What food is… is actually controversial

A group of us recently went to visit a local farmer who is interested in “family farming”, or farming in a sustainable way to provide a modern life to their family and grow good food for their local farmer’s market. The couple are more concerned about growing food in a healthy way rather than the end product of profit, though of course they need to make a living. We talked about soil health, labor and water needs, and how to create a system of “from farm to table” that allows them to have a more personal connection to the people they are selling their produce to, and for the consumer to have more of a connection to the food that they eat. They have a website and are documenting their experiences, if your interested, at http://theforbesfamilyfarm.com/.

I told the group a story that my old neighbor had told me when I was a little girl, about her childhood in the city. When she was about 15, her parents sent her to live for the summer with a cousin who had a farm. It was common for this family to eat outside every day, with the food buffet-style for anyone to come and get during mealtimes. My neighbor, Helen, feeling very grown-up, asked for some cream to add to her morning coffee. The cousin pointed to a large bowl on the table and said, “Sure, help yourself.” Helen cringed. Eeww. The milk was just out in a bowl???? She had never seen milk not be in a carton before. Helen was mortified, as it hit her all at once – milk came from cows, not from cartons. She was in her 70s when I was a girl. And she said she had never drank milk again since that day.

Michael Pollan, a professor of writing, is one at the forefront of this movement, having written several books on the history of food in the U.S. and our relationship to food. I found my self talking to the farmer about Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, that I had read many years ago and have never forgotten. The disconnect we currently have to our food might not create just a dramatic and visceral reaction as it did for my friend Helen, but many people find themselves completely unaware today of how food is grown (or raised), and how it gets to your refrigerator.

In his book, Pollan explains why he defines food as not just stuff that we put in our mouth and chew, but stuff that 1) Has only about 5 ingredients, and 2) You can pronounce and you basically know what those ingredients are. Going through the laws behind food, he explains how in the 1970s there was a major shift in what people and the government thought of as food. Instead of maintaining the integrity of food as things made from what can be grown naturally, we changed the laws to allow anything to be called something as long as it had all the “components” of that something. So, for example, you could now sell bread (and call it bread) just by putting together all of the chemicals an nutrients of wheat together, without having to actually use wheat. Welcome, white bread lovers! (I love white bread).

This was a HUGE shift in out laws and in public opinion. I mean, when margarine first came to the grocery stores, lawmakers considered forcing manufacturers to put food dye in it like green or blue so that the customer could not be fooled into thinking that was real butter.

Since that change in the laws, the U.S. has had a strange relationship with food, as we now have the mentality that if we can be just as healthy eating all of the vitamins and components of a tomato as actually eating a whole, ripened on the vine tomato. Anyone who has tasted the difference knows that’s not true. But our government doesn’t have any taste. Ba dum chhh. Thank you, I’ll be here all night. 😀

But Europe is having the same issue right now, with European Union law trying to reconcile with national laws. Germany’s Beer Purity law, for example. Known as the Reinheitsgebot and introduced in 1516 by Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria, the decree allowed for only hops, barley, water and, later, yeast to be labeled “beer”. If you put anything else in it, you couldn’t call it beer, you had to call it “alcohol beverage” or something. Recently, that’s been open to change in Germany, as NPR explains better than I can here: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/04/29/475138367/germanys-beer-purity-law-is-500-years-old-is-it-past-its-sell-by-date

The idea, explains Pollan, is that we are now finding that overly processed “food” has a whole bunch of side effect no one foresaw, including free radicals (more chemistry than I really want to go into here), and the gestalt of the tomato being a tomato instead of a bunch of nutrients in a container. Those nutrients combining in the ground to grow a tomato does something to all of the nutrients that is beneficial. And that we can’t yet duplicate.

I recently saw a definition of food that I’ve come to appreciate best:
Food makes your body work, grow and repair itself. And the kind of food you eat can affect the efficiency of these processes. If you want to know more about the chemistry of food, I’d suggest an open-source book written by a PhD in food chemistry available here: http://apjcn.nhri.org.tw/server/info/books-phds/books/foodfacts/html/maintext/main2a.html

I like to grow my own food when I can. Or get it from my neighbors. Even in the city, my neighbor manages to grow so many tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and onions she can’t use or give them all away. It’s honestly not hard, and I think we’ve forgotten that. I worry about things like an economy free fall in which cities would run out of food in a hurry. And I wonder: do we still have the cultural knoweldge to grow our own food in a large enough portion of our society to sustain ourselves?

I’d be interested in anyone’s thoughts on farming and growing your own food.

-dlp

Published by

Drs. Dana Pertermann & Mark Neels

Friends, colleagues, and sparing partners, Drs. Dana L. Pertermann and Mark A. Neels collaborate on research in military history, politics, and culture. They are currently both college professors in Wyoming. They blog weekly about the past, the present, and the future of the U.S. and the world.

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