Food Culture

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

Bookstores don’t usually have a “Food” section. Most stores reserve a good deal of shelf space for cookbooks, and, perhaps nearby, there are sections dedicated to books about gardening and nutrition. Farther away, one might find a cluster of more rigorous works analyzing American food culture and the downfall thereof, probably by Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, or their disciples.

Despite its title, Michelle Obama’s new book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, doesn’t fit neatly into any of the standard categories. That’s because it touches on nearly all of them.

Released on Tuesday, the First Lady’s book is many things–it’s a reflection on Mrs. Obama’s early relationship with food and gardening; it’s a brief overview of the history of gardening at the White House; and, as the title suggests, it tells the story of the current White House “kitchen garden” that Mrs. Obama started after her husband was elected President.

Like the White House garden before it, the book’s stated goal is to encourage “a conversation about the food we eat, the lives we lead, and how that affects our children.” That objective underlies much of Mrs. Obama’s work in her three-and-a-half years as First Lady, represented most publicly by her signature Let’s Move! initiative to combat childhood obesity by promoting healthy eating habits and exercise.

More than anything, American Grown is a message piece–a publication designed to reduce Mrs. Obama’s work on healthy living into a series of easily digestible concepts and goals, and to provide a platform she can use as she hits the campaign trail over the next five months on behalf of her husband’s reelection campaign.

On that count, so far so good: since the book’s release on Tuesday, she’s already made appearances on Good Morning America, NPR’s Morning Edition, The View, and The Daily Show, and nearly every major media outlet has run a piece about the book.

In some respects, the motivation behind this book and even its specific content are irrelevant. It’s a book about the benefits of a food culture rooted in fresh, healthy, local foods written by a woman with cross-culture appeal and enormous reach, and that, in itself, is a good thing.

It’s also hard to blame politicians for being political–in fact, Mrs. Obama’s team deserves to be commended for crafting a book that contains useful information presented in an appealing way (it unfolds against the backdrop of a seasonal motif, and features beautiful photographs, illustrations, and diagrams throughout), while remaining true to their political objectives and/or limitations.

Still, if the goal of this project is to help change Americans’ eating habits, I wonder whether the First Lady missed an opportunity by putting out an advertisement for her healthy lifestyle initiative rather than something that might have a greater impact on the way people interact with food on a daily basis–namely, a cookbook.

While American Grown does include about 20 recipes, they’re almost an appendix to the rest of the content, and the book only briefly touches on ways people can turn fresh and seasonal produce into meals–the kind of knowledge that might help people overcome the convenience barrier that persistently keeps them from actually eating the low-cost, healthy food that’s available to a vast majority of Americans.

It can’t hurt that cookbooks are enormously popular, even as sales of other categories of books are on the decline. Add in a popular, high-profile author like, say, the First Lady of the United States, and it seems to me you have a winning formula for selling books–or, in this case, altering eating trends.

Instead, we’re left to cross our fingers and hope that Mrs. Obama can use her stature to at least get more people talking about the issue, and or even to take a crack at the recipe for corn soup with summer vegetables near the back of the book.

Maybe the success of this book will get Mrs. Obama thinking about the possibility of another book–one that belongs under “Cookbooks” rather than “Politics”–sometime during her husband’s second term. I’d vote for that.


This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

This week, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is hosting its annual Food and Community Conference, a three-day gathering of farmers, advocates, and experts to discuss the importance of promoting healthy lifestyles, in part by increasing community access to fresh food.

On Tuesday, the foundation released of a poll and trumpeted its results. Among other things (including that 75% of Americans support doubling the value of food stamps at farmers markets), the poll found that over 90% believe “equal” access for all Americans to fresh produce is either very or somewhat important.

It’s great that so many people think it’s important to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh, whole foods are better for us than processed ones, and if people think its important to have access to them, maybe that means we’re getting our dietary priorities back in order. A closer look at the actual poll questions and results, however, reveal that it may be focused on the wrong issue.

The poll contains numerous questions about access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Yes, 93% of respondents said they thought it was either very or somewhat important to make sure all Americans have equal access to fresh fruits and vegetables. But, according to the poll, an overwhelming majority of Americans already enjoy such access–in response to a question about that issue, 89% said that a place where they can buy fresh fruits and vegetables is either within walking distance or a short drive away from their home.

So if 93% understand the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, and 89% can already easily get them, what’s the problem? A better question–one that, unfortunately, the Kellogg Foundation poll did not ask–is whether Americans actually do access fresh fruits and vegetables when they have the chance.

Thanks to a number of other recent polls, we have an insight into what the answer might be, and it suggests there’s a big gap between access and consumption. A Gallup poll released last month found that, in 2011, 56% of Americans reported eating five or more servings of fresh fruits and vegetables–the minimum amount recommended by federal dietary guidelines and a significant portion of the nutrition community–at least four days a week.

And an even more granular study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2010 found that, in 2009, only 32.5% of U.S. adults consumed fruit two or more times a day and only 26.3% consumed vegetables three or more times per day.

These polls obviously lack scientific certainty–small variations in how the questions are phrased can skew results, and self-reporting is unreliable–and fruits and vegetables can be a regular and significant part of your diet even if you don’t eat five servings of them every day. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Americans are eating less fresh produce than they should, despite the fact that they know it’s important and can get it relatively easily.

Based on the knowledge that convenience is a bigger barrier than cost or access, this gap shouldn’t be all that surprising. But ordinary Americans aren’t the only ones guilty of buckling before the barrier of convenience.

Just as it’s easier for people to answer a poll question than to plan, shop for, and cook three healthy meals a day, it’s easier for advocates of fresh and healthy food to focus on access and call it a day than to change people’s actual eating habits.

This change won’t happen overnight, and access is a necessary prerequisite, so we should applaud the Kellogg Foundation and its partners for doing their part to raise awareness and keep the dialogue going. But we should also take these opportunities to ask the questions that really matter–and, more importantly, to encourage people to ask those questions of themselves.

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

Free lunches may be elusive. Unhealthy ones are anything but.

Anyone can walk into (or easier yet, drive up to) McDonald’s, and three minutes later, be gorging themselves on a Big Mac, a pile of fries, and a Coke. If getting up from the couch seems like too much effort, a pizza (with or without hot dogs baked into the crust) is just a phone call and a 30-minute wait away.

On top of being convenient, unhealthy food is cheaper–at least according to conventional wisdom. Whenever we debate the feasibility of a food system based on sustainable agriculture or the intractable nature of the obesity epidemic, invariably, someone blames the high cost of healthy foods and the relative affordability of their less nutritious counterparts.

Newsflash: the conventional wisdom is wrong. According to a new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service entitled “Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It Depends on How You Measure the Price,” healthy foods are not necessarily more expensive than unhealthy foods.

In light of the fact that most Americans’ diets fall short of federal nutrition guidelines, the report set out to determine whether a commonly cited reason for our dietary woes–the high cost of healthy foods–is actually true. In doing so, it examines three different metrics to determine the cost of food–the oft-used cost-per-calorie metric, as well as two alternatives: cost per portion and cost per edible gram. The report found that, in all metrics other than cost-per-calorie, healthier foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy) were less expensive than unhealthy foods (proteins and foods high in saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium).

The report’s methods appear to be sound, and, since not all calories are created equal, the two new metrics are arguably more rational ways to measure the true cost of certain foods. In addition, the findings should reassure cash-strapped Americans that eating foods like fruits, vegetables, and dairy can help us eat healthier and save us money.

The troubling part is that anyone finds the report’s findings at all surprising. A diet that includes (1) less calories, (2) whole foods instead of processed ones, and (3) a steady dose of home-cooked meals has always been healthier and cheaper. Furthermore, the fact that Americans routinely choose to eat diets heavy in processed foods and empty calories suggests that cost isn’t even the primary driver in people’s eating decisions.

The authors of the USDA study acknowledged as much in a conference call on Wednesday, asserting that consumers put a higher premium on convenience and taste than on cost. With respect to convenience, it’s easy to see why unhealthy diets beat out healthy ones: planning a recipe, buying ingredients, and cooking a meal is harder than pulling up to the drive-thru window or microwaving a frozen dinner.

But what about taste? In theory, a home-cooked meal should taste as good as or better than most alternatives–after all, you know which foods you like, and you get to prepare them based on your own taste preferences.

Unfortunately, preconceived notions about “healthy” foods’ lack of flavor combined with a general and growing disconnect from a food culture in which home-cooked meals play a significant role have conspired to make good food taste bad–both in our minds and on our dinner tables.

Still, the USDA report has value. Any time the idea that healthy foods can cost less than unhealthy ones receives news coverage, the conventional wisdom becomes a little less conventional, and a seed is planted in the minds of people who might never have considered the advantages of eating well.

But in a food culture where making tomato sauce and boiling pasta water is considered too hard, or where roasted vegetables aren’t considered tasty, we need to start thinking about factors other than affordability. On that count, we’re failing–and we’re paying for it.

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

We’ve got a big problem. Even bigger than the overuse of weight-related puns when talking about the American obesity epidemic.

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held its second annual “Weight of the Nation” conference — a gathering of political leaders, health professionals, and concerned citizens intended to highlight and discuss progress in the effort to address the public health crisis presented by the United States’ alarmingly high obesity rates.

The conference coincided with a deluge of new obesity-related fodder, including an upcoming HBO documentary and the release of two reports — one by the Institute of Medicine (the health arm of the quasi-governmental National Academy of Sciences) and one published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine — that include the latest set of statistics on the growing obesity problem, analyses of its implications for Americans’ health and our nation’s economy, and strategies for combating it.

Both reports articulate the same basic state of play: currently, approximately two-thirds of U.S. adults, and one-third of children, are overweight or obese. The human and economic costs of obesity-related illness and death are enormous; obese individuals are far more likely to live shorter lives and suffer severe health problems, including heart disease and diabetes, increasing national medical costs by hundreds of billions of dollars every year. And the problem is getting worse—the AJPM report estimates that, by 2030, 42% of the population will be obese.

According to that report’s authors, part of the reason obesity rates are so much higher than they were 50 years ago is that high-calorie foods are far more abundant and cheap than they used to be, making it much easier for someone to gain weight while eating the same “amount” of food. On top of that, our food culture increasingly extols a super-sized, all-you-can-eat mentality, mitigated only erratically by the latest fad diet.

So what can we do to reverse the trend toward a heavier, unhealthier population? While the complexity of the problem is daunting, almost everybody agrees that encouraging people to eat healthier and exercise are part of the solution. Not surprisingly, the first two “goals” articulated by the IOM report are “Make physical activity a routine and integral part of life,” and “Create food and beverage environments that ensure that healthy food and beverage options are the routine and easy choice.”

But when it comes to figuring out how to achieve those goals, particularly with respect to the food part of the equation, there is no consensus. This is especially true for the policy approaches that public health experts believe have the greatest impact on individuals’ food decisions: taxes, regulations, and other restrictions on high-sugar, high-calorie foods and beverages.

There has been a good deal of teeth-gnashing over the failure of recent efforts to enact some of these approaches–e.g., a federal soda tax, limits on what food stamps can buy, and rules governing how unhealthy foods are marketed to kids–including among supporters of the sustainable food movement, who share the desire to incentivize better food choices (and naturally derive pleasure from anything that sticks it to large food corporations).

In the crossfire between public health advocates (who are often singularly focused on “evidence-based” strategies to reduce obesity, regardless of whether such policies are otherwise desirable) and food companies (whose arguments are tainted by their clear financial interests), we often miss out on the chance to have a level-headed discussion about whether we want a system in which government policies actively prescribe which foods we should eat.

Presumably, most Americans–on both sides of the debate–would like to be able to choose the foods they eat without the government putting its finger on the scale, especially in an environment when our notion of what’s good for us and what isn’t is constantly evolving.

Of course, they’d also like a food system and culture that doesn’t send an inordinate number of people to an early grave, or drag down an already overburdened health care system. Whether we can have both depends on whether a sea change in the way people think about food is truly possible.

We have a schizophrenic relationship with food. Food can be a profession, a passion, a daily source of joy; it can also be a way to make ends meet, a necessary evil, and a daily source of stress. What and how we eat affects our health, how we feel, and how we feel about ourselves. While food comes in many forms and can be prepared in limitless ways, our beliefs about what even constitutes food is shaped by our environment, culture, and personal ethics.

Why all the fuss about food? Simply put: with limited exceptions, we need to eat every day. The vast majority of us eat several, regular meals a day, and when we don’t, it’s because we can’t or consciously choose not to (and in those cases, food is significant in its absence). Like it or not, we’ve got to deal with it, and so we tend to make a big deal out of it.

Some might ask, “so what?” or “who cares?” To those, I would say, “screw you, this stuff is important.” Those same people might reply, “fine, but who the hell are you, anyway?” I thought you’d never ask.

In December 2011, I left a job as a line cook at Washington, DC’s Blue Duck Tavern. Before that, I attended culinary school at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, MD. And before that, I worked in politics — eight years for two U.S. Senators, and two years at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. I don’t know whether that makes me a cook who used to work in politics, a government employee who learned to cook, or just a guy who made some questionable career decisions. Whatever I am, it’s because at some point, I decided that food is important enough that I wanted to make it — cooking it, eating it, thinking and writing about it — the focus of my time and energy.

I am not going to tell you that I always had a passion for cooking or that my earliest food memory was forming meatballs with my grandmother when I was three. In fact, for most of my childhood, I disliked more kinds of food than I liked, and I didn’t weigh 100 pounds until I was in high school. I watched my dad cook — he enjoys cooking and is pretty good at it — but never really cooked with him (he hates being helped). And partly because I grew up on an island whose seasonal economy meant its handful of restaurants were closed eight months out of the year, I never spent much time around anything that could be called “fine dining.”

As a result, until I graduated college and had to really fend for myself for the first time, I didn’t think of food as anything other than a way to fill up my stomach. If it happened to be good, all the better.

After college, the realities of living on a budget and having to provide for myself increasingly steered me toward the kitchen, and I figured that if I was going to cook, I might as well figure out how to make stuff I liked. Not having the slightest grasp of the fundamentals of cooking, I was strictly a recipe guy, scouring the internet and the few cookbooks I owned for familiar dishes: lasagna, pork chops, barbecued chicken, spaghetti sauce, and other staples of my gastronomic repertoire to that point in my life.

I was a novice, and my ingredients came mostly from a tiny, poorly stocked grocery store near my house. Nevertheless, it began to dawn on me: food, when prepared thoughtfully with fresh ingredients, tastes good. I simultaneously discovered, thanks to efficiencies of scale and the presence of culinarily challenged roommates, that such meals were even more enjoyable when shared with other people.

Over the next decade, as I continued to struggle with my professional trajectory, my non-working hours (and many working ones) were increasingly devoted to thinking about, preparing, and consuming good food. As a hobby, it was impossibly fun. As an intellectual exercise — a self-imposed challenge to figure out how to make a variety of different dishes the right way — it was stimulating, with every new discovery only serving to fuel an unquenchable thirst for greater knowledge. And as an existential aspiration — the idea of being a chef — it was cool.

Somewhere along the way, I hit a breaking point, and the balance between my love of food and my lifelong relationship with rational thought tipped in favor of the former, and I left my political career to attend culinary school. That experience, along with my brief stint at Blue Duck Tavern, cannot be adequately described in less than several volumes (I’m working on that), so it suffices to say that I saw a lot and I learned a lot — about the finer points of cooking, but also enough about the lifestyle and demands of the profession to know it wasn’t for me.

The dust having settled somewhat from this upheaval, I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that I am now a decent cook. I have a deeper and more intuitive sense about how to prepare food than I did before; I picked up some tricks and techniques by working with the pros; and I think I cook food that tastes and looks good. But I am not, and never will be, Thomas Keller, Michel Richard, John Melfi, or even half of the line cooks at Blue Duck, and I have friends and family whose natural talent for cooking — if not their experience — equals or exceeds my own.

I am also not an authority on food, nor do I think people do or should care about what I think about the subject, per se. I only believe that the various facets of my relationship with food over time — as a disinterested bystander, devoted hobbyist, policy-maker, professional cook, and always enthusiastic diner — are relatable, and might encourage people to think more and harder about their own relationships with food, as well as about what it means every time they cook and eat a meal with friends or family, go out to a nice restaurant, grab a burger on the go, or consciously forgo a meal.

The significance of food is broad, but it’s also deep. Every morsel of food ever eaten came from somewhere and was eaten by someone, however long a path it traveled along the way. Food piques our interest at a molecular level (there’s scarcely a type of food whose nutritional content we haven’t dissected) and as a global policy challenge, where the objective is to ensure that all people have access to the amounts and kinds of foods they need to live long and healthy lives.

If you’re still reading, you definitely love to eat, probably love to cook, and are interested enough in the broader implications of food to engage in either of the first two pursuits thoughtfully. In other words, you agree that food’s important — in all the crazy ways we make it important — and, hopefully, you’ll keep reading.