Thursday, October 1, 2009

Food, oh, food, where have you gone?

I just received an email requesting donations for a local food drive. The problem is that they are not asking for food. They are asking for the stuff that Michael Pollan describes as "edible food-like substances." Here's the list of requested donations:

Mac & Cheese
Instant Potatoes
Hamburger Helper
Tuna Helper
Cake or Brownie Mix
Stuffing Mix
Pasta Mix
Soup Mix

If you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you can hear me squealing, gasping for air, fanning my face, and reminding myself aloud to breathe! Where do I even start? Do I start with the fact that everything on the list is void of fiber, Vit. A, protein, Vit. C, etc? Do I start with all the sugar (or artificial sweeteners) and artificial colors that can cause problems for children trying to concentrate and sit in their seats at school? Do I even bother to mention the fact that almost nothing on the list will even fill up a hungry belly? Seriously, they want soup mix?

This is such a huge issue that I don't know if a single blog post can do it justice, but I'm going to give it a go. I'll start by saying that I am not an ogre who thinks that poor people should just starve. But we are not doing them any favors by giving them junk to eat. First, it's bad for them. (I personally do not consume a single item on the list.) Second, every item on that list is overpriced, because you could make a similar dish from scratch for about 1/4 to 1/2 the cost, which I do. Third, when the recipients do have more money, they'll waste it to buy more edible food-like substances (EFLS) because they think it's good for them. As someone just said to me yesterday -- I kid you not -- "They wouldn't give it to us if it was bad for us."

It should not surprise you that I disagree with Big Ag's assertion that world hunger can be solved by GM crops. Hunger can be eradicated by better distribution and education. Several "experts" have said that we already have enough food to feed everyone, but there is a problem with distribution. If you have ever worked at a grocery store (or talked to someone who did), you know how much fresh food gets thrown out on a regular basis. You'll hear a similar story from people who work at restaurants. Servings are obesity-sized, and many people don't take home left-overs.

When I went to the composting seminar in February, a man with a professional vermicomposting business said he picks up trashed produce from the supermarkets regularly to feed his worms. He said he quickly learned that there was a big difference between something that was not salable and something that was not edible. A store gave him an entire shipment of apples one time because they weren't shiny enough. The produce manager said people wouldn't buy apples that weren't shiny. (You know they're only shiny if they're waxed, right?)

In the documentary, Food, Inc., they follow a lower-class family through the drive-through of a fast food restaurant as they buy dinner for their children -- and then later at the grocery store when they tell the youngest that she can't have a pear because it's too expensive. The family in the KFC $10 meal challenge has the same problem with understanding the value of food. And this is where education comes into play. People need to be educated about food, cooking, and even gardening. This is not a new idea.
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
Instead of giving people EFLSs, why don't we volunteer a couple hours to teach a cooking class at a homeless shelter? Or a class on making menus and budgeting for food? Until our church started talking about selling its current building, I was thinking that it would be a great service to have a community garden, where people from shelters could learn how to garden and get fresh produce at no cost. When I lived in the Chicago suburbs, I remember a garden at one of the jails. It was a coveted position for inmates to be allowed to work in the garden, and one woman was quoted saying that she was planning to start a garden when she was released. There have to be better ideas out there than giving people boxes of empty calories. What do you think?

To see more blogs about real food, check out Fight Back Friday at Food Renegade.


Michelle said...

You're preaching to the choir, so I think you're spot-on!

pedalpower said...

All of those are great ideas if you can get people interested in learning those skills. I used to work at the food pantry at our church, and it is soooo frustrating because you can't get people to take REAL food. They only want the boxed quick food like things you mentioned.

For a while I made a concerted effort to teach them about how easy beans were to cook and how good they are for your body. We even printed up instructions and tasty recipes for them to take (and we provided the ingredients). Almost no one would take the beans...they said it was too much trouble to make. It's very discouraging and it breaks your heart to know that the little children with them could be eating so much better with just a little time put in on the parent's part.

MaskedMan said...

The main thing that the food pantries are looking for is shelf-life. Dealing with spoilage takes time, refrigeration costs money, and both volunteer hours and money are in short supply these days.

Otherwise, I'm completely on-board with you. These days, even when I want junk food, I tend to make it myself - We had pizza last night. Hand tossed (I can still twirl a mean pizza skin!), home-made sauce, local cheese, local bell peppers - only things from outside the local area were the flour in the dough, the garlic, and the onions. Even 'junk' food needn't be junky.

One last thing:
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish, and his wife will hate you forever more.

Melissa said...

My husband works for an organization who works with kids with behavioral problems. We were just talking last night about how the chemicals in processed foods affect people and I guess there is a study about this regarding autism that supports the theory.

Its so sad to see kids hopped up on so many different drugs because they've been raised on foods that leave their hormones, chemical-processes, etc completely out of whack.

Miss Effie said...

Don't get me started!!! I so agree with you.

Our local farmers market has been partnering with a food pantry. I had raised some money -- bought farmers market gift certificates -- and donated them to the food pantry.

My hope was the pantry would go to the market and buy produce. No -- the GC's are given to neighborhood people that help out at the food pantry (not that I object to that!) But the director asked for cash so they could buy food at the Food Bank because it is so cheap.

But its not fresh -- its not local-- and it doesn't help support a local farmer. Nor does it get the nutrients that are really needed into the diet.

At the market -- food stamp and WIC check use has decreased this year.

I'll give you back your soap box -- but do what is right. Give staples -- give dozens of your eggs -- let's band together and fight this. Maybe someone will learn to cook!

Deborah Niemann said...

Thanks for everyone's thoughts, and I'm happy to share my soapbox with you any day. You can see what a big issue this is and how you can go round and round with the problems. Dried beans and rice have a long shelf life, but people think they're too hard to cook.

And sadly this thinking is something many people have seen their whole lives. If their parents feed them at drive-thrus and the schools are feeding them packaged foods, they think that cooking is just not done. The documentary "Supersize Me" had some really sobering info on school lunches.

DangAndBlast! said...

I agree with you very much. (Well, except for one thing -- unless the orchards in Massachusetts are spraying down their trees with wax, apples can be very shiny naturally -- I used to love how you could basically see your face in one just fresh off the tree (after you wipe the dust off)!) Of course, one problem's the regulations -- remember the Alar scare, and how you weren't allowed to have apples in public schools in New York? Or you must have only a cheese-replacement substance, for fear some kid won't remember he's lactose intolerant and will have the runs all afternoon, etc... And how in many places stores aren't allowed (by local regulations, even) to sell day-old bread, so it has to be either thrown out or sent to a clearinghouse store that advertizes itself as selling only day-old bread... Meh.

MaskedMan said...

The documentary "Supersize Me" had some really sobering info on school lunches.
My daughter took leftover home-made pizza, home-made blackberry-nut quickbread, and carrots for lunch today. The only food not prepared at home was the beverage she'll drink, which will likely enough be tea. Everything was packed last night, and spend the night in the reefer... School lunches needn't be packaged, and they needn't be hard to do. I spent perhaps fifteen minutes last night, and five more minutes this morning making sure everyone had their lunches - At the same time as I was preparing breakfast and feeding the dogs.

I suspect a large part of the problem is that people are not sufficiently organized - They don't know how long a task will take, nor do they know how much time they have.

Deborah Niemann said...

After a quick Google search to reassure myself that they do still wax produce, I'm guessing your apples just grow shinier in Massachusetts, which isn't surprising. If indeed, people only buy shiny apples, and someone wants to sell them right off the trees, they'd want to grow the shiniest varieties out there, which is why most people have never seen a russet apple. They're sweet, delicious, and last many months in storage, but they're ugly, so they're not grown commercially.

I hadn't heard of most of the regulations you mentioned, but it doesn't surprise me. I know someone who tried to give her egg surplus to a food pantry, and they wouldn't take them because she's not a licensed egg producer.

Jenny Holden said...

Michelle's quite right about preaching to the choir, but it is shocking isn't it?! Why the heck we need GM foods to produce greater amounts is beyond me when farmers in Europe are being paid NOT to produce as much food so that our wildlife recovers and we reduce the grain mountains... that's before we even look at the amount purchased by families campared to what they consume and what goes to waste. The thing is that it's so cheap! If you buy decent happy, organically grown then you can't afford to chuck loads out!

Miss Effie said...

Cheap food policy only increases the profits of agribusiness ... not farmers.

We spend 40% less of our income on groceries than we did in 1957 .... and obviously, we are less healthy.

Augustana College in Rock Island changed to an all-fresh and local food policy for campus. No frozen soups, no bottled salad dressing, no instant potatoes, no pre-cooked meats that are tossed into steamer trays. They even compost.

They reduces expenditures 2.4% this year when the Consumer Price Index says that food cost should be increasing 3%. And they have increased the number of meals being prepared.

They should be a model for all institutional meals.

Michelle said...

I wonder if Willamette University down in Salem is following this model, at least somewhat. I know they feature fresh and local in their offerings, and their offerings are unusual and tasty -- not your usual cafeteria fare! I tried them out after they were featured on one of Rachel Ray's programs; very good -- and inexpensive!

Donna said...

Ken and I just volunteered to cook for a church run food pantry dinner...they were so excited that he MADE his own spaghetti sauce from his own tomatoes, basil, peppers, onions, garlic and other veggies...can you imagine? The salad was from our own
garden....the dessert was made "from scratch"...can you imagine? Everyone was SO excited about REAL FOOD!! All of this was made by a man who wanted to share our "real food" with some people who would appreciate it! A couple of people said they almost skipped the "spaghetti supper" when the menu for that night was announced...thinking "boxed" or "canned"...they were sure glad they decided to come!!

Anonymous said...

i think that some people also just like the taste of processed goods. it might be that some people have less sensitive taste buds or that the chemicals put in foods to make them tasty are somewhat addictive. I think of MSG as a drug, and i would guess that hamburger helper and many soup mixes have MSG in them, as well as other nasty chemicals.

anyway, i just say this because i think it's too easy to blame the parents or the food pantry. not that they are without blame necessarily, but it's a complex issue as to why people do not eat real food.

Unknown said...

Hippygirl - I find that whenever I eat at a restaurant or get fast food, I start craving processed food. It's got to be the chemicals they use. If I were smart, I'd avoid the stuff all together, but...

Just wanted to add that Iowa has a program that seems to at least address this problem. It's called the Farmer Market Nutrition Program and it appears that seniors and folks eligible for WIC can get checks to be used at local farmers markets and farmstands. I saw signs for it at the Quad Cities farmers market when I was there last weekend. Don't know if there's anything similar in Illinois, but maybe it's something we could work towards.

Miss Effie said...

Ginnybelle -- I am shocked at how little it is though for the senior program. From what I understand -- they get 3-$10 checks to be used at the markets.

And from what I understand -- those are waaaaay down in use this year.

Hey! Are you from the QCA?? Me. too!

Deborah Niemann said...

Just got home and saw all your great comments. Thanks for sharing your ideas and experiences. It is a very complex problem indeed.

SkippyMom said...

A little story [true!] A few years ago my husband and I worked for the same company. It closed one day, without notice.

We collected unemployment due to being laid off - but neither of us could find a job [it is the swimming pool business and they don't hire in the winter, regardless of my husband's 32 years of experience.]

We collected a little less than six hundred dollars a week and out of that we had to pay our rent, child support, utilities and food. We didn't qualify for food stamps or assistance because we were collecting unemployment.

We lived in an apartment, it was winter. We couldn't start a garden or grow anything, we were barely eeking by considering our combined unemployment barely covered our rent/child support - but we pushed on and continued looking for work.

There came a day when we had to utilize the local food bank. We simply had no choice. Not a great moment in our lives, but due to the conundrum that is the gov't we had no money for food. They food bank tries to give healthy options, but they rely on donations from local citizens and local groceries that donate their out of date goods.

Sure we missed fresh veggies, meat and whole milk [we did receive chocolate milk tho' weird?] but the situation was a temporary stay for us. We went two times , but it kept my family feed for those six days. [Our pantry has a limit of 3 visits in one month. They provide a 3 day supply of food each visit].

All that said - your mission is admirable, but food banks aren't meant to be a long term solution to anyone's dietary needs. They are stop gaps to feed a family in an emergency. As such our food bank offered long shelf life type foods that could be kept and the expiring donations from the grocery stores [which never included anything fresh].

Maybe a better place to send a message is those people on food stamps that are allowed to buy their own food - nothing aggravates me more than to be in line behind someone in the store and see them buying soda, chips and frozen food with a food stamp card. I have seen this dozens of times and it just makes me want to grab them and say "But look carrots are on sale! Did you see the chicken?" Invariably they and their family are overweight or obese.

So, don't be so hard on the food banks/pantries - they serve a temporary need with limited resources. Those on food stamps could be on them for months, if not years at a time.

[It was a long three months, but my husband did find a job! :)]

Chajara said...

Keep in mind that so many people either don't know how or can't find the time to cook, either. Or, they can't afford the equipment. I know that when I first moved in with my boyfriend, it would have taken me a much longer time to teach myself to cook had we had to buy all our kitchen equipment ourselves, because I had to focus on finding a job at first and when we started out we had very little money. Fortunately, both our families gave us hand-me-downs and I've since replaced lots of it with quality cookware, but for people who don't have that luxury and don't have a Goodwill nearby (remember, many poor folks rely on public transportation, which is sorely lacking in this country!) it can be hard to cook meals at home.

I do agree with the frustration expressed with people who load up on soda and chips and other unnecessary and unhealthy stuff and are using food stamps, and I'm also constantly stunned at how many people (poor and rich) who are just too lazy to cook. For every poor person refusing to get beans at the food pantry because it's too much work, there's somebody with way too much money shelling out $7.99/lb for lasagna and $12.99/lb for baked salmon at a specialty grocery store's deli case. I know, I work at one and see it every day.

Deborah Niemann said...

SkippyMom, sorry if it sounded like I was being hard on food banks. My goal was to get people thinking about the problem and hopefully coming up with some ideas about solving it. It's a really big problem -- much bigger than simply food banks, which are only one symptom. The subject would probably need an entire book to be properly explored. There is just something terribly wrong with a world where perfectly good apples (and other produce) are being fed to worms, and people are given soup mixes and Jello.

DangAndBlast! said...

Heh -- in some ways, I think it goes deeper than that -- someone hands out meals to people downtown near where I work; the fried chicken or sandwiches or whatever else gets eaten, but there's always piles of untouched fruit that they've thrown on the ground. When they give out bags of baby carrots, those get tossed out too. If people won't eat fresh fruit and vegetables when it's given to them for free, I don't think telling them how easy it is or how healthy it is would help! (And, the people that'll throw uneaten food on the ground when there are trash cans all around are probably just as uninterested in taking care of themselves as they are in taking care of what's around them.)

Anonymous said...

You know, I really think obesity is a symptom rather than a cause. I think that based on a lot of the research I've read, which doesn't effectively point to obesity as a cause of much of anything. It's more on the effect side. It is correlated with diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, etc, but correlation is not causation. Poor diet and lack of exercise, along with a genetic component, seem to be the causes of all those health problems (along with dozens of other things, such as lack of breastfeeding, early start of solid foods, lack of recess or time at home to exercise for schooled kids, etc.).

For some people poor diet and lack of exercise lead to obesity. However, there are skinny people with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease. Just as there are fat people who are healthy and active.

So while it's quite easy to see people buying chips and soda and "junk" food and then look at their waistlines and think you know how they got that way, it's not that simple. Very few things in life are that simple!

Goldnrod said...

I would have to agree w/Hippygirl. My dh was raised on junk food, & there are still somethings I can't get him to give up, in spite of trying 20+ yrs, LOL!

I know that there are some food banks that are doing well on giving out real food. My sis, sadly, has been out of work for a loong time, & has been going to the food banks locally. Along w/the not real food, she has also been bringing home a lot of fresh produce, meat & other good stuff. I think it has to do w/which stores participate. Trader Joe's, Fred Meyer & a healthfood store are donating in our area. Yeah!

Anonymous said...

My thoughts on this something I have thought about often. When we look back at the '50s and '60s, how many children had ADD? Did we have the same percentages back then of children who have ADD or are autistic? Or has that percentage grown over the decades? It would be my guess (never having done any research on the topic, but still curious) that the percentages have increased, and most likely due to all the garbage we feed our children, which in turns makes them addicted to it.

Maggie said...

From working at Wal-Mart and most recently Sam's Club, I agree that it's very depressing to see the things people buy on food stamps. It's mostly chips, white bread, lots of red meat and poultry (rarely fish), soda, colored/flavored sugar drinks, canned vegetables, and boxed meals. Sometimes they might get some fresh bananas and apples. But it's rare, and in small amounts. I'd like to think that maybe they buy healthier things elsewhere, but there isn't much money left on their card when they're done...


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