Food for Thought

Three spring 2013 Senior Symposium speakers focused on food and free will.

Case studies in subversive eating

When Christopher Bakken asked seniors exactly where their dinner came from, only one student thought she knew.

“Our complete lack of knowledge about the food we eat is the norm,” Bakken said. “What are the repercussions of knowing nothing about the food we eat?”

Bakken, an associate professor of English at Allegheny College, said we rarely think about where our food comes from or how its production affects the workers who grow it and the environment. In the case of animals, we don’t think about how they are treated or slaughtered, or about the people who work in slaughterhouses.

“American food is almost entirely industrial,” he said. “It depends on our ignorance.”

Bakken, who was also the spring Thornton reader, is the author of two books of poetry, Goat Funeral (2006) and After Greece (2001), and a culinary memoir called Honey, Olives, Octopus: Adventures at the Greek Table.

He spends a month in Greece each year to work on his writing and to eat wonderful would. He described his favorite meal, which he had on the island of Thasos: beets with olive oil and green onions, green beans with olive oils and tomatoes, octopus, red mullet, apricots with honey. Every single ingredient was grown or caught within a mile of his meal.

“Of course it’s a hell of a lot of work to eat like this,” Bakeen noted, but suggested that the effort to know where your food comes from has rewards.

To eat better when he returned home to Pennsylvania, he created a local community supported agriculture (CSA) project. Now 35 families subscribe to the farm and receive a box of vegetables each week nine months out of the year. Vegetables are the centerpiece of their meals, but they can also buy local pork and beef from nearby farmers.

“The choices we make at the table are ultimately ethical,” he said.

Frankenfoods for our future?

Are we stuck with industrialized food? Do we have to eat genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to support an ever-expanding human population?

Those questions were explored by Dr. Glenn Stone, professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Washington University, St. Louis.

Dr. Stone said GMOS are just the latest wave in the industrialization of agriculture, which started in the 1850s with organic fertilizer from bird dung. Tractors, hybrid seeds, inorganic fertilizer, irrigation, pesticides, and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) followed suit.

Giant food corporations like Monsanto rely on the industrialization of food to maximize profits. They argue that the world must have GMOs to support the 7 billion-and-growing human population, but the facts don’t support that, Dr. Stone said.

Food scarcity is not a problem in the world today, Dr. Stone said. In fact, every major famine has been accompanied by an increase in production in the country where the famine occurred. In Ireland during the great potato famine, for example, the Irish actually increased their pork production while nearly one million Irish starved to death. They couldn’t afford to buy pork so they starved.

In India, the country with the most starvation on Earth, also has the greatest overproduction of rice and wheat.  Much of it rots; again, the poor simply can’t afford to buy it.

The bottom line, Dr. Stone said, is “we are wrecking our environment and killing ourselves to overproduce crops. Agriculture is the runaway train.”

Dr. Stone argued that we do have a choice between eating industrialized food and local, sustainably grown food.  He is researching the local food movement in Virginia, which includes the well-known farmer Joel Salatin, whose methods were featured in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

“Virginia is one of the most interesting areas in the country in terms of alternative agriculture,” Dr. Stone said.

Making healthier food available
Dominic Barrett, director of the United Methodist Urban Ministries of Richmond and Shalom Farms, is battling one food desert at a time.

“How hard is it to get healthy food?” he asked. He noted that a grocery store four miles away from a person without a vehicle can mean a 1.5-hour bus ride each way. In most food deserts, there are instead food swamps — areas with only bad food in convenience stores. One study showed that students can consume 3,500 empty calories a week as they walk by convenience stores on the way to and from school, purchasing chips, sodas, and candy bars, he said.
Shalom Farms is a nonprofit community farm project begun in the fall of 2008 with the overarching goal of increasing food security in the Richmond, Virginia region, particularly in low-income urban neighborhoods. In collaboration with many partners, the project is growing and providing fresh and healthy produce to underserved communities and providing experiential learning opportunities for children and adults.

Such programs, combined with school programs that have gardens on school grounds, and healthier food for food banks can also help improve access to good food, Barrett said. Some convenience stores have started carrying baby carrots, bananas, and apples.

Ultimately, however, our national food policy must change, he said. The government subsidizes unhealthy food and the food industry makes processed food addictive by filling it with sugar, salt, fats, and other taste enhancers.