Food for Thought…and for Action

After enjoying a truly delicious turkey for the second year in a row (this year’s holiday menu mostly from Food & Wine‘s article about Joanne Chang – although I stopped short of the Peking-duck inspired turkey!), I was amused and amazed to read several friends’ posts on Facebook to the effect that turkey  is most definitely not their favorite part of Thanksgiving dinner – some pass it up for the side dishes, others go as far as to eliminate the bird entirely and have seafood for their feast. Everyone in my family loves turkey, but in previous years, I’ve often entertained the same thoughts about the tasteless, dry turkeys I’ve been served at other people’s homes and also cooked myself. Having learned that the secret to amazing turkey is, as with most other dishes, starting with the best ingredients one can afford (we are lucky enough to be able to purchase local, pastured heritage turkeys that have never been frozen) and knowing how to cook them (brining overnight, adding a layer of herbed butter between the breast and the skin, keeping the stuffing separate from the bird, not overcooking), I can understand these critics’ point of view: if I had to buy a conventionally raised, chemical-injected bird from a grocery store, I’d be just as likely to go vegetarian for Thanksgiving.

But living in Southeast Michigan has made me more conscious than ever of the disparity between most of my neighbors and myself  in Ann Arbor and the low-income residents of nearby areas, both rural and urban. Many low-income people would be thrilled to have one of those turkeys at which we, in our privilege, turn up our noses. And during this time of year, the media does occasionally cover the dark side of the holidays (when, ironically, it is not concerned with promoting the rampant consumerism of Cyber Thursday and Black Friday).  So my enjoyment of delicious, abundant food is always tinged with sadness – am I doing enough to promote much-needed change in the food system simply by buying locally, sustainably grown food? It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but there are so many critical issues out there surrounding our food system that won’t be solved by baby steps taken by individuals. Depressing? Maybe. But perhaps a bit inspiring as well. Educating yourself about good food (meaning food that is good for your personal health, the health of the environment, and the health of your community) is the first step – the next is to become active. There are so many ways to get involved with food these days.

Cooking at home

We spent last weekend at a hotel in Lansing, where my son competed in a TaeKwonDo competition. Part of the thrill of a hotel for my kids is tv – we don’t watch it at home (and getting a dose of it on occasion makes me grateful for that – talk about 57 channels and nothing on!) We came across a food channel and were mesmerized for a while. Then my husband said, “Why does it have to be so crazy? What’s the point of making it so quickly? I’ll bet you anything that most of that food tastes awful!”

He’s right – when DID it become necessary to make food complicated and superfast? I was reminded of Michael Pollan’s comment in an interview with Bill Moyers: “We watch cooking shows like crazy on television. We’ve turned cooking into a spectator sport. If you would merely invest the time you spend watching cooking shows in actually cooking, you would find you’ve got plenty of time to put a meal on the table.” Simply turning off the television (and the ipod and the computer and the video games) would give us so much more time to do something as rewarding as cooking from scratch. Or look at it another way – if you must spend hours on the computer, why not let something cook slowly on the stovetop during those hours?

Social justice

It’s true that many low-income consumers choose to purchase calorie-dense yet nutritionally inadequate (i.e. junk) food exactly because it is filling, but when the Wall Street Journal reports that 84% of parents fed their children fast food in any given week, I have to shudder because so many consumers who are NOT considered low-income are falling for the fast food conglomerates’ advertising campaigns.

Much of what I said about the privileged versus the food insecure is put much more eloquently in “Divided We Eat.” While the article speaks somewhat vaguely about solutions to the problem of disparity in access to food, I do appreciate the quote from Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger:

[T]he answer lies in seeing food more as a shared resource, like water, than as a consumer product, like shoes. “It’s a nuanced conversation, but I think ‘local’ or ‘organic’ as the shorthand for all things good is way too simplistic,” says Berg. “I think we need a broader conversation about scale, working conditions, and environmental impact. It’s a little too much of people buying easy virtue.”

Adding another layer of complexity (that of race) to the issue is Natasha Bowens’ post on Food Justice on Grist.com. Bowens’ article does helpfully mention a number of Detroit organizations to get involved with around the issue.

Supporting your local (food) economy

Senate bill S.510, the Food Safety Modernization Act was scheduled for a vote before Thanksgiving, but it’s been stalled, which means that you can still weigh in with your Senators about your feelings on the matter. Of major importance to local food economies is the Tester Hagan Amendment. There is a lot of good information on this in a debate on Grist.com and an easy way to contact your Senators at Food Democracy Now. I hate speaking on the phone to people I don’t know, but these are easy calls to make and won’t require more than a few minutes of your time.

And as we enter the season of holiday shopping, here’s a thought from Treehugger.com as you buy: “There is more to the local movement than just food.”

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