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.



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.

Is it all just navel gazing? (and sometimes literally?)

I used to be a literal navel gazer.

Well, almost. I didn’t sit around looking at my navel, but I did pinch it. A lot. Because I was checking for pinch-ability. I wanted to be able to pinch nothing.  And so, for years of my life, I arranged my interests and activities around my navel–the over-exercising, the under-eating, the hours in front of the mirror and on the scale. Sad, no? Let me tell you, I have cried actual tears about the years I missed because I was obsessed with the adipose tissue around my navel.

By God’s grace, good things came into my life anyway. And while the story’s too long to tell here, my world expanded beyond my own navel. I forgot to care so very much about things like my tummy, every last crumb of what I ate or didn’t eat and whether or not I had spent enough time exercising at my optimal heart rate. Somewhere in that time, my abdomen expanded quite dramatically behind my navel–twice!–and behold, two new navels! (See above.) 

But there are two other things that are important in my life that are sometimes derided as “navel gazing”: writing (and particularly blogging) and food. I remember hearing a book club discussion on Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma in which the critics were complaining that Pollan’s locally grown and gathered meal was a “decadent” use of time; that his approach to food was a “fussy yuppie thing.” Writing that’s of a personal nature is also sometimes dismissed as navel gazing, but that’s often unfair–even in writing about his or her own experiences, a good writer aims to say something that’s beneficial to someone else in some way.

                                                      I have GOT to stop hunching my shoulders like that…

Okay, but food? So many people are talking and writing about–and marketing–the whole local-organic-sustainable-green-artisanal-smallbatch-blahblah that it’s easy to start to think, “I’m so tired of hearing how heirloom-whatevers have more flavor–why not talk about something THAT MATTERS?”

Thing is, it does matter. The choices we make every day–several times a day–regarding food–add up. And not just for you, your family, your food budget, your waistline. Nope. From what you spend to what goes to the farmer, to what goes to the processor, to what goes to packaging, shipping, advertising, and on, and on, multiplied across millions of households, these choices add up to a whole food culture. (Which is why you don’t have to stress if you eat junk food once in a while–we’re talking big picture here.) Why does my grocery store carry a bazillion brands of squishy loaves of white bread and NOT ONE GOOD BAGUETTE? Why do stock watery strawberries from California when there are farms all around growing rich, sweet ones? Why do we feed our schoolchildren crap at school as we spend lots of $$$ on everything else?

Diseases caused by diet are America’s top killers, but we talk about food choices as if they are all about us, us, us. (I’m pretty convinced that obesity is largely a creation of Big Food, the drones of which speak in all seriousness about the “problem” of the “fixed stomach”–they want you to eat MORE and to think that your weight is YOUR problem.) The amount of fossil fuels used to bring us all everything ALWAYS from everywhere is outrageous. Our way of eating–super processed, super packaged, and super shipped–creates problems for people here (not least, small farmers) but creates devastation for people (and, yes, especially farmers) in other places.

For me, spending time growing, preserving, and procuring good food (and writing about it) is anything but a navel-gazing venture. Food touches so much–it connects us to one another and to God’s creation in so many ways. Our choices at home add up, home by home, meal by meal, to a national food culture a GLOBAL food culture. The current one is killing people–not least, children–through equal parts starvation and overfeeding as it slurps oil and belches carbon dioxide.

                                   (sure beats looking at my navel–organic plants and free range kids!)

Okay, that’s really depressing.  But here’s the good news. A better food culture–one that’s better for you, your neighbors, the planet–everyone!–is tasty, too. And fun. And you don’t have to change everything all at once. Even little steps–ONE local meal a week, say–add up significantly. (If everyone in the USA would do that, we’d reduce our national oil consumption by 1.1 BILLION BARRELS that week. Really!) So the next time you hear some folks going on endlessly about the heirloom tomatoes or the artisanal bread, don’t make fun of them. Ask them where they bought it, and if they know where you can get some local ice cream. Support better practices and better taste, bearing in mind the needs of the least of these. 

And experience some revolutionary joy.

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