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Concerned about Pesticides?

This week I was at City Market thoroughly enjoying a delicious deli sandwich that I had saved $1 on (thanks to Campus Special coupon book) when I saw a mother and her baby enter the cafe. Before they sat down at the table across from me, the mother turned to the wall behind her where framed pictures of different farms, workers, volunteers, fruits and vegetables hung nicely in black frames. I quickly noticed that the mom was in one of the photos, and she wanted to show her baby!

20120318-223132.jpgAfter pointing herself out to the baby, she sat down and started to breast feed. Maybe it’s just me, but I thought it was a pretty cool chain of events: the mom worked on a farm, helped produce food that she likely consumed, and now here’s this baby being nourished by the same body that consumed the food in the picture. This got me thinking about just how sensitive the bodies of these tiny creatures must be to different foods and substances on their food.

Earlier in the week, I read an article for class on pesticide toxicity. The article mentioned Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children, a report issued by the National Academy of Sciences in 1993 documenting that  “infants and children differ both qualitatively and quantitatively from adults in their exposure to pesticide residues in foods” and that some children exceeded safe levels of pesticides in their diets.

The NAS report led rise to the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 which requires the EPA to set health-based standards for pesticides in foods, while requiring additional protection for children, infants and other vulnerable people.  In spite of this legislation however, researchers from Emory University in Atlanta reported that young children continue to be exposed to pesticides primarily through their diets. Furthermore, the Environmental Working Group (EWG)  points out three epidemiological studies published in Environmental Health Perspectives in April 2011 that show a clear link between a mother’s exposure to pesticides (specifically, organophosphates) during pregnancy and deficits to children’s learning and memory that persist through the ages of 6 to 9.

Meanwhile, agribusiness and pesticide companies are working to weaken protections in the Food Quality Protection Act, and in some cases have already succeeded. Furthermore, industry refuses to conduct developmental neurotoxicity studies, claiming it’s too expensive and difficult, yet they deny any study linking pesticide residue from diet and to human health risks. Really?

So, why should you be concerned about pesticides? For starters, U.S. and international governmental agencies, in addition to a host of researchers and doctors worldwide, acknowledge that pesticides are linked to several health problems including:

  • brain and nervous system toxicity
  • cancer
  • hormone disruption
  • skin, eye and lung irritation

Therefore, why take the risk if you don’t have to? Take steps to protect yourself and loved ones by using tools such as EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to determine which produce is most important to  buy organic.

FN 2/13

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On Risk

Last week after observing I helped myself to a plate of food from the hot bar of the co-op. At 4:36am the next morning I woke up with a terrible headache, intense abdominal cramps, nausea and the chills. I ran to the bathroom and proceeded to get sick for the next 5 hours.Later that night I did a little research to find that I was 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) who gets sick each year from foodborne illnesses. According the Center for Disease Control (CDC), each year roughly 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 people die of foodborne diseases.

A couple days later at the co-op I found myself steer clear of the hot bar and the surrounding vicinity. When I thought of ‘hot bar’ and ‘co-op’ two things came to mind: yuck and stay away. I began to wonder why I had such a strong visceral reaction. How were issues of food safety being played out in a larger context?  How do corporations, the government and other consumers deal with issues of food safety? It seemed that everytime I was around or thought about food for the next week, risk was somehow involved.

In ‘Food, publics, science’ Gwendolyn Blue explains that the 1990s marked a turning point in the ways in which food is talked about. Where it used to be talked about in terms of nutrition and access, public attention now focuses increasingly on issues of risk, including infectious microbes, chemical toxins, new technologies, and emergent zoonotic diseases. In fact, Blue says

food as a site in which risk is negotiated

This accurately describes how I feel about the hot bar at the co-op. A site in which risk must be negotiated. In the days that followed being sick, the more I realized that it’s not just after getting food poisoning that I have to contend with risk; it’s all the time. It’s everywhere. It’s on the health labels we see in products, the advertising campaigns adopted by corporations to capitalize on our fears of food safety, literally anything relating to food and public safety likely has someone involved aiming to reduce the perception of risk.

This is fascinating. It means that whether or not I like it or even realize it, my actions as a food consumer  make me involved in forms of political engagement (Blue, 153). I am bound up in the larger context of consumer politics of food related issues just as we all are. All in all, after doing my own research on the topic of risk, I’ve realized that there’s no avoiding it, for it’s everywhere, but we can participate by voting on foods that we find safe with our dollar.

FN 3/12

Food Without Thought

The other day I was in produce section of the co-op and noticed a beautiful blood orange that had recently been cut in half. “Let me know if you’d like to try some. Just had one and it was delicious.” I turned around to find a friendly employee smiling while unpacking bananas. Without thinking, I responded, “Sure, i’d love to!” The slice of orange was delicious, and I ended up buying some. As I proceeded to the bulk section, I found myself ruminating over my instantaneous response to the employee’s offer. I glanced down at the oranges in my basket and realized I had just fallen for a subtle marketing gimmick. By offering samples, City Market can get customers to eat more of what they sell. Similar marketing methods are employed everywhere; it seems anything food related is set up to encourage us to eat more, not less. Why? Turns out that there’s too much available food in the U.S. today. In Why Calories Count, Marion Nestle explains that rates of obesity sharply increased in the 1980’s as the result of changes in agricultural and economic polities that promoted greater food production. The result? The number of calories available in the U.S. food supply rose from 3,200 per capita per day in 1980 to 3,900 in 1990. The average adult needs only needs half of that amount, and kids much less (Nestle, 2012). With the proliferation of cheap, convenient foods in our society there’s no denying that the norms surrounding eating have shifted. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, today half the typical family’s food budget is for foods prepared and eaten outside of the home. I suddenly recalled all the times I’d mindlessly sampled food at the grocery store, eaten because food was in front of me, grabbed food on the go for convenience sake, or conversely, grabbed more food than I need just because it was available. The fact is, companies make money when we eat more, not less. It’s vital that we not let increasingly subtle marketing methods employed by food companies slip past our consciousness and into our bellies. We live in a society where 60% of adults are considered overweight and 1/3 obese. More than ever, we must critically think about our food choices and recognize that companies benefit from us getting larger. Ultimately, it is our choice whether or not we want to bear the brunt of overabundance within the food system.

Meat consumption and successful masculine performance

The other day I saw a young couple in their mid-20’s sit down at a table in the cafe of the co-op. I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation, “You need to eat more!” a guy proclaimed in a demanding, half-joking way. He glanced down at the girls plate and smiled.  She smiled back and while I couldn’t hear her response her tone sounded sarcastic. I leaned to my left to glance over at her plate; she had a salad stacked high with a variety of veggies, and a serving of vegetarian chili on the side. The guy didn’t have that much more food on his plate, however the food he did have was heavier and richer, and he was eating meat.

This was interesting to me because I had read an article titled ‘Metrosexuality Can Stuff It: Beef Consumption as (Heteromasculine) Fortification’ literally the day prior. In the article, the author points to social scientific research on food consumption that reveals that meat consumption plays a significant role in successful masculine performance.

I thought about the look on the guys face when he said “you need to eat more!” Did he really want her to eat more? According to Burke, where it may seem ‘‘un-ladylike’’ to eat much, consuming large quantities of food seems expected from men. In western culture, consuming animal flesh, especially beef, has a long association with traditional masculinity (Burke, 261). Furthermore, research indicates that men’s eating goes largely unnoticed, whereas women often feel the social norms for proper consumption weighing down upon them (Saukko; Scott;Spitzack). Thus, it’s easy for males to tell females to eat more for that’s how they’ve been conditioned to think. Perhaps the girls sarcastic response and the fact that she seemed to take the guys comment lightly, is an indication that she’s disregarding the guys comment for she recognizes that the social norms surrounding food are different for for women and men. I don’t mean to speculate, or overanalyze this small interaction, but there’s something to be said about the expected norms surrounding eating for women. It seems every magazine, TV show, and other media outlet is screaming ladies, eat less!

The problem I have with the social logic behind presenting meat as a masculine food of choice, is that it assumes that by consuming meat men gain strength, whereas vegetables and other non-meat products provide nothing to the body in the way of substance (Burke). This is deceiving and troublesome for several reasons. One reason being, women are healthier than men and thus outlive them. We’re a strong and resilient bunch, in part because of the food choices that we make.

Burke’s article continues to explain the history behind this social logic: the cultural tradition of saving meat for men grows from beliefs about meat’s effect on the body as emboldening and empowering. Associations between men and meat seen in social behavior research and cultural critiques solidify underlying notions that men naturally hold strength and power, while women merely stand by watching.

What do you think, is this perspective insightful? Does it offer you a more critical eye as to why you might make some of the food choices you do? At the end of the day, I find it fascinating to consider how all of this is a social construction, yet the extent to which it impacts our lives (and in many cases our health) is immense.

FN 3/5

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

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

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

Food as Medicine

I had a remarkable discovery the other day at City Market. It started when I spotted a lady in aisle 2 holding two different brands of coconut oil. Clearly, she was trying to decide which to purchase. As she asked for some assistance from a worker passing by, the two got to talking. From overhearing their conversation, I learned that coconut oil is stocked not only in aisle 2 with other products for ethnic foods, but also in the health & wellness department. I headed over to health & wellness, and sure enough coconut oil was there.

After the lady left, I went up to Sam (the employee helping the lady) and asked why it’s stocked in two different departments. He explained that coconut oil’s one of the most versatile products, for it can be used internally and topically, therefore it is a prominent feature in body care and a lot of ethnic cuisine. Sam said that City Market has it in a couple of locations to cater to the customers needs, “to give those folks looking to use it in food and those folks looking to use it on hair an easier time locating it”.

After talking to Sam, I learned that there’s really no difference in the coconut oil stocked in the wellness department and in the grocery department– both are organic and unrefined. This sparked a broader thought about food and how its function is socially constructed. Generally speaking, as a society we see our “food” as separate from our “medicine”. But is it really? Is it possible that Hippocrates was onto something when he said “let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine thy food”?

Does stocking the same food product in multiple departments remind people how versatile certain products can be? Or does it reaffirm the notion that our “food” should be separate from our “medicine”? What if grocery stores didn’t have a health & wellness department because everything sold genuinely contributed to our health and well-being? Which raises its own question: why are we selling things that aren’t good for us?

In City Market’s case, they sell a range of conventional products because they are the only grocery store downtown. Therefore, they have a contract with the city stating they’ll carry a certain number of conventional products to help out different types of people in town.

The coconut oil encounter led to a greater discovery that left me questioning how conventional medicine has gotten so far from the notion that food can treat and prevent many of our ailments. With more people on prescription medication due to increased diagnosis’ of chronic illnesses and serious diseases, our pharmaceutical industry is growing — meaning we’re actually getting sicker. At the same time, we have a food system that values highly processed, packaged, nutrient-deficient food that undoubtably contributes to overall poor health. There’s no question that as a society we could benefit from embracing the “food as medicine” philosophy, for it would inevitably place greater value on fresh, wholesome, nutrient rich foods. The question is, how do we do it? What kind of regulations, paradigm shits, etc. would need to occur?

FN 3/26

Old-fashioned Deception

This week, while observing at City Market, I decided to switch up my position from a stationary window seat in the cafe and instead, stroll through the aisles. It was 7:30am, the earliest I had ever been to City Market, and everyone was still waking up. People, myself included, moved slowly and I saw a couple yawns.

As I weaved in and out of the aisles, I was amazed by the number of boxed, bagged, bottled and canned products that lined the shelves. As my eyes adjusted, I suddenly noticed that while the color, shape and size of products was interesting, what fascinated me the most was the messaging on the labels. Perhaps it was my stomach speaking, but before I knew it I was in the cereal aisle, crouched over my cart, looking at different cereal options. A few seconds later I began to wonder, what are these labels telling the consumer?

As I moved from organic to conventional brands, the internal dialogue continued. Even at a healthy foods store such as City Market, the ales still contain highly processed products with extremely mis-leading and deceiving information on the labels. What’s more, is that if I weren’t an informed consumer, I would have no idea that some of these products are sounhealthy. This got me thinking about eating as a question of personal choice. How are we expected to choose healthy foods if the information on labels isn’t accurate and reliable?

As I stood in the cereal aisle puzzled, my eyes settled on a big blue label at the top of a Lucky Charms box. The label stated that Lucky Charms is ‘Whole Grain Guaranteed, a good source of Calcium and Vitamin D’, among other things. This made Lucky Charms appear to be relatively healthy. But is it really?

According to the Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI) General Mills uses whole grain claims to distract consumers from sugar content. The report states that the company markets all of its Big G cereals as containing “More Whole Grain Than Any Other Ingredient*” with an asterisk that takes you to the disclaimer  “*as compared to any other single ingredient”.

The PHIA report points you to General Mills’ web page about sugar where they compare plain Cheerios (1 gram of sugar per serving) to Trix (10 grams of sugar per serving ) then ask:

From a calorie and nutrient standpoint, are both products a good breakfast choice?

Yes, they are. In fact, all General Mills cereals are lower calorie, nutrient dense choices.

Just because both cereals are low-calorie and contain whole grains, doesn’t mean they are equally healthy or even healthy to begin with! Don’t forget that Trix has 9 g more sugar per serving than Cheerios, and both are highly processed. However, without taking a deeper look at the cereals ingredients you would never know this. The marketing scheme employed by General Mills’ fools consumers into thinking that Lucky Charms (and all other Big G cereals) are healthy by emphasizing whole grain content in order to distract attention away from sugar content.

Given that it’s not just General Mills using dishonest marketing gimmicks to boost profit, should manufacturers be required to put health warnings on product labels? Imagine if instead of boasting whole grain content, the General Mills’ blue label stated that agricultural chemicals were used. Would this turn consumers off from buying it? Or perhaps nutrition labels belong on the front of food packages? Whatever it is, measures needs to be taken to ensure that food labels provide a more accurate reflection of the product and its health implications.

FN 2/20

Family Food Connection

It was 5:35pm today and City Market was packed. I’m sitting at a table in the cafe, taking notes, when I glance out the window and notice a woman jogging hastily across the parking lot toward the entrance of co-op with her son in tow, who looked to be four or five years old. About 10 minutes passed when I noticed the two at the checkout line.

The mom looked rushed as she unpacked different snacks, fruit, ice cream, paper plates, juice, utensils and wait– birthday candles! Immediately, I realized what was going on: she was preparing for someone’s birthday dinner or party!

Although I observed other things during my time at the co-op, I couldn’t’ stop thinking about the mom and her son even after they left City Market. I wonder what kind of cake they’re getting, I thought to myself. Seeing the mom and her son got me thinking about the close tie between food and family. My whole life, food has been an essential element to any birthday, holiday, family gathering, anniversary, party, graduation, baby shower and sad to say, but funeral. No matter what’s going on if family’s there, food is there. My Bubbie’s latkis, my cousins famous mac & cheese, and my aunt’s sweet potatoes are all nurturing treats, a part of my family’s traditions, and a great contributor to my food happiness.

In a sense, the woman at City Market was kind of comforting and reminded me of my own family preparing for birthdays, special occasions, etc.. Things are always a bit rushed and frazzled during the preparation stages (shopping, cooking), but once we sit down to eat and enjoy each other’s company we realize that it’s well worth the time and energy. There is something very special, warming and magical about eating and sharing food with family that simply can’t be found elsewhere.

FN 2/27