The Food Problem

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As Pagans, food and agriculture are relevant issues that concern our relationship to nature and our cycles of nutritional well-being and ecological sustainability. This article is a re-post from our friend Cosette Paneque who compares her experience with foods in Australia versus South Florida. 

The subject of food and obesity in America is a controversial one.

Glenn Pendlay really struck a nerve with his rant about marketing and junk food in his Freshly Pressed piece I’m pissed. It’s a complicated subject and there are many points to consider, but let me share a personal story. 

I was a fat little kid that grew up into a fat adult. I didn’t grow up on junk food, but rather rich Cuban food. Last year, I lost 60 pounds by eliminating many foods from my diet such as starches, which are a staple of Cuban cuisine. When I went to Australia, I put my “lifestyle change” (aka diet) on hold. I just wanted to eat what Oz has to offer – pizzas loaded with fresh vegetables, Turkish and Greek wraps stuffed with lamb kebab, decadent desserts, and all the wonderful homemade meals made by my partner Theo that often included potatoes, lots of them.

After three months of eating anything and everything I wanted with abandon, I gained a pound. One pound. In America, all I have to do is look at food and I pack it right on.

For some time, it’s been held that there is a connection between obesity and income, but new studies are challenging this belief with surprising results. The problem goes deeper than this.

Americans highly value the idea of the individual. It’s your responsibility to eat well and exercise. Don’t push your healthy agenda on me and my family. This is a free country and I can do what I want. The problem, of course, is that we are all part of a community that ultimately pays heavily for this attitude. It’s the same one that dictates that if you’re not rich, it’s because you’re not working hard enough, ignoring a wide host of issues such as privilege, racism, class, misogyny, and so forth. It ignores that there many factors beyond our control. For instance, marketing and junk food are a problem, as Glenn goes on about, as is the propaganda surrounding issues of health and obesity. There are a lot of people out there who benefit tremendously from an unhealthy society. The diet, beauty, fitness, agricultural, and pharmaceutical industries quickly come to mind.

Beyond that, I think my friend Lori is right when she said to me recently that, as Americans, we’ve grown accustomed to substandard food and we’re convinced it’s good. I’ve known for a long time that food in America is awful. It’s highly processed and nearly everything contains high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). But it really hit home when I went food shopping for the first time in Australia.

Obesity rates by state (Source: US CDC).

At the market, I saw stall after stall of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, legumes, meats, and dairy products. But that’s the stuff we should be eating, right? What about the junk food? I’m not going to argue that Coca Cola is good for you, but consider this: in the U.S., Coca Cola contains HFCS; in Australia, it contains sugar. It sounds like the same, but it’s not. The body processes sugar and HFCS very differently. One is much worse for you than the other. You’ll be hard pressed to find anything in Australia with HFCS. In the States, even baby formula contains it and natural juices have been replaced by it. It’s no wonder our babies are obese.

As individuals, we could be making better food choices and exercising more, but we don’t live in a vacuum. What is hurting us most is living in a society that does not value good food and healthy living. It values profits. That’s why we’ve outsourced our production and import food rather than grow it. Because produce has to be arrive unspoiled from its exotic destination, it’s genetically modified to grow bigger, be resistant to pests, and picked too soon before it has had time to ripen and come into its full flavor. That’s why fresh, locally grown produce is difficult to find and usually more expensive. That’s why everything contains HFCS; it’s cheaper than sugar. That’s why our meats are full of hormones and antibiotics, to make our animals bigger and resistant to disease, to increase production and pump the bottom line.

For years, my mother has complained that tomatoes and chicken don’t taste like much anymore. It’s only been in the last 30 years that we’ve seen such a dramatic shift in the food industry. Older generations of Americans often remember what food is supposed to taste like. Today nearly everything we’re eating is a poor, cheap substitute for the real thing.

4 comments

  1. Zendo Deb says:

    It is more than that. Americans are completely cut off from nature. Tomatoes in the middle of winter. Of course. And of course they don’t taste like anything.

    If you want to eat healthy you can.

    Everything contains HFCS because the US Congress passed a law making sugar more expensive. If you go to Mexico, you can still get a coke that contains sugar, but the US sugar growers get special consideration. So everyone told them to take a flying leap. It is something like an extra 5 cents per pound, which doesn’t sound like much unless you are buying by the ton. (Brach’s Candies used to run one of the world’s largest candy factories on the west side of Chicago. That moved off-shore (and killed 1200 or so jobs) many years ago mostly because of the cost of sugar.

    Just recently the US Congress passed a law that made it virtually impossible for small farmers to market their livestock economically. It was supposed to protect you, the consumer. It actually protects organizations like Tyson. Less competition.

    • Cosette says:

      The government definitely plays a big role. You also bring up the subject of pricing, which is important. The cost of food (and life in general) in Australia is much higher. I wonder if Americans would be willing to pay more for better food.

      Thanks for your comments, Zendo.

  2. Crystal says:

    “Just recently the US Congress passed a law that made it virtually impossible for small farmers to market their livestock economically. It was supposed to protect you, the consumer. It actually protects organizations like Tyson. Less competition.” Yes, Zeb. My small town has been trying to open a fresh market for a while. There was an informational meeting for the potential produce vendors – a group of small farmers, some of them hobby farmers- and after a lawyer and FDA official finished the meeting most of the would-be produce vendors walked away. It cost far too much and you had to jump through too many hoops to even be certified to sell. Well, there goes that dream of economic independence and healthier living for the community.

    • Cosette says:

      There are a lot of roadblocks. That’s why I say the problem of obesity and the road to good health go beyond our individual food and fitness choices. There is an institutional problem.

      Thanks for your comments, Crystal.

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