Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sane Food Challenge - Overview & Initial Thoughts

Tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and meats are pulled from store shelves and restaurants.

Girl Scouts are encouraged to sell something besides cookies, which contribute to the obesity epidemic.

Undercooked eggs are dangerous.

The way food is produced and distributed in America, and the publicity that goes along with it, is, I believe, fundamentally flawed, and that obesity and the ills of mega-agribusiness have a common root in the way we've come to think about our food.

Let's look at the veggies first. For what possible reason would possibly-containing-salmonella tomatoes from 1000 miles away be shipped into Arkansas in the middle of summer? The golden lining in the recent recall was that suddenly locally grown 'matoes were proudly and loudly advertised in restaurants and grocery stores. I'd have bought some, if I didn't have my own supply, even closer.

This year I decided to grow my own. Four 12" pots, and a patch of dirt about 18" x 36" gives me a couple tomatoes and peppers each week, and as much leafy green goodness as I want (it grows fast, and can be continually replanted). Two other (slightly larger) pots are giving me more squash and cucumbers that I can handle. An hour spent planting seeds / seedlings, and an occasional watering, has me eating more of these veggies than I ever have. And they taste better, too (and are no doubt more nutritious). Health, +1. Environment, +1. Sanity, +1.

I hadn't thought about avoiding salmonella risks when I planted my little garden, but the disease must be something very severe to warrant such caution.

Salmonella is, essentially, a bad stomachache. 3-5 days of "stomach bug" symptoms with the risks and treatments one would associate with that. Not pleasant, and risky if you're in poor health or a little baby, but maybe not quite as bad as one would believe, considering the societal warnings.

Well, if it's not so terribly severe, it must at least be common, right? Let's look at eggs:

Scientists estimate that, on average across the U.S., only 1 of every 20,000 eggs might contain the bacteria. So, the likelihood that an egg might contain Se ["salmonella"] is extremely small – 0.005% (five one-thousandths of one percent). At this rate, if you’re an average consumer, you might encounter a contaminated egg once every 84 years.

I think I'll take my chances. I'll keep eating sushi, too.

Now, about those Girl Scout Cookies. Apparently they used to be made by the girl scouts! Yes, the actual girls, not the commercial bakeries employed by the organization.

The cookies have been around for 90 years, starting out with scouts baking sugar cookies at home with their mothers, wrapping them in wax paper and selling them door to door, a dozen for 25 cents.
I'm estimating that'd be about about $5.00 per dozen today (a box of thin mints contains 36 cookies - 3 dozen). Somehow, at $15 a box, I just don't see people gorging themselves on those cookies the way they do on the cheap, mass produced ones that are sold now. What if all mass-produced baked goods became unavailable, and we had to make them ourselves or buy them from girl scouts, who baked them themselves? Suddenly this high calorie food has more value, in the same way as a bottle of good wine. They become something to be savored and brought out for special occasions. Hardly an ingredient in an obesity epidemic.

Wrapping my mind around the broad connections between these trends is like a 3 year old trying to hug a beach ball. It's quite a stretch, and hard to hold onto, but it's definitely there. We have become disconnected from food, affecting how we farm, shop, cook, and eat. The system creates disease outbreaks where there should be none, and removes the reality of food from our national psyche. Quality has been replaced by quantity. Some risks have been downplayed (large-scale farming and cheap artificial ingredients) while others have been exaggerated (salmonella in eggs, sweets and treats in even small quantities), creating a sort of culinary schizophrenia.

There's a challenge here, to reclaim some sort of sanity in the way we grow food, shop, cook, and eat. I'll be thinking about exactly what form it should take - suggestions are welcome.