I was going to post snippets of an interview with Michael Pollan (and I’ll get back to that) but then I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned my appreciation for Michael Pollan, and why. So let’s do that first.
In Defense of Food was the book that really got me interested in eating well, and in health in the broadest sense of the word.
I really like two things about his work. 1) He doesn’t typically exempt himself. He speaks of ‘we’ – the eaters, the Americans, whomever and 2) I find his thinking to be rational, level-headed, common sensical. Even in the instances that could be considered accusatory (to Big Industrial Farm, to Fast Food, to whatever) his point isn’t really to lay blame. It’s to say, ‘I see this as bad, and here’s some evidence for why. If you agree, here’s what we can do instead.’
There is a problem laid out, there is documentation for why it’s a problem, and there is a feasible alternate suggestion. What’s past is past.. some bad food decisions, some blips in health. Let’s move forward, rather than dwell. (Incidentally, this is also the underlying motivation behind SparkPeople, which I love. Very “you’re not perfect, but you don’t have to be.” You just have to try.
I speak largely of American food choices in my blog because a) that’s where I am and b) for better or worse, a lot of our brands and foods are seeping into other developed countries. However, America, for all the junk we export food-wise, has a lot of really, really excellent options.
There are, of course, going to be obstacles, challenges, difficulties for the average American eater. But the biggest one, by far, is not thinking that changing your habits is possible. I don’t have time to cook, good food is expensive, I don’t like vegetables.. there are a million excuses. There are just as many workarounds.
The most common excuse I hear – and I don’t discount its partial validity – is that healthy food is more expensive.
When I picked up In Defense of Food, I was working at Walmart. I had worked there during college, and now that I’d graduated, I was still, a year and a half later, sending out job applications and looking for work that paid more, used my degree more, was more fulfilling for my interests.
When I picked up In Defense of Food, I was making around $9.15 an hour, living in a $350/month apartment with two other girls, and driving 20+ miles to work in a 10-year-old Hyundai with 150,000 miles. I had student loans more than my rent, and a questionable grasp on finances. I ate like a lot of recent-college-grads. Frozen pizza, pasta, burgers, fries. The occasional vegetable and fruit, but far less than good for me.
I did not (still don’t) have kids, or faced any of the specific financial and time constraints brought about by children, and I don’t discount those as tremendous challenges, especially in this day of single parents, of two working parents on opposite shifts, of the astronomical costs of quality daycare. I also acknowledge that in so many ways, even with my meager scenario, I was and am much better off than a lot of people. But for a lot of us, for the average Joe and Jane, there IS something we can do.. but we need to want to do it.
Some people look at their challenges, and find ways to make things work for their situations. And I believe that just about everyone can do that, in some way. What is your situation? What are your challenges? What can you do, for baby steps, that will make your food choices better, give you a few minutes to cook?
There are the questions we need to ask ourselves.
The notion of healthy food being more expensive is a complex one. On the surface, on the one hand.. yes, in some ways. There are healthy items that are more expensive, and there is also the time-cost to preparing food that needs cooking, not microwaving. But it’s not quite that simple.
If you are looking to simply replace your current diet with “healthier” (organic, all-natural, whatever) versions, it will probably be quite expensive. That $3 frozen preservative-filled pizza from Discount Grocery will jump to $7 if you get the all-natural organic frozen pizza over at Fancy Grocery. But if you’re looking at Fancy Grocery for a variety of fresh fruits and veggies, they’re generally about the same (sometimes even cheaper!) and usually taste much better. That brings us to what I call the Whole Foods Fallacy.
The joke goes that the chain should be called Whole Paycheck, because if you buy your groceries there, that’s what it’ll cost. Again, if we’re talking the organic frozen processed stuff.. yeah, probably true. I do a modicum of shopping at Whole Foods, and it very rarely includes a trip down the processed aisles. What I do buy at Whole Foods is fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, spices, cheese, and – when I buy it, which isn’t much – meat or fish.
Fruits and vegetables at Whole Foods are no more expensive than other chain grocery stores, and taste delicious. Nuts and spices I can get in the small quantities I want as a single person cooking just for me.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are always cheapest (and tastiest) when they’re in season. If you’re like me, you know that apples are in season in the fall, and watermelon in the summer, and you think maybe corn is late summer? But that’s about it. Someone asks me when kiwi is in season and I’ll suggest they google it. Eggplant? That…seems summerish? Maybe? I don’t know, do I look like an eggplant farmer?
I’ve noted a hole in my education regarding fresh fruits and vegetables. There are several cures, however. 1) internet. Thank you, google. 2) Join a CSA or shop the farmer’s markets in your area. In your CSA box you’ll only get what’s fresh and growing now, and the farmer’s markets, that’s what they’re bringing. You’ll either learn through seeing it frequently, or buy in season because that’s your only option anyway. Or 3, the awesomely lazy version) Find the produce varieties at the store that is the cheapest, and then get the best-looking and smelling of those. Note that this isn’t foolproof. 🙂
For my situation, when I first picked up the book, re-assessing my finances and prioritizing better food was a necessary step. Pollan has a stat about the comparatively low percentage of our budgets Americans spend on food, compared with the French, Italians, etc. That stuck with me, and made me rethink the notion of cheap and plentiful, in favor of quality, if a bit less.
But the thing I like most about Pollan is that, for all the complexity of some of the subject matter, In Defense of Food is still very readable, accessible. This is a book you can pick up, as a general interested person, and read without a lot of complicated jargon interfering. No small task.
Have you read anything of Michael Pollan’s? Do you agree or disagree with his position on food and health?