Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The High Cost of Cheap Food: Burgers Are Made of Pink Slime

"Warning: May contain a slurry of scraps off the slaughterhouse floor, washed with ammonia." A label that appears on no burger, by USDA decree.

If you haven’t heard of it, “lean finely textured beef” is big business. As the Young Turks explain, “lean finely textured beef,” or LFTB, is made of a slurry of scraps off the slaughterhouse floor and enough ammonia to kill the bacterial nastiness with which its imbued. McDonald’s and most other fast food chains were using this mechanically extracted, nutritionally weak filler in their American “all beef” burger patties, until Jamie Oliver ignited a consumer backlash. Until this point, the food industry lobby vigorously defended the practice of secretly including "pink slime" in ground beef patties and taco fillings, and was supported by the FDA, which still does not require the ingredient to be disclosed.

Where in previous decades, American beef was consonant with luxury---the Japanese word for steak is “bifusteku”---today, our use of LFTB has spoiled the image of American beef abroad. In East Asia, signs in American fast food chains proudly proclaim, “No US beef” in their products. Meanwhile in the US, “pink slime” is unavoidable to the average, thrifty consumer. Though restaurant chains have been quick to announce when they've discontinued using LFTB, it’s still found---unlabeled---in restaurant fare and institutional food, including school lunches.

Cooking at home is no guarantee you’ll avoid “pink slime,” either, because LFTB may be sold at your grocery store, where it may constitute up to 15 percent of ground beef without being labeled as containing anything other than plain old ground beef. In agreement with Jamie Oliver, Colleen Vanderlinden at TLC Cooking says we are “literally eating garbage” when we eat this stuff. Instead of calling drive through burgers “fast food,” we should be calling it “trash food.”

Image credit: felixtriller./Flickr

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The High Cost of Cheap Food: Fast Food Is Made of Poison

It's no exaggeration to say that toxins---including RoundUp weed killer and liver scarring sweeteners---are everywhere in processed food. How many toxic ingredients are in that fast food meal?

The majority of the calories in a typical fast food meal come from corn, which is how Pollan concludes that his meal is essentially made of corn. However, the corn in processed foods isn’t just corn, anymore. The average American eats 1500 pounds of corn. Last year, 88% of corn in the US was genetically modified.

More than half of the corn that Americans ultimately eat was first fed to livestock. Cattle aren’t supposed to eat corn---it causes them extreme gastric distress---and changes their nutritional profile so the omega fatty acid ratios are no longer optimal for good health. Corn poisons the cattle, fattening it up in the process. This is why farmers feed cattle corn in the first place: because beef is sold by the pound, not by the omega 3. 

If we are what we eat, then we eat our shame. A burger touted as “all beef” may contain 85% traditional ground beef and 15% “ground beef” that’s actually “lean finely textured beef” recovered through advanced mechanical means, and then disinfected (because so much of what is recovered is also most likely to be splashed with shit.) The finished product---poisoned cattle, disintegrated and mixed with ammonia---is known as “pink slime.” 

Americans eat 152 pounds of sugar a year, much of that made from corn. "Maltodextrin," "lactose," "sugar," and "dextrose," all ingredients in "Cool Ranch Dorito" Taco Bell taco shells, are also all sugars. High fructose corn syrup isn’t just corn: its inflammatory, adversely affects the liver, and causes a heightened insulin response, contributing to the eventual development of type 2 diabetes. And it’s everywhere: not just in soft drinks and ketchup but on salad, in tomato sauce, even toothpaste.

What is in your food in smaller percentages is cause for even more alarm. Here's the entire list of what's in one of those new Doritos Tacos Locos Taco Bell shells, which are flavored to taste like another processed food---"Cool Ranch Doritos":
Ground Corn treated with Lime, Vegetable Oil (Corn, Soybean, and/or Cottonseed Oil), Water, Corn Flour, Salt, Maltodextrin (Made From Corn), Corn Starch, Tomato Powder, Sunflower Oil, Lactose, Whey, Skim Milk, Corn Syrup Solids, Onion Powder, Sugar, Garlic Powder, Monosodium Glutamate, Cheddar Cheese (Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Dextrose, Malic Acid, Artificial Color (Including Red 40, Blue 1, Yellow 5, Yellow 5 Lake, Yellow 6 Lake), Buttermilk, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Sodium Acetate, Sodium Caseinate, Spices, Citric Acid, Disodium Inosinate, Disodium Guanylate, and TBHQ (Preservative). CONTAINS: MILK [Source: Taco Bell]

"Disodium inosinate" and "disodium guanylate" are salts, flavor enhancers similar to MSG, which is already present in higher amounts in this product than cheese. "Sodium acetate" is also a salt and flavor enhancer, one you can use in cool science experiments to make "hot ice." Malic acid and citric acid both produce a tart flavor; the "Natural and Artificial Flavor" could contain any number of ingredients. Ironically, TBHQ is highly toxic, but the label is required to warn us that Taco Bell Cool Ranch Dorito Shells contain milk.

The parts of your food listed near the end of the label---“natural and artificial flavors,” preservatives, and colors, include ingredients known to be highly toxic, like TBHQ. They’re permitted because, the argument goes, they’re used in such small quantities that individually, they don't pose a public health concern. But we know just about nothing about the cumulative effects of all of those trace amounts of antifreeze, flame retardants, and herbicides that, like HFCS, are everywhere in industrially processed food. How many of the conditions that plague Americans are traceable to our dependence on cheap, fast food?

The world may never know (Boiled beetle shells in Red #2.)

Image credit: Scott Ableman/Flickr

Monday, September 9, 2013

The High Cost of Cheap Food: Fast Food Is Made of Corn

What's so bad about making food out of corn? Ask the people who invented it.

If you are what you eat, and especially if you eat industrial food, as 99 percent of Americans do, what you are is "corn."---Michael Pollan, “We Are What We Eat

Corn is petroleum based.

In “Fast Food Nation,” Eric Schlosser traces a hypothetical fast food meal to its origins in a representative cornfield in Iowa. Further probing reveals that the fuel and fertilizers that allow vast monocropped fields of corn to dominate rural landscapes are made from fossil fuels. Modern corn is grown with so many petroleum inputs that we may as well call our diets “petroleum based” rather than “plant based.” Only by applying liberal quantities of fertilizer and pesticides, having fleets of trucks to transport the corn from those remote fields, and using more petrochemicals to disguise its natural flavor and texture, is the industrial food chain capable of transforming rows of maize into the thousands of products lining supermarket shelves across America.

We sure wouldn’t buy more than a ton of corn, per person, per year if we had to figure out what to do with this much corn as a dry commodity. But disguised as everything from cake mix to Value Meals, Americans eat and drink 1500 pounds of corn per person, annually.

Why do we eat so much corn-based “food”?

Corn is a commodity.

One reason is because it’s less expensive than real food. Value Meals exist because of the subsidies we pay farmers to keep them producing commodity crops like corn and soy, which are then turned into a dizzying array of industrial foods. These products aren’t good foods to base your diet on, and particularly not the versions sold today. Michael Pollan, tracing the same route as Schlosser, has concluded that the 2.5 times corn production has increased since the 1970s is the consequence of US farming subsidies---welfare for Big Food---and that all this corn is the cause of an ongoing epidemic of obesity. The exact mechanism is uncertain: whether hyperpalatability simply drives us to eat more calories, or something more sinister---highly processed and possibly dangerous ingredients, irradiation, trans fats, carcinogenic rancid oils, genetically modified foods---is to blame.

Most corn is now genetically modified---patented, and possibly unsafe.

The vast majority of corn grown in the US---88% last year---is genetically modified to resist applications of herbicides and/or pesticides, resulting in increased use of these products. Worldwide, 30% of corn is genetically modified and increasing, a practice that threatens small farmers because of their cost and the aggressive way seed producers “protect” their patents by suing farmers in whose fields GM seed has landed. Legislation in Argentina favoring industrial farming practices represents a threat to subsistence farmers there, in the second largest producer of GM crops after the US, while in Mexico, peasant farmers see the incursion of Monsanto as “looting” the genetic diversity of native seed.

The Wikipedia page on GMOs describes the controversy over foods as one of labeling, and in which accusations of bias have been made against regulators. That the FDA has a “revolving door” at the top has been widely documented; GM seed has not so much been tested as declared not significantly different from hybridized counterparts. And while Monsanto tested their corn as animal feed for only 90 days, longer tests on rats have revealed that Roundup Ready corn causes organ damage in rats.

We could all have pellagra, and not even realize it.

Another danger of eating a diet largely made of industrially produced corn is that the corn is not nixtamalized. Corn requires nixtamalization to be eaten as a staple food because it’s imbalanced as a source of amino acids for human health. The principal storage protein in corn is zein, an imbalanced source of amino acids; the nixtamalization process reduces zein, but this protein is prized by food industry. Corn’s amino acid makeup is low in tryptophan, which is converted to niacin in the liver; niacin is an important B vitamin and potent serum cholesterol reducing nutrient.

Traditional corn nixtamalization is a poorly understood process that makes it possible to use maize as a staple food for humans.

“Nixtamalizing turns the niacin in maize into free niacin, allowing it to be absorbed by the body and preventing niacin depletion. It also reduces mycotoxins. [Link is mine. JC] Minerals are absorbed from the lime---especially calcium---which can be increased by 750%. The protein zein is also reduced, enhancing the balance of amino acids. And of course nixtamalization greatly enhances the taste of the maize. Yes, it’s most certainly worth the effort.” ---Erda Kroft’s blog entry on Nixtamal.
When corn has been grown as a staple crop without the accompanying knowledge of how to correctly process the grain, the result has been outbreaks of pellagra, a disease of niacin deficiency. Native Americans, who created modern maize (it does not self pollinate and is very unlike its nearest native relative, teocinte), also developed the nixtamalization process, in which corn is soaked in an alkaline solution and hulled. Nixtamal, hominy, masa flour, and corn tortillas made from corn processed with lime---all traditional foods---can be eaten regularly without concern.

Corn as it’s used in industrial food, however, and regular corn meal, are not nixtamalized, and this is most of the corn we eat in the US today. Since we’re a corn fed nation once again, it’s worth asking whether we’renewly at risk of pellagra. Is our Fast Food Nation suffering widely from depression, high cholesterol, irritability, weight gain, an inability to concentrate, insomnia, and carb cravings because we’re malnourished?

Image credit: photofarmer/Flickr

Monday, September 2, 2013

The High Cost of Cheap Food: Fast Food Is Addictive

When the red pill and the blue pill are the same, choice is an illusion.

Drugs in your food. What if it only appears to be a choice?

Second in a series on "The High Cost of Cheap Food."

The effects of the fast food marketplace, in which addictive food is sold without additional regulation---where in fact it’s easier and cheaper than real, fresh food---are reflected in our mortality and morbidity statistics. In the birthplace of fast food, the leading causes of death are heart disease and cancer, putting lifestyle far ahead of gun violence as a killer of Americans.

Addiction is a deadly force that alters animals' priorities so that mice will press the cocaine lever, ignoring food and water, until they die. Rats will endure electric shock for junk food. Human animals are wired much the same way; our intellect might save us, or simply provide more sophisticated forms of cognitive dissonance.


It’s back to school time, and adult humans with graduate degrees will begin passing out "Just Say No to Drugs" brochures to children who take prescribed amphetamines. Those same well educated adult humans will line up for their morning dose of caffeine and sugar from a big chain instead of making something fresh at home for breakfast, and fail again to see the irony in their lives, even if they caught it in the classroom. It’s why we shouldn’t razz Alanis Morissette too hard for failing to come up with actual ironies for her song; most of us couldn’t spot the ironies in our own lives, either. The response to irony in our lives is cognitive dissonance more often than it’s enlightenment and the desire to change.

For good health, “a combination of regular exercise, healthy diet, smoking avoidance, and weight maintenance” is Johns Hopkins Hospital's sensible advice that's free to take. No one would dispute that personal health is very important---even priceless. Yet the number of dollars we spend positively destroying our health---including on packaged, junk, and fast foods---is enormous; when you add in the amount wasted on products promising us health and freedom from addictions---and failing to deliver--- the combined figure is incalculable.

Our actual priorities place “what's good for us” farther down the list than we care to admit. We know what is good for us , but choose what feels good, especially when it’s easier. Fatty foods, sweets, and salty foods are what we crave, and junk and fast food deliver: full of vegetable oil, unnatural sweeteners, and excess salt that, by hitting our “bliss points” reliably, alter our biology in much the same ways that highly addictive drugs like cocaine do. A Happy Meal is My First Drug Paraphernalia.

When it comes to our food, the problem isn’t simply that we lack willpower to avoid addictive and unhealthy foods; it’s that the system is designed around a particular lifestyle: one in which we work long hours, shop, and go home, efficiently and in relative isolation from other people. In this system, people eat what is manufactured, and eat it quickly, on the go. The system is designed to make us more efficient workers and consumers, not happier, more self-actualized human beings.

All the packaged foods you see advertised are designed to be addictive. The mission of any fast food restaurant is to make theirs your favorite. This can be achieved best, in a zero sum game of “stomach share” in the marketplace, by making you consume far more than you need---even designing foods that make you feel hungrier than when you sat down to eat them. “As a culture, we’ve become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing,” says Yale University professor of psychology and public health, Kelly Brownell. Even worse than these advances in junk food technology: the changes that they make to our bodies may be passed down to the next generation.

Coming next in this series: Fast food is made of petroleum.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The High Cost of Cheap Food

"The High Cost of Cheap Food" is a new series on the hidden costs of feeding a nation---and increasingly, the world---on an unsustainable slurry of scraps and toxins.

1. A fast food diet is an unhealthy diet.

Fast food is not a healthy food choice, to say the very least. As long as we buy our food, cash, and only pay for our health care indirectly, if at all, we will continue to believe that value meals are a bargain and health care is expensive. People buy food on impulse, often when we’re hungry, from companies that indulge our tastes for salt, sugar, and fat. If people shopped for their food as carefully as they do for insurance, or even if the health of our food were as well regulated as insurance, we would all eat better.

For nearly all of us, nearly all of the time, Big Food decides what we eat. They control the market, so that even though it looks like a lot of individuals expressing their freedom to choose, in reality there are not enough differences among the choices, and high quality foods are available in far fewer places. The fast food industry sells us an abundance of food made from cheap, refined, low quality ingredients, like “pink slime” and Coca-Cola, foods that are proven killers. This irregularity of regulation in a country that licenses drivers, pet owners, and hair stylists, is explained by the “Amazing Revolving Door” among industries and the agencies that regulate them.

Fast food does not nourish, because it’s designed to be made from a minimal number of the cheapest ingredients available, by people who’ve received very little training---the better to afford the massive turnover of the fast food industry, which pays a starvation wage to its employees. And neither the government nor the marketplace forces corporations to do a better job of feeding the country.

We as consumers are not the end of the line. Everything works in circles---cycles that provide feedback at every step. The marketplace currently prioritizes cheap food over nourishment, quick meals over Slow Food. The entire model for fast food is unhealthy at every level, and getting worse. The good news is that by demanding freshness, diversity, transparency, and justice from the food systems that serve us, the benefits of healthy eating become not just personal, but social. Making better food choices improves the health of the workers, animals, and ecosystems that nourish us, by creating demand in the marketplace for products that are sustainably raised and harvested, and fairly traded.

Next week: The Leading Causes of Death

Image credit: Νick P/Flickr

Monday, August 5, 2013

How do you want to eat when you grow up?

I grew up eating white bread in the suburbs. 

When my parents got married and had me and my little sister, they were not yet very experienced at feeding themselves. Dad wouldn’t learn how to do much more than simmer water for a baby bottle until our mother went back to work in the early ‘80s, forcing comparisons to “Mr. Mom.” His own father lived his whole life never learning to cook for himself, always catered to by Grandma and before that, no doubt, his own mother.

My mother says her own mother was a lousy cook, and that dinner hours were fraught, plagued by lumpy mashed potatoes and spilled milk. Between them, these two Baby Boomers, our parents, decided that when they had kids and a home of their own, they would make dinner more pleasurable: they would eat what they damn well pleased. No liver. No spinach. And no more lumpy mashed potatoes.

At least one of the problems was that neither one of them had much interest in cooking. My mother was expected to take on the responsibility, so she learned to make a ragu from an Italian girlfriend, and set to burning toast and making too much macaroni and cheese from the box for her new husband for the next decade or two. Christmas morning pancakes came from a Bisquick box. In second grade, my teacher, Mr. Conway, hosted a breakfast potluck in the classroom because he wanted us to taste real maple syrup, only he couldn’t find any. At home, weekday dinners were Shake N’ Bake pork chops or chicken, or a London broil that set off the fire alarm, with sides of boxed au gratin potatoes and frozen broccoli. When I was little, we’d have Jell-O chocolate pudding or gelatin with Cool-Whip for dessert.

My parents only liked a few vegetables---corn, broccoli, green beans, potatoes---and always prepared them in the same few ways. Green beans always came French cut from the can, served cold with a vinaigrette. Salads were composed of iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and maybe some carrot shavings, croutons, or fake bacon bits from a shaker.

I didn’t like raw tomatoes as a kid. (I do, now.) I didn’t like a lot of other raw things, because they were served year round, without regard to season. I didn’t know that a ripe Bartlett pear is yellow, not green, and so to wait for it. I didn’t know when to anticipate tomato season.

On first taste, I didn’t like homemade macaroni and cheese, preferring the kind that comes from a box. I preferred cakes made from a mix to those from a bakery, or from scratch. (Who made a cake from scratch? I didn’t even know how. No one I knew made them.) My taste in cheese hasn’t strayed very far from the flavors of my childhood. I still don’t like them very smelly, or with visible mold (and yet Gorgonzoloa remains so trendy), or too tangy. I stick to the soothing textures of ricotta and Cheddar; for dash, a sprinkling of queso fresco, or a grating of Romano.

Someone told me about their childhood of eating only white food: white bread, white pasta, Saltines, chicken breast. I was saved from this fate by other people. Besides the parents of friends and classmates, and teachers eager to broaden my horizons, we went to restaurants where I was allowed to order off the adult menu from an early age, and I had neighbors, and grandparents who liked strong flavors, things like smoked eel, steamer clams, calamari, mashed turnips, and pickles. I associate the smell of sauerbraten with my maternal grandmother’s kitchen. Her parents kept a bowl of mixed nuts in the shell in their parlor, and I always wanted to play with them and eat them: to use the nutcracking tools, or just to sift my hands through the bowl, feeling their smooth and rough shells. My father’s mother made spicy sauces, kept a broad array of charcuterie on hand for snacking with crusty Italian bread, and served a traditional seven seafoods meal on Christmas Eve.

Except on holidays, I never ate turkey, fish, sweet potatoes, or olives. If it wasn’t too much trouble, and was wholesome, my mother might indulge me in odd requests. I asked for spinach after watching “Popeye” and got it, out of a can, with butter. I’m surprised I ever went back to it. (Thank you, saag paneer!) Once I tried prunes, I decided they were a superior version of raisins, and started snacking on them. I was still too young for my peers to tease me about their association with old age.

After school, I would watch syndicated sitcoms and eat American cheese slices folded into quarters, atop Saltine crackers. In the mornings I had cold cereal with milk. School lunches were mystery meat, more bread and milk, granola bars or bakery cookies, ice cream. Sometimes I ate a piece of fruit or some raisins. Treats came wrapped from the store, bought for guests or with allowance money: candy bars, cookies, cakes.

What did you eat when you were a kid, and was it good? Do you still eat like that, or has your diet changed? For better or worse? How do you define “better” or “worse”---is it flavor, convenience, nutrition, or something else?
When I got a job in a supermarket as a teenager, I bought myself other treats: olives, root beer, fried potato sticks (in a can), herbal teas. I was trying new things as well as indulging old comforts, finding out what I liked and who I was, which I thought of as being more or less the same thing. Some of what I tried in my twenties didn’t stick, but a lot of it did.

There are a few foods here and there that I still get the same comfort and enjoyment from as I did---ice cream and cheese are at the top of the list---but for the most part, I eat different foods from what I ate as a child. There are the things I didn’t like and do now, but mostly, there are the foods I wasn’t exposed to very often or at all, that I’ve developed a taste for and now enjoy.

The first time I ever tasted lamb was at a friend’s house when I was eleven. Her mother offered me a platter of cold chops so casually, I didn’t realize that they are expensive. It was delicious, but I mostly forgot about it until many years later, and had the resources to learn to cook lamb at home. Now I can’t remember when I first bought it, but I do remember the one time we bought a whole lamb from a farmer and it was handed over fresh and whole, not frozen and butchered into roasts and chops and ground meat, like we usually get. When we were done, we ate the mysterious breast roast, broiled with salt and pepper, that we had hacked out whole and researched later. I’d get another whole lamb just to have that roast again, the one I can never find in grocery stores.

A platonic boyfriend took me to my first Indian restaurant (my first favorite: saag paneer, spinach with homemade cheese), and then my first Vietnamese restaurants. He had more than one favorite: there was the proud chef with a small restaurant in a strip mall, who served both Vietnamese and French dishes, and then the large place, very popular, where I ate a memorable dessert of red beans over chipped ice. A girlfriend introduced me to Ethiopian cuisine. My first mother-in-law taught me volumes about Southern food. With my full faith in her abilities, she served me the first liver I ever ate. At her table, I’d learned that even okra can be delicious. I am confident that I don’t like liver, as much as it would fit my ideal of myself to enjoy organ meat.

I began to knit together what I knew: the relationships among Greek and Turkish and Italian foods, and in the other direction, Italian and low country French. Why Ethiopian food was so familiar to me, the first time I ate it: because Southern food is in large part African. It happened to me again when I had Nigerian food that reminded me of Cuban, Ecuadorian, and Puerto Rican meals I’ve eaten: yellow rice with peas, fried bananas. When I branch outward culinarily, geographically, from the Mediterranean into the spice blends of north Africa and Asia Minor, I think of India, and trade routes. I learned to make sausage while working a meat counter, and made more connections: the need to preserve meat, the trade routes again---Rome, and the word “botulism,” which derives from the Latin for “sausage”---and the spices that recur: ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, coriander, and the most important of all, salt.

I make my own yogurt, and ginger beer, and pickles: not always, but I know how and can do it, for fun, the ability to customize, or to control the quality. I can make dishes from my childhood that I want to recreate, or make with better quality ingredients than is available in their store-bought alternates---lasagna, beef stew, chocolate pudding---but they’re not the bulk of what I eat. I eat brown rice, beets, pickles, lamb, duck, fresh herbs, arugula... I never ate any of these until I was an adult.

Thanks to market forces, there are foods in the world now that simply didn’t exist in my childhood: innovations in fast food, energy drinks, genetically modified foods. I avoid these in favor of the discoveries I’m still making, in the world of traditional foods I’ve yet to discover or master. I had my first tamales at a high school potluck. A classmate’s mother made them, and I was partway through my second when someone told me that you don’t eat the cornhusks. (That’s how good they were.)

Projects like making sausage, or trying tamales for the first time, or harvesting tomatoes for a pot of sauce, can be learning experiences that lead to more change, or one offs, blips in the stream of your steady diet. Sometimes I have to learn to make something more than once. White sauce was one, for me: a friend taught me to make Alfredo sauce, and then I forgot again, until I learned again to make a cheese sauce for baked mac and cheese. It was worth trying again: like tamales. You risk destroying long-held assumptions, as when I learned from Mark Bittman that one of my old favorites to order in Italian restaurants, shrimp scampi, isn’t an authentic Italian dish: “scampi” means “shrimp.” Losing the magic is a small price, in my book, for gaining the power to make a dish myself.

“Shrimp served in the style of shrimp” is one Bubba missed

What did you eat when you were a kid, and was it good? Do you still eat like that, or has your diet changed? For better or worse? How do you define “better” or “worse”---is it flavor, convenience, nutrition, or something else?

What I eat is what I’m made of, and it’s what I sit down to. I face it, then put it in my face. I identify with the food I eat. My parents got an extra freezer so they could take deliveries from the Schwan’s truck. Our extra freezers are for deliveries from the local farmers who raise our meat, and where we tuck extra servings of farm share vegetables, put up fruit from the u-picks, and keep homemade cookies we bake ahead, and give away at the holidays. I’m proud of what’s in my freezer. Our values are in there.

For some, the image of success is an individual who hardly needs to eat: someone who lives on Red Bull, or salad, or who only eats when it’s elegant and convenient to do so. For others, success equates with hedonic reward: the boss is the one who gets to have whatever he wants for dinner, and dessert, too. Do you still eat the way your parents ate? Do you eat the way other people think you do? Do you eat what you want, when you want it? Do you eat the way you want?

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Food Economy of Cities

Is it a waste of resources for urban foodies to garden on their rooftops?

Will Boisvert points out to locavores in “The Breakthrough” that transportation is only 5% of the energy used, on average, to get food on your plate, reducing the locavore dilemma to one of choosing between being a “rather cultic” farm share owner and accepting the efficient solution of factory farmed produce from California. But there’s more value in getting close to your food sources than simply saving fuel, and you don’t have to move to the country to get some of the benefits.

Harvesting your own food, even occasionally, gives you more respect for the land and the people who do farm labor. It’s satisfying on an animal level to see and smell the soil and air, and to taste what they yield. It inspires confidence to serve---and is actually more nourishing to eat---foods that you know well and enjoy. Meeting food where it lives advances that knowledge and pleasure.

Boisvert says he’s an environmentalist, not an agribusiness executive, but the ways in which the author of “A Locavore’s Dilemma” ignores the differences between conventional Red Delicious and heirloom Belles du Boskoop in comparing apples with apples, makes him sound more like the heartless businessman behind institutional cuisine than a passionate foodie. Just as focusing on transportation costs in food production is a red herring to environmentalists, focusing on efficiency in food production is largely irrelevant to people whose priorities include health, social justice, and flavor.

The author is correct that a city’s efficiencies force certain lifestyle standards on people in the city that give them smaller environmental footprints. 24 hour subway service is an efficiency that works for the most populous city in the United States, not so well for the Pioneer Valley. But why not encourage city folks, as Shel Horowitz suggests, to use spaces that wouldn’t be otherwise used? New Yorkers are not likely to drop off the grid entirely. They’re going to grow a few salad vegetables, and hopefully take ownership of their diets in a new way.

Consider those rooftop greens a gateway drug to lining up like “junkies,” as Boisvert describes those of us with farm shares. Some items in the reasonably priced (for organic) share box will represent a challenge at first, but the lifestyle changes of eating locally have made us more resourceful consumers: better educated, more confident, with more real answers to the question, “What’s for dinner?”

Instead of having respect for the people who produce his food, Boisvert thinks that growing your own arugula is work properly done by “Mexicans”, middle class urbanites who do it for the vegetables and a sense of accomplishment are suckers, and CSAs are “the worst food deal imaginable.” He imagines fresh produce as no more nutritious than canned , and a hydroponic operation in a Brooklyn warehouse as locally grown food. But canned food is cooked, which destroys nutrients in fruits and vegetables, and hydro is more factory than farm.

In hydroponics, there’s no terroir to convey the distinctive flavors and nutritive qualities of the soil, making locale irrelevant, and there’s no sun as a free energy input for plants. Instead, there are grow lights and vitamin solutions: micro-factory farming. This is convenient for restaurants and grocers that want delicate greens delivered on a just in time basis, year-round, but as Boisvert points out, it’s not an efficient use of energy to produce food. It also doesn’t teach city folk to respect the origins of their food, but to expect it to conform to the same control and mechanization as other aspects of city life.

Every solution has to be localized, even if it partakes of global solutions. In New York City, foodies seeking ingredients from upscale groceries and farmer’s markets can add local hydroponic salad greens to their options. As well as scouring the city for goods, aspirant urban locavores have their rooftops on which to grow, although there is the concern Horowitz raises, that the air up there is no cleaner than at ground level, and not as clean as the air in California, or the Hudson Valley.

But rooftop arugula and hydroponic mache are additions to, not replacements for, what feeds the vast majority of New Yorkers: the fields of not just California, but the world. The U.S. may be self-sufficient in the staple crops that make industrial food, but the foods we eat fresh, livestock and produce, are increasingly grown in other parts of the world. The USDA puts very little emphasis on the importance of fresh, raw, and green vegetables in our diets, as reflected by the tiny percentage of USDA subsidies that go to garden crops, and the gradual de-emphasis of vegetables in dietary guidelines.

Which brings us to the real issue at hand, the priorities on which we base our lifestyle choices. True urban locavorism may be science fiction (or a future dystopia of vat food), but urban food production on a small scale is currently being practiced, if not for its efficiency, than for other qualities important to people, such as freshness, nutrient density, flavor, and novelty.

---Image of NYC rooftop garden credit: Jeffrey/Flickr