‘Tis the season to think about, write about, stand in the kitchen and make… food. So timely that my niece Kima Cargill’s new book about food landed on my Kindle this week. In addition, I just read Megan Kimble’s piece describing her year eating unprocessed foods. These two young women are riding (or writing) the crest of a tsunami on the subject of how we consume and how it’s killing the planet, not to mention ourselves. And so I thought about my own thinking about consumerism, fresh from a holiday season in which I’ve been bombarded with ads urging me to spend more, eat more, drink more.
These writers are preaching to the choir as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always thought our economic model is crazy. Every week when I sort the recycles and throw out perfectly good glass jars that will be hauled off, melted down, remanufactured into more glass jars, I’m outraged by the senselessness of it all. Back when George Bush was running the economy, the country was in dire trouble (although I didn’t personally know anybody who was starving). The brilliant economists who worked for George suggested sending every American a check, not to save, but to spend. This was known as a “boost to the economy.” The leader of the free world said, in effect, go out and buy something you don’t need. It’s our only salvation.
But back to food. As true as it is that I don’t know any starving people, I also don’t know anybody (or not many) who cook. Yeah, I move in an older crowd these days. Most of my friends raised kids and fed a family, and they’ve had it with the meal planning already. It shocks me to see what people have in their grocery carts, to know that a friend of mine ate at a fried chicken place, or to hear another say that the front burners of her stove don’t work, but it doesn’t matter because she doesn’t cook. (See Helen Sanders Health Ambition for more about processed foods.)
Taking a right angle turn here, let’s talk about universality. (My mind is sharp as a tack today… ) I used to attend a new age church. I liked it because you didn’t have to believe in anything. I actually traveled to the source of this religion when my then-husband was accepted into their ministerial program. They say never visit the sausage factory, right? I discovered that in controlled doses, this particular sect was palatable, but taken full-strength, the same old something that has kept my head wonderfully free of dogma all these years gagged me. (It’s a food metaphor, okay?) Here’s why.
These well-meaning folks, originally concentrated in the Kansas City area, and now spread all over the place, actually do promote a certain theology, embodied in magical numbers, the Five Somethings, The Twelve Somethings. They have classes so you can learn all this stuff. There are bookstores in every church (they call them “centers”). I took a few classes and learned that a central tenet is that people bring about their own reality, “thoughts held in mind reproduce in kind.” I can buy that. Pollyannas are cheery. Sad Sacks are miserable. But as is our wont (an English major word meaning “habit”), we humans are always improving things. (See my eloquent piece on extremism). A simple slogan meant to get people to take a look at their negative thinking, over time, has crystallized into its own kind of dogma.
This came home to me when a young woman from Austin we had befriended, because we were, like, also from Texas, told us she had just gotten a very bad diagnosis, a cancer that would kill her in a matter of months. We drove her to a few radiation treatments and she mentioned that some of the seminarians had asked her what thoughts she held in mind to bring about this terrible illness.
From this and other bits and pieces, I’ve cobbled together my own religion, bullshit detector, yardstick, whatever you want to call it. If you see a list of Truths tacked up on a wall and it seems to fit the circumstances of your life very nicely, ask yourself how well they apply to a poor child in India. What about when that child is older, an adult? Are fourth and fifth generation impoverished Americans to blame for their habits of mind? How they eat? Or are they just muddling along doing the best they can with what they have to work with?
I was a 21-year-old teacher assigned my first classroom in a Houston inner-city school. Like all females, I thought I was over-weight (ha!). We were all reading this new book about how you could eat fat, fat, and more fat, and actually lose weight. It was revolutionary. I started packing in the cheese, steaks, butter, and maybe I did lose a few pounds, I don’t remember, because I gained it back faster than you can say Nutella. It turned out to be the first of many empty diet promises. One day a little fat girl in my eighth grade English class heard me talking about my new diet and wistfully asked for details. Very simple, I told her, jotting down a list. Just eat these foods, and avoid those. Sometime later I asked how she was doing and she said, my dad says we can’t afford to buy those foods. I was jolted into an awareness that mine, compared to hers, was a privileged life. Even on a first-year teacher’s salary I could afford to eat better than she could.
You didn’t think I could do it, did you? Link food, religion, consumerism, and universality into a single essay.
Ms. Kimble set out to eat for a whole year as wholesomely as possible, organic, farm-to-table, farmer’s market produce, vegetable co-op. She indicts the food industry and agribusiness for the wretchedness of the American diet, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s the theme of Kima’s book too. Megan mentions the cost of eating high quality food, $4.50/meal on average (cooked at home using the standards mentioned above). Compare that to the cost of a meal using, say, food purchased at WalMart, $1.50/meal, which is approximately what SNAP (food stamps) allows low-income people. And there, as my fellow writer Mr. Shakespeare said, is the rub.
Whether it was a fad diet of the 70’s or a trendy new whole food movement today, if poor people can’t afford it, it’s an unworkable plan for curing hell-bent consumerism, obesity, or the horror known as the American diet. The last time I checked (this morning), there were 7.3 billion consumers on the planet, quite a few of them poor. And they all have to eat. Every single day.