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Elissa Altman Headshot

The Perfect Food World and Its Missing Ingredient

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Imagine this:

You wake up on a beautiful sunny morning. It's a lovely, temperate day. The deer are in the yard under the apple tree, munching happily on fallen fruit, leaving your roses and unfenced organic garden alone. You turn on the radio and listen as you get dressed: the federal school lunch program has announced that it will be purchasing all of its food, coast to coast, from local, organic farmers and ranchers, and will be subsidizing the farm workers' pay and their family's health insurance. Cargill and Smithfield have permanently suspended feedlot and processing operations, and gone into green alternative energy research. The science and health reporter announces that the rate of diabetes has dropped radically from the prior decade, since the use of refined corn byproducts in food has been made illegal. With small farmers springing up virtually everywhere and agricultural education now what it is, even northern, cold-climate foodsheds are able to produce remarkable organic vegetables for their communities, twelve months a year. There is healthy, local, sustainably and ethically-grown food enough for everyone, and everyone, miraculously, seems to want it.

Everyone you know, that is.

And here is the problem--the one small blip on the screen that gets buried amidst the hideous news stories of ammonia-laden ground beef and the treatment of animals on feedlots and during slaughter; the wallet-lining, nutritional short-changing of children and the way big agriculture blithely continues to lie to them; the raging rates of obesity and diabetes; the chronic inequities in the treatment of farm workers; the constant and necessary policing of food myths and mythmakers by journalists like Michael Pollan and Tom Philpott and countless others; and the tiny glimmers of hope that bubble to the surface in the manner of the proliferation of small farms and seed savers, and the public's growing understanding and recognition of their importance.

It's not accessibility, which is, of course, enormously important. Case in point: I live in southern New England, and my two local farmer's markets run only from July into October, and there are no CSAs that serve my community. Every weekend, I spend two hours driving back and forth from my home to an independently-owned, natural foods store that sells reasonably local goods grown in the northern part of the state. Then there's the issue of cost. When a working mother of three with a decent job and employer-backed health insurance has to choose between her kid's asthma puffer and fresh, organically-grown food, nobody wins. Because if she can't afford it, then you know that the people whom this country officially deems on its demographic rosters as ""poor" can't afford it either.

But back to our imaginary, perfect food world: the problem is at the very end of the supply chain, and it's something that no one ever really talks about. The problem is in the kitchen. Because unless consumers have a basic understanding of what to do with this great food that we want them to eat--the sustainably-grown, organic, seasonal, local, ethically-produced food that is a lot healthier and more delicious than the mass produced dreck that's out there masquerading as edible--then the fight is lost.

The battle that we face is layered like a pastry: it's political, certainly. It's demographic, socio-economic, and it's corporate. It's educational, an issue that is being remedied in part by the model and visibility of The Edible Schoolyard, green charter schools, and the exuberance with which young people tend to approach projects that get their hands in the dirt, and that they come to viscerally understand is vital both to their lives and to the worlds around them. But, the problem is also cultural, and culinary, and unless we make a basic shift in the way we cook and think about preparing food in our homes, we'll never change the way we, as a nation, eat. Unless we change the way we cook along with the way we produce food, all other arguments are moot.

Empirically speaking, the act of cooking in this country--of standing at the stove and carefully, mindfully producing a meal meant to be shared around a table--seems to be about as common as a pig with wings. Instead, we want our food fast, prepared and prepackaged by someone else; we don't want to have to think about it, and when we do, we want it to be branded, labeled with a face, or a slogan that we and our children recognize. If it comes nestled in a microwavable container that can then be tossed into the trash, even better. Consider the fact that according to Frozen Food Age, an industry publication, frozen food sales, in the 12-week period ending on September 7, 2009, hit $7.1 billion, including products bearing these labels:

T.G.I Friday's: $17, 423, 848
Stouffer's: $91,950,912
Gorton's: $34,861,560
DiGiorno: $100,324,880
Armour Sizzle and Serve: $2,027,738

That's a lot of frozen sausage.

As Michael Pollan pointed out in his New York Times article, Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,

...corporations have been trying to persuade Americans to let them do the cooking since long before large numbers of women entered the work force. After World War II, the food industry labored mightily to sell American women on all the processed-food wonders it had invented to feed the troops: canned meals, freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee, instant everything. As Laura Shapiro recounts in "Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America," the food industry strived to "persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations." The same process of peacetime conversion that industrialized our farming, giving us synthetic fertilizers made from munitions and new pesticides developed from nerve gas, also industrialized our eating.

The result? Massive, pervasive, fresh food-cooking ignorance. Walk into any supermarket, head down the frozen food aisle, and give any shopper you find a bunch of fresh beets, greens attached. Ask them what they'd do with it and wait for the answer. A broad generalization, sure, but odds are you know what the response will be.

As the visibility of sustainable, organic, local, and ethical food production grows, and as it becomes more accessible to more people, I'd like to assume that the de-industrialization of eating and all that that implies will be a natural, trickle-down benefit. But a very large part of changing the way people eat in this country is also changing the way they cook. It must involve slowing down, sitting down, the understanding that faster is rarely better, and the piece of the pie that we generally reserve for children: education.

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