Marie Claire's Green Diet Misses The Big Picture

Billed as "a healthy, eco-friendly action plan suitable for every budget and commitment level," reading through "The Girl's Guide to Eating Green" made me realize how much the conversation about sustainable food and living stalls at the same points.

Now, my criticism isn't with the Marie Claire piece itself. The ideas presented in the Guide are sound ones, some rehashing familiar territory if you have been paying attention to the food debates:

No need to ditch your favorite grocery store. About 75 percent of American supermarkets carry some organic food, and many of the big chains boast their own affordable organic brands (e.g., Safeway's O Organics, Stop & Shop's Nature's Promise). Stick to the periphery of the store-the most heavily processed foods are shelved in the middle. Imagine you're trolling the aisles with your great-grandma in tow, suggests sustainable-eating guru Michael Pollan in his book In Defense of Food (required reading for the au naturel set). If she wouldn't recognize something as food-read: Gummi Bears or Cap'n Crunch-think twice before picking it up.

And there were some tips that bear repeating over and over again, particularly if you are trying to figure out how to green your eating on a budget:

Organic produce, starting with whatever you eat most often. Keep in mind the Environmental Working Group's "dirty dozen"-fruits and veggies found to have the most pesticide residue, even after washing: peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, kale, lettuce, imported grapes, carrots, and pears. It's fine to buy nonorganic, thick-skinned fruits like avocados, bananas, and pineapples.

However, the discussion around eating normally stagnates here, where most of our dialogue about food becomes what to eat, and what not to eat, and not about the changes to our culture that changed the way we think about food. Our attitudes toward consumption, family, and gender roles also influence what and how we eat, but rarely do we venture into exploring those aspects of food.

What about discussing the return of a social food culture as opposed to a convenience food culture? Micheal Pollan advocates for these things, but many of these ideas cannot be divorced from the social changes that accompanied our initial change in food culture. As Kate Harding wrote, in a critique of Michael Pollan's NYT Magazine piece:

Pollan takes pains to assure us that the large number of women now working outside the home is only partially responsible for this trend, and that he's not calling for women to get back into the kitchen or anything. He's calling for everybody to get back into the kitchen — or at least one cook in every household, and if that happens to be the woman, well, he didn't make the rules! To be fair, Pollan would probably not be such a fierce advocate for home cooking if he didn't enjoy it himself, but I still can't help thinking his penis is showing when he describes Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" — which also debuted in 1963 — as "the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression." Funny, I always thought Friedan became a feminist icon because she articulated what millions of women already felt, not because she brainwashed them into believing that repetitive, menial, unpaid labor might not be the best use of their talents.

Kate makes some salient points here, particularly later in the piece when she discusses the work of Peg Bracken, whose "I Hate To Cook Book" was popular back in the day. Often, it is difficult to divorce the politics of cooking from the act of cooking. Even in my tiny little household, with two people who both enjoy cooking, it is easy to begin to feel like your kitchen has somehow become a battle ground over gender roles, starting with the seemingly innocuous question, "Are you making dinner?"

In addition, our cultural attitudes toward food has changed significantly along with the increased focus on work. Jan Chipchase - whose blog, Future Perfect, is dedicated to exploring cultural norms and interesting applications for everyday things - provides a succinct illustration of how our food culture can change over time. He posts this picture, and writes:

Marie Claire's Green Diet Misses The Big Picture

It might look innocuous to you, and yes it's in keeping with the blurring of what we consider to be 'normal' to do in home and work spaces - but this 'express' cereal is a home breaker. Simply put, it supports the practice of eating at your desk away from the family. And in many ways its a continuation of the decades-long term trend (in the UK at least) of shifting from a cooked breakfast - where the family gathered to eat, to cereals - which supported independent eating times.

For everything that enables time shifting, consequences.

Now, having instant breakfast cereal or microwaveable meals is not the end of the world. However, the rise of convenience food and drive-throughs did spark a major change in how we viewed food and meal times. Slowly, our culture transitioned away from the idea of communal meals and toward more individualized meals, eaten on the go, in cars, or alone.

Marie Claire's Green Diet Misses The Big Picture

I interviewed Bryant Terry, author of Vegan Soul Kitchen, and he explained that a large part of his influences creating his cookbooks and his menus (which often come with soundtracks) is trying to re-create the food heritage that we are losing:

When you talked about diets changing and adapting, it made me think about the way in which African-Americans, like most Americans, saw the globalization of agriculture, the mechanization of agriculture and the industrialization of food over the past three or four decades as a good thing. It's cheap, it's fast, it's convenient - hey, what's wrong with this? We're modern and we want to be with the times. And we wholeheartedly embraced this in many ways - not everyone, but we really embraced it. And it's not just African-Americans. It's so many people of different backgrounds. When I have been giving talks lately about this issues, it resonates with people from Appalachia, it resonates with immigrants from Latin America, it's something that is of concern in so many different cultures and communities that in all cases, we need to figure out how can we re-embrace those old ways. How can we get back to the ways that sustained our parents, and our grandparents?

And I think, most importantly, what we've lost is our sense of community and sharing and connecting, because that was so embedded and ingrained in all the other things around our food systems and those are things we have to be re-embracing in these next moments, in this period of economic strife and people tightening belts. If we're going to get through it, I think we really have to think how can we be in relationship with our neighbors and all of these formal and informal kinship networks to help each other?

Much of the existing discussion of food focuses on the individual, what each person needs to be putting in their own personal refrigerator. But by shifting the conversation to a larger dynamic, we can start engaging with food on a much deeper level. There needs to be the acknowledgment that some people just flat out do not like to cook. And that's fine! Not liking cooking is being framed as an individual failing, but really it is a missed opportunity. People who don't cook can still advocate for better prepared foods, a wider variety of affordable food in their neighborhoods, and still contribute to neighborhood initiatives like a community garden. (My own personal friends circle can be divided into those who cook, those who bake, and those who purchase and prepare the drinks. All vital roles.)

We've done quite a bit of talking about food and the environment - let's start trying to mature the conversation.

The Girl's Guide to Eating Green [Marie Claire]
Michael Pollan wants you back in the kitchen [Broadsheet]
Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch [New York Times]
Breakfast: Home Breaker [Future Perfect]
An Interview with Bryant Terry on Race, Class, Food, and Culture - Part 1 [Racialicious]