A sure sign of a food system that needs help

This weekend, as I was reading up on gardening in Indiana while my boyfriend watched a football game, I caught a commercial on television for Pepsi Throwback edition, advertising that the product was “made with real sugar.” The first thing that came to mind at this commercial was not shock at the fact that regular Pepsi isn’t already made with real sugar; I am well aware of all the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that goes into our soft drinks. Instead, I was floored by the fact that the company was marketing something made with real sugar as a novelty item.

When foods made with real sugar, a natural product, are advertised as innovative, is this not a sure sign of a food system in trouble? A backwards system where foods made with the chemical, the man-made are normal, and those foods made with “the real thing” are out of the ordinary? Has our world really come to a place where foods that are “natural” or “real” are mere novelties? If so, we have all but finally reached the world of Sci Fi, where food has been reduced to a tiny, man-made, chemical-based pill, and real foods, like vegetables, roast beef, seafood, or, gasp, sugar are considered quaint and outdated.

When did we start eating a diet composed largely of man-made, highly processed and refined “food products” instead of real, live food? I cannot help but read the Pepsi commercial as Exhibit A in the case for food system reform.

Maybe the commercial struck such a cord with me because I had just finished reading Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry‘s Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, which eloquently makes the case for a return to real, sustainable foods: to fresh, organic, locally-sourced produce, meats, and dairy products. Lappe and Terry outline the problems with our current food production system, and, although their complaints are not new – in fact, the organic, sustainable, local, hippie (whatever) community has been making the case for food reform for at least two decades – their book is a succinct and accurate assessment of the problems with modern industrial agriculture and of potential actions we can all make to take back control of our food.

In circles of environmentalists and sustainabilists (of which I count myself a member), it has nearly become common knowledge that modern means of food production – industrial-scale vegetable and grain farming using a plethora of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and other fossil-fuel based inputs, factory farming of animals for mass consumption of (too much) meat, high processing and use of additives and preservatives in conventional “food products,” and the transport of all of these food items thousands of miles to their destination on our supermarket shelves – are unhealthy for both humans and the environment. Writers such as Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, Jonathan Safran Foer, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, and others have popularized the problems with the way we produce and consume food in this country. Even the new Obama White House has begun an attempt to spread a message about the importance of eating locally and sustainably through the creation of a new organic garden on the Lawn.

So, if the ailments of our food system have become such a widespread topic of conversation, why is nothing substantive being done to change things? Part of the problem is clearly the downturn of the economy and insurance and real estate market busts that have distracted our national attention from the real problems with our government and economy, such as the issues facing a society reliant on cheap fossil fuels, and lack of access to affordable health care, meaningful education, and healthy, sustainable food. Grub authors Lappe and Bryant argue that in order to spur change in our food system at the national level, we need to start “voting with our pocketbook,” or so the phrase goes. We can start changing what our food system looks like (and what our waistlines look like, too) by buying only sustainable food options – less fast food and processed junk food, and more organic produce and whole grains. Though most people immediately assume organic food is more expensive than conventionally farmed and produced options, Lappe and Bryant show that if you buy whole organic, local, sustainable ingredients and cook more from scratch instead of buying processed, quick-fix foods, a sustainable diet can actually save you money. You can also grow your own food, no matter where you live, from just a few seeds and soil, for not only huge savings but also the assurance that you know where your food comes from and where it’s been.

This last point is the reason I was looking at gardening books this weekend. While my boyfriend, Paul, and I live in a city apartment, we have a small, west-facing balcony on which I plan to grow as many of our own vegetables as possible this summer. I am in the process of planning a substantial container garden to grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, salad greens, peas, beans and kale this spring, summer and fall. Living in south-central Indiana, our growing season consists of more than 175 days of frost-free weather, which I can extend even further by planting frost-tolerant kale in the early spring and late fall. Though I am a novice gardener and this first season may not produce as much as I would like, I am hoping to produce at least some produce for Paul and I to enjoy through the summer and fall, to help us live healthier and more sustainably.

There are many things we can do individually to change the way we think about food; growing your own is only one of many things to do. You can purchase food directly from farmers at your local farmers market, ask your grocery store to carry more local, sustainable, organic or fair-trade products, eat less (factory-farmed) meat, start tracking the “food miles” traveled of certain items in your diet and try to cut back on fossil-fuel intensive products, and more. If more people adopt a sustainable diet, the entire food system will begin to be more sustainable. Maybe then we’ll stop seeing commercials advertising products made with the real thing – “real sugar” – as a novelty, and eating “real food” will once again become the norm.

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