Saturday, March 21, 2009

What's the big deal about food?

Food

You get hungry. You go to the supermarket. You buy a steak and a potato. You grill the steak and bake the potato. You eat. You are satisfied. You go to sleep. The process starts again the next day.

So what's the big deal?

Unknown to many Houstonians and Americans in general, a furious debate is underway about what, when, where, and how we eat. Fought and lobbied in board rooms, state and federal legislatures, restaurants, farms, supermarkets, and even households, the impact of this debate will be felt for years to come. Literally billions of dollars and millions of lives are potentially at stake.

To make some sense of all this, I'd like to provide some examples about what is being debated, why these issues are being debated now, and how we as individual Houstonians can make a difference in food issues if we choose to do so.

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Debate? What Debate?
With all the recent commotion surrounding our nation's economic troubles you may have missed a few interesting developments on the food front in the last few months. Here's a quick rundown.

  • President Obama's Address on Food Safety
    In his March 14th, 2009 Weekly Address, President Obama acknowledged that the system currently in place to ensure food safety is inadequate. He announced the creation of a Food Safety Working Group to study this issue and report back to him on how to streamline and make more effective the 12 disparate federal agancies that currently oversee food safety.

  • Agriculture Secretary Supports Single Food Safety Agency.
    In February Tom Vilsack, the new agriculture secretary, stunned just about everyone in government as well as the food industry when he suggested that the best solution may be to create a single new agency to oversee food safety. That may seem like common sense, but you must realize that this goes against the raison d'etre of many entrenched government bureaucracies that were created by laws passed as far back as Teddy Roosevelt. Won't happen without a fight.

  • Michelle Obama Announces White House Vegetable Garden.
    The First Lady put her gardening shovel where her mouth is and made good on a pledge to bring healthy, sustainable food to the White House in the form of a "Victory Garden" planted on the South Lawn of the White House. The New York Times was so smitten by this development that it created a "Room for Debate" article with opinions from presidential historians (including Douglas Brinkley of Rice University), a former White House chef, and other general foodie-type folks. The White House website published the garden's layout (340KB PDF).

  • Alice Waters on 60 Minutes.
    Few events announce your arrival to the mainstream of America than a feature on the TV news magazine 60 Minutes. Recently Alice Waters, the most vocal and controversial of the sustainable/local/slow food movement proponents, achieved just such a distinction.


    Watch CBS Videos Online

  • Attack of the Foodie Movies.
    2009 will see the release of at least two documentary movies that weigh in on the current debate about food: Food Inc., and Food Fight! I've watched Food Fight! and it's basically a history of the local food movement that started in Berkeley, California with Alice Waters and her restaurant Chez Panisse. Food Inc. promises to be a more hard-hitting investigation of industrial agriculture and industrial food production in general.

  • Attack of the Televangelists.
    Apparently bored by the "been there, done that" wedge issues like abortion and homosexuality, at least one mega-preacher — Joel Osteen here in Houston — recently decided to preach against eating shellfish and other "unclean" food. Presumably this edict was for purposes of leading a healthy lifestyle, but one wonders if Mr. Osteen sensed a new wedge-in-the-making?

  • Attack of the Socio-Political Commentators.
    Perhaps feeling left out of the party, socio-political commentator Mary Eberstadt wrote a politically-charged essay about the food debate entitled "Is Food the New Sex?" It caused quite a dust-up in the food/politics/religion blogospheres. Even some hack writer over at the Houston Press blogged about it.

Why is the debate about food happening now?
Most of the global crises that have come to a head in recent years — healthcare, energy, environment, etc. — are inextricably linked to food.

At the risk of oversimplifying one of the most complex issues of our time, I'd like to outline some of the reasons why food has recently become the subject of such impassioned debate.

Be warned: there's alot of bad news. But it's not all doom and gloom. The good news is that we as individual citizens have many opportunities in our daily lives to improve and influence how and what we eat.

  • Healthcare crisis.
    The National Institutes of Health report that 10.7 percent of Americans over age 20 have diabetes (Type 2 diabetes — the type associated with diet — makes up 90-95 percent of cases). 23.7 percent of the population over 65 have diabetes. Average medical expenditures among people with diagnosed diabetes were 2.3 times higher than what expenditures would be in the absence of diabetes.

    Additionally, the NIH reports that a staggering 31.4 percent of Americans over 20 years of age are obese. From 1960 to 2004, the prevalence of obesity more than doubled among adults age 20 to 74 from 13.3 to 32.1 percent, with most of this rise occurring since 1980.

  • Energy crisis.
    According to journalist and food activist Michael Pollan, in 1940 it took approximately 1 calorie of fossil-fuel energy to produce 2.3 calories of food energy. Today, it takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of energy in supermarket food.

  • Environmental crisis.
    The amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere during the production of food is substantial. Fertilizer, farm machinery, pesticides, packaging and transport all contribute to these emissions. Although the impact of these emissions on global warming is debatable, companies such as Pepsico have recently pledged to research and publicize the amount of CO2 emissions produced for each of its products.

  • Economic crisis.
    As economic conditions worsen and paychecks shrink there is a demonstrable flight to less expensive food choices, especially among the working poor. In most cases these less expensive options are of dubious nutritional quality (fast food/junk food). The big supermarket chain's budget food products fly off the shelves. The McDonald's fast food chain reports record profits. Populations such as the working poor that are most effected by these dietary choices are also the ones most likely to lack health insurance.

  • Food safety crisis.
    In the past few months more than 70 American food companies such as Trader Joe's, Whole Foods Market, and Kroger have been scrambling to remove a variety of peanut butter products contaminated with salmonella. The crisis continues to spiral out of control with over 500 people sickened (half of them children) and 8 deaths reported. Dr. Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the Food and Drug Administration's food center, admits "We don't have a good idea of how much of that product is still out there."

    More significantly, the issue of contaminated Chinese food imports is a growing concern. The US Food and Drug Administration has recently taken unprecedented steps to prevent possible outbreaks from tainted Chinese food products. The Obama administration has pledged to make food safety a priority in the coming years.

How Can I Make a Difference?
Food is unique in that every human being on the planet has a vital stake in how and what we eat. More than just about any other issue, food policy demands that we think globally and act locally. How and what we choose to eat in Houston can have a meaningful global impact.

  • Learn how to cook.
    There is general agreement that cooking the occasional meal at home using fresh, whole ingredients is both healthy and economical.

  • Volunteer for/Donate to Recipe for Success.
    The mission of this Houston organization is to combat childhood obesity by encouraging healthy eating habits through programs like Chefs in Schools in which local chefs conduct cooking classes in Houston elementary schools.

  • Patronize restaurants that promote local food.
    No time to shop for and cook local, sustainable, nutritious food? Let the professionals do it for you. t'afia restaurant has literally made a name for itself in this area and many other establishments support the cause.

  • Shop at farmers markets.
    Local markets like Houston Farmers Market, Bayou City Farmers Market and Midtown Farmers Market collectively provide a great selection of locally grown and environmentally friendly food. The provenance (and by extension safety) of your food is indisputable -- you are buying it from those who grew and harvested it.

  • Plant a garden.
    The return of the Victory Garden is an effort to produce hyper-local, nutritious, and environmentally friendly food. When your food is growing in your backyard, there's no concern about CO2 emissions due to transport. President Obama is being lobbied to start his own garden (it worked by the way).

  • Volunteer at a community garden.
    For those of us without the time, knowledge, or real estate to start our own garden, there are literally hundreds of community gardens throughout the city of Houston. Organizations like Urban Harvest and Target Hunger provide instruction and volunteer opportunities to produce safe, nutritious food that is made available to Houston families regardless of their economic situation.

  • Attend Houston Restaurant Week.
    Some of Houston's best restaurants join forces to provide prix fixe menus with a portion of proceeds going to charities such as the Houston Food Bank which provide food to the economically disadvantaged.

4 comments:

Dr. Ricky said...

In general, a well written and thought out posting. Bravo. But I must take issue with one teensy little section - the idea that buying from a local farmer's market ensures food safety. Granted, the food safety oversight is defective at the moment, but farmer's market vendors have no oversight at all. I have seen some pretty pockmarked produce, perhaps past its prime, being sold as a healthful "organic" item. I don't think health inspectors check for minimum standards for processing and handling of cheese, meats, breads, milk or eggs. Heck, although I agree that in some circumstances, unpasteurized milk is a preferred ingredient, there is no contesting the historical dangers of drinking unpasteurized milk - yet farmer's market vendors readily tout selling the risky fluid as a healthy product. Unfortunately, at a farmer's market, hearsay often trumps objective and systematic studies when it comes to food safety. I still shop and love farmer's markets - but for different reasons that assured safety.

Houston Foodie said...

@Dr. Ricky - Agreed and thanks for pointing this out. The produce at a farmers market is by no means intrinsically safe. As you note it may be theoretically less safe due to lack of official oversight.

The point I was trying to make is that in the absence of official oversight, the existence of provenance offers a strong incentive for FM vendors to self-regulate.

You are purchasing your food face-to-face with the person producing it and if something goes wrong you can hold them responsible.

On the other hand, faceless industrial food production creates the need for official regulation and inspection.

So which is more effective? Self-regulation because of the direct producer-to-consumer relationship, or official oversight due to the complexity of industrial food production? Interesting question anyway.

Carlos Meltzer said...

Thanks for bringing so much information to our attention and providing information on local outlets that are making a difference in the way we eat. A big thank you especially for the shout out to Recipe for Success Foundation. Getting kids to grow and cook their food is one of the first steps to reclaiming our waistlines and bringing real food back to the American home.

Aileen said...

I just found this blog and it seems great! I'm a native Houstonian currently living in NYC, and I love food. Another local resource for organic and local produce is a market in the parking lot of La Strada on Westheimer and Taft. It is there Saturdays from 8isham to 2ishpm. Each time I have gone there the prices have been excellent and the people very friendly...it isn't huge but what they do have is high quality. It's run by local folk so you are not only supporting local and organic foods but also a Houston business.

Something that gets overlooked sometimes in the organic food debate is the effect on the land and water from non-organic farming methods. Honestly, I am not as much bothered by ingesting some pesticides on my apple peel as much as I am concerned about the long term effects of unbridled short-sightedness in large-scale farming techniques. The focus is on the next crop and not the crop for the next generation. It may not be perfect but the organic food movement at least addresses the long-term health of our farmlands and water supplies. I seek it out and buy it to support these practices and ideals. Every dollar we spend as consumers reflects what we value.