March 26 2013
Misinformation About Healthy Food Hurts Poor
In a 2004 article in Slate, writer Sara Dickerman extolled the virtues of the lowly freezer. Long maligned by foodies who largely march lockstep to beat of the “fresh and local, never frozen!” drum, Dickerman suggested foodies take a deep breath and reminded readers that “the freezer extends our options, and sometimes even improves them.”
Fast forward nearly a decade; despite Dickerman’s convincing piece, the freezer (and its contents) is still getting the short shrift from the foodie set. Remaining true to the ethos of California cuisine, many food writers and celebrity chefs criticize the use of frozen food (and those television cooks that do urge women to take a shortcut now and then often become the butt of jokes) and tell Americans that the only way to be healthy is to eat fresh, local, and organic food.
Yet, if one is truly concerned about health and obesity in this country, it should be clear that this isn’t the best advice for the average person—the majority of whom are struggling in this economy and with increasing food and fuel costs. If the goal is to stay healthy, no one should deny that frozen vegetables are one of the best options. Yet because of the foodie culture which demands faithful adherence to the “fresh and local” mantra, those most in need of affordable and undeniably healthy food are being discouraged from eating it.
Of course, criticizing the “fresh and local” message isn’t suggesting that eating fresh leafy greens and local apples isn’t a fine goal—if you can afford it. For heaven’s sake, eating fresh and local fruits and vegetables is perfectly fine (I do it myself!) but foodies must understand that this reality isn’t always possible. Food writers and high-profile chefs have been effective in encouraging healthy eating, but they shouldn’t vilify one type of healthy food over another. As Dickerman said, the freezer extends our options—and frozen food can extend more options to the poor in America.
As I highlighted on a recent panel discussion on food and environmental alarmism, the “fresh, local, and organic” message is getting even stricter nowadays with some food writers and public health officials encouraging those who live under the poverty line to shop at the farmers markets where produce is more often than not, extremely high priced. As food writer and self-described “hip hop feminist” Latoya Peterson writes on her blog Racialicious:
Recent visits to markets near the White House and Silver Spring reveal a serious problem: It would be very difficult to put together a full meal for a family of four based on the selections available. Many items were exotic, not staples. Ground bison was running at $6.25 per pound, and ham retailed at $7.95 per pound. Hunting for side dishes was also a problem. Since prices varied by vendor, it took a keen eye and comparison shopping to find the best deals. One vendor charged $4.50 for approximately four asparagus spears, while another stall sold two hefty bundles for $7. A meal for four people consisting of 2 pounds of ham, two containers of baby potatoes, and two baskets of spinach retailed close to $34. Even with double dollars, at $15 it still may prove to be a stretch.
In fairness to Peterson, she says later in her column that she did find some much more affordable produce at one of DC’s oldest farmers markets later in the day but one doubts busy parents have the time to visit more than one farmers market to seek out the best price. And is this really the best use of anyone’s time—particularly when grocery stores can be relied upon to provide competitive prices on produce. The point is obvious—farmers markets are not a panacea for obesity among the poor in America nor, frankly, are they the best source for healthy food.
Americans don’t need to be lectured to about where they should buy produce, they simply need to be encouraged to buy produce, an in any form they find it—fresh, frozen or canned!
It’s also important to point out that frozen food isn’t just for those who live under the poverty line. Good and healthy meals can be made using frozen ingredients. For instance, over the weekend, I made a Saag Paneer for my family along with a few other Indian dishes using a variety of fresh, frozen and canned ingredients. For the Saag Paneer (a cheese and spinach dish), I could have purchased four five-ounce clamshell containers of organic baby spinach for $3.99 each totaling around $20, but instead, I chose to purchase a big 32-ounce store brand package of frozen cut leaf spinach for $2.79. Now, it’s important to understand that Saag Paneer is a cooked spinach dish. I’m not making a spinach salad with the frozen stuff, and I can’t imagine anyone trying that. The point is, the only thing that would have benefitted from my purchase of fresh spinach would have been the grocery store. My kids still got a delicious spinach-y meal and I saved $17!
For the Gobi Chol (chickpeas and cauliflower), I could have soaked very cheap dried chick peas overnight, but I opted to open a can of already rehydrated peas which I tossed with fresh cauliflower and a variety of spices before roasting on high heat. For me, this combination of fresh and canned was a good time-saving solution and my husband wasn’t the wiser to the canned beans.
Another key component to reducing childhood obesity is for parents to take a greater role in their child’s nutritional development. A way to do that is for parents to actually start preparing meals for their kids. That’s right—cooking a simple meal and sitting down to eat that meal. This isn’t just my opinion; it’s backed up by some pretty significant research on childhood obesity. But that research doesn’t say that moms and dads have to slave over complicated recipes or start early in the morning on the seven-hour process of making a homemade cassoulet. Instead, the research simply says that people should gather around a table, eat a simple meal, and have a conversation. No need to confit those duck legs or search high and low for those perfect Saucisses de Toulouse.
Celebrity chefs like Rachel Ray, Giada De Laurentiis and the Pioneer Woman have done a good job showing moms and dads that you don’t need much time to put a fully or partially home cooked meal on the table. That's a helpful resources but what would really help parents is if they weren't made to feel guilty if they occasionally put a frozen pizza in the oven. On days like that, wouldn’t it be better (and far more reasonable) if parents were simply encouraged to supplement that frozen dinner with a simple salad; maybe instead of a side dish of “how could you!” they could be advised to warm up some frozen broccoli and toss it with pine nuts and lemon juice for a nice side dish.
I cook just about every night for my family and to be honest, I don’t rely on any packaged or processed foods. But I also know how to cook and I enjoy it. Some moms don’t. And that’ ok because they probably do other things better than me (like doing laundry before their children literally are on their last pair of clean pants).
We should be encouraging family time—and that means sitting down to dinner. If moms need to take a shortcut or if a family with a small budget needs to rely on cheaper frozen and canned food, why do the do-gooder foodie set dismiss these efforts? We need to return to reasonableness if we’re going to help families return to healthy habits. And that includes not vilifying certain foods.
People are doing the best they can. Let’s let them do their best without the guilt.