By Patsy Nevins
Once Upon a Time…
There was a meat factory. A filthy meat factory that inspired Upton Sinclair’s 1906 classic The Jungle. Because of him, companies are required by law to ensure some level of cleanliness and quality in their products. I almost can’t blame him for the lifestyle choices he ended up making. I suspect that Mr. Sinclair didn’t approve of such things as mac & cheese or Spam. He didn’t drink, smoke and would not even touch coffee or tea, played tennis into his 70’s, and lived largely on brown rice, vegetables, and fruits. Basically, he promoted vegetarianism. Anyway, whatever Sinclair’s personal choices, he was realistic. He knew that most people would eat meat, and he wanted them to do so safely. People nowadays use The Jungle as their justification to protest any modern convenience in food as poison (how plausible it is that companies make billions of dollars off of REPEAT customers by selling toxic foods, I’m not sure). And rather than fight for safe alternatives as Sinclair did, their solution IS the alternative. I was not living when Sinclair wrote his classic, but I was alive during part of his life and I saw first hand what industrial food production, post-Jungle, has brought us.
Well, Back in My Day!
I’m sure you’ve all heard someone utter this phrase: Back in my day, we walked fifteen miles in the snow with no shoes! What’s remarkable about my story is not what I was wearing or how far I walked, but for what. There was no food activism back in my day, no talk of food deserts, and no taking back our boxes of foods to protest a lack of fresh greens. Back in the days before food stamps (which is NOT a lot of money, certainly not enough for ‘snob’ food), the government would give you boxes full of food. When I was a child and we needed help, the boxes of food we were given at our town hall did not include fresh meats, vegetables, fruits, etc.
You wan to know what we got?
- Peanut butter
- Five-pound bricks of cheap American cheese (think Velveeta)
- Rice and pasta (WHITE pasta)
- Dried beans,eggs and milk
- Oatmeal and cornmeal
- Canned vegetables
- Large cans of what people now refer to as mystery meat, which are ham/pork products like Spam
We also got:
- Some real butter and vegetable shortening (call the health department!)
- A bag of enriched white flour
- A lot of bologna
- Macaroni & cheese loaf
- Jello pudding mixes
- Biscuits and cornbread
- The old standby of canned soups and pastas
So what did we make with these ingredients?
We lived largely on the cheapest ground beef, chicken, hot dogs, fried bologna and mashed potatoes (one of my all-time favorites). Sometimes dinner was pancakes with the cheap artificial syrup or molasses. There was nothing fancy there, nothing with snob appeal, but those foods, those same processed foods which are these days so vilified, often played a large role in keeping us not just alive, but healthy. In these 4 or 5 generations since the widespread use of convenience foods, Americans have gained a great deal in life expectancy and in health. On average, Americans are healthier than at any time in history and average life expectancy increases every year. You can always tell which foods are the real health foods, the ones most necessary for life and health, by what the government gives to the very poor and needy. Ideally, we all will have access to enough food and preferably a variety of foods. If that’s not possible, we need to focus on providing nutritious, cheap, filling foods with plenty of calories (the most important part) and foods that will last a while. You can’t stretch out your food supply if it’s made of foods without preservatives of some kind. It should NOT be a priority to provide the poor with foods that, if you were to give someone a 2-quart bowl full of them, you would get 100 calories or less.
The Sun Also Rises and the Poor Also Cook
One of the most commonly touted causes of obesity and ill health is, basically, modern life. People are too overworked to cook and just don’t have the money for real food. The image conjured is that of a Norman Rockwell painting. A cheerful mom in an apron is serving up a home-cooked, fresh, and unprocessed meal to a big happy family. If Dad just came home from work, he might still be in his suit. This was back in the day when you could afford to live on one income, see?
Shaking your head? So am I.
My mother did bake and I have been cooking since the age of eight. Our idea of a big treat was to go to the next town to buy sub sandwiches once in a great while. Or maybe once a month we would leave our small town and go to the ‘big city’ of 35,000 people to do some shopping and get some burgers and fries at McDonalds. We had some fresh vegetables when we lived where there was land enough or while my father was physically able to grow a garden, and my mother did a lot of home canning. But we weren’t exactly angels, even in the good ol’ days of cooking from scratch. We were not afraid of full-fat dairy product and used plenty of whole milk, cheese, and butter. We were no strangers to things such as Spam, potted meat, vienna sausages, and deviled ham. We ate candy when we could find it on sale. We loved our decadence and our shortcuts. This is largely how we ate, how my grandmother (who lived to be 90) ate, how our other relatives, friends and neighbors ate. Cooking was something you did out of necessity and because you enjoyed it. It was not, and need not be, a big project, a source of anxiety, or, for that matter, an excuse to hire government nannies. My husband, who is nearing 70, has always eaten even more processed foods than I have. His mother, who is 90 and who was as far as you could be from the 1950s ideal, was of what is probably the first generation able to live largely on processed and/or convenience foods. She is a poor cook, hates to cook, and her mother was the same. They both ate a lot of canned foods, foods made from mixes, things like TV dinners and frozen pot pies. His mother threw together ground beef, onions, and chopped potatoes and called it hash. They always ate white breads in the days before white breads became white whole wheat and were as enriched and fortified as they are now.
Another common thread I’m seeing is logistics: The poor can’t buy groceries because they can’t get them home! And if they CAN get them home, they can’t get them in the kitchen. The poor don’t have cars. The poor live in upstairs apartments. The poor, the narrative goes, are just too dumb to figure these things out for themselves. At 63, I have spent 31 years living in apartments which were on the second floor and another twelve years living in houses where there were bedrooms on the second floor. So despite having cerebral palsy and serious balance issues, I have climbed many thousands of stairs. I spent 31 years living entirely on a second floor in old houses with steep stairs and rickety railings much of the time, and we had to carry bags of groceries up those stairs. Much of the time, my husband carried them in later, and as they grew older, with help from our sons, but I have carried a lot of bags upstairs myself, usually plastic or cloth bags with handles. Maybe I only carried 1 or 2 at a time, but I did it. For several years, after both our sons were grown and while my husband was still working, I would walk to the supermarket, do the shopping alone, take a cab home, then make maybe seven or eight trips up and down those stairs to carry our groceries into our apartment. The groceries always got upstairs, the shopping always got done and done at least partially by a disabled woman with weak muscles and balance problems who had access to neither a vehicle nor an elevator. What do you expect? Do you really think poor people starve themselves to death, scratching their heads, standing at the foot of the stairs wondering how to get groceries up there? And even if we could not buy ‘real’ groceries, what difference would it have made? It is any easier to carry ‘fake’ groceries? After all, that’s a lot of cans and boxes, and those can be heavy. Poor and working class people still manage, if they can scrape together enough money, food stamps, WIC vouchers, or whatever, to pay for food, to get food into their houses, even if they don’t live on the first floor and even if they do not own a car.
The Label Says WHAT?!
I like Rachael Ray sometimes. She can relax me when she is doing a fun comfort food menu or some of her Halloween/Christmas/Thanksgiving episodes, but I have found myself grinding my teeth at her as I watched what for me is SUPPOSED to mindless entertainment.This woman, a multimillionaire while having no training of any kind or special talent, is constantly passing along totally inaccurate ‘nutrition’ information on her show. She started about how she was often using whole wheat pasta these days instead of enriched white pasta, which is certainly her right, but she got the facts a bit muddled. She claimed that whole wheat was more nutritious because it has a lot more fiber, protein, and vitamins. WRONG. It has more fiber than white pasta unless you use Ronzoni’s Smart Taste white pasta, but not more more protein, and it has FEWER vitamins than enriched white pasta. The Ronzoni Smart Taste white pasta even has 200 milligrams of calcium in a 2-ounce serving. It used to have 300 mgs, but in addition to the calcium, it contains 5 grams of fiber and other nutrients in the same serving size. But even your regular Prince or store brand white pasta is enriched with a lot of different vitamins and therefore is more nutritious than the same amount of whole wheat pasta, unless you buy a whole wheat pasta which has also been enriched.
I read a lot of labels, mostly out of curiosity. I am the kind of reader who will read the toilet paper package for amusement while I am in the bathroom. I have noticed, over the past 10 or 15 years in particular, how many more nutrients most of the processed and convenience foods contain than they did when I was a child, or even when my boys were children. I love Spaghetti-Os, not just for the taste, but the nutrients. They contain at least one serving of vegetables, more calcium and vitamins than when they were first invented. Then there are Chef Boyarde pastas and Manwich sloppy Joe sauces, which all contain a full serving of vegetables. Swiss Miss cocoa now comes with mutli-colored marshmellows and fourteen essential vitamins and minerals. How on Earth can that be junk food?
Anyone who has read my blog posts or comments knows that I just don’t get the blinding hatred some people have for food processing. I am not sure about anyone else, but I am not fond of eating raw meats or fish. When we chop up these meats and fish, season them, and cook them, we are ‘processing’ them. When I peel and chop potatoes and boil them to mash them, or wash and prick them to bake, I am also ‘processing’ them. I love potatoes, which are an extremely nutritious vegetable, but they are not so great raw. Tomatoes are even more nutritious cooked than they are raw, and you get a real bang for your buck using canned tomatoes and prepared pasta or pizza sauces. I like whole grain breads, but they are making a lot of very nutritious white breads these days. My granddaughter has toast in the morning made of a white bread which has a decent amount of fiber and protein in 2 slices, significant amounts of about 12 vitamins and minerals, and more calcium than a glass of milk. And the cereals so many are trying to turn into villains now are made with less sugar, most are made with whole grains, and also fortified with a lot of vitamins and minerals.
I regularly buy 4-packs of Hunt’s Snack Pack chocolate pudding. First, they no longer put HFCS in it, and second, one little cup of pudding contains 300 milligrams of calcium and 2 grams of fiber. I see the same things on the labels of all the foods I buy. I love baked beans, canned chili with beans, bean with bacon soup…every one processed, yet also foods brimming with nutrition. The same is true of common foods many of us eat regularly, like the frozen peas, the can or jar or pouch of peanuts, peanut butter, cheeses, enriched breads, and the canned soups. If people read labels, they would learn that a frozen chicken dinner or chicken pot pie has at least as much nutrition as a meal made by hand from fresh ingredients. They might learn that some ‘healthy’ vegetables such as cauliflower and eggplant are virtually devoid of any real nutrients aside from water and some fiber. The fact that a food tastes good, kids like it, and it is easy to fix does not make it a bad food.
It used to be that sweets were okay, but they were a ‘sometimes’ food (may God’s peace be upon the poor Cookie Monster, who can no longer eat cookies)! Now, healthy eating is a 24/7/365 endeavor. Over Halloween, I had to delete an email from Purewow telling me to go to Target and buy myself some ‘healthy’ versions of Snickers, Reese’s, peanut M&M’s, made by a company started by a 13-year-old kid and his parents two years ago. Why? Because they were so shocked and worried about the ‘unhealthy’ candy kids consume at Halloween. So they claim that these candies are as good as the originals, with 40% less sugar, and oh, watch for it! NO GMOs or HFCS. All at a price of between $1.30 and $5. I guess they didn’t get the message that 1) if you eat too much of ANY food at one time, you may not feel great and 2) that chocolate is already nutritious and has some well-demonstrated health benefits. They…and a great many other people…are also apparently missing the point that eating is a pleasurable part of life and of celebrations. We are supposed to eat what we like and relax and have fun, especially at times such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Rewind and Freeze
All the research I do convinces me more every day that not only is not practical or sustainable for everyone to eat all local foods, all organic, all freshly cooked, and no processed foods. It is not necessary and trying to do so will cause damage to people’s health. For many poor people, it would indeed result in malnutrition, if not starvation. Poverty is a real problem, as is good health care for everyone. However, cheap processed foods are not part of the problem. If anything, they are a large part of the survival of a great many lower income people, as well as part of our culture. It is not practically possible to feed 7 billion people organically and locally, using no processed foods. By definition, local, organic foods are labor-intensive and scarce (not mass produced), so they have to be expensive. Furthermore, since everyone needs food in large quantities on a regular basis, the demand will send costs sky high, higher than they are now, if organic is the only brand available. Also, unlike products like mp3 players or cell phones, demand for food is inelastic, which provides no incentive to lower costs. The first law of economics is that everything has trade-offs. The necessary trade-off of local, organic food is high cost, and it’s a cost that not everyone will be able to pay. Of course, those that will suffer most are those that are already poor, many of whom will be minorities and those who are ill or disabled.
Exerting ridiculous control over everyone’s diets and lifestyles is NOT just fine as long as they do it to thin, as well as fat, people. These measures smack of fascism to me. Labeling foods ‘good’ or ‘bad’, taxing some foods to keep people from eating them, pushing people to live in certain ways, is not only not a practical possibility, it is not anything which will, in the long run, result in EITHER thinner OR healthier bodies. There have been fat people as long as there have been humans, and I am so damn sick of our culture behaving as if fat people were unknown until 50 or 60 years ago. Even some fat activists seem to think, on some level, that we are uniquely fat, that there is a cause, that this is a bad thing and that it must be fixed. The human race is basically only still in existence because of the fat people who could survive and pass on their survivor’s genes. As people have gotten fatter on average, and as we have eaten more processed foods, our survival has gotten better. We are surviving longer.
Every now and then, I hear something from some dickhead fatphobe that this is what they are trying to avoid. If our Earth is being depleted of resources, and part of the reason is unsustainable food production, then it makes sense to induce starvation with a non-industrial food system. However, it could backfire on them because, in the event of widespread starvation for ANY reason, we fat people will be the last to die. I am not religious and I could not say if the meek will inherit the earth, but I have a strong suspicion that the fat may.
Reminder: Any comments and questions should be directed at my partner, Patsy, as she is the author of this post. -JoannaDW