Devin Ellsworth


Subscribe To The Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Every Day is Food Day

I have a shirt that says “Every Day is Earth Day.” My brother gave it to me as a birthday gift one year. It’s organic cotton, dark brown (probably dyed with dirt), and has a nice artistic image of a tree on it. Real Yuppie stuff, right?  I wear it sometimes on Earth Day. Not as a way to undercut the holiday, or diminish its meaning. I don’t mean to take away from the valuable reminder that day is for everyone. Instead, I like to think it celebrates the day, while inspiring people to think of the Earth everyday.

Today, on Food Day, almost exactly 6 months opposite of Earth Day, I have a similar impulse. The act of picking one day to celebrate something so important as the Earth, or Food, is both powerful and limiting at the same time. It’s like Christmas. Every year you feel such joy on that day, to be among friends and family, truly celebrating being alive. And you wish you could live the whole year with that reverence. Marketers try to extend the season, pushing it earlier and earlier every year (anyone seen any ads yet?), but it doesn’t feel the same as that day feels. The concentrated focus of one day is often what makes it so meaningful, yet you hope every year that you will remember those lessons in February, or July. I hope that Food Day will be the same. A focused celebration of food and call to action to change the way we eat, that will be special in its “dayness,” yet also teach us lessons we will carry with us throughout the year.

If I had to pick one lesson to focus on above anything else for this year’s Food Day, it would be a reminder of what it means to actually be food, and not a “food-like substance.”  With Halloween just a week away, it is a poignant juxtaposition, in my mind. Halloween is a celebration of the very opposite of food; candy. And like anyone else, I love me some candy. But, while indulgence is certainly a very human activity, let’s not forget what food is. Food is whole. Food is unprocessed. Food is produce, grains, legumes, meats, milks.  Stuff your Great-Grandmother would recognize.  “Food-like substances,” as coined by Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, are processed and industrially produced; candies, cereals, chips, pre-made frozen entrees with high salt and additive content, industrially produced meats and dairy products, and the list goes on. While a shift to entirely eating real food is a very large one, and one that must happen gradually, start today by simply eating more of the right stuff. Cook your meal tonight instead of ordering in. Snack on an apple instead of a bag of chips. The best part about this switch is that it is self-reinforcing behavior. The more you do it, the more your body craves more of it. It is time to rewire our brains to crave the right stuff again.

And the first step is today, Food Day.

Leave a Comment!

Well we did find that study that found that yields on organic farms are as high or higher as compared to conventional farming. I know this is probably not across the board, but like you and I discussed, at least my point was that it is not a problem of production but a problem of distribution. There are now as many overweight and obese people in this world as there are people who are starving. Americans waste 50% of the food we produce. Goes right into the garbage. We have the means to produce an immense amount of food. And if organic can even come close, if we reduce our waste, and work on ways to get the food to those who need it, I’d say it is more than viable.

You are focused on this method of commodities, treating food like an industrial process because that is how you attain efficiency. Produce a few items that can be stripped to their component parts (corn for sugar and oil, soybeans for fat and protein, etc) and then reassembled into delicious – but not nutritious – concoctions. But I am afraid that the only reason that is cost effective, and of course we are talking short-term, is that corn and soy are heavily subsidized industries, and there is a lot of money to be made by the people who create oreos and cheez wiz. Where there is money, there is lobbying, and where there is lobbying, there are subsidies. There is NO way that it is cheaper, per calorie, to strip corn down to high fructose corn syrup, than it is to just eat the ear of corn itself. Think of all the “value” added to that corn on its way to becoming HFCS – the industrial process used to reduce it to that form, the R&D and marketing dollars that go to creating a can of coke, the shipping costs and merchandising costs and etc etc. The only reason this is cheaper is because the corn industry is so heavily subsidized. And even that being said, I’d still bet that eating the corn is cheaper. We sell an ear of corn for 39 cents at trader joes, cheaper than a can of coke. And with 177 calories in an ear of corn – not to mention the nutrients – it beats out a can of coke with 140 calories.

So my point is that it is not actually cheaper to make “food-like substances.” And I did not even factor in long term costs, like soil degradation and soil erosion, two scary problems, or the threat to our food supply that comes with a monoculture system, and of course the GHG emissions associated with packaging and shipping that food to your local store. I believe it is cheaper, and certainly more sustainable, to eat the whole product. And even if it wasn’t produced organically, it would still be better for the environment and better for your body.

Access is another issue, but I see your point, that sometimes it’s all you can get. And that is definitely tragic. Its a serious part of the problem, no doubt. But I bet in most urban centers around the world, you still have the choice between a can of coke and an ear of corn. And even in that setting, I’d wager many people would choose the coke, because it has a distinct “deliciousness” advantage, and gives us a shot of glucose that our evolutionary instincts just can’t ignore. It’s not really a fair fight.

However, and this is where your point is 100% correct, there are certainly cases, many in this very country, where they don’t have that choice. We talked about this, they are called food deserts. And in these food deserts, the inhabitants, like we heard from the woman at the TED talk, have an easier time buying a semi-automatic weapon than they do an organic tomato. So this is a huge problem that people are sort of just discovering and talking about. But again, this is a problem of distribution, not of production. We produce plenty. We just don’t distribute it effectively and certainly not fairly.

I see your point. It is fitting that we hit 7 billion on Halloween, because feeding that many people is truly a scary task.

Dad, your story of the resort food and the volunteers is a perfect example of a fairly universal feeling. It could (almost) always be worse. I think as humans we focus almost all of our energies on “it could be better” and that is normal. We are hopeful, we strive for the best. Which is why a good “it could be worse” is often humbling and a punch in the gut sometimes, where you feel guilty for complaining. I don’t think its wrong to aspire for things to be better, but keeping the perspective of how much you have is equally vital.

The story reminds me of a poem we read in high school. Alex, maybe you will remember this. It’s long, so I wont post it all here, but I will summarize. It was written by a working class Chilean woman after Salvador Allende was overthrown in 1973. She writes first of what he brought to the country, and then what followed after he was overthrown. It is written from the perspective of two women – one a peasant (presumably her) and the other a wealthy elite. At first she talks of not having food to eat, and the rich woman of partying and living the high life. And then Allende enters:

But then there was a man;
But then there was a man;

And he talked about the peasants getting richer by my family getting poorer.
And he told me of days that would be better and he made the days better.

We had to eat rice.
We had rice.

We had to eat beans!
We had beans.

The top lines are the rich woman and the bottom the poor. I always remember these lines above. They are so striking. Life is all about perspective.

Alex, I think your point ties in here. We should always be thankful, and, as this poem shows, especially for the food that we have. Yeah, it may be bland, boring, etc. But it is still food.

And Dad, while we should be thankful of whatever food we do have, I think my point of food vs. “food-like substances” is amplified by the fact that we as Americans have the means to have whatever food we want (within reason), and the fact that we consistently and routinely choose “food” that not only is destructive for the environment but ALSO does not nourish us, and in fact makes us sick, is insulting to those who can’t afford much food, and are happy to have whatever they can get.

So, I do think we should always work on improving, and strive for the best, no matter what our situation. But, as you both pointed out, we can only do this if we have a humble understanding and thankfulness for that which we do have. Thanks both of you for your comments! Great discussion!

Devin, I agree with your points about striving for better food. I was making a point about “better.” Sometimes that bad food in the urban wasteland is all the inhabitants can afford. While I agree that’s tragic, without cheaper alternatives to factory-made food-like substances, not much will change.

You and I had a discussion about how I can’t see organic methods being able to scale to the level necessary to feed more than 300 million people, let alone 7 billion. I really hope I’m wrong about that.

I was just thinking about how we need more Thanksgivings. Why are we only setting aside time to be thankful once a year? And since it provides us with an excuse to host family and friends for a feast, there is even less reason to be skimping on this Holiday. I propose a Thanksgiving holiday for every season. Winter Thanksgiving will be the last Thursday in February. Mark you Calendar and ask your boss for a four-day weekend!

I experienced a food juxtaposition last week on vacation in the Dominican Republic. It’s not quite on the par, or the topic, of your real food exhortation, but it does remind me to always remember, “It could be worse.”

The all-inclusive resort we were at had very mediocre food and, as eating tasty and interesting food is a good part of any vacation, my brothers, our wives, and I were grumbling about the offerings, which were strange approximations of dishes we knew well.

I was reminded of Woody Allen’s joke about life, from Annie Hall:

“Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’ Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”

Since we could eat as much as we cared to, we couldn’t grumble about the portions.

The juxtaposition came when we joined a group of young people in the bubble pool (not a hot tub in 90 degree weather!) They had just spent 12 hours on a bus coming from Haiti, where they had just finished building 13 schools. After living on rice and beans and bathing via half a bucket of chlorinate water a day, they were shocked to return to the luxuries of modern civilization for a week’s vacation.

“Look at this,” one said, splashing water over the rim of the tub. “We can waste water and not worry about it! And the waiter brings us drinks [they’d all had too many already that afternoon] and all the food we want!”

This made our grousing about the food seem a bit whiny, to put it mildly. Which reminds me of another movie quote, from Young Frankenstein:

[Frederick and Igor are exhuming a dead criminal]
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: What a filthy job.
Igor: Could be worse.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: How?
Igor: Could be raining.
[it starts to pour]

So as bad as it gets – and it obviously gets way worse than being at a fancy resort with bad food – I always remind myself, it could be worse. I feel the same way about food. As much as we may complain about food – it’s cold, it’s tasteless, it’s a food-like substance – we could be living in filthy conditions eating rice and beans, which, although they are actual food, and vegetarian to boot, most people would gladly trade for a cheese-less chicken parmesan approximation (which I ate one night at the resort).

As we left the bubble pool, I said to the young volunteers, “Keep doing good work.” And I should have added, “Don’t drink too much so your memories of this week of luxury can comfort you as you go back to build another dozen schools or so.”