Friday, December 10, 2010

Slavoj Zizek - Cultural Consumerism

I've been meaning to post this for weeks. Slavoj Zizek is a sociologist specializing in Marxist theory. The majority of the video is not about food, but in the first five minutes or so, Zizek describes the cultural phenomenon that he's come to call "Cultural Consumerism," which is this idea that our guilt surrounding our crazy consumerist ways drives us to act responsibly, and that interestingly, our way of acting responsibly to combat our over-consumption is by consuming responsible products. That's a terrible summary, so here's the link:

He talks about big corporations like Starbucks encouraging you to act responsibly by buying their product. The rest of the video is not as food-related, but still brings up some issues of culture and society that we've covered in class, particularly equity amongst classes.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Climate Change and Food Prices

When people talk about climate change, not much attention is given to how global farming practices could be affected. This article ( discusses how global warming could lead to a doubling of food prices and cause many more people to suffer from malnourishment. This is not just a problem to be worried about in the future; scientists have found that change is already happening in some areas. For example, in India, warmer temperatures are maturing the wheat too quickly, resulting in reduced yields. The corn belt in the US could also see a reduction in productivity due to climate change.

As productivity and yields decrease, prices for grain will inevitably increase. This will only exacerbate the problems for people who already have trouble affording food. Experts suggest that some of these problems could be alleviated by developing higher yielding varieties of corn, wheat, etc. and having more flexible trade in food commodities. As we discussed in class, malnutrition is not caused by food shortage but by people not having equal access to food. We are producing more than enough food to feed all the peoples of the world. I’m glad that this article does not suggest producing more food in newer areas as a possible solution for this problem. Maybe this means that people are starting to realize the true causes of hunger.

After reading this article, I started wondering whether a reduction in productivity in the corn belt might actually be a good thing? A lot of the food problems we’re experiencing occur because we have too much corn. If less corn was produced, wouldn’t less corn be available for industrialized beef, hog and chicken industries? This would reduce the number of animals grown on these CAFOs and the pollutants released from these feedlots which would help reduce global warming. Quite the cyclic process.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Eating Ethically on Campus

I happen to be fortunate enough to have a scholarship that covers room and board for me at RPI. However, since I now live off campus this means that I can only use it for my meal plan, leading to me having a meal plan when I rather not.
Because of this situation I have been asking myself "How can I eat ethically when my food options are chosen for me by another party?"
It is very hard to avoid supporting factory farming and unsustainable food practices when the only options I have available when I go into my dining hall are food choices that come from sources I'd rather not eat from. So, I would like to point out several of the options available on campus that are available to those who wish to eat more ethically.
The most obvious options would be to eat only from the salad bar, and to choose the vegetarian option that Tofu Tim offers, while it is hard to know how the greens one is eating are grown, it is a healthier and more moral choice than eating the meat that is offered, but the reality is there is not much in the way of choice with Sodexho.
However, this doesn't mean that there aren't better alternatives on campus. Sodexho is proud to point out that the coffee it offers all over campus is fair trade, and every Wednesday you can go to the Terra Cafe, which offers excellent organic and local food, and whether you choose the vegetarian or meat option you will be getting an amazing meal.
There are some options for good sustainable food on campus, but there are better ways to ensure ethical eating with your limited choices on campus, the key option being to actually talk to Sodexho. Communication is usually the only way anything gets done, and what better way to improve your limited eating options than talking to the actual food provider? Since the food quality at RPI is a running joke, I'm sure Sodexho is always looking for alternatives for food options, and I know they are willing to take suggestions, the changes with Sodexho's pizza delivery service is some proof of that.
Also, in the case of Java ++ Sodexho is desperate for student input in how to make their venues profitable. I know at one time Sodexho was willing to turn Java ++ into an outlet where organic food was served to attract more students, but the idea fell apart because it didn't get enough student support.
So, the moral of the story is this: if you are tired of going into the food halls and seeing the same unsustainable food options there are alternatives around campus, but if you are looking for long term improvements talk to Sodexho themselves. They may be a scary big company, but they do listen to students, and if the are motivated correctly (i.e. give them a way to make Java ++ profitable) then Sodexho will be more than happy to listen to you.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Senate Passes Food Safety Bill That Would Increase FDA Authority

In a breaking news article today the Senate passed a new food safety bill that gives the Food & Drug Administration more power in making food recalls and inspections on food processing facilities. The intent of the bill is to thwart the outbreaks of contaminated food instead of dealing with the health problems the outbreaks cause after the fact. The FDA will now have the direct power to make food recalls. Before they were only allowed to request that food companies recall their products. They will also increase their number of inspections of food facilities from 7,400 now to 50,000 in 2015. The video with this statistic and other commentary on the bill can be seen here. The FDA can now set standards for how fruits and vegetables are grown abroad along with inspecting foreign food processing plants. The bill covers 80% of the United States food supply, excluding the institutions covered by the Department of Agriculture which consist of slaughterhouses and meat processing plants.

I was thrilled to hear that this happened today as I have been following this issue for a couple of weeks now. I think it is a very imperative bill that will go a long way in helping us avoid major food-borne illness outbreaks that we have recently seen. Last year, 1,422 people were sickened by jalape├▒os and another 1,813 people were sickened by eggs this year. The American food system is becoming more harmful to people than ever before. The care for food is declining as the fight for money is mounting to an all-time high. With the increased demand for food, agribusinesses and factory farming has taken over the food system. They are churning out as much food as they can in as little time as possible. Their practices are enhanced by using chemicals and pesticides on plants, fruits, and vegetables or fattening up farm animals via mass corn and grain consumption.

For me, it is nice to see this bill get passed to keep a big portion of the food system more honest. It is scary to think that anyone could consume food that is contaminated at any time and not know it until they become very ill with the potential of dying. Just to play a little devil’s advocate on this article, I would also like to see things go further involving slaughterhouses and meat processing plants. These two types of institutions are (in my mind) so far off track it is only a matter of time before a major outbreak happens. The conditions these animals are slaughtered in are so horrid and vile one cannot begin to imagine the lives these animals have to endure. I would love to see the next step in the changing of the food process aimed directly at these two corrupt institutions. At the moment I could be one of the least supportive people on how food is produced in America. But with conscientious shopping and the passing of this bill I can still catch some sleep at night knowing I am doing my part and government is starting to do theirs. Good night and happy eating!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Food Worthy of Thanks

In this article David Katz traces back the meaning of food in Thanksgiving. In the past Thanksgiving was a time for celebrating that harvest and bounty of the season. Katz links this holiday to a “holy” day that was centered on food and the harvest.

Katz discusses how Thanksgiving was a day for the “masses”, who generally barely scraped by, and this one day gave everyone a chance to feast just as the aristocrats did. However, today the majority of people do not participate in back-breaking labor to support themselves; and we also do not need to worry about food shortages.

So what does this mean about our contemporary Thanksgiving? If we are not celebrating a rare bounty of food or rest from hard labor, then what is the point? What are we celebrating? I believe that we are still celebrating rest from labor, however, it is rest from the crazy hectic lives that we have on cell phones, with blackberries, and emails 24/7. Also, instead of celebrating rare bounty, it is a chance for us to share the food we have with our friends and family and also with those that may not have.

Thanksgiving today also has to do with its namesake and giving thanks for what we have. I believe a part of this is giving thanks for the farmers that supplied the food we enjoy. Australia has also recognized the importance of famers and they recently announced that 2012 will be its “Year of the Farmer”. A webpage recently created provides the purpose of this dedicated year. Australia wants to recognize what farmers do in creating fresh, fruits, vegetable, dairy, grain, meat, and also in providing fine products such as wool, cotton, and timber. This is really a great way to connect people to their food so that they are better educated about where there food comes from. This may even lead to smarter purchasing and helping to promote support of local farmers. So as you sit down to eat your Thanksgiving meal this year, or as you purchase and eat food throughout the year gives thanks for those that chose to live a life that can provide such a bountiful harvest for us all.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Meat: An Intelligence Enhancer

Historically, our ancestors have been eating raw food, but because there aren't a lot of calories in these food, any one individual could spend a significant amount of their day eating in order to survive according to this study This also meant that our stomachs had to be bigger in order to digest all of this raw food, but because all of the energy went into eating it, there wasn't much left for brain power. This continued until somewhere along the line meat was discovered.

The study, suggests that after we started consuming meat, we no longer needed the large digestive gut and could then put that energy consumed toward making our brains larger. This also changed the way our teeth began to look, instead of having sharper teeth, we began to have large, round teeth instead. This not only helped make chewing up meat easier but vegetables as well. How exactly our species discovered meat is unclear, however it seemed to begin a civilizing process that has continued though to today.

Obviously there is more involved in the evolutionary story than just discovering meat and getting smarter, we also had to learn to cook it. This isn't to say that eating raw food is less healthy than not, only that cooking food makes it easier to digest. So we cook meat, we have more energy, and according to this study we're smarter for it (or rather because of it) but whether it is right or wrong still remains in question. According to history, it was right to eat meat because it led to making better tools, smaller guts and eventually a civilized world. Eating meat now is not quite the same as it was during our evolution, as most of our guts have come back, but if it does help us grow "bigger" brains as this study suggests, why not choose to eat meat?

Monday, November 15, 2010

What is Organic (Farming)?

I find this question intriguing, because it’s something that at first glance seems like it will have a simple answer. When you look at the definition of ‘organic’ on, the concept seems straightforward enough. “Characteristic of, pertaining to, or derived from living organisms” and “developing in a manner analogous to the natural growth and evolution characteristic of living organisms; arising as a natural outgrowth” are two of the major definitions. So, by these terms, it seems that organic can generally be summed up as ‘all-natural.’ And, by that logic, organic farming constitutes the use of only all-natural crops, pesticides, and fertilizer during production. Problem solved, right?

Yet, when you read this article about the USDA attempting to define organic, the concept becomes murkier. They bring debates about sustainability and humane treatment of animals into the mix, trying to fit the concept of ‘organic’ into these terms. But why? Why can’t organic farming simply be defined as previously stated? The problem may be that the public has finally gotten its foot in the door in terms of organic policy-making, and now that they have this hold they want to make the definition of ‘organic’ as broad as possible to address as many of the problems associated with conventional farming as possible. By broadening the scope of ‘organic,’ we wouldn’t have to follow dozens of different grassroots organizations that are trying to make a difference in each individual sector of agricultural. Instead, we could have this one word, and therefore one movement, that encompasses all the relevant issues.

I personally would love for organic to mean all of these things. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if 'organic' fixed every problem of agribusiness? If organic could just be defined as "the practices by which agriculture will become more sustainable and humane?" Unfortunately, this type of idealistic definition would be hard-pressed to work in the real world. In the context of law, regulations, and politics this definition is far too vague. So I think we need to keep organic ‘all-natural,’ and instead supplement other concepts, such as sustainability, worker’s rights, animal treatment, etc., into our agricultural regulations. It would be great if organic was the all-encompassing solution, but it can't be.

Laura Bateman

Friday, November 12, 2010

Obesity, According to the CDC

It seems the past few blog posts have been focusing on our discussion of obesity and I'm going to add to our body of knowledge, so to speak. Since my parents are healthcare professionals, the “obesity epidemic” has occasionally come up in conversation over the years so I had some biases that our class discussion let me see. For example, I found that I associate increased body mass with worse health. I generally don’t dislike people that are sick, but I feel like the reason that I judge people with very large body masses is because I think eventually their weight will either cause or contribute to ill health. And I can understand why healthcare professionals might perceive obese people in a negative light. My mom has a permanent (although relatively minor) injury from trying lift a 300 lb patient when she was working as a nurse. I also remember a section of a memoir called “Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science” written by a ER surgeon named Atul Gawande that describes the extra trouble he runs into when trying to do tracheotomies and insert central lines on obese people. I am not saying that it is ok to treat obese people worse, merely pointing out that I can understand why healthcare professionals might have negative opinions.

Anyway, since I had heard obesity described as an epidemic, I decided to go to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) and see what they had to say about prevalence, causes, and possible fixes. After thoroughly exploring the website, it became obvious that it really is an epidemic. This graphic shows how it has developed over the last 25 years. First of all there is a difference between overweight and obesity. Overweight is a BMI between 25 and 29.9 while obesity is a BMI greater than 30. (If you want to check your BMI, you can do so here courtesy of the CDC) Increased BMI is a concern because it increases a person’s chance of developing hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Medical costs attributed to both overweigh and obesity was between 51.5 and 78.5 billion dollars in 1998 which is about 10% of that year’s total healthcare expenditure. Weight gain is the result of taking in more calories than are expended (the previous post demonstrates that net caloric intake or expenditure is the only determinant of weight gain or loss.)

I also ran across a Grand Rounds Presentation about the childhood obesity epidemic. The CDC epidemiologists attribute the almost 20% obesity rate in children and teens to changes in familial eating habits, less activity, and more times spent watching TV and on the computer (as explained in an earlier post, time spent viewing TV is time spent watching advertisements for fast food.) In order to fix the problem, the CDC suggests integrated approaches that aim to decrease caloric intake and increase energy expenditure. This seems like a pretty intuitive approach but will still be a challenge.

The most interesting part about the Grand Rounds was how the epidemiologists considered lack of access to healthy food a direct and significant contributor to childhood obesity. They referred to the food deserts presented in "The Grocery Gap," the same policylink article that we read when we were discussing food deserts in class. Providing healthy food and increased exercise was the base of the case studies where the percentage of childhood and adolescent obesity was successfully decreased.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Crap Diet and why it will work for you (average American consumer)!

I've found the next big thing. I know how I'm finally going to lose the spare tire and get thin. After reading this article about Professor Mark Haub of Kansas State University, who dropped 27 pounds in two months, I'm sold on the Twinkie Diet. Haub's point is, that by simply lowering calorie intake one can lose weight. It sounds boring and tedious, but just bear with me.

This is perfect for me, because whenever I eat delicious foods like whole grains, eggs, steak or salads I lose track of the number of calories in the foods because I buy them fresh. I never know when I'm full and I just keep eating and eating! I much prefer to read the labels on packaged foods so I know how many calories are in them.

Professor Haub's rational approach to dieting truly has shown me the light. In the same way that McDonald's knows how to deal with all of its business so it can be the face of the American dream, I now know that if I simply stick to junk foods but eat a bunch less than normal, I can lose weight. Haub decreased his calorie intake by almost 31%. Piece of cake! Once I'm done writing this, I'm heading straight to Costco so I can buy a big case of Twinkies and Zebra Cakes.

The Twinkie Diet also gives a shining beam of hope to those poor souls who live in food deserts. Professor Haub mentions how there are people who live in these deserts and the only sustenance they can afford is junk food. Now, by switching to the Twinkie Diet, they can lose weight and have a better life by simply eating less. Also, they will do their civic duty to our struggling economy by buying all of their informative and packaged food from a big name store, instead of from a farm or other local source. The farmer down the road is grouchy and kills the cows he turns into steak. I'd rather give my money to Ronald McDonald, he's always smiling!

Now, Professor Haub says he's confused about whether or not this diet is actually healthy, but I think he's wasting his brain juices thinking about all that. After all, his cholesterol went down and he lost almost 30 pounds. The numbers alone sell it for me!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Fast Food Nation Advertises

With all of our discussions of fast food, obesity, and the relation of the two I found this article to be very interesting. In recent years as obesity rates have climbed, many fast food industries like Burger King and McDonalds joined ranks and started offering somewhat more healthy choices on their menus, specifically targeting the children's menu. These combination meals are advertised at an alarming rate and run specifically during times when children are known to be watching T.V.
This article highlights the amount of ads that are run by companies like McDonalds and how many children see them each day. Could the amount of times children see these ads be one of the factors of obesity? Many of the reasons why parents take there children to fast food restaurants besides the easy convenience is because they beg. But although the children's menu has become healthier, including the addition of apple slices and carrot sticks, most kids look at pictures, and in those pictures they see french fries at the forefront and the healthier choices in the background as like of an after thought.
Another factor involves how many children actually eat from the kids menu; many children want to get adult meals. One of the things that the article highlights is the fact that the rise of children obesity may also be caused by more children choosing items from the adult menu which have a much higher calorie content than the choices of the children's menu. So is it the number of ads that children see that cause them to drag their parents to fast food restaurants and make poorer food choices or are the fast food restaurants doing their job by providing the means for healthier choices and it is the parents that are at fault by given in to the demands of the child for a "big kids" or adult meal?

Organic foods offers no additional health benefits:

I don’t know about you, but personally I am tired of having all of these people tell me what is healthy or not healthy for me, and what I should or should not eat. Currently, most of the pressure is coming from the organic foods industry. With the huge success of Whole Foods, and farmers markets springing up everywhere I was thinking whether or not there really was a significant health benefit to consuming organic foods. This led me on a search to find empirical evidence to justify one side or the other.

We all know what constitutes organic from non-organic: non GMO, organic fertilizer, no antibiotics, et cetera. But does any of that really affect the amount of health benefiting nutrients within the produce? According to a researcher of the subject Pia Knuthsen of the National Food Institute at the Technical University of Denmark, “organically grown foods do not have higher levels of healthful antioxidants and related substances known to fight cancer, heart disease and dementia.” This was the result of a two year experiment where they specifically targeted organic fertilizer (manure) and non-organic fertilizers on various vegetables. Clearly the organic fertilizers are not responsible for this health craze.

What about pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones in our foods, you ask? Well Carl Bartecchi, a medicinal specialist states in regards to this topic “there is no evidence for greater safety of organic foods.” In fact there has been more research on the effect of non-organic substances proving that they are benign to the foods, whereas the organic counterparts could very well have problems of their own.

In a last ditch effort some people say to eat organic foods because they taste better. Well taste is a subjective sense where not everybody has the same tastes and preferences. I feel that it is an unjustifiable advertisement to say that organically grown foods are “tastier”.

In all, the health aspect of organic foods to me seems like a way to mark up the price of a good without justification. Simply being able to place a USDA organic sticker on your product entitles you to make it more expensive, and for what reason. Somewhere along the line the word organic was associated with healthier and I know that I am not going to fall into a fad for the wrong reasons.

"While Waring About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales"

An article called “While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales” was recently published in the New York Times. The article outlines what the USDA has been doing to bolster the dairy industry while at the same time trying to fight obesity. The USDA has created an agency called Dairy Management which functions to promote the sales of milk and cheese products in the US in an attempt to help the struggling dairy farmer.

Dairy Management has greatly intensified the attempts that the government had previously making to help the dairy industry. There are direct parallels to what the government has being doing to help stabilize the prices of wheat. The problem that has appeared is in the form of conflicting interests. The USDA is both putting out information that is supposed to help people make healthy nutrition decisions and trying to sell more dairy. While there is a huge market for low fat milk, the cheeses and higher fat milks and yogurts are suffering greatly. This has led the USDA to partner with places like Domino’s pizza to help them advertise cheesier pizzas and in turn buy more pizza. The USDA also start a campaign saying that 3 servings of dairy per day will help people lose weight, this information is highly contested and not considered valid.

Something different that can be seen in this article is an issue of deskilling. Many people rely on governments and even magazines to tell them how to eat to maintain their health or lose weight. Some people lack nutritional knowledge to the point that they need to be told that soda is not good for you. The USDA in this case is manipulating their position of power as the purveyors of knowledge by sending out controversial information to sell a product that they profit from. How much responsibility should we place on the government to give us truthful information about our own health? And how surprised should we be when they misuse the power they’re handed?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Green Grocer

I read an article detailing the architectural advances within a newly constructed LEED-Platinum Hannaford supermarket in Augusta, Maine. It is the first supermarket in our nation to gain such a certification through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. Motion sensitive LED's, solar panels, a green roof, solar tubes, and waterless urinals are among the innovations to be found here. Together, they allow this Hannaford location to consume 50% less energy and 38% less water than a standard supermarket of the same size.

I wonder why only one such supermarket exists in our country. If we can build facilities that leave a smaller footprint, how does it make since to keep building stores that suck up twice as much energy? Do you think that Hannaford built this store for the savings or for the publicity? People simply don't realize how much effort goes directly to keeping our food cold and fresh while it's on the shelf. As the article states, half of a supermarket's electrical costs are from refrigeration. We can add this to the list of externalities that come with shopping at a supermarket. Still, the frugality of its operation does little to change the corn based, mono-culturally derived products that sit upon every shelf.

This being said, I live less than 30 minutes from this store, yet I have never set foot inside of it. In the case of a supermarket, people are inclined to shop at the most convenient location rather than one that might be slightly more efficiently operated. For this reason I will keep a watchful eye on this store and hope for it to be rewarded for its green efforts. Yet, I will smile as I watch, because the farmers' market consumes 100% less energy than any supermarket ever will.