Eating Well: Most of Us Can Afford It, and It’s Good For Our Body Politic

The AP says eating well is an indulgence:

But it’s not. The AP article focuses on correlation between spending more on food and success at getting sufficient amounts of certain nutrients, like potassium and vitamin D, in one’s diet. But there’s more to eating healthy, which should never be separated from eating well; that is, eating in a manner that’s good for our economy, good for the environment, consistent with–if one eats meat–ethical standards in the treatment of animals, and that’s good for those who produce and process food (including the typically low-wage and often immigrant workers who toil in the food processing industry). If we eat heathy and eat well, it will be good for our politics.

Now, it’s definitely true that it’s harder to eat well if you’re on a limited budget. Eating well requires some knowledge and skill in the kitchen. It also requires time to prepare and cook food, because it’s almost impossible to eat healthily if one’s meals are almost all prepared in restaurants. And through our agricultural policies favor crops such as corn and soybeans–which makes it cheaper to produce factory-farmed meat and to add sweeteners to a wide range of prepared foodstuffs–than to a wider range of crops including vegetables, fruits and legumes. For many people, stopping at McDonalds is bad in many ways, but it’s economically not a bad way to get cheap calories.

But it’s actually not tremendously expensive for families of modest means to eat well, as long as they prepare their food themselves and shop with a bit of savvy. My wife has long been focused on these issues, looking at it not only as a devoted and committed cook but also as an analytical thinker about ethics. I’m also a decent shopper and came in to the relationship with adequate kitchen skills, and as a result, we eat quite well. We’ll sometimes eat non-ethical meat when we’re in restaurants–typically only “ethnic” restaurants like Asian and Mexican, although I do occasionally like a greasy bar burger or an Italian beef sandwich–but living in Chicago, we also have plenty of options for places that serve grass-fed meat that’s raised in Illinois or Wisconsin. For home, we only buy grass-fed meat, which is more expensive, but we don’t eat huge quantities of meat every day. We eat some meat most days, but a pound of meat provides us two or three meals, sometimes even more.

Most of the rest of what we eat is fairly inexpensive. We drink good beer, use organic dairy and eat a lot of nuts & fresh fruit (all of which can be expensive), and we buy bread and prepared cereal (the latter we usually get on sale). But most of the rest of our meals are built around grains and beans we buy in bulk–we use our pressure cooker two or three times a week–and whatever mostly seasonal vegetables we buy at our local market or at the farmer’s market. Our diet gets pretty boring around March, before asparagus and cold-weather greens start appearing at local markets, but it’s not particularly expensive to eat a lot of citrus and root vegetables and the occasional deep green vegetable shipped in from the South or California.

Living in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in America, and thus one of the most diverse places in the world, we’re able to get all kinds of great stuff in inexpensive ethnic markets. We regularly shop in small Greek, South Asian and Southeast Asian specialty markets, and our corner supermarket caters to the South American, Asian, African and Eastern European immigrants in the neighborhood. We’re also in a metro area of several million people, surrounded by some of the richest and most diverse agriculture in the world, so the bounty available to us includes not only the standard commodity crops and meats of Illinois and the rest of the corn belt, but also Wisconsin dairy and the huge variety of high-quality fresh fruits and vegetables from Michigan, which is second only to California in the diversity of its agriculture. We also have a small amount of space in which we’re growing herbs, greens & a small amount of tomatoes, peppers and fresh beans. We have prices and selection available to few Americans. But even when I lived in Kansas or we lived in Minnesota, it wasn’t too hard to eat well without breaking the bank.

The poor have few good options unless they’re in a rural area and can maintain a large and fertile garden. Fresh produce is very expensive, and if you can’t find a store that caters to immigrants, it’s often not easy to find a cheap and diverse selection of beans, lentils, rice, dried grains and the like. And from the days prior to World War II when most Americans cooked almost all their own food, at home, from scratch, a lot of kitchen skill has been lost. Many people rely on packaged and frozen food, which is often nutritionally inferior to meals prepared from scratch while also usually being more expensive. And with most families–in the absence of unwanted unemployment–relying on both spouses working, time to prepare fresh food is not abundant. But it’s actually easy and not tremendously time consuming for most people to improve their diets by preparing more meals at home, as Mark Bittman and others have been urging for many years.

There have been times I was broke enough and with no access to an adequate kitchen that several bean burritos or regular tacos at Taco Bell or three or four regular hamburgers from McDonalds was the most sensible meal to eat. I’ve also purchased fresh fruit from the farmer’s market in DC’s Dupont Circle, which is probably the most ridiculously priced place for produce in America. I have no illusions about the difficulties the poor face in eating well, or the ease with which shoppers at upscale farmers’ markets can be mocked for smug, self-righteous conspicuous consumption. It’s also easier to eat well when you enjoy shopping and cooking, as we do.

But one of the fundamental changes facing Americans is to cut down the vast distances, literal and figurative, between our kitchen and restaurants tables and the places where our food is grown, raised and processed. Eating well will improve our health, our social well-being, our ecology and climate, and maybe even our politics. More diverse agriculture will help arrest the consolidation of farming by large farms either owned outright by or producing under contract for large conglomerates that receive billions in agricultural subsidies from the federal government. Nudging our rural areas back toward  agricultural diversity will restore some of the lost economic and social vibrancy and provide opportunities for young people who would like to remain in or migrate to rural communities which today are being emptied out of the young. Vibrant and diverse rural communities will be communities with residents less fearful of change and more optimistic about the future (and therefore less inclined to succumb to Republican fear mongering and more likely to vote for Democrats). None of this can be achieved until eating well is no longer beyond the grasp of the poor. But it also won’t be achieved if it’s wrongfully depicted as currently beyond the grasp of all but the rich.

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