Posted by: bkivey | 20 March 2012

Eating Well In The Land of Plenty

The 3 March edition of the fish wrap of record contained a review of a book on the American ‘foodscape’, ‘The American Way of Eating’ by Tracie McMillan. The premise is that the author was dismayed that poor folks weren’t eating in a healthy manner, and she wanted to find out why. From the review, we learn that she never actually answers the motivating question, but she does take to task various elements of the American food distribution network, including growers, chain stores, and chain restaurants.

Obtaining food in the Western world isn’t a problem. One of the American stereotypes is the fat-ass, and even the most cursory glance at just about any group of Americans shows why: as a people, we’re fat. The fact is that the American food industry is damned efficient. We not only feed ourselves to excess, but a good chunk of the rest of the world. It’s also true that a goodly portion of the product available in supermarkets is cheap, processed foodstuffs, and this is the situation people like Ms. McMillan would like to address. They’re distressed that ‘healthy’ food like fresh fruits and vegetables cost so much more than a TV dinner.

One reason is simple economics. As Ms. McMillan points out about fresh produce in her book:

“There’s no profitable way to consistently buy massive quantities cheaply and then sell it off over time.”

Economics is also why organic production cannot compete with conventional farming methods. With a few exceptions like sweet potatoes and carrots, organic farm yields are well below conventional yields, in some cases by as much as 75%. Farmers don’t use  pesticides and herbicides because they enjoy spending the money or poisoning their customers, they use those chemicals because they can greatly increase their yield, and thus their profit. However distasteful some may find it, the world runs on profit. The prices at the local farmer’s market attest to this. Consider what the average grocery bill would look like if all food were grown organically. Not to mention the vastly increased arable acreage needed and the greatly reduced availability of food. Without modern farming methods, we’d all be a lot poorer and lot thinner.

I don’t think that the lack of choices is why a lot of people don’t eat well, but rather a lack of knowledge, or a lack of will. It seems that a lot of folks simply don’t know how to select healthy choices, nor do they know how to cook. Gaining that knowledge takes some effort on the part of the individual. Once upon a time, high schools offered Home Economics classes that imparted this knowledge, although they were attended almost entirely by girls. Home Ec wasn’t the only food knowledge vector; everyone at some point had to take a Health class, something that still happens today. I’d be much surprised if someone could make it through 12 years of public education without being exposed to instruction on healthy eating. These days, of course, one can access a wealth of knowledge on the Internet, so it’s difficult to believe that anyone could remain ignorant of healthy eating habits if they were motivated to find out.The same applies for anyone who wants to learn to cook.

I have a difficult time understanding people who throw processed food in the microwave and call it a meal, but I do have a big advantage: I can cook. Every time I’ve gone to school, I’ve worked as a cook, because there aren’t many jobs one can make a living at while attending school full-time, but cooking is one of them. Not only do I know my way around a kitchen, I know from ingredients. Most of the several dozen recipes I’ve memorized take about half an hour to prepare, and I’m pretty good at putting random items together to make a palatable meal. This allows me to eat fairly well for not much money. I pack my lunch, and except for high feast days like St. Patrick’s just past, I can eat three squares a day for about $10.

It seems to me that eating healthy is an individual choice. If a person knows how to make good food choices and doesn’t, all the earnest concern in the world won’t change them. If the individual really doesn’t know how to cook and eat well, it may be better for activist-minded individuals to figure out how they can change that, rather than snipe at a food distribution system that really works rather well.

Fun Facts About Potatoes

While researching this post, I was surprised to learn that of the four major potato-producing states (>50,000 acres in potatoes), Idaho ranks fourth. That’s right, the state that has ‘Famous Potatoes’ right there on its license plates, ranks behind Washington, Oregon, and Wisconsin.

Not So Fun Fact About Michigan

If you’re going to eat out in Michigan, you may want to think twice. In the book above, Ms. McMillian mentions that she was given ‘no formal training training in food safety’ while working at a Detroit Applebee’s. I thought this odd, because every time I’ve worked in a kitchen, I’ve been required to obtain a state-issued food handler card. You used to have to attend a class for four hours, but now you just go online, read a manual, take the test, and send the state money. The point is that there is some level of basic food safety training.

Except in Michigan.

I looked up the requirements for a food handler card for Michigan, and, well, I’ll let the site explain:

Due to recent budget cuts, the food handler permits and the food handler classes have been discontinued. The State food law has required that all food establishments must have at least one manager who has completed an approved management certification course, and that the certified manager(s) are required to ensure that all employees are adequately trained in food safety, and that they are engage in safe practices.

Leaving aside the grammatical error, it appears that Ms. McMillan is correct; there isn’t any state certification for food handlers in Michigan. Good luck.


The vernal equinox occurs today, although locally it became official at 2214 on the 19th, and we had our local equinox on the 18th. It also snowed today, making the fifth time this month. I’m very ready for some warm, sunny weather, and only have a few more months to wait.


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