(These notes and the commentaries that follow are a Facebook project based on Barbara Kingsolver's book "ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE A Year of Food Life." Each week a project member writes a response based on one chapter of the book. Together we read and talk our way through a year in the life of Kingsolver and her family. This response was authored by PAM PRIEST and is prompted by Chapter Eight, "Growing trust.")
I bought my copy of AVM used. Apparently it was read by a child named Harry, because his name is all over it. I don't know how old Harry is - maybe 11? Here's what Harry wrote in the book:
"I find it interesting that farmers have a lot of terms I've never heard of, like annuals and biennuals. I realized how much I didn't know about plants - I never knew that root vegetables were supposed to last through another season!"
I wonder who got Harry to read this book. Was it in school? A parent? I'll never know, but I think it's great that that it captured his interest.
My post is a little different from previous posts. I have a tendency to look at things critically, but I sincerely don't intend to sound negative at all; I hope that it's not taken that way. I just think that the original purpose of this exercise was to generate discussion, and my inclination is not to just agree with everything in the book.
I have a confession.
I don't know what healthy food is. I know what it's not; Cheetos, those neon orange things that my husband loves. Vegetables are considered healthy, but what if those vegetables are covered in hollandaise sauce? Hollandaise sauce is made with all natural ingredients: 3 egg yolks, 2 sticks of butter and a squirt of lemon, but oh, when those ingredients are emulsified, you have a lush, rich sauce that is pure fat. Put it on asparagus and it's heavenly. But is it healthy? Probably not. I say "probably", because the consensus about what is healthy changes from year to year. It goes in cycles. The media picks up any poorly conducted, biased "study" conducted by the food industry and touts it as fact, and soon everyone believes it. Carbs are bad, protein is good (Atkins). Carbs are good, fat is bad (Pritikin). Then back to Atkins. Then "low glycemic". Who knows? The only concept that has remained uncontroverted is that of calories. Eat too many and you gain weight. Everyone knows that, and yet we still consuming too many. Why? It tastes good! Sometimes a cigar really is a cigar, unless it's one of those chocolate ones...you know, with that crunchy center...mmmm....where was I? But seriously, I think it's because calories are readily available in a way that they never were before. Sugar, in various disguises, is in almost everything that is "processed." Packages are labeled, but in such a way that the calorie level looks much smaller than it is. Who can have just 8 potato chips?
In AVM, Kingsolver discusses the fact that processed food is cheap, intimating that this is why people buy it. I disagree in part. I'm sure money is part of it, but I think that a huge factor is that it's fast and easy. I am lucky to be self employed. I also don't have children. I can take the time to go to the grocery store every day and choose what to make for dinner that evening. I don't need to buy a box of macaroni with powdered cheese; I can buy a variety of cheeses, go home and grate them, make a white sauce, cook the macaroni and saute breadcrumbs for the top. But most people don't have that luxury. They work long, hard hours, have to pick up the kids from daycare, help with homework, do laundry, clean house, get them ready for tomorrow's school and, of course, make dinner. No wonder they choose fast food!
I think that the other reason people buy processed food is because they are genetically programmed to consume the highest calorie food available. If you offer a child one item that has sugar and one that does not, he will take the one with sugar. A secret of chefs in the best restaurants is that they emulsify butter with a tiny amount of water to make buerre monte, and then submerge foods such as steak, vegetables, and lobster in it just before serving. Why? Try and you'll see (but buerre monte requires practice).
People buy high calorie foods even though they know it's not good for them. From an evolutionary perspective, the craving for calories makes sense; it would sustain people through periods of famine. Of course, most of us no longer have famine. Our genetic evolution has not caught up with our present reality of caloric abundance and the consequence is the increase in food related illnesses. (And yes, I know that some people will say they don't crave calories; maybe you're genetically superior!) We know these diseases are caused by an over-consumption of calories. The problem is that we are trying to overcome a biological compulsion with logic and a moral imperative. This is not impossible.
Look how many of you are vegetarians. People can and do change where they buy and how they eat. But they need some motivation. It needs to be easy. And it can be easy. If the goal is to get the majority of people to buy local, then the local farmers do not have the luxury of saying "this information does not fit in a five-syllable jingle" or "The best they can hope for is a marketing tactic known as friendship." Why is that the best they can hope for? Why not hope for widespread education? Why not hope that oh, say, a chef from England would come over to try to improve the school lunch programs in a town - and that his efforts would be made into a TV show?
This chapter is called "growing trust". Kingsolver says "Corporate growers, if their only motive is profit, will find ways to follow the letter of the organic regulations while violating their sprit." I agree; my only question is why she would use the word "if".
She goes on to say that by its nature, locally grown food is trustworthy - that it is transparency and farmers showing up at a community gathering place every week. I agree that this creates trust from the people who go to the farmer's markets, but is merely showing up sufficient to increase the number of people who jump onto the locavore bandwagon? It's fine for us to have this discussion, but what about the rest of the world? Whether you call it advertising or outreach or education, more people need to become aware that buying local is an option, and it does not need to be burdensome or expensive - children love to go to farmer's markets. They are entertaining and they are free. There are even free samples! Local farmers need more customers. Trust is good, but it does not exist in a vacuum.