I hope you have enjoyed this series on food. If you have not read Parts I through IV and would like to, here are the links to Part I, Part II, Part IIIA, Part IIIB, and Part IV. Before addressing what we can do as individuals, as a community, and as a nation to improve our diet and food supply, let me review the key points in this series.
- The general health of the U.S. population would be much improved if we all reduced our calorie intake and ate more plants and less meat.
- The human body needs to consume many different molecules to complete its numerous biological tasks. The optimal way to accomplish this goal is to eat a wide selection of whole foods rather than relying on dietary supplements such as fish oil capsules or garlic tablets.
- In the U.S. we now get over 60% of all our calories from just four plants – wheat, corn, rice and soy – the processing of which removes much of their nutritional value.
- Changes in farming practices and exhaustion of our soils over the past several decades have resulted in significant reductions in the vitamin and mineral content of our food.
- Meats produced from U.S. factory farms are growing less nutritious and less safe with time.
- The decline in the overall quality of our food supply is the driving force behind increased rates of diet-related disease, such as type II diabetes, and the root cause of millions of cases of food poisoning per year.
So what can a health-conscious resident of Chapelboro do to improve her diet? To start, eat more plants and eat a variety of them. To the extent possible, try to buy these plants from a local, organic farmer. Not only is this helpful for the local economy, but since organic farming focuses on soil health, the foods produced this way are also rich in vitamins and minerals. Perhaps the best place to start upgrading the quality of your diet is breakfast. As gigantic agriculture corporations like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill have increased their outputs of nutrient-deficient, processed grains, they have ramped up their marketing efforts and convinced us to think of an array of empty-calorie foods, such as cereal, pastries, pancakes, and waffles, as a healthy breakfast. So go ahead and stick it to the man this morning and have a carrot and a banana for breakfast.
Here in Chapelboro we are fortunate to have a number of options to purcahse high-quality local foods, including our farmer’ markets and restaurants that focus on using local ingredients. To the extent that you are able, I suggest that you try to patronize our local food network whenever possible. It is a key asset of the Chapelboro community deserving of our support.
Bringing the quality of the national food supply up to Chapelboro standards will be much more challenging. (As a quick warning, this science column is about to go all political.) There are a number of impediments to improving the U.S food supply. I will address just two.
An improved food supply, with fresh local produce and locally raised, pasture-fed livestock, will cost more than the industrially-produced products which currently dominate our grocery stores. In our current economic and political environment, many families would be hard pressed to spend more for their food. Let me try to explain how, in this land of plenty, we have arrived at a circumstance where millions of working families cannot afford to purchase healthy foods. From World War II until approximately 1980, the wages of workers rose in proportion to increases in productivity in the U.S. economy. Since then, even though productivity gains of the U.S. economy have been significant and stock prices have risen dramatically, the inflation-adjusted wages for workers have stagnated. You could easily write a book about the primary causes for this. The really short version is that the break-up of unions and the steadfast refusal of the Republican Party to allow the minimum wage to be increased over time have dramatically shrunk the size and vitality of the American middle class. As Senator Elizabeth Warren recently pointed out, if the minimum wage would have continued to track worker productivity since 1980, it would be $22.00 per hour today, rather than its current paltry value of $7.25.
Our collective failure to ensure that workers continue to share in the benefits of increased productivity, in addition to being a stain on our national honor, has been corrosive to the entire U.S. economy. If people do not have money to buy things, companies cannot hire people to make them. Job creation in the U.S. is driven by consumer demand, not through the beneficence of the wealthy.
The second challenge to improving the U.S. food supply is the lack of a national consensus that we have a problem, and the existence of a large segment of the U.S. population which would oppose the government action needed to address it. Throughout this series on food, I have attempted to lay out the scientific underpinnings of a healthy diet. From this perspective, there is no doubt that we should be moving towards a locally-grown, organic, mostly vegetarian diet. Despite the clear scientific basis for this, any attempt to move in that direction, say healthier school lunches or a tax on a bacon double cheeseburger, will almost certainly be opposed by a some as “yet another attempt by us tree-hugging, dirt-loving, nanny-state-imposing, socialist hippies” to destroy their freedom. Consider the outcry which erupted when Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York tried to cap the size of sodas sold in the city at 16 ounces as an example.
The underlying concern of opponents to government action to try to improve our food supply is that we liberals are advocating for the U.S. to become more like Europe, where everyone has health insurance, where public transport is available, where streets have bike lanes, and your local organic grocer is right around the corner. Come to think of it, they are correct.
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