This week, the New York Times ran an article highlighting the hypocrisy of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA): While warning about the dangers of saturated fat, the USDA is actually working to encourage Americans to eat more cheese. Cheese is extremely high in saturated fat and there very are few people in this country that ought to be consuming more of it. I’m sure the UDSA’s promotion of cheese would surprise many, as it is a common misconception that the USDA is tasked with overseeing the nutritional health and well-being of the populace. In fact, the USDA’s mission is to promote the interests of US agriculture – in other words, the beef industry, the chicken industry, and of course, the dairy industry.
In the past few years, I have become something of a food vigilante. I’m not a religious person, but I imagine if I were, Michael Pollan would be my prophet. My diet consists primarily of produce shipped to my house each week by a local farm, unrefined grains (such as quinoa), and some meat. My grocery bill is surely higher than the average American’s, but I’m okay with that. As a percent of income, my food spend is still standard deviations below that of my grandparents (thanks, of course, to farming subsidies and the explosion of Big Food). In fact, not only am I okay with paying more for my food, I actually want to pay more. I don’t want to eat “food” that is cheaper to purchase than it is to produce; I don’t want to support a system that is incented toward cheaper and faster. I want food that is just that – food, natural and pure. Call me a self-important elitist (you wouldn’t be the first), but every time I see a coupon site dedicated to helping people save money on already dirt-cheap processed “food,” my soul dies a little. In 1950, the average American spent 20.6% of their income on food. In 2004, that number was 9.5%. Most of us can afford real food if we make it a priority.
I work full time, but I try to cook dinner most nights. It is important that my son see me cook, that he sees ingredients in their whole form. He knows that food comes from the ground, from animals, and not from a supermarket or a factory. I want him to know what he is consuming simply by looking at it, not by reading a label. I want him to eat what his body tells him it needs, not what a commercial suggests. As I mentioned before, we get our fruits and vegetables delivered from a local farm. We augment our produce with regular trips to the farmers’ market, where we purchase wild salmon right from the fishermen.
Processed food has its place. Advances in agriculture have given us a calorie surplus; while we may not be eating as healthily as a nation, hunger and starvation are no longer problems for us. Processed foods should be consumed sparingly, however. They should not be used as an excuse for not cooking or as a way to save a few dollars. Sadly, though, I don’t think this situation will change for most Americans unless there is strong government action to reduce corn subsidies and to turn the USDA into an advocate for us, not for Big Food.