I apologize in advance. This post will probably come out a bit on the rambling side. I’m currently reading Slow Food Nation by Carlo Petrini. I was reading the book when I was at Camros last Friday and the cover caught the eye of another customer, a woman who turned to me as I was leaving and half jokingly said “you need a slow life to be able to eat slow food.” All I was able to say then was “not really.” I could also have said, “but you are having slow food right now”. I could have tried to define it better. I could have blurted out what Petrini means by slow food – food that is good (healthful and delicious), clean (produced in sustainable ways), and fair (for both consumers and producers). In other words, rediscovering real food. But the comment got me thinking of a common misconception about food. That cooking and eating better food is somehow restricted to those who have time and money. Depending of the context, this assessment is not completely off the mark. In Food Inc, Robert Kenner follows a working class latino family in the US that has to rely on fast food of the worst quality to be able to make do with the little they have. We follow them into a grocery store where one of the children is denied a request for fruits because they cost too much. They buy soft drinks instead. None of it is done out of ignorance. The father is ill with diabetes, the mother knows that their diet might have been the cause but she feels powerless to change. They feel that fresh fruits and home cooked meals are out of their reach. Sensitive to the plight of families like that, victims of the large subsidies that benefit the fast food industry, some organizations began to call for the creation of urban vegetable gardens in particularly vulnerable neighbourhoods. I’ve recently heard of one such group in California that will plant a vegetable garden in someone’s backyard, providing all the tools and training in the first year for a family to grow their own vegetables. They start out with vegetables that are easy to grow and need little care and eventually the family becomes responsible for the garden.
But although there are many issues regarding access of real food in North America and increasingly in other parts of the industrialized world, most of the people I hear making the argument that they have neither time nor money to be able to eat better are middle class, often young professionals. People like the woman at Camros. And before I go on a rant on how it isn’t true, that I can do it on my student income, and that I have no time either, and that most of the meals I make are made from scratch in less the half an hour, I just wanted to reflect on what statements such as “you need a slow life to eat slow food” can tell us about how far we have come from our roots.
One of the saddest effects of the popularization of fast food and the aggressive marketing of industrialized food as more convenient is how quickly the average person has lost touch with real food – i.e. the whole ingredients that make any food culture – but also the basic skills to transform those whole ingredients into a meal. Despite the recent success of cooking shows, making a meal from scratch is now considered a feat reserved to particularly talented individuals. That’s sad. Particularly when cooking simple meals can be a lifesaver, particularly among those who have to eat on a budget. Yes, because bulk food such as rice, beans, cornmeal, seasonal fruits and vegetables as well as other grains and legumes, are not the staples around the world for no reason – no only are they healthful but also cheap. Processed food is “value-added food”, i.e. not as cheap as it may seem. For the price of a McDonald’s meal – and also the time that it would take us to walk out, order, sit, and eat the meal – I can make enough rice with lentils to feed Alan and I for at least 2 meals, possibly more. That’s why I find programs like The Edible Schoolyard so important. It teaches kids life-saving skills. Being able to not only grow your own food if need be but also how to use simple ingredients to feed yourself is a crucial skill. It will mean that they won’t have to choose food that they know is making their families sick just because they can’t see another option.
On the relationship between hunger & obesity, see this article from the NYT from today, March 15th.