Perhaps I'm a bit late in jumping on this particular bandwagon, because when I started searching for more information on a couple of closely related problems (obesity and food waste) I found more than I can handle in one post. Other folks have also been thinking about the irony of this country's enormous waistlines and the equally enormous amounts of food waste making its way to the landfill. We also hear talk of food deserts that help account for obesity among the poor, but I only recently began to wonder if anyone had been connecting the dots. Clearly they have.
This week's news media also reported on topics that are at least tangentially related to the waste/obesity problem: Herman Pontzer's articles in the New York Times, pointed out that (as the Daily Poop version of the story put it) "It's the Sugar, Stupid," and that all the exercise in the world isn't going to make us as healthy as our distant ancestors if we're consuming crap. And in this week's New Scientist, the cover story ("Eat Your Way to Dementia") is about the relationship between type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer's disease.
The last two months of house-renovation have increased my awareness of food waste because the combination of beastly weather, minimal air conditioning, and odd sleeping accommodations has put the kibosh on cooking (I've been way too hot and tired)--with the result that I spent this morning cleaning out my fridge, ridding myself of spoilt food, shriveled limes and carrots, and a couple of mystery life forms. Mind you, the compost and the Bokashi bins can handle almost all of this, so that I don't really have to throw much away. But that's not the point.
This stuff was bought at a premium, represents many folks' labor and time (from farm to market), and bloody well should have been eaten. Not only eaten, but cooked well and healthfully. What the news articles have done is to fortify my resolve to accomplish several items in a new program of food-consciousness.
First, it's really a good idea to plan one's meals and not rely (except on rare occasions) on serendipity. My daughter bragged in a text message last night that she had planned a week's meals for two and spent $57 on them at Whole Foods. She's also tracking how they use leftovers--which isn't a bad idea either. Simplifying food preparation in hot weather so that ingredients can be used more than once saves time, energy, and effort, and it helps prevent waste. So I'm going to set aside an hour or so one day a week (probably Wednesday morning) to plan the week's meals in time to shop on the way home from school on Thursday, when I have an early morning class.
In addition, since before too long I'm going to be pinching food pennies again (i.e. when I retire, which could be as early as a year from now), I'm going to need to be considerably more mindful of how much I spend. I won't scrimp on quality, but if I end up paying $5 a pound for really good tomatoes, I certainly need to make sure that we actually eat them before they go off.
My biggest challenge will be to address the issues that Herman Pontzer raises about what we've evolved to eat. This is actually something I've been aware of for rather a long time, having conducted research on breastfeeding and maternal nutrition in hunter-gatherer cultures as a grad student. I'm also really puzzled by what seems to be an increasing intolerance to the kinds of grains that our Neolithic ancestors domesticated for us. Purely gathering cultures didn't eat these grains, which came along after people settled down and began to raise animals and crops. Still, I do wonder if modern modifications to wheat varieties and increased refinement (the quest for gummy white bread) might be at least partly responsible. I've already started using farro in pilaf and risotto-like concoctions; now I'm thinking of grinding some and trying it in bread.
Another article, on the effect of modern European diets on Native Americans, makes a similar point, as does a report on the Westernization of Asian diets. Both of these populations suffer mightily from diabetes in increasing numbers, and at least part of the culprit is radical dietary change over a relatively small amount of time in evolutionary terms.
It just seems like plain common sense to eat whole foods, high in fiber, low in--but not absent--fats, and free of transmogrified sugars and other chemicalized foodstuffs that have been developed to entice us to eat "food" that's not good for us. (See the 60 Minutes programs on "Tweaking Tastes and Creating Cravings" and the toxicity of sugar for examples of how we're being seduced into desiring what's bad for us.)
The simplest path to health seems also to be the cheapest: eat simply, grow herbs to enhance flavors and provide micronutrients, stay away from heavily processed stuff that comes in fancy packaging, and cook from scratch as much as possible. New information about fermented foods seems to back up the practices of many simpler cultures (sauerkraut, kimchee, miso, cheese), so taking your dairy foods in the form of a good yoghurt doesn't sound all that bad. Thanks to Mark Bittman, I've recently reduced the amount of cow's milk I drink and have since suffered far less from heartburn. I haven't completely sworn off the stuff, because I love it (1%) in coffee, and am not fond of completely eliminating things that still offer some nutritional benefits.
While it's clear that eating more like an Archevore or following some version of a paleo-diet might well improve overall health, that's fodder (sorry) for another post. After all, if everyone suddenly abandoned wheat, corn, dairy foods, and minimized fruit consumption because of its sugar content, the American economy would collapse. But we certainly do need to pay a lot more attention to what we eat and what we throw away, and make decisions that lead producers away from creating more and more junk. Spending a bit of time reading Dana Gunders's position paper for the National Resources Defense Council, "Wasted: How America Is Losing up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill", or Jonathan Bloom's book American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of its Food (the link is to his blog, Wasted Food) can go a long way toward raising our collective awareness of the ironies and inconsistencies in American food-life; obesity, hunger, plenty, over-indulgence, and waste are all tightly woven into a culture riddled with greed, inattentiveness, consumerism, and advertising designed to make us keep doing what we're doing. But we ought not to be doing it, else we will become it.
I vote we stop. Soon.
Image credit: Vincent van Gogh's Wheat Field with Crows seemed appropriate for this post, not least because the crows can be seen as harbingers of his death. I showed this in my Art History 2 class a couple of weeks ago, along with Akira Kurasawa's short film, Crows, via Biblioklept (from Akira Kurosawa's Dreams); the painting is from Wikimedia Commons.