Saturday, June 8, 2013

Food For Thought, Part 2

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I have a weird relationship with food. I believe I've mentioned this before, back in my earlier posts about the Live Below the Line Campaign (and yep, you guessed it, I'm just now getting around to wrapping up the loose ends with that). Part of this comes from living in the US, in a place that has no clear cultural cuisine, or at least one that isn't very balanced. I also live in the Midwest, which is limited by its growing season for what sort of local produce we have and how much it costs to import other foods. And, personally, I've just developed a weird relationship with food, based on being overweight for most of my life, being surrounding by ads for dieting and weight loss on TV shortly followed by McDonalds and Burger King ads, and struggling to eat healthy in college while also managing to eat enough and find time to eat so as to not be distracted by how hungry I am in class. Not to mention that my mother works in food service at an elementary school and I've had an interest in cooking and nutrition for a long time.

So when things like the Live Below the Line Campaign come my way, especially when my favorite actor happens to be a participant in it, you might forgive me for belaboring it so much. It's incredible and unfortunate that something that is necessary for survival and something we all need (ie: food) is so ignored while simultaneously being so fetishized. Food, in short, is complicated. I'm going to give a brief run-through of some food-related topics I've been wanting to discuss that goes as follows: a few more thoughts on Below the Line, musings on food cost and food waste, and trends and fads amongst consumers (I mean that both as people who eat and people who consume in the more economic sense). And if we have the time, maybe some thoughts on foodies, gourmands, and food porn. So...

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(Sorry, not sorry. Been waiting to use that gif forever.)

First off, the Live Below the Line Campaign. I've already discussed it before, so no need to rehash that again (but feel free to read my earlier posts here and here if you have no idea what I'm blathering on about). There's a few brief things I'd like to return to for a moment, however. One of these is this article from Harper's Bazaar, in which Tom Hiddleston recounts his experience in participating in Live Below the Line. I think perhaps one reason this post got shoved off into the slush pile of drafts instead of being finished sooner was because I knew I would have to deal with the fact that Tom Hiddleston is a really good writer. I mean, who does he think he is, Scott Fitz-

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 *cries*

But in all seriousness and sincerity, this piece is wonderfully written. I mean, I've got a little bit of the Hemingway mindset of, "It's better writing than mine and therefore I hate it," but really I love this article. It wonderfully balances a humbling experience with the knowledge that being able to do this comes from a certain privileged and how easy it is to not think about what you're going to eat in a day or where the food will be coming from. So I really love this, even if it makes me feel like Owen Wilson in this gif about my writing:

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Also, this quote from the article kept lingering in my mind the past few weeks, in a way that I kept mulling over it but had somehow forgotten the source until rereading the article and found that maybe it related a little too much: "Steve Jobs once said: 'stay hungry'. But that great innovator was speaking metaphorically in the language of creative ambition. In his field, he’s absolutely right. Real hunger, however, kills the spirit."

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This popped into my head the other night at the end of my shift for my internship. I generally work from 4pm until 9pm, which is a nice evening shift. The problem is that my body refuses to adapt to these hours and eating breakfast, lunch, a snack or maybe a small, packed dinner at my internship, and then another snack when I get home. That should be enough food (I think), but my body can't figure out how to regulate and balance it and so I just end up feeling hungry 70% of the time. It doesn't help that I don't eat much meat and thus many of my meals aren't very filling. And that I might be part-hobbit. I, of course, have never been really hungry. But it is hard to focus at work when my stomach keeps growling even if I've eaten because I'm used to a certain routine I've had for a long time and now I don't have that. I can't imagine what it would be like to try and have a job when you've got no money in our banking account for food.

This is part of the reason why I decided against participating in Live Below the Line when it occurred at the end of April. I was still trying to adapt to my work schedule and deal with finals, so I didn't want to risk not eating enough and having it affect me. I did, however keep a short journal of what I was eating and noting how much I was spending on meals based on the receipt for a grocery trip. A few things I'd already had in the cupboard and thus had to estimate and I did end up getting coffee or got a snack on the run from my internship to class, which would generally be rare for me, but it was interesting to see how much a simple muffin cost in perspective of what I would be spending if I were participating in Live Below the Line. The school week looked something like this:
Monday Total: $4.14 (muffin cost $1.71... this appalled me)
Tuesday Total: $6.73 (damn you $4 mocha)
Wednesday Total: $3.36
Thursday: $2.40
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By Friday, I'd given up calculating because I was becoming too worried about what I was eating and trying to see how little I could spend on meals without starving. Which was kind of a fail. I mostly gave up though because it was really hard to eat as I usually did at all bouncing from class to internship. I'm impressed with anyone who can eat healthy and regularly with a schedule constantly in flux. Despite all this, my totals for meals is still relatively low. Again, I don't eat much meat (some weeks none at all) so that helped I suppose. It's a total of about $16, $17, which for four days... I can't decide if that's about average or how that works out. I think it's high for as relatively little as I was consuming... but I don't know. How much does the "average" US citizen spend on meals a week? There's too many variables - I don't know how you'd ever figure that. I do know that I can tell the difference when I feel like I'm eating well and when I'm not - and that week didn't feel so great. Am I accidentally living on a terrible food budget without even knowing it? It changes from week to week, depending on when I last went to the store and it doesn't help that every time I try and keep a food journal, I also feel the urge to cut back what I eat, which is not helpful in the least. And so the answer is - I still really don't know what my food budget is. Although, those few days look pretty similar to how my last week or so has been.

My struggle was trying to still eat healthy (enough of a challenge in college as it is when you come back from class starving and you simply want to attack that box of Cheez-Its in the pantry). Despite what this graphic that spread around Tumblr claims, eating healthy is NOT CHEAP. The rebuttal included is really wonderful and well-put. This graphic assumes that you have time to cook, access to a grocery store, and of course, most importantly, money. The emphasis on the classist view that the New York Times graphic poses and the fact that it ignores systematic reasons for people eating fast food is one that I think is really important and too much ignored. Having grown up in Indiana, a state full of factories, farms, and blue-collar workers, dietary habits there are far different than in Minnesota. Hell, the grocery stores are even different. I'd never seen a Whole Foods or organic produce sections until I moved north. Then again, the organic movement was growing by the time I moved to Minnesota, but still - it's a very different relationship with food between the two states.

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I was discussing the issues with the cost of food with my friend Sarah and she mentioned a documentary called A Place At the Table. It's a new film and available on iTunes and on demand, as well as in theaters here in the US. I'm really interested in, especially as it deals with food waste and cost as well as talking with Michael Pollan who wrote a book called The Omnivore's Dilemma, which I read for one of my cultural studies classes a few years ago. It's a very interesting read, even though I don't agree with some of his solutions for changing the way we eat and get our food, but it's wonderful if you're interested different food movements and issues such as consumerism and food, the organic movement, and local food movements. I also own another one of his books, In Defense of Food, but I've yet to read it (it's in the "too read" pile of books... soon, I hope).

It's also important to note that all of this discussion with poverty and hunger is, as alluded to above, occurring at the same time that things like food porn, foodies, and new sort of "dietary identities" are being formed (vegetarians, pescatarians, vegans, gluten-free, etc). It seems like these identities have never been so widespread as they are now, perhaps because we don't have to worry so much about eating to survive. In the US, many people have easy access to food and don't think of it as survival but as pleasurable or means of living a certain way. Being a vegetarian (and being a rather lax one, I guess you could say), I sense - at least in the United States - is a privileged and a luxury. You don't have to worry about where you're going to get protein in your diet - you have access to other options like tofu and veggie burgers or whatnot, and you don't need meet in your diet to keep you full or warm. I could never be a full vegetarian because I've yet to figure out how one can survive harsh Minnesota winters without at least occasionally eating beef stew or chicken. I think what frustrates me most about vegans and vegetarians who insist that everyone be like them is that they assume that everyone will be able to maintain that sort of diet. Vegetarianism, if not executed well, can be very, very unhealthy. It almost seems that it seems like when we didn't think about food as much, it was easier, but that's of course a romantic, rosy retrospection notion - I think we've always thought about food, especially when it was much harder for us to obtain.

Eating seems to be something that we humans are fascinated by and have a very complex relationship with. On one hand, we're obsessed with food when it comes to food porn, and we can't get enough of it. But on the other hand, we're worried about dieting and restricting what we eat and making our kids take fruits and vegetables in school lunches. But there are also numerous kids on free lunches, watching food be wasted and many Americans and people around the world who can't get enough food. And then I think of how I ate when I stayed at a luxury hotel in Denver last Christmas (paid by a very long term accumulation of hotel perks points by my father traveling for business) and I get even more flummoxed. (Great word, flummoxed).

There's more I could discuss on this but I think perhaps it's best to leave it here. The discussions over food are on-going, as could my posting on it. But for now, I'll stop here and fret over my own dietary habits. Late night eating is bad for you... tell that to someone who hasn't eaten dinner for the past five nights.

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