KAT's blog

Weekend Upbraid

I've never been a connoisseur of cannibis--or any other drug, for that matter--but, seriously, Kellogg's decision to drop Michael Phelps on the grounds that his pot smoking sets a bad example is just pathetic. As role models go, Tony The Tiger may well be a far more insidious influence than Michael Phelps. After all, he's peddling a sugary breakfast cereal made from genetically modified corn and high fructose corn syrup--exactly the kind of junky processed convenience food that's helping to erode the life expectancy of our kids.

So three cheers to Seth Meyers for skewering Kellogg's on SNL's Weekend Update on Saturday. Watch the video and have a laugh. And then stop to ask yourself why Phelp's sponsors didn't get similarly worked up over his arrest for drunk driving back in 2004. As Bruce Mirkin noted over on Alternet, "if Phelps had been photographed hoisting a Budweiser, no one would have said a word." Isn't it high time we put an end to this double standard? And let's stop sugar-coating the toll that frosted flakes is taking on our youth, while we're at it.

The Bitter Taste of "Lemon Socialism": Let Them Eat Crap

Image from eatmedaily.com

The "Chewable Pampers" commercial on Saturday Night Live last weekend was pretty hilarious, turning brown to green with an eco-friendly edible diaper that comes in three different flavors: "tangy cheddar, spicy lentil, and corn chowder." Gag me with a biodegradable bamboo spoon.

OK, so it was funny--but how farfetched, really? Thanks to our tanking economy, folks are eating crap en masse. Who knew that a pyramid scheme would generate its own food pyramid? Frank Rich took a peek at the ponzi'd-out pantry in his Sunday op-ed in the New York Times:

What are Americans still buying? Big Macs, Campbell’s soup, Hershey’s chocolate and Spam — the four food groups of the apocalypse.

So, we're responding to a bankrupt economy by turning to nutritionally bankrupt foods. George Will cited this phenomenon as an example of capitalism at its finest when he was on ABC's This Week last week. As Jed L noted over on Daily Kos:

George Will argues that the rising consumption of cheap fast food during the Bush Recession shows the market works, saying the boost in quarterly profits at McDonald’s is a perfect example of "the market sorting this out."

Oh, really? Given that Agribiz is a major corporate welfare queen, the resurgence of cheap convenience foods hardly constitutes a victory for free market principles. Our schizoid USDA perpetually lectures us to eat more fruits and vegetables even as its agricultural policies ensure that fresh, wholesome, unprocessed produce will continue to be a luxury item for affluent urbanites with the means to shop at farmers markets and Whole Foods. The rest of us can eat shit, to put it bluntly.

This warped Western diet is killing us on a scale that our enemies in the Middle East can only dream of. You hear a lot about diabetes and obesity these days, but a diet deficient in nutritious foods is also a major factor in nearly half of all cancers. Our fondness for salty convenience foods also leads to high blood pressure and heart attacks, which is why New York City recently launched a campaign to persuade the food industry to lower sodium levels by 50 percent over the next decade. Such a measure could save 150,000 American lives a year, according to NYC health commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden.

In the meantime, we, the people, will continue to foot the bill for this food system that's poisoning us, just as we are paying for the bungled bailout and an unjust, unnecessary war. Did I say war? Make that wars, plural. Because, in addition to the War on Terror, we're waging the catastrophically wrongheaded War on Drugs.

Our celebrity-besotted media's too busy tarnishing Olympic swim star Michael Phelps over his golden boy-with-bong photo-op to focus on the faceless fatcats who are doing infinitely more to undermine our way of life than an athlete blowing off steam--or sucking up smoke. Does it really make fiscal--or moral--sense to persecute pot smokers and squander billions to incarcerate marijuana merchants while the robber barons of Wall Street remain free to fleece us all?

What would founding father (and hemp grower) Thomas Jefferson make of the fact that we now have more prisoners than farmers? The US has the highest rate of incarceration in the western world. What a collosal waste of human capital, as well as tax payer dollars. Why not fund a program to convert all those renegade hydroponics experts to "aquaponics," the brilliant marriage of fish farming and greens growing perfected by MacArthur genius Will Allen at Milwaukee's Growing Power?

But wingnuts would rather invest in misguided, unwinnable wars than fund frivolous things like health care, education and infrastructure. You know, porky kinda stuff like healthy school lunches for our kids, say, or high speed rail, or rebates on renewable energy. Anyone remember Dubya dissing Al Gore's proposed tax credit for solar panels in the 2000 presidential debates? He could barely conceal his disdain, spitting out the word "pho-to-vol-taic" with the same scorn that "real Americans" Sarah Palin and Rudy Guiliani heaped on community organizers in our last election.

Barney Frank called out Senator Jim DeMint and his Republican colleagues on their demented priorities last Sunday on This Week when DeMint started carping about how President Obama's stimulus plan relied too heavily on spending--as opposed to those conservative cure-alls, tax cuts and a blank check for the military-industrial complex:

...And I don’t understand why, from some of my conservative friends, building a road, building a school, helping somebody get health care-- that’s wasteful spending, but that war in Iraq, which is going to cost us over $1 trillion before we’re through -- yes, I wish we hadn’t have done that. We’d have been in a lot better shape fiscally...

...That’s the problem. The problem is that we look at spending and say, “Oh, don’t spend on highways. Don’t spend on health care. But let’s build Cold War weapons to defeat the Soviet Union when we don’t need them. Let’s have hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars going to the military without a check.”

What we have here isn't really capitalism at all; it's what Paul Krugman aptly titles "lemon socialism," a form of government in which corporations and their CEOs make out like bandits on the basis of corrupt business practices while the rest of us pick up the tab for their toxic mortgages and toxic food.

Our bridges and roads are crumbling, our students are stumbling, our Wall Street wizards and the Beltway brigade are fumbling. But it's scary muslims and scummy socialists who purportedly pose the greatest threat to America, according to Rush Limbaugh, that "corpulent oxycontin aficionado" and climate change naysayer who is famously praying for our new president to fail.

In fact, it's our dependence on fast food and fossil fuels--aided and abetted by the idiotic ideology of Limbaugh and his ilk--that truly jeopardizes America's future.

FDA=Failure to Do Anything

Image: star city harbinger

"Food scares have become as common as Midwestern tornadoes," the New York Times notes in yet another article about the salmonella-tainted peanut butter scandal, which has been competing in recent days with the mercury-tainted high fructose corn syrup scandal, which may have distracted you from the bisphenol A-in-our-bodies scandal, which may soon be surpassed by the phthalates-in-our-bodies scandal...oh, nevermind.

Our chronically overworked and underfunded FDA hasn't got the means--or the inclination--to protect consumers from the monstrous machinations of that tri-headed hydra, Big Ag/Big Food/Big Pharma. As the New York Times recently reported, the FDA routinely ignores its own rules regarding the "financial conflicts of doctors who conduct clinical trials of drugs and medical devices in human subjects," because "collecting and checking this information before the trials was not worth the effort for either the companies or the agency."

Not worth the effort. Just as it evidently was not worth the effort to act on the mercury in HFCS, or to follow up after learning all the way back in April that Peanut Corp. of America was attempting to ship contaminated peanuts (hat tip to Bill Marler.) Oh, and what about the even more toxic methylmercury that our coal-fired power plants spew, which also finds its way into our food chain via fish, among other sources? "Clean coal" may or may not be an oxymoron, but in any case, it doesn't exist yet; in the meantime, as Treehugger notes, coal-fired power plants "are the largest industrial source of mercury pollution in the country."

We are being systematically poisoned thanks to a profound apathy--or, more accurately, hostility--towards regulation and oversight that extends well beyond the FDA. Robyn O'Brien, a food activist who will soon be to Monsanto what Erin Brockovich was to PG & E when Random House publishes her book The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food is Making us Sick -- And What We Can Do About It in May, noted the parallels between our current financial meltdown and our endless food safety fiascos in her HuffPo post, Duped: A Nation of Eaters.

But the collusion between Wall Street, K Street and our governmental agencies doesn't end with the FDA or the SEC. Don't forget the EPA, which has repeatedly failed to protect us as well--most recently, and drastically, in the case of the Tennessee coal fly ash catastrophe. The EPA doesn't even bother to regulate coal ash as a hazardous substance, despite plenty of evidence that it contains significant amounts of toxins. In fact, the EPA even allowed fly ash to be used to contour a golf course in Virginia, with predictable results, according to the New York Times:

In Chesapeake, Va., high levels of lead, arsenic and other contaminants were found last year in the groundwater beneath a golf course sculptured with 1.5 million tons of fly ash, the same type of coal ash involved in the Tennessee spill. The golf course opened in 2007.

The Bush administration presided over--and fostered--the wholesale abdication on the part of these agencies of their duty to protect us. President Obama is promising to "re-regulate" Wall Street, and, as the New York Times reports, vowed that "when I am president, it will not be business as usual when it comes to food safety. I will provide additional resources to hire more federal food inspectors.” He's also restoring science to its rightful place at the EPA after 8 years of the agency's being hijacked by climate change deniers and creationists.

Here's hoping that under Obama, the FDA will stand for Finally Daring to Act. Because I'm sick of writing about all these food scares, just as you all are sick of reading about them.

How Obama Cheats on Eats at Meet 'n' Greets

Given that a politician's life is an endless series of food-filled photo-ops and dinners with dignitaries, how on earth does our newly minted president stay so slender? The Washington Post's Kim O'Donnel discussed this phenomenon the other day in a terrific interview with Eddie Gehman Kohan, founder of the superb Obama Foodorama. As Kohan observed:

...the fact that he's a slim fellow who is perpetually photographed eating, and that he holds many meetings over meals, speaks to the secret fantasy that's promoted by the billion-dollar US diet industry: You *can* eat a lot, and still stay slender. That's a false assumption, but very compelling.

Well, thanks to a report on last Friday's ABC World News, we now know that Obama's secret weapon in the war on love handles is Reggie Love, an aide who follows Obama everywhere and shields him from incoming pastries and other snack attacks:

Love watches Obama's back -- and his waistline. He frequently intercepted brownies from the president while on the campaign trail.

Watch the video above to see Obama surreptitiously pass a fat bomb off to Love when no one's looking. Here's to having a president who won't pack on the pounds--or his cabinet--with Brownies, be they home-baked, or half-baked.

Let's Ask Marion: What's Your Take On The Salmonella Outbreak?

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

Kat: It's like deja "ew" all over again. As the salmonella-tainted peanut butter outbreak continues to spread (no pun intended), more than 125 products have been recalled, and the list grows longer everyday, including everything from dog biscuits to ice cream to energy bars. Hundreds of people have been sickened and at least six people are suspected to have died from this latest lapse in our fractured food chain.

We now know that the source of the salmonella is peanut paste from a processing plant in Georgia, owned by Peanut Corp. of America. You linked to a helpful Scientific American article the other day which explains that the contamination most likely occurred after the peanuts were roasted, since salmonella can't survive high temperatures. This would seem to implicate the factory. But the company, which sources its peanuts from both domestic and foreign farmers, buys some that are already roasted, according to the LA Times.

As the Scientific American article notes, the most likely source of salmonella is animal feces. Inspectors investigating the outbreak at the Georgia plant found a second strain of salmonella on the premises in addition to the one implicated in the illnesses. This is not reassuring. Scientific American reports that "there are some 40,000 cases of salmonella infection each year; about 600 of them are fatal." Is it too much to ask that our foods not come in to contact with bird droppings or rodent excrement or whatever other forms of fecal matter seem to be floating around in our food processing factories?

Dr. Nestle: No, it is not too much to ask. It’s not rocket science to produce safe food. All it takes is a food safety plan, one that is planned intelligently, followed diligently, and monitored carefully. Pillsbury designed a prototype for NASA to make sure that astronauts did not get food poisoning in outer space (upset stomachs and diarrhea under conditions of zero gravity? I don’t think so). They called the prototype HACCP, standing for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point with Pathogen Reduction, a mouthful.

It’s too bad that the name is so off-putting. All it means is that you look for places where contamination can occur in the production process, take steps to prevent that from happening, check to make sure the steps were followed, and test to make sure they system is working the way it is supposed to. If it works in outer space, which it definitely does, it ought to work on earth, no?

So my first take on the peanut butter situation is that the company either wasn’t following a HACCP plan, or its plan was deeply flawed, or nobody was checking. Any of these is inexcusable. What is so distressing about this situation is that it is a dead-on repeat of the pet foods recalls of 2007. I thought they were such a warning of what would happen if we didn’t fix our food safety system, that I wrote Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine to make that point.

The same thing happened with peanut butter: one company makes a generic product (or uses generic ingredients) that get shipped out and sold under dozens of brand names. The company is vague about where its ingredients come from and doesn’t always know where they go. The result is sick cats, dogs, or people in practically every state with maybe a few other countries tossed in.

And then melamine, the toxin in pet food, turned up in Chinese infant formula and made nearly 300,000 Chinese babies sick. This week, the Chinese courts dealt with two of the managers of the company that produced the melamine-tainted infant formula. It sentenced them to death. The Chinese government is taking food safety seriously.

We tend to be more casual about food safety problems, which is why we do not have a food safety system that covers all foods from farm to table. We have had plenty of warning that we need a more comprehensive system: spinach in 2006, pet food in 2007, tomatoes or peppers in 2008, and now peanut butter. How many people will it take to get sick or die before Congress requires HACCP for all foods? I just want Congress to do something about this before even more harm is done.

In the meantime, commercial jars of peanut butter are supposed to be OK, but one member of Congress (Rosa deLauro, Dem-CT) is asking the FDA to do a complete recall of all peanut butter until it can be shown to be safe. Oh well, you can always grind your own.

Slow Food For Fast People, An Interview With Amanda West

Guest Blogger Eve Fox of Garden of Eating kindly shared her interview with healthy fast food pioneer Amanda West:

Fast food is the ultimate American invention--quick, cheap meals for people on the go. But we pay a heavy price for our national addiction--an epidemic of obesity, the destruction of our fragile environment, and the loss of community ties that could be maintained by taking the time to prepare and eat food together.

Despite these negatives, the need for quick, affordable food is undeniable in today's world. But why on earth are McDonalds and its competitors our only options? Every single time I get hungry on the road, in an airport, or at a shopping mall I wish that someone would hurry up and open a healthy fast food restaurant!

Turns out the wait is finally over--Amanda's Feel Good Fresh Food restaurant opened its doors for business in Berkeley at the end of July 2008.

Amanda's Sign

The restaurant happens to be located right downstairs from my office so I was among the first to check it out (you may remember seeing my review this summer.) I'm happy to report that Amanda's is pretty much exactly what I'd been wishing for--the food is healthy (they have the nutrition guidelines to prove it, too), tasty, and affordable (a cheeseburger made with naturally raised beef and organic cheese is $4.50, baked sweet potato fries are $1.50, and a freshly made agave-sweetened soda is $1.75.)

Amanda's also goes out of its way to reduce its impact on the environment. For example, they don't sell bottled water since it creates too much landfill waste and takes a lot of petroleum to transport. Everything served in the restaurant is also fully compostable so any "trash" left over at the end of your meal can be deposited in one of the restaurant's green bins that feed directly into Amanda!Berkeley's city composting program where it will become rich soil for local farms and city landscaping projects in a matter of months. The restaurant also tries to foster a sense of community with a series of events in the restaurant and around the neighborhood. The future of fast food has never looked so green, nor so healthy!

Amanda is often behind the counter in the restaurant, filling orders alongside her team (the handwritten "Amanda" on her wooden nametag was the only thing that tipped me off.) I was curious to know more about how she'd gone about making her idea a reality and what her plans were for the future of the restaurant, so I introduced myself. She was kind enough to meet with me and answer my questions late last week.

Can U Dig It?

Finally--a president who dares to demand better of us. From our new president's inaugural speech today:

...That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet...

...as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

As the righteous Reverend Billy would say, "Change-a-lujah!"

Blaze A "Sun Food" Trail To The Inauguration

Electric cars and high speed rail top the wish lists of many a progressive, but for now, those lucky few who'll be hitting the road this weekend to head to DC for the inauguration must still rely on our tired old trinity of transit: trains, planes, and automobiles.

Drivers will be making pit stops all along the way to fuel up on petroleum-based products--oh, and also to get some gas. The pit stops I'm talking about are those roadside eateries where plates are piled high with a corn-ucopia of commodity crop-based crap: grain-fed factory farmed flesh deep fried in genetically modified soybean oil, with a side of fries. Top it off with a quart of high fructose corn syrup-sweetened soda and drink a toast to Big Ag!

Sure, gas is the only game in town to keep your engine running, but when it comes to recharging your own batteries, you can switch to solar power right now. How? By getting your calories from local, sustainably produced, predominantly plant-based foods instead of the meat-mad-schlepped-from-god-knows-where-fossil-fueled-fare served up at your standard diner.

Oh, yeah, like finding fresh-from-the-farm food on the road is so easy? Well, actually, it's a whole lot easier than it used to be, thanks to an online resource called the Eat Well Guide. Whether you're heading out from the heartland--or the bi-coastal "arugula belt"--the EWG's interactive mapping tool, Eat Well Everywhere, lets you print out your own ready-to-roll, customized "eat-inerary" with directions to the shops, co-ops, restaurants, farmers markets and even B & B's along your route that feature locally grown fruits, veggies, pastured animal products and all the other good stuff you can't find at conventional roadside restaurants.

The election may be over, but we still get to vote three times a day for a more humane and sustainable food chain. So all you progressive foodies who are flocking to DC to give Obama an earful on Vilsack and victory gardens, put your money where your mouth is-- fuel up on foods brought to you through the miracle of photosynthesis, and save the fossil fuels for your gas tank.

Everything But The Kitchen Shrink

I can see the logic of choosing Sanjay Gupta for surgeon general. The job, after all, pretty much entails doing the kind of thing he already does every week on House Call: exhorting America to stop smoking, eat right, and get more exercise. It's not rocket science, and it doesn't take a brain surgeon, either--though Gupta happens to be one.

But if we're going to have a celebrity doctor for surgeon general, I would have preferred good living guru Dr. Andrew Weil. He strikes me as a physician who's more into small farms than Big Pharma--after all, he's got a 2,500 square foot organic garden at his home in Arizona. As an undergrad botany major at Harvard, he wrote his thesis on the narcotic properties of nutmeg. Weil's said to be a big believer in the power of medicines derived from natural plants over patented, high-profit pharmaceutical creations.

Plus, he's got that beaming, bearded Buddha kind of demeanor--much more soothing than the eternally wired Sanjay. Weil would be like a new-agey C. Everett Koop.

He doesn't have a chance, of course, because he falls into a demographic that's already over represented amongst political appointees: old white guys. His history of dabbling with drugs might be a problem, too, come to think of it.

That's too bad, because Dr. Weil has a lot of great advice on how to live a healthier, happier, less stressful life. One of my favorite tips from Dr. Weil is his suggestion that we could all benefit from going on an occasional "news fast." According to Dr. Weil, "research has shown that the emotional content of television news can affect mood and aggravate sadness and depression. Addictive watching of news programs can also promote a negative view of life."

Tell me about it. As a blogger and incorrigible media junkie, I find the idea of tuning it all out for a spell utterly alluring and yet totally undoable. I've been bogged down with non-blog obligations in recent months, and it's kept me from posting as much as I would like to. But no matter how busy I am, nothing can stop me from getting Googlemired and sinking into all kinds of scintillating links. Not to mention all the great new websites that keep popping up to pull me in.

Let's start with Civil Eats, the newly revamped website originally launched to help promote Slow Food Nation last summer. It's got a whole new look and a great roster of regulars, and I consider it a must-read along with the Ethicurean and the Eat Well Guide's Green Fork.

Then there's Change.Org's brand new Sustainable Food site, which gives veteran blogger and fellow Kossack Natasha Chart a well-deserved forum in which to share her incisive posts and air her ag-gravations. Natasha's one of the smartest people I know and can actually explain the concept of carbon sequestration in a way that doesn't make you sleepy.

Another must-see site is the Ethicurean's new favorite blog, the excellent Obama Foodorama. Presumably they'll be weighing in any second now on Ben and Jerry's latest flavor, "Yes, Pecan--An Inspirational Blend! Amber Waves of Buttery Ice Cream With Roasted Non-Partisan Pecans!." And though it's not new, I just learned via WNYC's Leonard Lopate show about Jonathan Bloom's terrific site devoted to the fascinating and appalling topic of food waste, wastedfood.com.

But wait, there's more! This one's been around for a few months, but was also new to me--a blog by an organization called the Center For A Livable Future. Lots of good stuff there, too.

Some other goodies you may have missed:

An eerie flow chart documenting the spread of Wal-Mart, looking like a noxious, creepy green pox.

A wet 'n' wonky keynote address that Rachel Maddow gave on December 3rd at the Fall Conference of the Association of California Water Agencies in Long Beach, California. Turns out Rachel's dad is a prominent water attorney in the Bay Area and she has a lifelong fascination with water conservation. Who knew? Maddow was her usual adorably self-effacing, down-to-earth, wry self on the Daily Show last Wednesday, and I have been a fan going back to her days on Air America, but her speech calling for a commitment to invest in our water infrastructure endeared her to me even more, if that's possible. (hat tip to wideye at dKos.)

Dan Imhoff, who pulled off the astonishing feat of writing a book about the farm bill that's fun to look at and easy to read, Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill, had a great post on HuffPo the other day giving an overview of the kind of sea-change all us sustainable ag types are longing to see from the new administration.

Tom Philpott of Grist's been on a roll, too, with his proposal for a stimulus plan that includes a revamped food system, as well as his excellent rebuttal of a bone-headed op-ed by George McGovern and Marshall Matz, who, alas, is Obama's chief adviser on all things ag.

Mario Batali posted an exuberant, eloquent tribute to his 10th grade literature teacher on HuffPo that explains, in part, where his own passion for learning stems from.

What's next, Bono pontificating on the op-ed page of the New York Times? We'll have to wait till next Sunday for that.

In the meantime, we've got the excruciating spectacle of Joe the Plumber "pronunciating" from Israel for Pajamas Media.

If you've made it this far, and you're still awake, here's a bonus, related neither to food nor to politics--a sleepy bear from a website whose name is self-explanatory: cutethingsfallingasleep.org.

Let's Ask Marion: Is Our Diet Dickensian?

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

Kat: The New York Times published a story the other day about a study that claims Charles Dickens exaggerated the extent of hunger in Victorian workhouses in Oliver Twist. The study, conducted by a group of British researchers including two dietitians, a pediatrician and a historian, concluded that a real-life Oliver Twist would not have been forced to subsist on meager rations of watery gruel, as depicted by Dickens, but was more likely to receive "modest servings of bread, potatoes, meat and cheese...with a balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates that at least approximates today’s recommended intake."

You wrote a letter to the editor saying, in part:

Workhouse diets of bread, potatoes, meat and cheese were hardly optimal. Without fruit and vegetables other than potatoes, the diets lacked vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber, if not calories. That is why they caused poor children in Dickens’s time, as well as now, to display overt signs of nutrient deficiencies along with stunting, wasting and greater susceptibility to infectious diseases.

What struck me about this story--aside from the question of why anyone would want to downplay the misery inflicted by these institutions--was that it also describes the mainstays of the average American diet, regardless of class: pizza, cheeseburgers, french fries, potato chips, sandwiches filled with cold cuts, and so on. The difference, of course, is that we eat these foods in much greater quantities, and wash them down with soda--an indulgence that Victorian workhouses presumably did not grant their down-and-out denizens.

If it was bad for the Oliver Twists of the world, how can a steady diet of bread, potatoes, meat and cheese be any better for the rest of us? Should we be saying "Please, sir, I want less?"

Dr. Nestle: The mere thought of a Twist-like diet is enough to induce a catatonic depression. For one thing, the colors! White or brown. The only thing missing is sugar, which was too expensive for the likes of Olvier Twist and his unhappy companions. Given enough of such foods, calories should be no problem. On the other hand, we might get so bored that we wouldn’t eat much—“The Boredom Diet.”

As we nutritionists are always saying, healthful diets are about variety, balance, and moderation. Poorhouses did moderation really, really well, which is why those kids were so hungry all the time. But balance and variety? Not a chance. Those are nutrition-speak for eating more—much more—fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The healthiest diets are based on food plants, with everything else as extras. The Oliver Twists were vitamin deficient, caught every illness in sight, and didn’t survive for long. I’m greatly in favor of eating less, but not in that situation.

But you are really asking about us now, not them then. You want to know how fast foods became the icons of American foodways instead of something healthier. Well, some fast foods do depend on New World staples: potatoes (chips, fries), tomatoes (pizza sauce), and corn (soda sweeteners). Food Studies scholars would tell you that American meals based on meat and potatoes at the center of the plate derive from the original Northern European settlers.

Eventually, regional differences developed but there still isn’t anything that you might describe as a typically American cuisine—other than fast food. Meat has always been the food that poor people flock to the minute they get some money, as shown so compellingly in Peter Menzel and Faith d’Aluisio’s book Hungry Planet. For immigrants to the U.S., vegetables were lower class. Meat is what counts. So your question has class implications. And we Americans never like dealing with those kinds of issues.

Syndicate content