The Real Food Dilemma

I haven’t had time in the past week to talk about the Michael Pollan lecture. Mostly, I think, because it’s wasn’t actually that inspiring. It wasn’t bad, don’t get me wrong, he just didn’t say much of anything new. The brief hour started with Pollan reading an excerpt from In Defense of Food, then being interviewed by CBC’s Matt Galloway. His answers were informative, articulate and witty, but it felt very much as if he’d done it all a hundred times before. And of course, he had. Disappointingly, there was no audience Q&A, so anyone who had questions for the author had to stand in line for an autograph, and I’m told, was rushed through pretty quickly.

The following day, there was an interview with Pollan in the Toronto Star in which he pretty much skewered the vegetarian community based on his three vegetarian sisters who apparently eat a lot of mock meat. I’m torn on this point between being chagrined and flipping the bird in his general direction, and nodding in agreement. During my time as a vegetarian, and even today when cooking at home, I used a lot of soy-based products to recreate comfort food dishes like cabbage rolls and sheperd’s pie. I know how processed these products are, but I’m drawn into the trap of it being easier than coming up with a straight-up vegetarian dish, especially when trying to include protein. On the other hand, I really like my rule of no meat at home, because my job has me out a couple of times a week stuffing my face with everything from chicken wings to foie gras. I don’t need more meat in my diet, and relying on the protein in eggs and peanut butter gets tired really fast.

The desire to eat “real food” has left me with a bit of a conundrum.

The other issue with Pollan is this so-called manifesto. I hate lists of rules and regulations like this, because there’s always so many exceptions, and people either try to live by them devotedly and feel guilty (or make excuses) when they can’t; i.e. The Hundred Mile Diet. So while I agree that we should be paying more for better quality food, the rule about not eating alone is just asinine.

In a similar vein, Michael Ruhlman made a post last week to his blog, outlining the wacky relationship people have with their food and the folks who produce it.

Americans have a hopelessly neurotic relationship with what they consume, of this there’s little disagreement, a neurosis that’s built into our culture from the broadest levels of agriculture and government, which demand that we subsidize farmers to grow crops you can’t eat without industrial processing, all the way down to our grocery store shelves, which are packed with confusing, marketing-spun messages about what’s good for us and what’s not.

And here’s the thing – we do have a really messed up relationship with food. We’re NOT willing to pay more for better quality; the subsidies in place have made us all think that food should be cheap. Sure there is a sector of the population who genuinely cannot afford to buy “real food”; I’ve worked with local food banks, those people are out there. But I am really disappointed by the number of people I see who have iPods, multiple cars, big screen TVs, designer clothes and go on expensive vacations, who say they can’t afford to pay more for their food. What they really mean is “won’t” because they’re not willing to make good food a priority.

Part of the problem is moderation – we’re used to those huge super-sized portions of empty calories, and don’t believe we can be satisfied on less. Shoppers are continually manipulated into believing that the health claims on the packages can be trusted, that they ARE eating good, healthy food, all the while Big Food is working to loosen the regulations. Dr. Yoni Freedhoff has recently reported on his blog on efforts to dilute health claims on packaged foods even further.

Given that the Canada Public Health Association is reporting that low level of health literacy means that “more than half of Canadian adults do not have the skills necessary to properly make daily decisions about their health”, it seems as if adding additional (potentially misleading) health claims to processed foods could carry an even greater risk than just straight up obesity.

Which all comes back to Pollan and his Eat Food message. The issue that nobody seems to have the answer for is HOW? Don’t shop in the middle aisles is an optimistic but naive assertion, which works to a limited extent, but not completely. Shop at farmer’s market is another that is good in theory but is not necessarily practical for the average family. Likewise “grow a garden”. How do we address the issue, not just of the purported lack of money, but a very real lack of time?

How do the “real food” pioneers get the message out to the people who need to hear it instead of just, as Pollan did at his lecture last week, preaching to the choir?