fellow at Bread for the World Institute, noted that while many immigrant families might qualify for programs such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), they are often afraid to apply, fearing that they might be at risk for deportation if they do. As a result, just 44% of eligible Latino children receive SNAP benefits.

What’s more, current laws limit access to safety-net programs. Undocumented immigrants–AND legal immigrants who’ve been here for less than 5 years–can’t receive SNAP.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think that most Christians would argue that Jesus would ask someone’s immigration status and only feed those who entered the country legally. And yet, I’ve encountered Christians who doubt whether we have an obligation to neighbors in need who may be undocumented or “undeserving” in some other way. But extending fellowship and help in the form of food is so basic to Jesus’ ministry–and so basic to what he called his followers to do–that I can’t help but feel certain that it’s these very people–the most at-risk and the least secure economically and socially–that we are especially obligated to serve in Jesus’ name.

It says “Jesus es mi amigo mejor” (Jesus is my best friend.)

“Well,” one might counter, “that’s fine if you want to have a food pantry, or otherwise privately conduct handouts, but the government has no obligation to feed people that have broken the law by coming here.”

It’s true: government might not have any particular obligation to people who’ve entered the country illegally, and so if Congress chooses to cut SNAP even from the eligible recipients, my obligation to my neighbors–all of them–remains the same. My primary allegiance is to Jesus’ values, not Uncle Sam’s. But that doesn’t mean I can’t support my government in measures that I believe are right and just, and protecting the safety net that keeps our most vulnerable members from falling seems to me to be right and just and in harmony with the values of Jesus.

I know that negotiating the relationship between faith and politics is sometimes less than clear. I’ve found that while Christians are often anxious that government doesn’t make legal things we find immoral, we are sometimes less concerned with doing our civic bit to protect those whose rights Jesus would have us defend but whose rights the government does not recognize.

But 20%+ of all children, and 30%+ of Latino children, going hungry, here, in the USA, where we spend almost as much money on weight loss as on SNAP? Where we routinely throw away THIS MUCH food per month?

(Meanwhile, the Justice Department spent $4,700 on 250 muffins for ONE event–that’s almost 7 times the amount given by SNAP to a family of four for a MONTH’s worth of food.)

So I can’t help but wonder: whose benefits would Jesus cut?