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Let's Ask Marion: Is There a Road Map to Better Road Food?

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With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally's kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Food Politics and What to Eat:

kat: We New Yorkers are spoiled by our access to a terrific greenmarket, four Whole Foods stores, and plenty of mom-and-pop health food shops where we can stock up on quinoa, kohlrabi, and kombu. It's only when we venture beyond our native habitat, as we did last week to attend the Yearly Kos convention in Chicago (where you were gracious enough to participate in our panel on sustainable agriculture) that I realize how few options most Americans have when it comes to making healthier food choices.

The closest we came to "healthy" were the baked Lay's potato chips at the Teamsters cookout on Saturday, and the excellent dinner we enjoyed in Chinatown. The rest of the foods available to us, whether on Amtrak or at the convention, were heavy on saturated fats, salt, added sugars, and empty carbs, with nearly zero nutrients or fiber.

Even the garden burger I ordered on Amtrak was fried. At the convention and on the train, potatoes were practically the only vegetable, in the form of chips, or a mayonnaise-soaked potato salad, or French fries. Whole grains? Wholly absent. Fruits fared a little better, but not much.

And all across America, this is apparently the norm, outside of a few ethicurean enclaves. Non-meat options are nearly non-existent, and if you're trying to avoid animal fats for health reasons, you're really out of luck -- the vegetarian options all seem to revolve around eggs and cheese. What good does it do for the USDA, and nutritionists like yourself, and activists like me, to keep telling folks to eat more wholesome, unprocessed foods when they're not even an option in so many places? What will it take for consumers to have a real choice?

Dr. Nestle: This is a tough one. I've been spending a lot of time at airports all over the country. Nearly all of them have salads and sandwiches but they are the same everywhere -- soggy and tasteless. In desperation, I'll get some nuts, a banana, a container of yogurt, and an empty drink cup to mix them in, but the nuts are always saltier than I like and the yogurt invariably over-sweetened. Alas.

I had a great breakfast of oatmeal and fresh berries at the convention hotel -- a gift from the manager to compensate for the four wake-up calls I got during the night but hadn't asked for - -but the bill was something like $18. So the choice is between eating things that ought to be fresh, but aren't, or paying a fortune. No wonder people like fast food -- you know exactly what you are getting, you get plenty of calories (that's the problem, of course), and you can afford it.

But it wasn't all that long ago that New Yorkers couldn't get anything decent to eat outside of pricey restaurants, and the older supermarkets in my Manhattan neighborhood are still pretty dismal. Farmers' markets, Whole Foods, and some of those health food stores prove that good food can be provided at a reasonable price -- if there is a market for it. So I say, complain! Exercise personal responsibility and complain loudly and repeatedly to store managers.

But at the same time promote social responsibility and complain to community officials. Tell store managers you expect better quality food and are willing to pay for it. Tell them you don't want to hear any excuses from suppliers. But then do some complaining at the policy level. Get your town to make it possible for farmers' markets and specialty stores to open and flourish. Invite food entrepreneurs to open businesses and help them get started. Work with agricultural extension services to make sure poor people have access to better food. The government runs Amtrak -- so those complaints have to go to the agency in charge. Once people have better food, there's no going back, so you have to start someplace. Otherwise, as American travelers have learned all too quickly, you have to boycott what's there and bring your own food with you.

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