Food Security

Food Security

A new study done by the University of Connecticut compares each of the state’s towns on their “food security.” According to the article, food security means “whether there is easy access to a variety of healthy foods and whether residents are sufficiently taking part in food assistance programs.” As a native of Connecticut, I was interested to see where my town, Norwalk, fit on the map.

As it turns out, Norwalk is pink. Interestingly, it is a “pink” town–aka greatest risk of food security–surrounded by only “green” towns–aka lowest risk of food security (you can see it on the southwestern tip that jets out from the rest of the state). When people think of access to health food, the conversation always seems to generate around the idea of “low-income areas” not having enough access. Yet this graph shows how access is not determined by geographical location; Norwalk is surrounded by all towns in the lowest risk level, and it certainly would not take more than 20 minutes to drive or take public transit to one of these locations.

In my experience, “access” to healthy foods has a lot to do with class; local and organic food is valued much more heavily by the white, upper-middle class neighborhoods of the surrounding towns. It is in these towns that farmers’ markets travel to, and these people to whom they advertise. Norwalk, by contrast, is made up of many immigrant and first-generation American families who differ immensely in both culture and income. There are more ethnic markets and affordable corporate grocery stores in Norwalk than in the “green” towns.

It is seen as sophisticated and classier to be more interested in consuming healthy foods, and this association affects both sides. Identifying one type of food philosophy with yuppies certainly would make it less attractive to anyone who might not fit into that social group.

The article quotes Connecticut Food Policy Chairman John Frassinelli as saying “the Food Policy Council will be meeting with local food councils over the next year to help them make decisions about improving access to healthy foods.” Yet this risk of food security cannot be reduced to simply a lack of supermarkets or farmers’ markets. Rather, it must also address differences in food philosophies: citizens must learn to appreciate healthier and organic foods if they are going to buy them. In order to do that, education is important.

It is also necessary to debunk the idea that the healthy foods movement only applies to wealthy whites. Geographical proximity to healthy foods can only go so far in increasing access. The rest is up to the people.

Over the weekend, I made my first trip to b.good, a Boston-born restaurant chain that offers a fast food-inspired menu made from local and organic ingredients. I ordered house-ground burger with locally made gouda cheese and a side of house-cut “air fried” french fries. As I waited for my food, I was able to read a bio on the farmer who supplied the meat I was about to consume, including where the farm was located, what the cows were fed, and animal living conditions.

The food was modestly priced and delicious, just as I’d hoped. However, I took away more from my visit than just a full stomach. After reading The Taste of Place last week, I have been paying closer attention to the way local and organic food is represented around me. For the most part, I’ve been noticing how “real” food–a.k.a. local and organic food–is marketed as being for a healthier and more sophisticated palette. Restaurants and markets that sell “real” food are often more expensive and geared toward the yuppie–read: young urban professional–population.

This generalization of the “foodie”–and I use that term for simplification purposes; it can certainly be pejorative–movement comes from both sides. The “average” American is generalized as not caring too much about where their food comes from. The foodie is generalized as having an image of herself as one with more refined ideas of taste and food and as one who has both the time and the money for fresh meals. The foodie movement normally conjures up images of pricey organic summer squash and locally made cheddar cheese–far from a cheap burger, fries, and shake.

Yet b.good obviously problematizes this stereotype. It marks the intersection between America’s foodie movement (the new) and our love of fast, familiar food (the old). Interestingly, the crowd I found at b.good was not the young, earthy crowd that one normally finds at eateries touting fresh and local ingredients (and higher prices to match). Instead, this group was much more eclectic and representative of the local population as a whole. It represented both the foodie and the non-.

It would seem that b.good attracts a more diverse bunch because it produces traditionally cheap food with a sophisticated label. I cannot know whether the restaurant’s customer based is rooted more in its focus on local ingredients or its focus on great tasting, recognizable food. What I do know is that regardless of a person’s motive for eating at b.good, they will get access to learning about the pros of local, organic food once they are inside. They will read about where their meat is coming from, who cut their fries that day, and why the chain’s founders are dedicated to making food the “real” way. The idea that local, organic eateries exist for a class of people with a higher food conscious could potentially go by the wayside.

The fact that b.good serves traditionally fast food–rather than the haute cuisine local-centric cooking is often associated with–gives this form of local food activism exposure to a new wave of Americans. It gets people thinking about where their food is coming from and why fresh is better. It also relocates the farmers and chefs into the discusion of food chains. And it does all of it deliciously.

Food Philosophies

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

–Michael Pollan

In class, we’ve been discussing personal food philosophies like Michael Pollan’s listed above. My personal food philosophy, if I had to sum it up into a few sentences, would be:

Eat nothing you can’t make from scratch. Have as colorful a plate as possible. And easy up on the carbs.

I would not say that my personal idea of nutrition is the be-all-end-all of healthy eating. I obviously try to live by these rules, but I do not think that following them is necessary to healthy living. However, I do think that having a set of food guidelines is a good idea for anyone in order to establish good nutrition.

First and foremost, having a personal food philosophy makes someone more conscious of what they are eating; if a person strives to stay away from dairy, for example, you can be sure that they are checking the ingredients on everything they eat for milk products. By consciously seeing what is going into your body, you have a better idea of the micro/macronutrients you are getting as well.

More than that, though, having solid food habits can affect you for years to come. By having a simple philosophy that you can remember, you will be able to set up eating patterns for yourself and those around you.

This article on the portrayal of obese people in advertising shows an advertisement from the National Obesity Forum in the UK (#11 on the list) that states, “The eating habits you give your children can last a lifetime.”







The picture is quite shocking, showing the angelic faces of two babies superimposed on the near-naked bodies of an obese man and an obese woman. It certainly would grab my attention, though it would not necessarily make me want to read more.

But it brings us back to my point: the habits you have, and thus the habits you teach your children, can stick for a lifetime. By following a personal food philosophy that is as healthy as it is simple, you are changing your life and the lives of those around you for years to come.

The Taste of Place

In Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir, Amy B. Trubek explores the multiple connotations of terroir, a French word loosely translating to “the taste of place,” in both France and in the United States. The author uses stories from France, California, Wisconsin, and Vermont to examine how perceptions of a food’s taste and value change depending on particular cultural myths, meanings, and memories. Trubek begins by delving into the notion that food and wine in France can often evoke feelings of a romanticized French identity and agrarian nostalgia in an era of increasing globalization. The author ascribes this discernible difference in taste to the idea that how a food is perceived is dependent on the cultural value it is ascribed in addition to how it is produced; French food and wine are understood as being produced with traditional French values.Through the association of local foods and other culinary practices with “a certain time and place, and then creating value for [them],” French food is understood and experienced as different from other food (53).

While the ever-changing definitions and concepts of terroir did get tiring, I enjoyed reading Trubek’s analysis of the taste of place and how the United States has reappropriated the French importance of local foods. As someone who is fascinated by the interconnectedness of culture, politics, history, and consumption, I was enlightened by the author’s connection between French nationalism and American entrepreneurialism with regard to valuing food. 

In the United States as in France, food is often touted as being local to certain regions—such as cheese and maple syrup to Vermont or wine to California—which would seem to produce the same phenomenon as French food in France. However, Trubek argues that unlike the French and citizens of other “Old World” countries, Americans do not have strong culinary or agricultural roots to the United States and thus restaurants, artisanal food producers, and farmers have to create a sense of value in certain region-specific foods. Trubek explores how this American terroir becomes more of an urge for food sophistication in a culture historically based on abundance. By looking at the “foodie” movement and food activism that idealizes locally grown food, Trubek demonstrates a growing correlation between place and taste in the United States. Trebek’s analysis of cultural values with regard to taste in France and the United States demonstrates a fascinating connection between culture and food perception. 

While I found the comparison between terroir in France and that in the United States interesting, the association was not entirely helpful for me when considering the importance of food being “local” in the U.S. The author posits that American culture “relies on external information, not personal knowledge” and that “taste is defined chiefly in relationship to status” (37). She argues that American food values are driven by the idea that “authentic” foods from certain places–foods that are processed in the traditional fashion–taste better than those that are mass produced. Yet while Trubek addresses this cultural desire for sophistication, she fails to properly place the need for “local” within this need for “countercuisine,” despite touting it as the basis for this. Moreover, Trubek does not adequately examine how home cooking and domestic farming–the ultimate “local” with regard to food production–relate to the taste of place.

Instead of focusing on how a certain locale can affect a food’s perception in pop culture, Trubek focuses on how the representation of a food as “authentic” can give it cultural value. For example, she shows how labeling a bottle of maple syrup as from Vermont makes it more valuable because it implies a certain process was used to create the syrup. Yet she then shows that she and a team of scientists and syrup connoisseurs tested to see if they could tell the difference between different syrups, implying the average American–who consumes syrup far less consciously–did know immediately know, either. Thus she reaffirms that the value of Vermont maple syrup is not in its place of origin, but rather in its brand.

While interesting, this analysis does not fully mesh with the author’s analysis of French terroir, which is almost entirely contingent on specific location. Trubek does note that the concept necessarily differs between cultures; however, the fact that she failed to adequately outline the importance of location in American food values with regard to taste left me wanting to conduct my own investigation into localness. In general, I enjoyed learning about the association of taste and place, and I would certainly recommend the book to anyone remotely interested in food culture or culinary heritages. However, I would suggest readers keep in mind that valuing a food’s origin is quite different from valuing its social worth.


Mislabeling Food: Does it Matter?


I began this blog with a question: how does the FDA regulate food in America? The more I look into it, the more it appears the answer is “very poorly”. A recent study has found that roughly a third of the fish in the United States is mislabeled in restaurants, fish markets, grocery stores, and sushi bars. Now, as a rule I do not eat fish, so my initial reaction was a bit apathetic; it didn’t really affect me at all. Still, though, I was a bit turned off by the thought of one fish being replaced by an even less appetizing fish. I knew this would cause a lot of backlash in the fishing industry and the venues that were mislabeling them.

Obviously, the fact that a third of the fish sold in American is mislabeled is a bit frightening; that is not a small fraction by any means. It begs the question of how that large a percentage went unnoticed by the FDA for so long (that is, until an external organization discovered it). Of course, it is impossible for the FDA to test every single food item in the U.S.; that’s both unreasonable and inefficient. But there has to be a more effective way of making sure Americans are eating what they think they are eating. What else could be mislabeled? Is the FDA doing anything to attempt to figure that out?

But all this discussion of regulation got me thinking about why we care so much in the first place. Why do we think eating one type of grouper is fine, but eating another is bad for us? True, some species of fish (and meat, for that matter) are not good for us by any means. The study cites allergens and “potential safety hazards” as the reason for public concern. Yet while I understand the concern for allergens, I cannot get over the idea that what we deem “acceptable” for fish is based on culture: we would prefer to pay more for Pacific cod than Atlantic cod. Likewise for grouper over Gulf grouper. The study lists no differences in health or nutrition for these replacements, just availability/appropriate price. Yes, it is important to know what is going into our bodies, but if a scientific study had to tell us, and not our upset stomachs or allergic reactions, how bad could it have really been?

The FDA’s initial response was weak: it wants to get rid of vernacular terms for fish to prevent fraud such as this. It did not apologize for any health problems this may have caused, which furthers the point: why should Americans care that they’re getting cod from a different ocean than they thought? We are so ingrained with the idea of what is “good” to eat and what is a delicacy that eating a similar species under the wrong name is an outrage. It’s similar to the fact that we scoff at the idea of eating, say, seagull, a delicacy in Newfoundland, Canada, while Indians think it’s disgusting that we eat cow. But it isn’t a difference between cultures in this case; it’s just a learned sense of what we “should” eat.

The article ends by advising consumers to buy fish in the least processed (and thus most recognizable) form possible to avoid fraud. Obviously this requires consumers actually being able to identify different species of fish, which I believe is great advice because it requires us to be more in tune with what we are eating. But it also puts the onus of regulating one’s food intake on the consumer, and not on the FDA or other government agencies like Customs & Border Protection. Indeed: what we “should” eat should not be determined by a government agency–especially one that is not doing its job–but rather by ourselves by better knowing our food.

Fad Diets

While browsing a food blog the other day I came across this list of 200 calories worth of many different foods. Most came as no surprise (obviously celery has very few calories, and I knew jelly beans were not good for me) but some caught me off guard: only 34 grams of peanut butter? Only 33 grams of nuts? And then seeing 50 grams of Splenda sweetener. Maybe I am naive, but I feel so misguided by the message certain food companies seem to send. Splenda touts itself as so much better for you than real sugar, but it really isn’t that many grams (50) of Splenda that equals 200 calories. It takes fewer grams of Splenda to reach 200 calories than gummy bears.

Why does our society have this defined idea of what is “good” for you? How do we determine it? To me it seems like even if contrasting information comes out, like how certain macro/micronutrients matter more than caloric intake in terms of obesity or that what kind of calories you eat doesn’t matter at all, we just believe what we think is easiest to believe. We have this societal notion of what we are supposed to eat that seems to be really hard to change.

Check out this article on the history of dieting in America: trendy diets virtually always come into popularity with pop culture. We see a famous person “succeed” with a certain eating pattern and copy that, such as the cigarette-instead-of-snack diet that became popular in the 1920s via Lucky Strike. In retrospect, this does not seem like sound medical advice. Obviously that fad has been proven to have negative effects (to say the least), but our society is still continuing the pattern of listening to ads and celebrities instead of scientists. Even today, we see Jessica Simpson, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Hudson, and others influencing people (mostly women, but men too) in their eating habits. But the emphasis is rarely on health: it’s on losing weight.

It seems like the obsession our mainstream society has with food is less about what we believe is good for us and more about how we think we should relate to food based on what the media tells us. This becomes more evident when we look at other cultures: in the Netherlands it’s perfectly normal to put mayonaise on nearly everything; in France they emphasize huge meals with many fats and meats; and in Russia they endorse starch-y, carb-y foods that are often served with butter. Our idea of good eating is heavily influenced by our culture.

But back to my point: why do we simultaneously tout low-calorie diets and not always know how many calories are in many of our favorite foods? Why do we insist on less fat, more protein, less calories, more working out if we do not even know where these theories come from? Because food directly relates to our culture and how we see our relationship with food is not based on biology. I’m very interested to read about Terroir and the idea that food has a certain meaning in different cultures later in the year, because it seems to have a larger effect than I had originally thought.