You can safely file it under ‘Another day, another food study.’ Followed by… now what?
Case in point: the recent meat-centered
study coming from Dalhousie and McMaster Universities, which concluded that
the health benefits associated with reducing or eliminating red and processed
meats are minimal, and the risks we thought existed are also quite small, hence
the recommendation to eat meat without restrictions, if that’s how you feel
So what’s wrong with that, some will say. The study eased
the guilt and worry about red and processed meats. It’s good to not have guilt
or fear as a side dish, right? Granted, the researchers admitted they had not
taken into consideration any animals welfare and environmental issues, and they
considered people’s attachment to their meat-based diet as one of the factors
to base their recommendations on.
The word imperfect on the bag of apples caught my eye. I grew up picking apples off the few apple trees in my family’s garden, but I could not describe to you what a perfect apple looks like. Or an imperfect one for that matter. To be fair, the concept of ‘imperfect’ apples being now on the shelves, at a smaller price too, and thus helping reduce the food waste our society is so guilty of, is not a bad thing at all, but this is a two-edged sword if there ever was one.
The perfect/imperfect classification – how did we get here? To have our fruit and produce measured, and whatever does not fit the standard discarded for other uses (hopefully) or written off as garbage – how can we possibly explain that way of classifying our food without finding the whole matter ridiculous.
Truly, the word perfect is a silly one. No one human being is perfect, no life form of any kind is perfect, not even a circle that seems perfect is in fact perfect. Really, there is no perfect circle in our entire universe and the reason is delightful from a scientific perspective: you’d have to dive to the deepest possible level, at the levels of atoms, and hopefully align them, in a quest to produce a ‘perfect’ circle. Not hard to see why it can’t be.
Truly, life is not perfect. Aiming for excellence in our professional lives, taking care to do our jobs well and with consideration to all aspects of the matters concerned, no matter how big or small the job, that has nothing to do with perfection.
Why would we then expect or let’s say tolerate the very concept when it comes to our food. More so when the concept is applied to what nature delivers.
Given such high standards, one would expect that the food offering in grocery stores would be of excellent quality. Alas, that is not the case. Instead, we are seeing bacteria tainted veggies and meat products which prompts recalls but also sees people hospitalized and even clinging to life as some of the bacteria can have deadly effects. We are confronted with the reality of inhumane conditions farm animals are raised for meat, and we have yet to see that change.
Every now and then undercover footage of industrially-raised meat reaches the media and/or social media, pointing to more than imperfect living conditions which ultimately means less than imperfect meat quality reaching our table.
We are seeing questionable origin and quality seafood, produced abroad or here in our own province. Every now and then, environmental activists bring uncontestable visual evidence such as deformed fish found among the farmed Atlantic salmon on the coast (I wrote a column on the topic), which the industry argues are not the ones that end up on our plates.
They might or might not, but this kind of information signals nonetheless the fact that the hundred-plus fish farms found in the coastal waters of BC need a make-over due to the mounting evidence pointing to the impact they have on wild fish stocks (also see the recent scandal of the piscine reovirus infested fish blood released from processing plants into the coastal waters) at a time when climate change is also affecting their returns.
Perfection is hardly the word that comes to mind when putting together such narrative. Which perhaps points to the fact that we should drop it altogether, allowing our food supply to honour both the growing process and the people behind it, as well as the consumer. In allowing for the ‘imperfect’ food to reach public consciousness we open the door towards being grateful rather than critical of how nature offers itself to us through the seasonal bounty, and by understanding it as such we do better in all areas of food production.
Imagine raising our children with the awareness of the intricacy of natural processes through which we get our food and a conscience that opposes violations of any kind, such as the use of potentially toxic chemicals and unethical practices. Expecting perfection puts unhealthy pressure on growers and delivers unhealthy results to us, the consumer. Cutting corners and applying questionable methods that cannot be tested by independent observers, neither is the recipe for sustainable health and future. Which we need.
A few years ago, when my sons were still in public school (now homeschooled), we would get a lunch program to peruse and choose from if we wanted to. We chose nothing, not because we’re fussy, but because the options were deplorable.
One of the options was called taco salad. ‘It’s a salad made of tortilla chips, Mom,’ my oldest announced a couple of weeks later, rather bemused, when he got to see the very dish. No matter how you turn it, that is not food.
Feeding children can be a wild adventure at times, given occasional pickiness and all, but that’s no excuse feeding them junk food or low-quality ingredients as part of the school lunches. Not when we live in the middle of a farm-rich country and there is an abundance of fresh, wholesome foods that could be worked into school lunches.
I am willing to say that more parents would sign up for the program if there were healthy options, and would welcome the break from figuring out next day’s lunch. There is a high chance that many kids would learn about healthy food and be better for it. Which could be amplified if students would have a garden to tend to right on school grounds. You see, gardening invites to more than planting and picking, with the occasional weeding in between.
Gardening means learning about soil and all its wondrous components, from chemical compounds to bugs of all sizes that keep it healthy; it opens the door to learning about how liquids travel through soil and how they get absorbed through the roots. It involves delving into the biochemistry of the cell and if you add a microscope to the mix, you can get hours of intense studying, which will be followed by more curiosity. From there, you get to how fruit and veggies grow, and from there on, it moves into the realm of eating good-for-you foods.
Which isn’t anything that I saw in the school district’s lunch program I happened to come across. Chicken bites, chicken burger, chicken nuggets, all served cold, followed by some fruit slices and either juice or chocolate milk or plain milk. Fruit juice is empty calories that do not benefit children or anyone else for that reason. Eating the whole fruit is where it’s at.
Again, this is happening right here where we see ripe fruit that falls on the ground all summer and fall too, from cherries to apricots to plums, apples, and pears. On top of it, we have a farmer’s market so plentiful this time a year, that it would only make sense to use some of that to provide good food for children. Just imagine connecting local farmers to the department that organizes school lunches in the district.
That being said, there will be a chorus telling me that many kids prefer junk food and they would scoff at healthy (deemed boring by some) food options. Be it so, it should be part of a school mandate to educate about healthy food options. In an age where child obesity and chronic health issues starting in childhood are on the rise, that would be a moral duty, to say the least. That’s one of the reasons why I never refer to junk or processed foods as ‘treats’, but call them by their name.
Living a long, healthy life involves no magic. Eat wholesome meals, mostly veggies, and never until full, get outside, get moving, and connect with people. In a nutshell. To keep with the scope of this piece, I will ask this: how many kids nowadays are doing all or some of the above?
There are too many processed food options (with attractive advertisements), there are devices that make them sit in one place for hours on end, there is the culture of fear where parents do not want/dare to let their kids play outside on their own, and there is, at society level, for the most part, a growing and deeply worrying trend of living life in an isolated, often self-centered way.
Many of our children are anxious, depressed, obese, or plagued by other eating disorders; some are bullied, others are bullying, at war with the world around them. They all start out eager to learn about the world around (healthy foods included,) and then somewhere down the road they become self-conscious, bored, tired, fearful, addicted to screens and drugs. Reclaiming them becomes the hardest task.
The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Fixing a generation (or more) is no easy thing. As always, one step at a time is where we can start. No drugs can ever fix what healthy food, free play, and time spent together can.
Hippocrates once said, ‘Let food be thy medicine.’ Let’s start with that. Make every bite, treats included, count. As for the rest of the issues, perhaps we should go back to forming the village needed to raise a child. A connected community is where better things happen. When it comes to our children, no effort is too big to make that happen.
The article was initially published as a column in the Armchair Mayor News on December 12, 2014.
Our garden was lush and plentiful this year. We had lettuce since early spring, we had green onion, radishes, kale, chard, and herbs. Later in the summer we had carrots and potatoes and corn. We shared lots with friends and still had enough to freeze.
All that we had was grown on less than half of our backyard, so it was only normal that I kept fantasizing about growing food on the rest of it. If less than half could feed us so well, how about a whole back yard?
The work was hard, no question. Incredibly pleasurable though and rewarding. On any given summer morning I was greeted by an army of grasshoppers guarding the corn, pumpkins, tomatoes and potatoes. Hopping as their nature prescribed, they were a sign that my organic garden was well liked by other critters like butterflies and ladybugs.
The boys helped out as well and they loved eating straight from the garden. They learned a lot too; gratefulness most of all, and the wonder of a seed becoming a full grown plant ready to provide for us.
They learned the value of food and understood why throwing it out uneaten, as waste, is unacceptable. It happens more than we would expect, or admit.
I remember seeing piles of fruit and vegetables discarded on Granville Island in garbage bins, a stark contrast with the perfect produce offered inside where everything looked nothing short of perfect.
I felt slightly uncomfortable thinking that we, the consumers, shape that perfect offer with our buying habits; which, in turn, have been shaped and conditioned by crafty marketing teams over the years.
The fallacy of that way of thinking and acting is that produce is not perfect. In our garden we got to see dwarf veggies, contorted carrots and a misshaped pear here and there. Nature is not perfect. But they were all perfectly edible, no matter the shape.
I remember when I was little and among others, I would go get the fresh eggs every day. I liked seeing them round in the straw nests and I would always inspect them carefully. Some were misshapen and I would ask my dad why. He would shrug, not bothered in the least. It’s how they come out, he would say. It made sense. Nature is not perfect.
Fast forward a few good years; I was at Simon Fraser University having lunch with other grad students and while no meal stood out, this particular one did. One of my friends was ready to eat a peach and seeing a bruise on one side, she said a loud ‘yuck’ and sent the unfortunate fruit straight into the garbage bin.
Many years later, the memory of the plunging peach is still with me. It stopped me from throwing food out every time, and it made me shake my head every time I see hungry people. I tried often to do my part and provide food for the less fortunate, yet thoughts related to food and waste are relentless. How could there be?
There is enough food lying around for no one to go hungry no matter what their budget is like, even if there is no budget at all.
There is too much food going straight into the garbage because of perfection standards that we should no longer entertain; it is insulting towards those who do not have any food, and it is insulting towards nature itself. We cannot give to food banks with one hand and throw away food with the other.
If you have doubts about food waste, just talk to the produce clerks. If the store is small enough you might see the old stuff bagged up for sale at a fraction of the price, a good solution to prevent waste. In big stores though, everything unsightly or old goes into the garbage.
A recent report pointed out that Canadians throw out up to 50 per cent of the food they buy. A few years ago I would rolled my eyes at the numbers, but not anymore. I went to one too many dinner parties or events where the leftovers were discarded and sent straight to the landfill.
With Christmas just around the corner, the thought of food and food waste comes back with a vengeance. How much food will be wasted, how many people will go hungry or eat low quality food that comes from a can rather than fresh, albeit slightly bruised produce that is better nutritionally than anything canned that might or might not come with added chemicals.
There is no simple answer to the food dilemma. Until we all decide that bad food is not the bruised or misshapen fruit, or even the ones that reach the best before date (think perfectly edible stuff like frozen food, dry food or yogurt that go a day or two over the date), we will have inexcusable indignities in food distribution, and we will have mountains of food piled up in landfills instead of people’s plates.
As for the truly bad food, some of it genetically modified, or the one that we insist on growing with loads of toxic pesticides so that we can have it all: lots of it to choose from, available all year round, cheap enough to throw out and tasteless enough to not feel bad about it anyway… well, the old ‘you are what you eat’ should be warning enough.
If less than half of a cultivated back yard can provide enough fresh produce to feed a family of four over the summer and well into the fall, sure people can grow enough food, healthy food that is, to have everyone fed and no bits thrown out unless they go into the compost.
With food becoming more expensive as we go (have you noticed?) it’s impossible not to ask why. Why, when there is enough to feed us all, and if there isn’t enough, then there shouldn’t be any in the garbage.
The cry pierced the soft quietness of early night. It sounded like a child crying and I knew it wasn’t a child but a baby goat. I covered my ears. I was sitting under an old walnut tree, with my sister, my nephew and the man’s wife. She smiled when I covered my ears, a calming smile almost…It has to be, it’s all part of it, her smile seemed to say.
I felt ashamed and I put my hands down. I am not a vegetarian, I told myself. If I choose to eat meat, then I should know that this is part of it. I tried not to imagine the baby goat. It’s called a kid, I know, but I have trouble calling it that.
The man loves his goats, my sister said before we went there. The goats spend their days on green pastures among healing wild herbs and carpets of wildflowers. He talks to each of them and keeps them clean. He cares.
We make our way to the side of the barn where the young goat hangs upside down, skinned and hoofless. I don’t look away. This is part of it. I might not eat part of this one, but I eat meat occasionally.
The man cuts the young goat open, no choppy moves. He moves the knife fast and sure of himself. He asks for some clean bags to put some of the parts in. I run down to the house and get some. I hold the bags, one by one, and they get filled with various parts. Still warm.
I realize I am holding my breath and let go. This is part of the oldest ritual there is. I breathe the warm night air in. There’s more than the usual sweet night air smell but I will not hold my breath.
My nephew asks jokingly about the crime scene. The man calmly replies “This is not a crime, it is a sacrifice.” Everyone is silent. Thinking. Knowing.
Ten minutes later we are ready to leave.
We pass by the goats’ pen. They are all white except for a brown speckled one trying to pick fights. It got ignored and for a reason. Goat or not, a day spent in the sun makes you pleasurably lazy and unwilling to respond to fights.
On the way home, I think about it all. We’ve strayed from understanding the actions that bring food on the table. To grow vegetables is an act of grace, some say. There’s nothing inconvenient to witness.
To put meat on the table, you have to sacrifice the animal. Buying a tray of drumsticks or a round steak will not bring understanding. Gratefulness for every morsel comes from looking at the animal, thanking it for the sacrifice and not letting anything go to waste. It is not blood thirst that makes one opt or meat.
It is part of life. Death is part of life. Sacrifice without a purpose is cruelty. It does not honor us, nor does it make us appreciate life. Not caring to know where our food comes from and how also shades us from the very act of gratefulness, which makes us humble and responsible for our choices.
If you choose to eat it, have the courage to look at it and understand its connection to you and respect it. No need to cover eyes or ears, you need to see in order to be respectful of every morsel.
It’s the ads that got me this time. The first one says something like this: “Now the goodness of fruit without the tedious chewing.” Strike one.
The second one says “No drain tuna.” Strike two.
Followed by “no bones, no skin canned salmon.” Strike three. We all know what happens after that. That’s right. Three strikes, you’re out. I am.
It bugs me, you see. Greatly. Chewing is good for your teeth, good for your jaws, it’s been employed by generations of scary, less scary and harmless creatures alike. We’re talking millions of years. To survive, to thrive, to fight. To exist. Now we call it tedious. Ha! We don’t want to chew our fruit, we don’t want to see the dreadful bones and flappy skin that accompany the salmon flesh – the guts on them! – and we can’t be bothered to drain a can of tuna. Never mind the tuna. Never mind the whole business of depleting the stocks until there’s barely any. It’s that liquid that drives us nuts. Get it out before it reaches the delicate consumer. Heck, if the tuna disappears we’ll find another worthy fish or make some out of chicken meat.
The real food issue again. Real food. There are apples that have to chewed, as tough as that sounds. Salmon comes with bones, a vertebrate’s right one could argue, and rightfully so. Bones is calcium, a good source of it for us humans. Real food is real. Carrots may have dirt on them and lettuce leaves may harbor some tiny bugs, each with six legs – the horror of it!
So these three derived-from-real-food kind of foods will be presented to us as mush. Soft on the palate, no chewing, no extra liquid. Take a spoonful or a sip, swallow, repeat. If we want chewing then we create with the krinkle-cut potato chips. That should work. Because you see, we need to hear the crunch. I find it satisfying. When it comes with the whole apple that is.
Rethinking our eating habits we should. Eat what’s in season, miss it if it’s not the season yet, you’ll find it that much yummier when it comes your way, don’t settle for what’s lost touch with reality. Chew. Deal?
I am mad. As in angry. I am also quite tired of running through my own head like a crazed mouse chasing angry thoughts. So I’ll put them here. Ranting as they say. The reason, you see, is because I am scared of what the world has come to when it’s about food. Happy and joyful I am – I was often (jokingly) scolded for being too happy, never mind then – but it’s getting to me. Why you ask? It’s the hogs that got me. Ha, I know, but I am not joking. It’s because of the hogs that have to be defended like this and I can only hope they win, it’s because companies like Monsanto violate all that’s good and decent in agriculture and many of us happily munch away at corn-on-the-cob that’s been genetically modified and intoxicated with chemicals, it’s because kids eat too many pesticides on any given piece of fruit, it’s because kids eat blue icing cakes and nitrate-laden cancer-causing hotdogs, it’s because kids get type II diabetes way too early in life and many never get to know what real food is and where it’s coming from. It’s because we’ve come to accept gigantic dinner portions that might or might not contain a three-pound steak from a cow that’s lived half of its miserable life in a puddle of its own excrement eating foods that are cheap but not intended by nature (corn instead of grass), it’s because people wait for food recalls to be reminded that the food they eat is a disaster waiting to happen. It’s because food should not pollute the planet it grows out of or on it, but most of ours does. That’s fundamentally wrong.
When and how have we broken away from real food? And most important, why? Why do we want it all at all times and why do we want surplus? Food should not be cheap but it is. Real food has a real price. I am not rich, I really am not. But I do believe that real food is worth the extra money. Lots of low quality conventionally grown food versus smaller amounts of real food. Which one do you choose? Real food that grows at its own pace is rich in nutrients. In other words, satisfying. Satiating. That it is unhealthy to eat until seams burst we already know. How to break the habit? Eat less, move more, breathe deeper and drink enough water. We throw away food even when it’s not spoiled because it’s cheap. there’s more where that bruised apple came from. We throw away because we are not aware of the work that goes into growing an apple or a tomato. We throw away food because we’re not aware of what it means to raise healthy animals. I am not exactly a meat eater but the thought of crowded sick animals or birds awaiting death so food stores can have mountains of ribs and drumsticks, well, it sickens me.
I get eggs from someone who has chickens in his back yard. They roam free and enjoy the good chicken life all chickens should have. People have to pay for the luxury of having chickens like that. Four per lot here in Vancouver they say. And there’s concerns about noise, smell, avian flu and such. I wish there would be health concerns about caged chickens sold in a regular food store for example. After all they were shown to come with arsenic and antibiotics. Arsenic is a carcinogenic compound. Yet there is no warning. Meat is but one chapter of the food story.
We cannot allow ourselves to disconnected from real food, it’s a mighty expensive habit. Eat less but eat clean. Cicero said “Thou shouldst eat to live; not live to eat” and one could almost be fooled into thinking that we are doing just that, living to eat. But in fact we are killing ourselves with food. It’s too much with too little of what we need to nourish ourselves. We’re giving ownership of our food to a handful of big corporations, being pork, cattle, corn or soy ones, and stepping away graciously too preoccupied with other things or sincerely satisfied with what they have for us. We forgive the recall mishaps as soon as they happen and continue to sign up for “all you can eat” menus. Somehow I wish for us all to pause and think.Think of how we still have the luxury to make choices.
Today the boys and I took our two piglets (guinea pigs) out in the sun for a yummy snack of dandelion leaves. There’s so many of them in the front yard. I like them too. Yes, I just said that. I like the slight bitterness of early spring dandelion leaves. Aside from the earthy taste, I know they are a good liver cleanser and I need that. We all need a bit of cleansing, you’d most likely agree, but these days we need more than ever. Because you see, that’s a big part of why I’m angry. I may strive to eat clean real food but I happen to live on the same planet as the big boys who play God with food from growing it to processing it into scary stuff like the Grapple (apple that smells like grapes, yes, the horror!) and hotdog-stuffed pizza crust (not kidding, it exists). And because I do, some of the bad stuff they use ends up in my food too, ends up in the air I breathe and ends up in the birthday cake my kids are being served at their friends’ parties. There seems to be no escape, but there is. Still. It starts with saying NO to what’s not real and clean. I say that when people eat with their brain rather than just mouths they are healthier. When we eat with a conscience and leave the table when half-full we’re lighter and closer to where we should be. Choose local clean food, choose humanely raised animals and buy less processed foods. Make it count. Your choice that is.
PS: If you wonder whether I avoided using the term “organic” the answer is yes. The very term has been abused and overused lately, hence I choose to go with “real”. I hope bruising will clear soon and I’ll get to use it again. More about this in a near future post.
The journey of raising boys has been one of joy, wonder, humbleness and ever-growing curiosity for what comes next. Which is why I thoroughly enjoyed Amy Herbst's book 'Boys will be boys.' Click here to view more details It's got what boys' parents need.