Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Food Issue

I cannot remember an issue of the New Yorker than I enjoyed as much as the recent food issue (November 21, 2011). Unfortunately, the articles are behind a pay wall, and there is no way I can do the authors' marvelous writing justice by paraphrasing it, so if you're not a subscriber to the magazine or missed the issue at the newsstand, you'll just have to take my word for it. It was superlative.

But here are some teasers: There is an article by the indefatigable Calvin Trillin - truly a national treasure - explaining his signature dishes in his signature way. An article on apples  helped me understand the science (large cells!) of why the tasty HoneyCrisp apples and next generation SweeTango are juicier than other varieties. There is an article on coffee and one on foraging, that art of finding food in the great outdoors. I initially thought a New Yorker-length article on foraging would be boring and, honestly, I trudged into reading it with an "it will be good for me" attitude. Thank goodness I persevered, because the author approached the topic from a delicious blended perspective of travel writing, botanical science, and foodie insight that transported me far away from my urban kitchen table to a place where anything growing is potential food. After chewing on that piece for awhile, I realized why I was so enamoured with the entire issue of the magazine: it broadened my thinking about food. In fact, I raised my head from the page and looked out my window at my shady and sloping front yard and dreamt of raised beds strategically placed to catch the spotty sun and wondered how much it would cost to terrace the back yard.

Mark Bittman wrote recently in the New York Times that the United States, bestowed with some of the world's most perfect soil and climate to grow plants, imports more fruits and vegetables than it grows. Isn't that weird? Years of farm economics have pushed America's breadbasket, that great swath of Midwestern black soil, to become America's corn basket, at the expense of filling those baskets with the very foods we should be eating. If you've been following HealthTwisty, you know I was raised on a farm that created hybrid corn and beans for farmers to grow But when I was a kid, we did not focus solely on those two crops. We also raised wheat and oats, alfalfa and hay, with periodic forays into sorghum and sunflowers. When my grandparents were still active, the farm was still a sustenance place, where the people living there grew gardens, tended stands of fruit and nut trees, managed tracts of timber, and raised animals in addition to the row crops. I don't think my grandparents bought much at grocery stores other than paper products and baking and canning supplies, and, as they grew older and didn't want the responsibility of keeping a milk cow, dairy products.

I'm not idealizing that lifestyle because I know how much work it is. Well, maybe I am idealizing it a bit. But really, I just mention it in a roundabout way to exemplify the changes that have happened in just two generations of farming.

Which brings me to my point. Over those two generations, our food supply has become tragically narrow and it is to the detriment of our health, and our planet's health. Currently, there is a farm bill winding its way through Congress. The Environmental Working Group has posted a leaked copy of the bill here, but I don't know if it represents the most recent version. Even though the farm bill was originally initiated to help US farmers, it has evolved to the point where author Michael Pollan notes

"It isn't really a bill just for farmers. It really should be called the food bill because it is the rules for the food system we all eat by."

So we should all care what the farm bill says. The draft of the farm bill posted by EWG does have language about expanding support for fruit and vegetable growers, at least with federal crop insurance. And there is wording about limiting some subsidies and allowing others to expire with the current bill in 2012. Those are positive steps towards refocusing our nutritional attention on fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. The 600-pound gorilla in the room, though, is the immediate concern of economically feeding the growing population of this country and the world. There are worries that the new farm bill will reduce the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps, and few discussions about increasing access to fruits and vegetables. Farm economics are complicated and contentious, interwoven with politics and laden with big money influence. I don't have the answers, but I support those who are trying to come up with the win/win situations that will allow farmers to continue to practice their livelihoods and grow nutritious food that can be turned into reasonably priced products - including those used for energy - for consumers.

Since the debt committee has thrown up its hands, the farm bill will continue to be negotiated. In the interim, I urge you to find a copy of The New Yorker's food issue. The writing is delectable, to be sure, and the contents take you so far away from standard supermarket fare that you feel like you've been on a field trip to the bright side. Broadening our thinking about food allows us to dream, which then allows us to "begin with the end in mind," as Steven Covey famously laid out as an important step in intentionally starting on a new path. And that is my wish for Congress - please begin with the end in mind in creating a farm bill that can make good use of the farming resources this country offers in order to feed us all in a healthy way. That's all.


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