Archive | April, 2012

Food, Community & Identity

I was sitting in the cafe of the co-op when I noticed that in every direction I looked I saw kids and families. I was getting excited to see my own family when suddenly, I felt a jolt of elation followed by an intense feeling of sorrow. I realized in less than a month I’d be back home in Chicago, shopping at the chain supermarket that my parents go to. My first thought: I’m going to miss the co-op immensely.

The space of the co-op is unique and unlike your typical grocery store. You don’t just shop at City Market; you’re part of a community here. The shoppers, employees and volunteers work together 24-7 to support and strengthen the local economy and contribute to a more just and sustainable food system for Vermont. I love seeing the faces of people that enter City Market for the first time. Watching their jaws drop as they stare in astoundment at the bulk department or at the labeling system in the produce department. There is a sense of collective consciousness that is evident and hard to miss and elicits a sense of community, solidarity, innovation and a feeling of being part of something larger. All of the employees that i’ve talked to are passionate about their job and as a result, bring an intensity and enthusiasm to their work that I haven’t seen elsewhere. According to Craig Wilkens,

the “where” of of our sensory experience in the world have a profound influence on our ability to create individual and collective identities- to become, know and name who we are– premaritally because “space comprises the social arena in which individuals reproduce or challenge their experiential boundaries of action and interaction”.

In other words, identity is produced in and through our relation to space. I began to wonder if in some small way, my experiences at City Market had influenced my identify. If so, how?

I realized the wide-selection of Vermont made products; abundance of fresh, organic options; friendly employees and volunteers; and intimate, communal vibe at City Market truly has helped shaped my individual and collective food identity (how I interact with others in a food related context, how I relate to food itself in a co-op situation) For example, prior to shopping at the co-op I never thought I’d know the farmers who make my cheese and bread. Now that I do, I realize how comforting and reassuring this is. Being a co-op member has also allowed me to contribute to a larger collective identity that supports a local, sustainable food system. Furthermore, being a Member Worker has brought an unanticipated source of pleasure to my life and added to my self-definition. It’s introduced me to new people with a similar interests and passions (mostly for food, cooking and health) 🙂

One thing’s for sure, I will definitely miss the co-op this summer. What about you guys, how does your local grocery store, farmers market or co-op create community? If it doesn’t, why do you think this is?

FN 4/16

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GMO labeling bill and public representation

There’s been a lot of heat lately surrounding GMO labeling, both nationally and locally. The Vermont Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act (H.722) was introduced to the Vermont House in February. If passed, it will require mandatory labeling on all genetically engineered food. Despite overwhelming public support, and a majority (6 to 5) of Agriculture Committee members supporting passage of the bill, legislators of Vermont have put the bill on hold.

In a post titled ‘Vermont Could Be the First State in the Nation to Require GMO Labeling’, City Market shows unwavering support for H. 722 and consumers right-to-know. Though the post does not include direct quotes from members of the public, it does include them in the discussion. In the below excerpt, the general public and City Market are represented as important stakeholders in this discussion:

We all have the right to know what’s in the food we eat and feed our children. Yet, without information on the label, we can’t tell if our food contains GMOs unless we only buy Certified Organic products which are never allowed to contain GMO ingredients.

50 countries including the European Union, Japan and China already require labels on genetically engineered foods.

Interesting to note, is at another point in the post the public is portrayed as a separate stakeholder, specifically, separate from the experts. In a paragraph highlighting several alarming statistics about genetically engineered crops the author writes,“At the same time, scientific studies are increasingly questioning the safety of these products for our health and our environment.”

In the spirit of devil’s advocate, I’m going to argue that the above sentence privileges expert knowledge systems and as a result, undermines the knowledge of the general public. Gross (1994) argued that dominant understandings of the public’s relationship to science reflect a deficit model, where general public is considered ignorant and easily swayed by subjective biases. To make up for their deficits, the public is thought to rely on experts whose knowledge is believed to be objective and sufficient (Heiss, 2011).

While in a subtle way this sentence situates the conversation as an exchange between knowledgeable scientists and a ignorant public, I doubt it was intentional.

All in all, by emphasizing the Right to Know Campaign, the post gives authority to the public to talk about the health and environmental risks of GMO’s, thus giving the public agency in this highly important discussion.

WP 3/2

Musings on Meat

This week at City Market I got to know the Meat & Seafood Department. When I first arrived I observed the physical attributes of the meat: bloody, raw, red, muscle and flesh. Beef, pork, chicken and lamb. Approximately five to six different cuts of pork, twenty of beef, seven of chicken and two to three of lamb. The meat was well-organized on black styrofoam plates wrapped in clear packaging with labeled stickers neatly placed on the wrapping. I thought about the lifespan of this meat: the animals were born and lived someplace,were eventually slaughtered, the meat was processed, packaged and then shelved at City Market. Undoubtably, this was an energy intensive process.

But what else did this process, and more generally meat, represent? I was curious about the cultural value that our society places on meat. What associations do we have with it?

According to Deborah Lupton in Food, the body and the self, “one powerful binary opposition which is invoked in popular and medical discourses relating to food is that between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods”. Influenced by cultural expectations and values, this notion is what allows us to assign moral meanings to food. For example, good food not only implies food that nourishes the body, but also a sense of self-control and concern for ones health; whereas bad food implies a sense of weakness or lack of control (Lupton, 28). I wondered where meat fell in the spectrum of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Turns out, meat has conflicting meanings of ‘good’ and ‘bad’  in western society. To better make sense of this binary opposition, I created a chart that outlines some of the various ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ aspects of meat.

I’ve always firmly believed that nothing is black or white; there’s always a grey area. I feel that meat is neither good or bad, but rather has aspects of both. One thing is for sure: my philosophical musings of meat have altered my experience in the space of the Meat & Seafood Department of the co-op.

FN 4/9

Fruit, Vegetables Not as Nutritious as 50 Years Ago

In today’s world, food and health related media is everywhere, but according to a commentary published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, this has not brought clarity to or improved understanding of a topic of such obvious impact. Therefore, as communicators of food-related science we must be diligent in our communication to ensure that it is effective in serving both public understanding and the objectives of the communicators.

Dr. Weil, a well-established practitioner in the field of integrative medicine, does a great job of this. In his post How Nutritious is Your Produce?, he discusses research indicating that the nutrient value of fruits and vegetables in the U.S. and Great Britain has declined significantly over the last 50 years.

After reading Dr. Weil’s post, I decided to read the report myself. Declining Fruit and Vegetable Nutrient Composition: What Is the Evidence? highlights three types of evidence that point toward declines of nutrients in fruits and vegetables: (1) early studies of fertilization found inverse relationships between crop yield and mineral concentrations—the widely cited “dilution effect”; (2) three recent studies of historical food composition data found apparent median declines of 5% to 40% or more in some minerals in groups of vegetables and perhaps fruits; one study also evaluated vitamins and protein with similar results; (3) recent side-by-side plantings of low-and high-yield cultivars of broccoli and grains found consistently negative correlations between yield and concentrations of minerals and protein, a newly recognized genetic dilution effect.

Dr. Weil’s post appears to be credible for he represented the findings of the report accurately and in a way that is both informative and beneficial to the public and their understanding of food and health. Below I’ve highlighted why this post is an effective form of communication on food-science to the public:

  • Post includes the study’s limitations
  • Focuses on the most vital information (i.e. health implications), allowing the public to form the most useful net impression of the study’s findings
  • Includes hyperlink to the report published in the February, 2009 Journal of HortScience so that viewers can easily read the original research article.

Additional information from the report that I consider important to include are:

  • The fact that evidence for nutrient declines began to accumulate in the 1940s with observations of (environmental) dilution effects on minerals in many foods and diverse plants.
  • USDA’s data suggests that yields have increased more in vegetables than in fruits, which may help explain the findings of larger nutrient declines in vegetables.

WP 3/2

What’s being left out of the conversation on buying in bulk?

The bulk department of the co-op is a favorite for many customers, including myself. It’s a chance to save some money, save some packaging, and it’s one less trip you might potentially have to make to the store. Earlier this week I observed that there are several subtle marketing methods that affect consumption behavior. The discovery of the vested interests behind my food choices made me feel informed. When I went back to the bulk department yesterday, I was excited by my newfound knowledge. I felt in control and ready to dodge any food companies marketing attempt to get me to buy more.

Turns out,  it’s not that simple. Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at the University of Illinois, would argue the opposite. His research shows that the biggest influence of food is not logic or reason, but things that we aren’t even aware of. “The size of a package, shape of a glass, the words on a menu or label, our proximity to food, and other invisible influences” are what have the greatest affect on consumption (Why we eat more than we think, Wansink).

In one study looking at how much people eat when food is stockpiled, Wansink found that for the first week people that bought in bulk ate twice as much food in comparison to those that bought in small quantities.

This suggests potentially negative consequences for buying in bulk. Wansink argues that relying on our mental resistance to control how much we eat is far less affective than changing our immediate environment. That said,  customers at the co-op that filled huge bags of granola, chocolate chips, etc. will eat more, regardless of whether or not they intended to and how much self-control they have, simply because the food is stockpiled and in their immediate environment, making us take more at any given time within the first week of purchase. On the flip side,  customers that buy in smaller quantities (i.e. boxed granola) are likely eat less than if they had bought double or triple the amount.

Here’s the trick: if you still want the perks of buying in bulk, but don’t want to eat more,  make sure to transfer food to smaller bags or storage containers once you get home from the grocery store. Then, store leftover  bulk items in the basement or hard to reach place.

Luckily, we can control certain aspects of our environment such as how and where we store our food. Given that buying in bulk is cost effective and reduces our environmental footprint, I highly reccommend it, just next time consider applying these tips!

WP 4/5

U.S. Farm Policy and Consumer Behavior

The other day at the co-op I was paying particular attention to consumer behavior. Essentially, I was paying close and particular attention to the foods that consumers had in their carts and baskets. While a vast majority of people had a least 1-3 items from the produce section, there were the occasion few that did not. I found myself wondering about these occasional few. Did they already have enough vegetables and fruit at home? Do they normally incorporate fruits and vegetables into their daily diet? Are they not buying fruits and vegetables because other foods are cheaper and “more filling”?  These are some of the questions that came to mind.

After leaving City Market that day, I found myself focusing on the last question. That’s when I stumbled upon this chart:

After doing some research, I found one aspect that is often overlooked when looking at the question “why does a salad cost more than a big mac?” is the U.S. Farm Policy which encourages overproduction and driving down the prices of a couple major commodities (i.e. corn and soybeans). The result is food that can be derived from these low cost commodities are what’s made widely available to the consumer for a cheap price. This is why sugar and far are so prevalent today, because they can be derived from corn and soybeans. This also helps to explain why generally speaking unhealthy food is cheaper than fruits and vegetables.

I reflected back to the people I saw in the check out line that didn’t have fruits or vegetables, but had lots of boxed, highly processed yet cheaper products. I couldn’t help but wonder if the situation would be different if the prices for fruits and vegetables were lower. What do you guys think, does the price of fruits and vegetables inhibit you from purchasing them at the grocery store, or do you find a way to incorporate them into your diet while staying within your food budget? I know that I’m able to find a way to incorporate them without spending too much. For example, I often buy veggies from the reduced price section at City Market which consists of vegetables that may have 1 or 2 bruises on it but otherwise are fine. At the same time, I’m not financially independent as I still receive money for groceries and monthly rent from my parents. Anyway, would love to know any tips or suggestions you guys have for eating healthy foods while on a budget!

FN 3/19

New PBS show “Food Forward” Addresses Problems in our Food System

Fact #1: we live in a consumer culture.

Fact #2: We enjoy watching shows that create fantasy worlds for the audience.

The other day I posted about this, pointing out that consumer fantasy allows the Food Network, for example, to blend content and promotion which in turn generates profit for the network, but also closes off our ability to be exposed to a wider range of discourses about food (Ketchum, 232). Since no advertiser wants to promote their product on a show that addresses controversial issues surrounding food or health, the more deeply tied show content becomes to selling goods, the less likely we are to be exposed to any serious issues within our contemporary food system (Ketchum, 232).

While the Food Network hasn’t announced any new shows- I’m proud to say that PBS has. According to the Huffington Post, Food Forward might not teach you about hot new restaurants or ingredients, but you will learn about food issues that face a lot of Americans. In a press release emailed to the HP, Greg Roden (the show’s director) said:

Food Forward offers something different. Our program goes beyond celebrity chefs, cooking competitions and recipes to reveal the compelling stories and inspired solutions from Americans striving to create a more just, sustainable and delicious alternative to how and what we eat.

Sounds good to me. I wonder who’s sponsoring the show, how long it will last, and how deeply it will delve into issues within our food system.