Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." - Michael Pollan

If you woke up tomorrow, and all the oil and electricity were gone, and you had to find food to keep yourself alive, could you do it?


I know for a fact that I would die. I have lost the ability to keep myself alive. I rely on food that is mass manufactured and processed for me, that comes from a supermarket, and if I couldn't get to it, I would surely die. How have we created such a strange world, that people are no longer involved in growing, gathering, and even making their own food?

Humans have become completely disconnected from the food that they eat. People don't cook anymore because it takes too much time. We eat less and less basic food that comes from raw ingredients, and more processed, packaged food that comes from artificial supermarket environments. Hardly anyone grows their own food anymore, or raises their own livestock. Eating is no longer about connecting with our natural world - it is about shovelling fuel into our bodies in as little time as possible. And most people these days work in jobs that are completely removed from food production altogether.

Michael Pollan is a writer who has delved deeply into the subjects of food, eating, production and our relationships with what we eat. He has this fantastic quote from his book The Omnivore's Dilemma: "Eating puts us in touch with all that we share with the other animals, and all that sets us apart. It defines us." The question is - how do we define ourselves now in our modern world of mass production and consumption?

 I have a complicated relationship with food. I have had an eating disorder for 15 years - anorexia, bulimia, bingeing, purging, defining more and more rules around food to create control because all the other areas of my life were so out of control and traumatic. I have been in recovery for a year and a half, but it is still difficult to let go of those rules created in my head around what I can and can't eat. And this is made ten times harder, because there are so many other rules being created for me around food from all information arenas - science tells us about what's "bad" for us, like fat and sugar and salt; nutritionists bring out all kinds of diets to follow to lose weight; marketers desperate to make money sell us fake foods with their own rules built-in - drink Coke and be happy, eat Ferrero Rocher and feel like the gods, the taste of KFC cannot be beaten.

Is this where we're heading? Because it sure seems like it...

We are bombarded every day with more information about food and how to eat it, and yet we are eating less and less real food. In his article Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch, Michael Pollan states that: "Currently the most popular meal in America, at both lunch and dinner, is a sandwich; the No. 1 accompanying beverage is a soda." In the same article, Pollan quotes food-marketing researcher, Harry Balzer, about the way our world has changed: "A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.” This is the most depressing view I have ever heard. Like most people who study consumer behavior, Balzer has developed a somewhat cynical view of human nature, which his research suggests is ever driven by the quest to save time or money or, optimally, both.

Our focus and our lives have changed so much. A hundred years ago, people were personally involved in producing, catching, preparing their own food, to keep themselves alive. People connected to nature through their food - ploughing the soil to plant the crops, growing green plants, being out in the open air. Looking after animals and ensuring their health and well-being so that what went into people's bodies was the best and healthiest protein. Baking bread from scratch. Making butter from milk that came from your own cow. Collecting eggs from your chickens. Now, our lives are focused on time and money. Trying to squeeze every little drop of time possible into work so that we can make more money.


In an interesting article on the website You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney says the following: "Everyone who lives above the poverty line but isn’t wealthy pretty much has no choice but to work for a living doing something which rewards them with survival tokens. Working as a telemarketer, for example, allows you to have food, clothing and shelter, but doesn’t put you directly in charge of creating, growing or killing those things you need for sustenance. Instead, you trade in tokens for those things. Before the advent of mass production, people were often defined by their work, by their output. The things they owned were usually things either they handmade, or were things other people made by hand. There was a weight, an infusion of soul, in everything a person owned, used and lived in."

I feel depressed about the way our lives are going - I was going to say progressing but I don't feel that the world we have created for ourselves is one of progress. We spend our lives disconnecting from our natural world. People work inside buildings all day long at jobs which have only one goal - to make money.

We all come home to our TV's and ready-meals shoved into the microwave, and spend our weekends trailing around shopping malls spending our tokens trying to fill up our meaningless lives with possessions.


Most people these days, if the supermarkets and food courts suddenly disappeared, would starve to death, because we have no back-up plans, no food growing at home, no knowledge of how to gather and hunt food from the wild. This poster is from World War II - in only a few decades, we no longer even know how to preserve.

Michael Pollen wrote a fantastic article which appeared in the NY Times in 2008, addressed to the Farmer In Chief. In it, his general premise is that we need to revert to a sun-fed system from an oil-fed one—and the practical notion that we need to support small farmers and learn to grow our own food. Some of the things he proposes:
—Make changes in our daily lives: teach children how to cook; plant gardens in every primary school and equip them with kitchens; pay for culinary tuitions (or forgive loans) by requiring culinary graduates to give some service back to such undertakings such as teaching kids how to cook; increase school lunch spending by $1 a day; grow more of our own food and prepare and eat our food together at a table; accept the fact that food may be more expensive and eat less of it.
—Train a new generation of farmers, spread them throughout the land, and make farming a revered profession.
—Preserve every acre of farmland we have and make it accessible to these farmers.
—Build an infrastructure for a regional food economy—one that can encourage and support the farms and distribute what they grow (rebuild or create regional distribution systems).
—Require federal institutions that prepare food (school lunches, prisons, military bases, etc.) to buy a minimum percentage of that food locally.
—Create a Federal definition of food, to encourage people to think about what is food and what is not, stuff we consume that has no caloric value (“junk food” should not be considered food).

Some people may say that his suggestions are overly simple, and that they don't consider the huge global issue of population growth (in 40 years the earth will carry 10 billion people, 80% of whom will live in urban areas). But if we don't get back to being involved in producing our own food, we may find ourselves in a very dire situation in the future.

Food waste is a massive worldwide problem. People starve in some places, while in others tons and tons of food get thrown away. I watched a programme on TV where a farmer was using biowaste to produce fuel to run his greenhouses. He received 5 tons of bananas which had been dumped. Not because they were rotten, or diseased. They had been dumped because they weren't considered good enough to be sold - some were misshapen, some were bruised. Looking through the bananas, the presenter was horrified - most were perfectly good for eating and could have fed many hungry people. How many times have you gone to a restaurant, and left half the food on your plate? Thrown away the leftovers in the fridge because you don't feel like eating them? Bought food and have it go mouldy in your fridge because you have come home late every night that week and ordered take-out because you are too tired to cook?


There is a brilliant restaurant called Wafu outside of Sydney, which defines itself as a restaurant for "guilty free Japanese cuisine", and gives a 30-percent discount to customers who eat all the food they order. Chef Yukako Ichikawa is tired of the food waste people leave on their plates. The menu says, "Finishing your meal requires that everything is eaten except lemon slices, gari (sushi ginger) and wasabi," followed by—"Please also note that vegetables and salad on the side are NOT decorations; they are part of the meal too." An article on Planet Green says: "It may sound like a stretch to some, but considering that an estimated $48.2 billion of food goes to waste in the U.S. alone (which translates to between 30 and 40 percent of our food); that food makes up the third-largest waste stream in the U.S.; and that 300 million barrels of oil are wasted along with all that food, the world could do with a lot more restaurants (and homes) that prohibit food waste the way Wafu does."

Since moving to Australia, and recovering from my eating disorder, I have changed the way I eat food. Food has become something to really enjoy. My husband and I cook dinner almost every night - and by cooking I mean from scratch, chopping vegetables, marinading meat, boiling potatoes and making mash. Not microwaving ready-meals. We hardly ever get take-out. We eat salad and vegetables every night. And we both get an amazing amount of enjoyment from cooking. It is a calm and focused activity that slows you down and reduces stress. You feel a sense of reward and achievement when sitting down to the meal you have prepared yourself.

Now I want to take that even further and start growing the ingredients for the meal. We live in Sydney, renting a house, so I am limited with what I can do with food production. I can grow vegetables and herbs. I might be able to get away with chickens in the backyard. I definitely won't be raising cows and sheep. But it's a start. We often dream of having a small holding, with a huge vegetable garden, chickens running around, looking after a few livestock animals. I would love to bake fresh bread every morning, and make my own cheese and butter.

I really feel that for the human race to move forward, we need to move backward. I believe that the most important thing to any living person is not money, or career achievements, or fancy possessions. People are very basic - we want to be loved, and we want to be happy. Most of the population will die without ever feeling genuine happiness and serenity in their lives, because of the craziness of the complicated world we have developed.


If we go back to being involved in growing our own food, raising our own animals, and spending more time with our families outside in nature, we will find a calmer and slower pace of life. If we stop chasing after money and possessions, and accept a life of just having enough to live, instead of being desperate to own everything that is marketed to us, we will find an appreciation for the things in life that really matter. Sunshine, flowers, children's laughter, playing with our pets.

I know that most of us cannot make radical changes in our lives and move to the country and have a small farm. But if we start small - cook your own dinner and eat it with your family, grow some of your own ingredients, spend time outside in the sunshine on weekends, appreciate life more and possessions less - we will start to find a little more peace in our selves, and a little more of that elusive happiness.