By Nicole de Beaufort
On September 21, 2009 in Minneapolis, a crowd of 300 people representing more than 30 disciplines gathered for a symposium hosted by the Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Institute to discuss critical issues in research and policy related to food and health.
They also ate very, very well. Most conferences feature food, why make a big deal of this one? Because those who produced the ham-and-cheese sandwiches with fig chutney, the quinoa salad, and the lemon-ginger cookies, are local to the Twin Cities, farm without using raw manure (you’ll learn more about this in part III), practice ethical animal husbandry, steward the land, and feed their local communities, creating economic and health benefits. In other words, these healthy foods nourish healthy lives. Catered by Birchwood Café, follow them on Twitter, producers included: Hoch Orchards, Whole Grain Milling, Dragsmith Farms, Wild Acres Farms, Fischer Farms, Featherstone Farm, Hope Butter, Riverbend Farm, Peace Coffee, Birchwood Herb Garden (Facebook page), Garden Farme, and Common Roots Café.
Three themes emerged at the conference:
• As our world shrinks, our waists grow
• The nutritional debate over processed food
• What’s in the meat you eat and the water you drink
This petite series will summarize the major points of the rock-star researchers and thinkers who shared why our runaway food system has created a global food environment that works against our health.
Read live tweets from the meeting on Twitter via the search term/hashtag #HFHL09.
Part I — Our waists grow as our world shrinks
The global impact of bigger portions, constant eating, and more calorie-dense food
Coca Cola was invented in the 1880s, and a century later it could be found in every retail outlet imaginable, from Paducah to Rwanda. Red Bull, the Austrian energy drink, was introduced in the US in 1997 and within less than a decade became as ubiquitous (and profitable: they sell a lot of it) as Coke. This quickening is oft explained by the concept that “the world is flat.” The compression of the time it takes to diffuse products, ideas, and cultural norms enables the “global marketplace” in which we can buy Chilean grapes along with local Vermont lamb at the same shop. Our food supply is buttressed and speeded by constant innovation and technological advances. But in the process of “feeding the world,” we have unintentionally put lives at risk.
“The world is flat and the world is fat,” proclaimed Barry Popkin, author of "The World is Fat: The Fads, Trends, Policies, and Products That Are Fattening the Human Race" and professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina. We've changed the way we eat, Popkin said. We eat larger portions, more frequently, and we eat food higher in calories than what we ate pre-1980s. This contributes to a large scale “energy imbalance” that has crept up on us: 10 extra calories a day at a time equals one pound a year.
Put it on my [caloric] tab, bartender
Back to Coca Cola and Red Bull. These drinks in their sweetened and diet versions turn out to play a big role in how much we eat and whether or not we are obese. Before this symposium, I hadn’t separated thirst from hunger. Anything I put in my mouth? Well, down the hatch and there you go. But humans can live for 50 days without food but only two to four days without liquid. Our thirst mechanism is different from our hunger mechanism; our bodies process liquid differently from solids. For the record, semi-soft liquids (say, applesauce and yogurt) work with hunger instead of thirst.
So if you’re a typical kid and you opt for juice (54 calories’ worth a day, on average) over soda (154 calories) – this is data cited by Popkin and represents what is considered average caloric consumption (in other words, not based on serving size as much as caloric intake), you’re stoking your calorie balance and not getting sated (the feeling of being full). Snacking throughout the day has thus become a social norm. Snacking is one of the biggest contributors to childhood obesity. Kids today get 27% of their daily calories from food consumed between meals. Continuous caloric intake has become habit; an average American in 2009 eats seven times a day. In the 1960s, we ate just three times a day.
How can we change public behavior so that we eat and drink fewer calories, less often, and with foods and drinks that are proportionally healthier for us and less calorically dense?
Way back in 2003, Fortune magazine featured a cover with French fries depicted as cigarettes and asked: “Is fat the next tobacco?”. Half a decade later, many public health experts, including Popkin, argue that if snacks and sweetened beverages are taxed — even as little as 10% — we could change the consumer demand for these products. In Mexico, taxing sugar in beverages produced a tangible shift in caloric intake. If we take the market as our crucible of change, and wanted to make less healthy foods less affordable, Popkin argues that we would see important and beneficial health effects in adults.
As a nation that hates taxes and is suspicious of any public options for health (tea-baggers, anyone?), it would take a massive shift of opinion to see “sin taxes” on food as viable. I can more readily imagine a food system that incentivizes fruit and vegetable production. A food system that ensures the healthiest food is the most accessible and affordable would provide untold health benefits.
As a country, we’re not there yet. We are ready, however, for a seemingly simple (but actually complex) addition to our children’s lifelong learning: cooking. According to Popkin, the complex act of designing, preparing, cooking, and eating a meal, holds promise and health benefits.
Make yourself at home in the kitchen
Despite a robust viewership of some 100 million, The Food Network has not created a nation of chefs as much as a mass of food voyeurs. The rise of fast food, home-meal replacements has precipitated the “decline and fall of everyday home cooking” as Michael Pollan cataloged in a August 2 essay for the New York Times Magazine. Cooking used to be one of those skills you learned at home and in school (notice it’s a both, not an either/or). Our societal norms used to dictate that girls in particular take Home Ec classes where they learned how to cook, sew, set a table, and other basic life skills. Home Ec is largely a nostalgic notion these days, although the skills taught then are resurging through the DIY and handmade movements.
In fact, lack of cooking skills in our children is a serious issue. Cooking is now an elite activity; only a small percentage of our population knows how to cook a meal. (Ethicurean readers might be among them.) Families don’t eat together as they used to, which means less opportunity for children to acquire table manners while they enjoy a communal ritual.
Luckily, confluent movements including Farm to School, One Tray and other school food reform efforts (Healthy Schools, The Lunchbox) are working to re-introduce curricula in schools so that kids not only know where food comes from and how to grow it in their school garden, but also what to do with their harvest. From my on-the-ground visits to school gardens, I can say with certainty that when students participate in these programs, they thrive and they learn (in however small measure) about how to prepare healthy food.
Next up: Processed food gets served — diving into the projection that, in 2030, we’ll spend fewer than 15 minutes preparing our daily food, and why that might not be a good thing.
Nicole de Beaufort is the founding partner and president of Fourth Sector Consulting, Inc., a national organization that helps smart, issue-driven organizations tell their stories better, strategize more effectively, and build these skills from the inside out. Passionate about systems thinking and indignant about the inequities in our food environments, Nicole tweets as NicoledeB and FourthSctr and posts interesting and not always wholesome food imagery to an eclectic tumblog called Foodland.
Author disclosure: In exchange for agreeing to blog about the symposium, I received a complimentary conference registration, including a great meal from Birchwood Café. I am under no obligation to represent the meeting in any way other than as I experienced it and I received no compensation for this series other than personal satisfaction.