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Food, Inc. and other health-related issues.

June 16, 2009

So I read an article in the Metro Express this morning about a new documentary film that came out this past weekend, geared towards exposing the “corporate underbelly” of American agriculture and food provision. The movie’s called Food, Inc. (website is here), and it calls attention to the way we approach food in America.

I’m planning on seeing the film (eventually), which means, of course, that here I am, endorsing it without actually having seen what it’s really about. The bottom line, though, is that the group that put the movie together hits on a few issues that I find incredibly important. I should probably warn you, this is something I feel very strongly about, so there will be a slant to the following post.

1. Fast food chains. It is so cheap, so easy, and so convenient to pop over to McD’s for a hamburger and fries. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, we’ve all done it. But have you ever actually LOOKED at the nutrition facts? If not, go here. A few cherrypicked favorites:

Double cheeseburger (a dollar menu favorite): 440 calories, 34 carbs, 25g protein, and…oh yeah, 1150 mg sodium.

M&Ms McFlurry: a dainty 620 calories, a mere 96 carbs, and 85g sugar.
Medium French Fry: 380 calories, 270 mg sodium, and 48 carbs.

The bottom line from their ideas is that fast food (and other restaurants) should be obligated to post nutrition facts on their menus, so that consumers can make a more educated decision. Would you make the same decisions if you had the nutrition facts staring you in the face? Or would you spring for the side salad and a cup of water, instead of the medium fry and cup of empty calories/waste-of-space (oh, I mean soda) or cup of no-nutritional-value-and-tricks-your-body-into-craving-sweets-waste-of-space (oh, I mean diet sodas)?

2. Environmental transportation costs of food. This is one that many people don’t think about, don’t think is important, or generally overlook because “well, it’s easier to buy what’s there.” Transporting food from Mexico, California, or Florida to DC emits tons of carbon (literally tons) into our atmosphere, either by on-the-ground trucks or through air freight (heinous). This is not a good thing, no matter who you are. My mom always taught me not to litter, and even if you don’t buy the whole “global climate change” thing, pollution is, essentially, throwing your trash into the atmosphere. Admittedly there are many situations where you can’t get away from it, and there are many naturally-created emitters out there of various gases (think cows = methane) which are hurting the environment. But. That doesn’t mean you should do it frivolously. Bottom line, polluting is bad no matter who you are, and transporting food like that is silly, particularly when farmers’ markets exist expressly for this purpose.

3. Sustainable agriculture. I can’t stress this one enough – our grandfathers’ grandfathers had to deal with this, because they had to literally live off their own land for many generations. Why do we think we’re any different? We haven’t figured out how to feed ourselves sustainably yet, but way too many people sit there and think “Well, it’s not my problem.” Guess what. Keep thinking that way, and eventually? It will be. And it will be too late. It’s a literal fact that soil gets depleted, insecticide and pesticide use over time generates mutations and other unhealthy things that I personally don’t want in my body.

Honestly I think the bottom line for the whole “food” issue is that we need to care for our bodies more than we’re doing now. Natural production methods are better for you, because they come from nature (sounds logical). That is not to say that technology is necessarily bad – there have been many agricultural improvements that are actually improvements. I’m not saying we all need to go back in time and hang with Laura Ingalls Wilder. But it is SO important to be aware of what we’re putting in our bodies.

Click here for some useful information on health, courtesy of the American Heart Association.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Neil permalink
    June 16, 2009 11:38 am

    Hear hear! All very good points, and things people need to pay much more attention to. People are frequently so caught up in the american dream that they never stop to consider that how we’re doing things might not be the best way to go about it. You should definitely check out “Diet for a small planet” by frances moore lappe, it meshes quite well with a lot of these ideas. One of the big things I got out of it is how stupendously inefficient meat production is – something like two thirds of the grain produced in this country just goes to feeding livestock, which of course only put out a fraction of the calories that you feed them. There’s enough grain grown around the world to feed everybody on the planet something like 3000 calories per day, but the cattle get most of it and the rest of it has all sorts of trouble getting where it’s needed. It’s a massively complex problem, but a fascinating and extremely important one too.

    • lisam permalink
      June 16, 2009 11:40 am

      Thanks for commenting, Neil! I’ll definitely see what I can find on the Frances Moore Lappe front. Yes, meat production is horribly inefficient, which is why I have so many friends who are (or have contemplated being) veggies. It’s just one part of the overall problem though, so instead of cutting it out, I try to look for ways to make it stretch farther, or supplement. Don’t forget to eat your fish too!

  2. Douglas Naaden permalink
    June 16, 2009 4:23 pm

    About #1 – I dont’ look so strongly at nutrition when I buy things with actual nutrition on them. I usually buy what is cheap. So, mostly, I just buy beans and rice.

    About #2 – I don’t see any relevance to a food issue here. Seems to me more of an engineering issue (finding a better fuel source/usage). Food isn’t the only thing that get transported all over. And even if everyone bought from the Farmer’s Market, how much population could that service?
    And, pollution-wise, it takes fuel to get me and every tom-dick-and-harry down to the farmer’s market, (and we would still be going to places like HEB & Kroger). So would the pollution saved by not freighting really be reduced that much when you factor in the new pollution used by several hundred more people traveling (alone) in their cars to the local farmers market?
    I’m just asking.

    @ Neal: Cattle are inefficient, sure, but they aren’t the problem. Distribution is.

    • lisam permalink
      June 16, 2009 5:11 pm

      Well, Douglas, maybe you should look at more nutrition facts! And if you’re going to go with beans, be sure to select black beans – they have the highest levels of protein and other nutrients, particularly if you buy them dried rather than canned. You can live on rice and beans alone (millions of people live on rice alone every day) but you really should get some greens and some fish every now and again.

      And on your second point, I appreciate your comments for being a dissenting opinion – I’m definitely open to debate on the subject. First of all, the point of sustainable agriculture is really to make it so that we can provide food for ourselves locally. The reason Americans demand such far-traveled foods is not out of necessity but out of convenience (“what? I can’t have oranges in December?! Heck no!”). It would actually be possible to locally source everything you need to survive food-wise, it’s just that we would have to change our preferences to accept what’s seasonally available (not something Americans are used to – “What? Give up my options? Heck no!”).

      Incidentally, it doesn’t take everyone fuel to get to the farmer’s market. You can ride your bike, walk, or take public transportation (which is still pollution, but at least much better than driving your car). Farmer’s markets are typically centrally located, at least to the areas they serve, so the difference in pollution is definitely in favor of the environment, and it’s in favor of the end product (the farther a piece of food has to go, the less ripe it was when it was picked, which means you won’t have the same quality as a farmer’s market can provide).

      The bottom line of all of this, I think, is that there is no “one” issue here. The way we eat affects our impact on the environment, and our impact on the environment definitely affects our options for eating. We have to do what we can where we know we can make a difference, and part of that is seeking sustainable agricultural (and transportation) practices. Farmer’s markets are merely one way to do that (and a great way to make sure local families who live off their farm proceeds can make money, instead of sending your money to give corporations more profits).

      You make a great point in that we need to thoroughly examine our options to ensure we’re not doing more harm than good, but to do nothing at this point is, honestly, selfish! We all share the earth, so we’re all responsible for keeping it clean.

  3. June 17, 2009 3:06 pm

    I just did a Google Map search for farmer’s markets and I figure that in my case, it would be an hour’s round trip to do a farmer’s market trip. I don’t eat as many whole foods as I should, anyway…

    I think that if we were charged for the carbon emissions it could correct people’s consumption, but it’s difficult to quantify the benefit of having a cleaner environment. I’m generally not in favor of the bigger government this could necessitate.

    • lisam permalink
      June 17, 2009 3:18 pm

      That really is such a good point, Geoff – Houston is so tough to be environmentally friendly in (one of the main stumbling blocks to convincing myself to move back there, aside from the whole “they don’t have access to international development” thing). I wish it were more of a priority there, because it would make life so much better, but unfortunately things like the environment are subject to people’s preferences, and, as you say, it’s hard to quantify the benefit of a cleaner environment.

      Carbon taxes are, I think, one of the best ways to curb our emissions – they do them in other countries all the time, and while I’m not anti-big government myself, I do recognize the difficulties it poses on a government that is involved in so many other aspects of the economy. I think this is definitely the domain of government, because the government’s supposed to be there to help protect the social good when it’s not in the private interest (and environment protection is the #1 example I can think of for that) but our government has definitely involved itself in so many areas right now, it’s hard to say we need to increase the size. It’s sad, but it’s one of those things that gets overlooked because it just doesn’t seem “immediate” …. until we’re all walking to work in the midst of a glacial drought with tornadoes and famine (wait a minute…did I just quote the Day After Tomorrow? What an awful movie…..).

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. June 18, 2009 2:08 am

    Sounds like a great film. Hopefully I won’t have to wait for video…

    I’ve not read Frances Moore Lappe, but can recommend Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. Since reading them, we’ve tried hard to by things grown locally, including a short stint in a local co-op .

    The Weston A. Price Foundation and it’s journal Wise Traditions are another great resource.


  5. June 18, 2009 8:39 am

    Local co-op, if you’re interested:

    • lisam permalink
      June 18, 2009 9:18 am

      Thanks for the comment, and the link, Jon! I hope Douglas follows the co-op – what a wonderful thing!

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