First off, I’m excited to say I have a new job!! I’m now doing marketing (mostly graphic design and social media) for a local farmers market association!! Right up my alley, yea? I’m psyched — and loving it.
Secondly, I’m feeling inspired to make a serious change in the way I think about food. (More about my food challenge is below!)
Now, I’ve been here before. Pollan has a way of doing this to me, but I’m not ALWAYS reading Pollan. McDonalds is right next to the Home Depot (seems like my 2nd home, most weekends), and it’s all too easy to grab a 10-piece McNugget and head on my way.
But right now, Pollan has me seriously second guessing that nugget. And the entire food system. And the one staple that makes up an inordinately large part of that food system: Corn.
You’ll have to read the book for Pollan’s great description of corn sex, and how corn’s reproductive habits (among other things) made it perfectly suited for mankind, how we chose it and it chose us, and how we co-evolved to the point where it seriously rules our lives. Forget about robots, Pollan has me convinced it’s corn that’s going to wake up and take over the world.
You’ll also have to read the book for his dive into corn economics: how politics overtook centuries of common knowledge and agricultural good sense, and how the U.S. government (thanks to the Nixon administration and all thereafter) turned farmers into “agribusinessmen.”
Fast forward to 2011: the pastoral Midwestern farm doesn’t exist. One factory farmer feeds about 130 people (that’s the most productive farmer of all time) — all in corn.
Corn is the glue holds the modern food system — as well as all those McNuggets — together.
It’s also a big percentage of the rest of the ingredients. Corn starch and high fructose corn syrup: those are the most obvious. How about maltodextrin? Sometimes that’s derived from soy, but often it’s corn, and it’s in EVERYTHING, it seems. Same with xantham gum, vegetable oil, food starch and modified food starch, MSG, malt (and malt syrup or extract), dextrose, fructose, sucrose, baking powder, caramel coloring (and flavoring), and more. Just try to find something in the supermarket without corn hiding in it.
Going one step down the food chain, try to find meat or dairy from an animal that wasn’t fed corn. Those products generally aren’t labeled, so you really have no idea. But in general, it seems, assume it was unless you know the farmer yourself.
My One-Week Food Challenge
Just a little bit appalled by all this, I’ve decided to challenge myself to eat for one week without ingesting any invisible corn. Now, I pretty much accept that this is impossible, but I’m going to do my best.
Also, I’m allowing myself to eat corn itself — as in, the actual whole vegetable. And I might make an exception or two for corn meal, since that’s the next least processed version of corn, and it’s something I could theoretically make myself without too much trouble.
At Farmer Joe’s this afternoon (similar to Whole Foods), I perused the aisles looking for things I can eat this week. Big brand peanut butter is out (corn syrup). So, surprisingly, is grated mozzarella cheese (all contained corn starch or “cellulose powder,” which I can only assume comes from corn).
Adele’s Sausage is out too, along with most breakfast cereals. Beer doesn’t list ingredients (?), but I’ve read it’s often made with corn products, so there will be none of that this week either. Good thing I’ve stockpiled the wine…
I ended up coming home with: Challah bread, bulk granola, bulk dried mango, and several dairy products which probably break the rules, since I don’t know what the animals were fed: organic Kefir, a block of mozzarella, and a tub of marscapone. I’ll supplement this throughout the week with farmers market fare and stuff from my own garden.
Tonight’s dinner: Homemade pizza. I made the dough myself — this is a 5-minute job and much easier than you’d expect! The sauce was my own as well (canned this past weekend!).
I sauteed up some portobella mushrooms in olive oil and balsamic vinegar and tossed them on top along with an onion a friend picked on a local farm, the mozzarella (grated myself, since the pre-grated bags were full of corn), a little bit of pancetta (rule breaker, since the pig probably ate loads of corn), and globs of goat cheese (goats probably eat corn, too).
It took about 30 minutes of prep and 30 minutes to cook. I’d say it was moderately corn-free, save the animal products and the little bit of cornmeal I used to keep the dough from sticking to the stone.
Tomorrow’s breakfast: Kefir with granola or challah with marscapone and a corn-free jam.
I’m already breaking rules, out of necessity — I just don’t have easy (i.e. convenient) access to 100% grass-fed meat AND dairy, even at most of the farmers markets! And of all places, the Bay Area probably has the most access in the country.
This is going to be difficult… I’ll keep you posted.
Over the last few weeks, as days get warmer in Maine and Minnesota where most of my friends and family live, I’ve noticed more and more Facebook status updates about old friends — and a few unexpected ones — starting vegetable gardens.
What’s going on?
If Marion Nestle — a prominent nutritionist, New York University professor, and the author of Food Politics — is right, we’re in the middle of a food revolution.
Oh, Monsanto… It’s something else! (Controlling) 90 to 95 percent of genetically modified foods, it’s the quintessential example of monopoly in capitalism.”
– Marion Nestle
I saw Nestle speak last weekend (May 23) in Point Reyes Station, north of San Francisco. I started reading her What to Eat last month after finding her referenced again and again in Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. I was so excited she was visiting the Bay Area that I drove 90 minutes north to see her (and her recent coauthor Malden Nesheim, Feed Your Pet Right) talk about food and farming.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, between 1994 and 2009, the number of “operating farmers markets” nationwide increased from 1,744 to 5,274 — that’s more than a three-fold jump!
Since President Barack Obama took office in January, 2009, vegetable gardens have sprung up in prominent places: Within a few weeks, Obama’s newly appointed Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, tore up the pavement in front of the USDA’s Washington, D.C. office to create a community garden. As of April, 2010, the ensuing “People’s Garden” project has created 300 community gardens at USDA facilities and in nearby communities throughout the country.
In May, 2009, California’s First Lady, Maria Shriver, planted the first ever vegetable garden in Sacramento’s Capitol Park, inspired by Berkeley, California, school gardens created by local food legend and author Alice Waters.
The list goes on.
According to Nestle (although I couldn’t easily fact-check this), the New York Times Book Review hadn’t done anything with food for 40 years — until Michael Pollan came around, that is.
In 1991, Pollan wrote in the NY Times Book Review, “It was the bookstore’s long and unexpectedly lively shelf of garden writing that led me deep into the garden world.”
Michael — I completely understand.
No, really: Another sign of revolution is the increasing size of the bookstore (and video store) sections on gardening and food. Even at the little local book shop down the street from my house, I’m overwhelmed by the selection. And not all these texts are obscure: Have you heard of Fast Food Nation? The Omnivore’s Dilemma? The documentary film Food, Inc.?
Food for change
According to Nestle and Nesheim, the increasing interest in these subjects has two major sparks: Obesity and climate change.
Both, Nesheim said, have caused growing concern among Americans about food, how it’s made, and where it comes from.
“We finally put food and agriculture as connected,” he said. “We’re less worried about how much food we have, and more about quality.”
In her books and in person, Nestle is a big proponent of organic foods: You eat organic, she says, you reduce pesticide use and increase soil quality. You eat sustainably, and you encourage sustainability — “voting with your fork.”
That being said, and despite having written a book titled What to Eat, Nestle claims she never tells people what to eat, just that she “want(s) people to eat thoughtfully.”
Whether you’re an organic eater or not, there are ways to eat thoughtfully, as well as ways to encourage others to do the same — which, if policy follows public demand, should impact the food supply in general.
Eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Go easy on junk foods.
– from What to Eat, Marion Nestle
I’ll skip the “thoughtful eating rules” so I can focus more on how Nestle proposes inspiring change in others and feeding — pun intended — the revolution.
Engagement in this particular issue, she said, is easy: Since everyone loves (or at least has) to eat, it’s a relevant cause for most.
First, Nestle said, “if you want to get involved, schools are the place to do it.” Since schools face budget constraints every year, any time you can give to help start or continue a gardening or food-related project will make a tangible difference.
Second, she said, “it’s important to push the politics.” Talk to your congressional representative if you want to see better labeling of foods, more oversight of pollution control in fishing grounds, or a shift in farm subsidies away from corn and soy. The Obama administration, she said, has officials ready to push change.
Third, she recommended, “if you have a choice of HMOs, choose one that’s non-profit,” since non-profit insurance companies are in the business of health rather than in profiting from disease. Kaiser Permanente, she said, is a prime non-profit example.
Fourth, start your own garden. She keeps one in Ithaca, New York, where she said “being organic is easy: You can pick the beetles off by hand.” It’s issues of scale that make organic farming more difficult, she said, so start with your own garden or shop small local farms in order to encourage more sustainable practices in the bigger picture.
As for a few of my own ideas, in part inspired by Nestle and her books:
Educate yourself on food labels. This is no easy task, except for the simple fact that fewer ingredients is almost always better. Additionally, Nestle and Pollan and others all recommend that if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, you probably don’t want to be eating it. (Do you keep diglycerides and xantham gun in your cupboard?)
Lastly, keep reading Urbivore! This is shameless self-promotion, of course, but the more people there are interested and engaged in food, agriculture, and sustainability, the more of all three we’ll get. There’s only good (and good food) to gain.