Friday, February 25, 2011

Guest post: Response to Bittman post

Jen McCleary and I worked together some years ago at a publishing company, when I was a struggling vegetarian and she was (and still is) a dedicated vegan.  I have since returned to a diet that includes meat and poultry.  Below is a comment she left on my Mark Bittman post and I think it's too valuable to be buried beneath my rant.  Thanks, Jen.

Interesting post...I agree with some of what you said. Of course I hate hate hate the idea of Big Brother looking over everyone's soup pot to make sure you haven't put too much salt. But what frightens me more (and seems a more realistic threat at the moment) is gigantic food companies that adhere to the philosophy of good ol' "profit no matter the costs." Without some sort of governmental regulation you end up with melamine in the baby formula and sugar water labeled as juice, and these companies laughing all the way to the bank. Sadly these entities have been hugely influential in directing the food policies of the nation (just look up the history of the food pyramid), and quite successful in persuading the American public that cooking is a horrible, difficult, time-consuming task and why bother when you can buy their products?

It's a matter of balance between a number of forces (corporate food interests, government, individuals), and I think it's missing an opportunity to just throw up our hands and leave it up to "personal responsibility." Yes, people need to take responsibility for their own lives and choices, but what happens when the social structure is not there to support responsible choices? Just how much choice does someone have who has no proper grocery store within accessible distance? This is not about "forcing" anyone to do anything. This is not about banning potato chips and soda. This is about making sure people have access to good information (not just advertising and corporate manipulation) and access to good food (not just nutritionally dubious crap priced much lower than it should be due to subsidies).

Bittman et al. are reactionaries against a food system that has clearly gone off the rails, and the loudest, most out-there voices always get the most press. There IS something horribly elitist about a lot of what they have to say, given the realities that so many Americans have to live with. It IS ridiculous to suggest that everyone should take up the home cultivation of heirloom microgreens, or eat only bread made from grains you have ground yourself, or eat only meat from animals that you personally befriended on the local farm (a particularly psychopathic attitude in my mind, but that's another story). (If Bittman makes you stabby then don't read Alice Waters!) But I think that despite all that, it's still a discussion worth having and I'm glad Bittman et al. are calling attention to these issues. Hopefully the pendulum will eventually swing toward somewhere in the middle.

No, what makes me stabby is knowing there are children living in the richest country on Earth waking up hungry with no prospect of a decent meal. Knowing that people HAVE to work two or three jobs to make ends meet while companies are making billions in profit on feeding them crap food that is detrimental to their health. Knowing that the government would rather spend billions on ridiculous military interventions in foreign countries than use that money to ensure that every American has access to healthy food and the information to make good choices for themselves and their families. No, stabby isn't even the word. Bittman-style elitism is just a minor irritant in a morass of injustice and poor policy.

Ugh, sorry for the rant. I should just get my own damn food blog. Very interested in your thoughts on this though!

I cannot argue with any of this.  Why, then, do I feel stabby towards Bittman et al.?  Because, as Jen pointed out, they are reactionaries.  In my opinion, they have a personal agenda and believe that their way is the only way.

I have always believed that everyone should be taught by somebody, somewhere, basic cooking skills.  Home ec in schools would be a great way to start.  It's not just cooking, there's reading, math and science involved, too, a whole spectrum of skills that can be put to good use.  Plus, it can be fun.

I fully believe in government regulations to keep food in the proper condition to be consumed. However, I am firmly against taxing foods that the government has deemed improper for consumption, simply because they don't want to put together a proper system of checks and balances.  This whole "let's tax junk food so people won't eat it" is ridiculous and won't work anyway.  Case in point: cigarettes.  Five bucks a pack and people still buy them by the carton.

The two people I think can most bring about change right now are Michelle Obama and Jamie Oliver.  They "get" people and understand that there is room for moderation and that it's more important to get fresh vegetables and fruit into the diet be it organic or conventional.  They are both very hands-on in their approach without resorting to hammering people into guilt trips over what they eat.  They know that working with people on a level they can understand, without finger-pointing and badgering, will be far more effective in the long run than constantly telling people that what they are doing is wrong.

Finally, I think Alice Waters has lost all touch with reality.  Good intentions but I think she's barmy.


Rachel R said...

This all reminds me of Gwyneth Paltrow's GOOP "newsletter". (And it doesn't remind me of it just because of the On the Road Again or whatever the show was called that had MB, GP, Mario Batali [you know, the red-headed ponytail guy in the Crocs and shorts] and the Spanish actress. But it helps.)

I subscribed to it out of curiosity, can't even remember where I got the link to do so and stopped reading it after I think the 2nd or 3rd one, I'm just too lazy to unsubscribe so I just ignore or delete. If you are unfamiliar, she has different focuses (foci?): there's DO, BE, MAKE and (I think) GET. And they're all about things she does in her "normal, everyday life" that she wants to share with us!!! Ah, celebrities - you're just like REAL PEOPLE! I don't have a very strong opinion of Gwynnie - her husband is a different story - but this stuff makes me laugh. Giving suggestions or directions from on-high. Indeed, if I were rich and famous I'd have a live in everything, too, to DO, MAKE, BE and GET me what I need to make my body a temple, too...

Alright, not exactly on-topic, but not exactly off-, either.

Jen said...

Haha, that GOOP business is awesomely ridiculous. I just checked out the site, and among this week's "Get" are children's clothing recommendations including a $95 sundress and a 65 British Pounds ($104) sweater, and in "Do" is a lot of blather about a "detox cleanse" (speaking of things that make me stabby...)

An example of a bad attempt at food-related persuasion: there's a very nice small family-owned grocery store near where I live. They recently installed this huge sign by their front entrance that is apparently supposed to be about how soda and sugary beverages are bad for you. It's bright yellow and has this weird profile of a person and a cup. At first glance I seriously thought it was a warning sign from the health department about the store having health code violations or something. It's just obnoxious. Why not have a nice picture of happy children enjoying some fruit juice instead? Why not model positive behavior instead of always taking the haranguing/fear route?

Nola said...

The Australian Government is considering this ridiculous "traffic light" system for food labeling here.

I think the general gist is - we'll all eat less chips if they have a big red light, and eat more "green light" foods (which would have to come in bloody packets anyway which means that it's probably processed anyway and GAH! sorry that's a whole different rant.)

I think it's a massive waste of time and money. Taxpayer's money at that, when there could be more focus on education at a grass roots level. I think Australians are smarter than that - although a lot of us are obese so maybe I'm just being optimistic.

Anyway, my rambling is to direct you to a feature article from my favorite Australian paper, The Age. I think you will find it interesting.

Also - one more teeny rant - If we all ate less packaged and processed foods we'd be laughing. Don't eat anything with "ingredients" you can't pronounce. Don't eat any food that needs to make a health claim. Sorted.

Now where is my cheese? ;-)