Category Archives: nutrition

POST-DOCTORAL FELLOW IN FOOD STUDIES

POST-DOCTORAL FELLOW IN FOOD STUDIES AT INDIANA UNIVERSITY, BLOOMINGTON

The Food Studies Program and the Institute for Advanced Study at Indiana University are pleased to announce a one-year Postdoctoral Fellowship in Food Studies sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through their Sawyer Seminar program.  One Fellow will be selected on the basis of accomplishment, promise of excellence, and relevance of their research and interests to the 2012-13 seminar theme: Food Choice, Freedom, and Politics.  (Follow the link for more information on the seminar theme and plans.)

The postdoctoral fellow will assist the seminar organizers in planning, and will then participate in, a year-long seminar on food choice, decisions, and diet, which will involve scholars from a wide variety of disciplines.  The seminar is aimed at provoking new thinking about how “choice” is conceptualized in different scholarly traditions and how these different perspectives can promote understanding about food behavior. The fields will include economics and psychology where the focus is the individual, cultural anthropology, and sociology, which embed choice in cultural, social, and ethnic collectivities, and biological anthropology and evolutionary psychology, which seek an underlying adaptive basis for food preferences. The postdoctoral fellow will also assist in planning two conferences associated with the seminar, one on emerging models for interdisciplinary food studies, and the other on translating food choice research into public policy. Both will include experts in food studies from around the world. The fellow will also have time to pursue his or her own research and writing projects, and should describe these research goals and how they connect with the rich community of food scholars at IU in the letter of application.

Fellowship begins 1 July 2012.
Eligibility: Ph.D. between 1 July 2007 and 30 May 2012.
Compensation: $46,000 plus full benefits
Application Deadline: January 31, 2012

To apply, please email the following items to Ivona Hedin, Academic Specialist, Institute for Advanced Study:

1.  2-3 page letter of application explaining the link(s) between your research and the 2012-2013 theme, outlining the research to be undertaken during the fellowship

2.  full curriculum vitae

3.  names and email addresses of three referees.

4.  graduate school transcript

If you prefer, you may mail the above items to the Institute for Advanced Study, Poplars 335, 400 East Seventh Street, Bloomington, IN  47405, Attn: Food Studies Postdoc Search.

For more information, contact seminar organizers:
Richard Wilk, 812-855-3901.
Peter Todd, 812-855-3914.
Website: http://www.indiana.edu/~foodsci/

Indiana University is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer.  Women and Minorities are Strongly Encouraged to Apply.

Posted by David Beriss

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Christine Wilson Student Award 2011

Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition
2011 Christine Wilson Student Paper Award

The Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (SAFN) is pleased to announce the 2011 Christine Wilson Award competition.

Each year we recognize outstanding undergraduate and graduate research papers in the memory of Christine Wilson- a pioneer in the field of nutritional anthropology, innovator in ethnographic research methodology and inspirational guide to members of the society.

We request the submission of original, single-authored research papers that have as their primary focus an anthropological approach to the study of nutrition, foods, foodways, food security, hunger or similar topics. We will also accept multi-authored papers if the submission is by the first author and the other authors are also students. Papers that present new empirical research designs, evaluate community nutrition intervention programs or propose new conceptual frameworks are especially welcome. (Literature reviews and co-authored papers are not eligible).

Eligibility is restricted to students (undergraduate or graduate) enrolled in the 2011-2012 academic year.  If not a current member of SAFN, applicants are requested to apply for membership along with their submission.   Winners and runners-up in two categories (undergraduate and graduate) will be recognized and presented with an award at the 2011 AAA meeting in Montreal, PQ Canada.

The text of papers should be no longer than 20-25 pages, double-spaced. Please delete identifying information and submit as attachment along with the CWA cover sheet to:

Michael R. McDonald, Ph.D.
Chair, CWA Awards Committee
Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition

Email to: mmcdonal@fgcu.edu.

Deadline: October 14, 2011

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Some Food Issues for Some Developmentally Disabled People

I am both an anthropologist and a clinical psychologist.  In my latter role, I have treated people from many different populations. Some of them are marginal in many ways. In this post, I want to refer to a special population with whom I have worked—the developmentally disabled.  This population has been interesting from an anthropological perspective for a long time.  One should go to medical and psychological anthropologist Robert Edgerton’s The Cloak of Competence: Stigma in the Lives of the Mentally Retarded (University of California Press, revised edition 1993).  This anthropologically groundbreaking work focused on how developmentally disabled people coped with being labeled and  excluded, as well as not being able to function at the same level as other people.  Anthropologists concern themselves with populations at the borders of society; consequently, developmentally disabled people are deserving of study in terms of social issues.

In this post, I am drawing on my work with people who are medium to high functioning.  This is my clientele.  They live either in group homes, worthy of study as a social institution in their own right, with parents even as adults, or independently. They have some food problems which I think may be of interest to anthropologists of food and nutrition.  Moreover, they share some behaviors with other populations which put them at health risk, which is of interest to medical anthropology, medical personnel, and policy makers.

First, many developmentally disabled people are significantly under or overweight.  (For a discussion of obesity among the developmentally disabled, click here.) There may be a variety of reasons for this condition.  Developmentally disabled people may have significant genetic or hormonal imbalances, which then lead to weight problems.  A person may have Williams Syndrome, for example, which can involve hypercalcemia syndrome and hypertension. Williams people may have shorter lifespans as well.

Second, a person may have poor impulse control.  Part of this lack of impulse control may result in the need for instant or quick satisfaction.  I’ve noticed many of my clients tend to eat fast food and a lot of it.  It’s salty, greasy, without fruits and vegetables, and often not especially nutritious.  Moreover, in many areas, those who live “independently” live in apartments close to fast food restaurants and, if they are lucky, near supermarkets.  Other researchers have seen that this pattern of residential dwelling and food consumption leads to obesity (cf. Hurvitz et al.: 2009).

Third, quite often, many developmentally disabled people have been sexually molested.  Sexual molestation can lead to a variety of eating disorders, including obesity, anorexia, bulimia, and self-injurious behavior (for more information on the connection between sexual abuse and eating disorders, see Cohen n.d.  http://www.edreferral.com/sexual_abuse_&_ed.htm).

The result is that person may have significant food-related problems.  These problems raise the risk of food-related diseases, including Type II diabetes, back, and joint problems.  Furthermore, given the frequent lack of impulse control, a person may aggravate these conditions by not eating correctly and not following doctor’s orders.  If a person is taking some antidepressants, the person may experience weight gain.  The additional weight may also aggravate many medical conditions.

There may be also additional complications. According to Bouverie Dental, often the person has poor dental hygiene problems. S/he may rarely brush and/or floss and rarely see a dentist or dental hygienist.  Some relatively recent research that poor dental practices can intensify the risk of Type II diabetes (See this web posting for a longer discussion of this issue: http://www.dentalclinicofmarshfield.com/poor-dental-hygiene-leads-other-health-problems.)  Medicaid cuts worsen the dental situation; they also reduce the possibility of seeing physicians and specialists.

Some states have regional centers or similar programs which help higher functioning people live either in group homes or on their own.  Some philanthropists have started to donate small buttons that seniors can signal their need for help, the medical alert reviews show that seniors in distress with such technology have a much greater chance of getting the help they need by the time they need it. Caregivers or provider agency staff can help the person maintain better food buying and cooking practices.  Often, however, people go out on their own and “binge eat” terribly.  Ideally, they can get further help by going to psychological therapy, most often behaviorist-focused.

Thus, this special population incurs special risks.  As anthropologists, we need to be alert to the personal and policy needs of these people.

Comments by Richard Zimmer

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Rethinking School Lunch

USA School Lunch: Applesauce, chocolate milk, hash browns, and chicken nuggets, from http://interestingemailforwards.blogspot.com/2009/05/school-lunch-from-around-world.html

It has been many years since I last confronted a school lunch. While I can recall some spectacular lunchroom antics from my school years, I do not remember the food with any pleasure at all. Not the greasy pizza. Not the canned peaches served, mysteriously, with revolting cottage cheese. Not the jello. Well, maybe the jello, but more as a projectile than as food.

I have no idea where the food came from. I don’t know if it was cooked locally or distributed by a central kitchen. To be honest, I was not really paying that much attention at the time. There were more important things to consider. See my point about jello above. In any case, nobody seemed to care. Students were meant to eat and move on. We did.

Food activists have been trying hard recently to make people more aware of what kids eat in their school lunches.  Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, for example, started a campaign in California to get kids involved in producing their own food. Beginning over a decade ago with an “edible schoolyard” in Berkeley, Waters created a foundation (the Chez Panisse Foundation) that focused on improving school lunch by making it a real part of the curriculum.  Another famous chef, Jamie Oliver, launched a campaign to improve “school dinners” in the United Kingdom and has had some notable success as well as some colorful resistance. He also turned his campaign into a kind of reality TV show and brought it to the U.S., much to the consternation of the folks who make school lunches in Los Angeles.  There have been many more local efforts to improve school food around the country, too many to note here, and quite a lot of blog traffic on the subject, including this site devoted to school lunches around the world. There has been some notable recent research in this area as well. Janet Poppendieck’s recent book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (2010, University of California Press), provides very useful insights into the history of and debate around school lunches in the U.S. Wendy Leynse has studied and written about the place of school lunch in France, where it seems to hold a more important place in school curricula. The Food Museum Online has a very comprehensive exhibit devoted to school lunch reform that is very much worth exploring.

One of the more striking recent developments in this movement, however, has been an effort to turn kids into school lunch activists. Here in New Orleans, a group called the Rethinkers have, since 2006, involved actual kids in efforts to rethink (whence the name) public education. One of their central issues has been school lunch.  In 2008, the Rethinkers put together a list of 12 recommendations for the local public schools and managed to get the superintendent to agree to most of them.  They have worked quite effectively to keep their recommendations in the public eye, creating recipes with chefs to suggest for the schools, meeting with Aramark (one of the enormous corporations that holds local school lunch preparation contracts) to persuade them to use local produce and issuing reports evaluating the food served at schools around town. Their most recent report provides a detailed evaluation of the food at several local schools, along with policy recommendations, critiques of where lunch food comes from and very good analyses of why food and the dining experience in schools should be improved. The entire excellent report is available on line.

It is interesting to see what the Rethinkers think is important.  Here is a summary of their 12 recommendations for schools:

  1. Use real utensils (no more sporks).
  2. Buy fresh, tasty food that is minimally processed.
  3. Use ingredients that have been sourced within 200 miles of New Orleans.
  4. Put more New Orleans and Louisiana dishes on the menu.
  5. Provide better vegetarian alternatives.
  6. Stop using Styrofoam.
  7. Develop school gardens and grow some food for the school.
  8. Compost leftovers.
  9. Design school cafeterias to be welcoming places where you might like to eat.
  10. Provide sinks where kids can wash their hands.
  11. Provide enough time for kids to enjoy their food and the company of their friends.
  12. No silent lunches. Food and dining should not be used to punish students.

The key thing to note here is that this is clearly about a great deal more than what students will get to eat. It is about where their food comes from, how it is prepared and disposed of, the dining context and the educational experience itself. It is about getting students, teachers, administrators and parents to be more self-conscious about food. In New Orleans, a city that is very self-conscious about food in general, this movement is helping remind people that kids do not have to leave behind their own culture at the school doors.  And by getting hundreds of kids involved in evaluating school lunches and rethinking what and how they eat, the Rethinkers are already succeeding in putting food on the curriculum.

One last thing worth noting: the never-ending debates about the crisis in public education in the United States usually focuses on issues like standardized test scores and what many people see as the “fundamentals” of education, like reading and math. Food is about as fundamental as it gets. The Rethinkers are calling attention to this.

Posted by David Beriss

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Anthropological perspectives on migration, food and nutrition

Preparing injera, a transnational Ethiopian dietary staple

With the permission of the editors of Anthropology News, we republish SAFN’s monthly news column from that publication.  This is the May 2011 column, edited by Kenneth Maes and Alyson Young.

In this column we highlight a recently published NAPA Bulletin (vol 34), “Anthropological Perspectives on Migration and Health,” edited by SAFN President Craig Hadley. Articles in this volume address the diet and nutrition of various migrant groups that navigate complex and changing cultural, political and economic contexts.

Hadley’s introduction underlines that interactions between migration and health are highly complex. Anthropologists and allied health professionals have struggled with this complexity, hindered by the use of categorizations that obscure the heterogeneity between and within migrant populations; by imprecise proxy measures of acculturation, which are unable to specify mechanisms by which migration can impact health; and by too often focusing on the health impacts of individual-level agency and group-level cultural norms rather than on social inequalities and public policies that limit access to wealth and information.

Heide Castañeda provides a theoretical and methodological overview, asking what larger anthropological questions can be advanced by studying migrant health. She notes that the study of migrant health highlights global inequities related to labor and health care. The study of migration and health also encourages a rethinking of borders, connections and identities, and ideally forces anthropologists to consider how the knowledge they produce affects study participants and serves certain political agendas. Castañeda asserts that widespread reliance on charity clinics, volunteerism and humanitarian efforts for providing migrants with health care reflects that societies have become accustomed to inequality, and that states are unwilling to address “conflicting economic and political demands related to the continued need for certain forms of migrant labor” (p 20).

SAFN Treasurer Crystal Patil and colleagues report on exploratory ethnographic study of food access and diet among refugee groups of various African and Asian countries resettled in Midwestern US cities. The authors note that refugees face many challenges and opportunities as they transition from low-income contexts characterized by high mortality and low reliance on processed foods to high-income contexts characterized by low mortality and high reliance processed foods. Their ethnographic data suggest multiple ways in which “health and well-being are produced and eroded on arrival in the United States” (p 155), involving interactions among the resources and services available within environments of resettlement, migration geopolitics, the influences of peers, resettlement agencies and ethnocultural norms, as well as individual characteristics and household socioeconomic status.

Ramona Pérez, Margaret Handley and James Grieshop provide an account of the political, economic and nutritional implications of lead-contaminated ceramic cookware produced in Oaxaca, Mexico. This cookware is sent along with food care packages to migrant families in Monterey County, California through envios. In the late 1990s, the cookware was linked to lead toxicity resulting in gastrointestinal distress, severe headaches and malaise, which were detected among Mexican-American children seeking care at public clinics in Monterey County. In California, the public policy response was to conduct unannounced health inspections on businesses thought to be involved in the envios system, to confiscate food items and threaten to fine the businesses. This approach was perceived as akin to racial profiling and discrimination and drove some envios underground. In Mexico, the policy response has been largely nonexistent because Mexican officials do not consider lead exposure a significant problem. In addition, the Mexican state cannot afford to provide ceramic-producing communities with resources necessary for production techniques that do not require lead. Faced with these sensitive political and economic challenges, Pérez and colleagues decided that one way to address the health impacts of lead exposure was through nutritional programming in both Oaxaca and California. Promoting diets rich in calcium and iron can prevent the rapid absorption of lead. While this approach does not eliminate the problem, it “provides profound opportunity for a healthier life despite the lack of intervention by Mexican government officials and absence of community based health programming by health officials in the Monterey area” (p 120).

Other food and nutrition-focused articles in the volume include Horton and Barker’s on the diets and oral health statuses of Mexican immigrants and their children in California’s Central Valley; Dharod and Croom’s on the prevalence of child hunger among Somali refugee households in Lewiston, Maine; and Trapp’s on the implementation of the USDA and Office of Refugee Resettlement Food and Nutrition Outreach program.

Please send your news and items of interest to Kenneth Maes or Alyson Young.

Posted by Kenneth Maes.

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Contaminated cuisines and the omnivore’s dilemma

The Egg of Death?

As a service to our readers and with the permission of the editors of Anthropology News, we have decided to republish each month’s SAFN column from that publication.  This, then, is the December 2010 column, edited by Kenneth Maes and Alyson Young.

Contaminated cuisines and the omnivore’s dilemma
By George Armelagos (Emory U) and Kenneth Maes (Brown U)

Much media and scholarly attention has been paid to obesity epidemics. More recently, worry over food safety in terms of pathogenic infection and toxicity has assumed prominence on par with concerns about over-nutrition. George Armelagos, Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology at Emory University and recipient of the AAA’S 2008 Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service, recently took on both of these issues in an article published in the Journal of Anthropological Research (66[2]:161-186), entitled “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Evolution of the Brain and the Determinants of Food Choice.” The article critiques Michael Pollan’s popular book The Omnivore’s Dilemma for ignoring the importance of infectious epidemics caused by industrial food systems in the US. Below, George Armelagos and Kenneth Maes discuss the omnivore’s dilemma in light of last summer’s massive salmonella outbreak in the US egg supply.

Omnivores have a predilection for a varied diet, but this represents a challenge given that new foods are often feared for their potentially poisonous and deadly qualities. This is the omnivore’s dilemma: the confrontation between neophilia and neophobia.

The omnivore’s dilemma for our primate cousins is instructive. The rainforest may seem to be an unlimited source of food, much like a supermarket. But many plants have evolved toxins for their own protection. In 1978, Daniel Janzens commented that the primate world is not colored various shades of green, but instead colored morphine, caffeine, tannin, phenol, oxalic acid, and saponin. Thus potential jungle foods demand careful discrimination.

The invention of cuisine was an essential process in human biocultural evolution. As a cultural system, cuisine determines items in nature that are potentially edible and how they are processed into food, flavored or enhanced, and eaten in a culturally-correct manner.  Cuisine is thus an attempted solution to the omnivore’s dilemma. But not all aspects of a cuisine are adaptive. Aspects of an industrialized food system can be severely maladaptive—and thus the omnivore’s dilemma remains unvanquished for modern humans.

This is illustrated by last summer’s recall of a half-billion eggs after nearly 1300 cases of salmonella infection were reported among US consumers. This massive number of eggs came from only two factory farms in Iowa, which in turn had a common supplier of chicken feed. This attests to the extent of conglomeration in the food industry, driven by a desire for cheaper food, which incentivizes the cutting of safety corners. Neither factory involved in the recall had ever been inspected by the top federal and state agencies responsible for food safety oversight (for details, click here).

In last summer’s salmonella epidemic, hens were individually exposed to infected rodent feces, leading to salmonella infection of their ovaries and thus their developing eggs. In previous salmonella outbreaks spread by chicken eggs, the mode of transmission involved contamination of the outer shells of already-laid eggs. This is controlled by more stringent procedures in preparing eggs for market. Unfortunately, such procedures cannot prevent the infection of hens’ ovaries and thus eggs that are infected “from the inside-out.”

In 1999, Paul Mead and colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that food-borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths in the US each year. Salmonella, Listeria, and Toxoplasma are responsible for 1,500 of these deaths, while the majority of deaths and illnesses are caused by unknown food-borne agents, including toxins, viruses, and other bacteria. For Mead and colleagues, the importance of these unknown agents cannot be overstated. Yet 63% of US shoppers feel that foods sold in supermarkets are safe, though this percentage may be dropping.

Throughout human evolution, contaminated or poisonous foods have posed a problem despite the attempts of cuisine to keep them out of our bodies. Michael Pollan’s popular writings overlook this aspect of the omnivore’s dilemma. For Pollan, the dilemma faced by humans in the U.S. and around the world involves the long-term health consequences of over-consuming sugars, fats and salt. Over-nutrition is certainly important, but is only part of the dietary dilemma faced by people today. A complete understanding of the omnivore’s dilemma must include the more immediate dangers posed by infectious microbes and toxins in industrialized food systems. Perhaps rainforests and supermarkets share a fundamental similarity after all.

Please send your news and items of interest to Kenneth Maes or Alyson Young.

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Food prices on the rise (again)

Farmer's market produce, photo by David Beriss

Two years after the vicious spike in food prices, global food prices are once again on the rise. Are we going to see another food crisis?

The current rise in prices stems largely from the prospects of a lower than expected wheat harvest in Russia, the consequence of high temperatures and drought. The reduced demand attracts speculators who further push up the prices. Supply is further reduced when nations implement export bans. In response to an imminent poor harvest, today Russia imposed a ban on exporting grains. By shutting the door on exports, nations hope to keep the food in country to feed their citizens. This was a strategy adopted by several countries during the 2008 food crisis, which placed further upward pressure on prices. By disallowing exports, the global grain supply suddenly gets a lot smaller with no concomitant change in demand, and prices rise. When Russia decided to ban grain exports prices reacted predictably: they soared to their highest levels in two years” reaching “the highest level since August 29, 2008”. August 2008 is notable because it marks the height of the 2008 global food crisis, the food price index for cereals reached a whopping 238 (compared to 167 in August 2007, and 85 in 2000). Russia did not just ban exports on wheat; corn, barley, rye and flour were also banned from export, with predictable impacts on corn and other grains: Today corn futures shot to a 13 month high. It is likely that fertilizer will also increase in price as declining yields drive increased fertilizer applications.

Things do not (yet?) look as dire as 2007/8 and some will (again) benefit from the price increase. US wheat farmers, for instance, will likely gain as prices for their exports increase and rural producers in low-income countries may as well. But, the global poor could again suffer and those at the margins of poverty could be driven over the edge. Even small increases in food prices translate into human suffering. The International Fund for Agricultural Development estimates that a one percent increase in the price of staples results in 16 million more food insecure people in the world. A rise in food prices so close on the heels of the last price spike also threatens those households that are still rebuilding their livelihoods.

The causes of the 2007/8 crisis and the current price increase do not entirely overlap. The conversion of grains to fuels is thought to have been a driving force in the 2008 food crisis, for instance. Speculation in agricultural futures markets however may be a common factor. The role of hoarding and speculation in the 2008 food crisis has been widely debated, with mixed evidence on its role. Some suggest that the role was minimal, while others believe speculation and hoarding played significant roles. (Fredrick Kaufman has written a wonderful piece on this for Harpers called The Food Bubble: How Wall St starved millions and got away with it, available in full, alas, only to subscribers.) The current rapid price increase, however, seems to be unambiguously driven by speculation.

This is a situation to watch closely, especially if other countries begin to impose similar export bans. It might also be a good time to revisit the issue of the commodification of food and to think on how we can avoid food price spikes. As nutritional anthropologists it might also be a time to think about how our work can contribute to policy debates and to the popular understanding of the local impacts of global market forces.

Posted by Craig Hadley

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Evolution and Meat

Smoked chicken!

There was a fascinating piece on the National Public Radio news program Morning Edition (on the August 2, 2010 show) regarding the links between human evolution, meat eating and cooking.  Naturally, this caught our attention here at FoodAnthropology.  It featured insights from several anthropologists and was about food.  What more can one ask from a news story?  Read and listen to it here.

There are several points of interest.  First is the idea that eating meat allowed humans to develop the kinds of brains that we have now.  A good idea, but apparently eating the meat raw was not sufficient.  In fact, eating most things raw was more difficult and, in some cases, less nutritious than eating the same things cooked.  Of course, this adds culture to evolution.  Fascinating aspect of adaptation, really.  This is precisely the kind of thing that makes evolution so amazing.  This may be an old insight in anthropology (Claude Lévi-Strauss made some observations on cooking, culture and evolution, for example), but it is not really appreciated by non-anthropologists, I think.

Now, I can imagine that all of this could be considered controversial from some points of view.  Folks in the vegetarian, vegan and raw food camps probably have interesting things to say about this.  They might assert that pre-historic diets of nuts and fruit, eaten raw, were really all our (very distant) ancestors needed.  So why should we need more?  They may make strange assertions about what our guts are designed to digest and suggest that we avoid meat, milk, cooked foods, etc.  The archaeologists and biological anthropologists can show that their view of our ancestors is incorrect, but that may not matter.  They will invent new ancestors.  People love to legitimize their positions through imagined ancestors.

In addition, if you read the comments at the end of the NPR piece, you will see people grappling with another kind of issue: if our ancestors developed big brains by eating meat, they seem to ask, does that mean my kid will get a big brain if he or she eats steak?  Well, no, not exactly.  There is a misunderstanding here between the idea of what is adaptive for populations and what is healthy at any given time for individuals.  Here too, people are looking for legitimacy in ancestors, but the problem is that the units of analysis are off.

The links between diet and evolution—including the choices to eat meat and to cook—were probably not well understood by our ancestors, but they did prove to be adaptive.  Are they still adaptive?  It is hard to tell.  Are they healthy for us as individuals?  You can’t really read that from the evolutionary record.  That said, it seems likely that the manner in which we produce most meat today is not sustainable.  And by sustainable, I mean that it harms the environment in ways that may harm us.  Does this mean we should cease eating meat?  Eat less of it?  Produce what we do eat differently?  I like some of those ideas, but not because I know they will prove to be adaptive in an evolutionary sense.  You can’t really make sense of the world that way—it is too abstract.  Our ancestors started at some point to eat meat and later started to cook it, along with other things.  This proved to be a great idea at the time.  I love grilling meat, so I think it is still a great idea.  But you’ll notice that one of the anthropologists cited in the story is a vegetarian (that would be Richard Wrangham, author of the very interesting book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, 2009, Basic Books).  He understands the adaptive nature of meat eating and cooking in the past.  So what does his choice mean now?

You can’t really plan an evolutionary strategy.  You can only tell that what your ancestors did worked at the time.  If our choices are adaptive today, we will have descendants who can look back and appreciate those choices.  I guess that is why it is evolution, not revolution.

posted by David Beriss

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The Naked Chef Exposed, part Trois!

Jamie Oliver in the news… stirring up a storm on the food listserves! (Part Three)

The television show is up to the third episode and the lists are STILL buzzing! The current crop of comments question why Jamie Oliver (now universally shortened among posters to the sexy/chic/intheknow acronym “JO”) isn’t being accepted (supposedly), why other food celebrities haven’t garnered as much interest as “JO”, and why it takes a food celebrity to excite people about school food. There have been articles in the NYT as well as a blog post from a school food activist in the Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/food/archive/2010/04/food-revolution-a-school-lunch-expert-reacts/38479/). Overall, there seems to be more support of JO, and less horror about the tone of the show. Regardless, a deep skepticism seems to exist, and I am still wondering why.

That’s a rhetorical question, of course, because I do think I have a few reasons – they are probably not the only ones, but might be interesting to think about.

But first, I want to highlight the work of people who are doing something about school food. I’m only going to mention a few groups, so keep in mind there are HUNDREDS of people working to improve school food.

This anonymous blogger, a teacher, is eating school food everyday: http://www.grist.org/article/2010-04-04-underground-school-lunch-blogger-hits-good-morning-america/

Chef Bobo has been doing some amazing things with lunches at the Calhoun school: http://www.calhoun.org/page.cfm?p=2045.

The Renegade Lunch Lady is an inspiration to us all: http://www.chefann.com/

Here in Philadelphia there is the remarkable Urban Nutrition Initiative: http://www.urbannutrition.org/

And let’s not forget the Edible Schoolyard: http://www.edibleschoolyard.org/

So, to return to the query most recently heard on the lists, “will JO’s effort make a difference and why aren’t more people aware of these school lunch problems?” I’ll propose some reasons.

First, there are programs trying to create change, and they are doing so (see the list above, a few of many). Mostly these groups are operating on a small scale of one or several schools, so awareness outside of their catchment area is too often limited. While those of us in the food change world are VERY aware of them, much of the rest of the country is not. So JO is big news, and it seems like yes, indeed, he’s ‘starting’ a revolution.

Second, I think that just as Alice Waters gets people riled up, JO does as well because nobody likes to be told they are not performing optimally in matters of diet and health (see this story in the LA Times about Waters: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-alice-waters2-2010apr02,0,3120516.story?page=1). In other words, it’s not just that someone is telling others what to do, it’s that they are telling others what to do when the others know that they really – ahem – SHOULD be doing it already. Nagging is annoying, especially food/health nagging, which enters the moral identity sphere and makes everyone feel guilty.

But third and most important, I think the primary reason that JO’s program is getting so many knickers in a twist is that this is one of the VERY first times that the public is being made aware that school food problems are SYSTEMIC. To quote wholesale from one of the more recent ASFS posters “Jamie Oliver is opening the same can of worms that many others around the country are opening to try to change a broken entrenched system, in his case it’s on TV.  In my community mothers, teachers and community food activists are facing the same situations and obstacles as they question and try to address the complex nature of school lunch reform. Jamie has turned a spotlight on this problem and school lunch will become a topic of discussion in more households around the country because of this TV program, this is needed“.

Contemplating bad choices is one thing – and easily amended (Choose better! Be more responsible!) – but grappling with sure knowledge that the system is broken is frightening, because how and where does one start to fix the system when it seems intractably busted?

Most of the United State’s discourse about food is framed as personal choice; bad food is a bad choice and thus bad nutrition a personal issue, a personal problem, and (too often) considered a personal moral failing. Certainly this has been the message of previous attempts to change food habits, in particular the quite excellent TV show “Honey, We’re Killing the Kids”. This is a message that resonates nicely in our country, which eagerly embraces a YOYO (You’re On Your Own) as opposed to WITT (We’re In This Together”) health policy. Personal moral and food failures can be fixed in the YOYO world, but problems caused by broken systems are impossible to fix without embracing a WITT perspective. Because the JO Food Revolution TV show demonstrates that the problems are multi-causal and multi-sectoral (home, school administrators and employees, the USDA requirements, the food distribution system, public attitudes and the food industry) the viewer is left with the ugly and frightening realization that whole durned food system is going to have to change if little Johnny and Jane are going to be able to eat healthy food on a regular basis at home and in school. And that, dear reader, is a brand-new revelation for too many of the average TV audience. Yes, we’d think that Food Inc., Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and all the rest would have made that clear to the public but the – ahem – inconvenient truth is that they haven’t, because too much of what they expose can be understood within a ‘choose better’ framework. School lunches are where the capacity for choice ends, and the sure knowledge of loss of choice and agency is frightening, especially in a philosophically consumerist society. School food is the (a cliché, sorry) canary in the coal mine for our food system, and too many people are just waking up to the dearth of chirping. But worst of all, they are waking up to the knowledge that by working alone and singly (the Cowboy Metaphor) or choosing wisely (the Good Consumer Fantasy) they can’t make a difference. Fixing the system requires systemic solutions, which are only possible when a WITT philosophy is embraced. The idea that no man is an island unto himself is sometimes hard for Americans to accept.

It’s past time for a new socio-moral consensus of thought and action about food, and that’s a terrifying process to contemplate in a country that too often substitutes loud expressions of individual piety and descriptions of personal choice for moral action, and believes that only individual action can solve problems. How do we start to change the system, when we’ve stopped believing that the system exists?

Posted by Janet Chrzan

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The Naked Chef Exposed! (Part 2)

Jamie Oliver in the news… stirring up a storm on the food listserves! (Part Two)

So, the Jamie Oliver message seems to be causing great consternation amongst food scholars and activists. Both the ASFS and Comfood crowds have been batting the show about most unmercifully. Their comments fall into several broad categories; I haven’t statistically analyzed the content, so be kind and understand this is a method-free overview. However, given the sheer volume of Listserve posts, I COULD HAVE used any standard text analysis software, which in and of itself is something to ponder. As I do here.

The primary thread on ASFS started off with this subject line title: “’Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution’ regurgitates the worst of reality TV pap” which certainly set the tone for the many posts that followed. The broad themes are as follows:

“We don’t need no stinkin’ advice”: By far the greatest volume of complaint is within this category, and perfectly summed by this quote, which occurred midway through the fray: “But judging from others’ takes on it, this program seems to be one in a long line depicting self-righteous British experts coming into Americans’ lives and homes and telling us what we’re doing wrong.” This was reiterated by a Guardian columnist, and refuted by a number of folks on the lists who insisted they had no trouble being told how to live by Brits, Italians, Outer Mongolians or any other group of foodie dogooders.

It’s not Feminist or Politically Correct: A theme built upon the chosen film site (a Southern, working-class town), linked to the funny hick accents of the townspeople, and bolstered by Jamie’s habits of calling people – especially the Lunch Ladies – by neo-disrespectful terms such as “hon” and “girls”. This was defended by several posters with the argument that Jamie is a product of his nation and class, which considers those phrases acceptable. If still annoying.

Various ad hominem attacks, from generalized Jamie-fatigue to critiques of celebrity chef hubris: this category mostly focused on queries about what and why a ‘celebrity chef’ (clearly written with dripping ichor) thinks he has the right to critique food use of children and families. See #1 above, add a soupcon of envy, and you’ve nailed the tone.

Queries about if he is successful: this set contains quite a lot of extraneous pro-and con information relating to research about school food, working-class diets, and the tyranny of health education. Various side posts about schools, class, food change and global media culture definitively ran the thread(s) right off the rails.

The need for more information about what people really do and really eat before we espouse change While most posts of this type blithely ignored the data pertaining to the subject already in existence (in the vein of ‘what do we really know about food use anyway?”), some (on ASFS in particular) pointed out where data are missing and called for more targeted studies.

Critiques of his message, largely relating to his insistence that ‘fresh and easy’ is easy to accomplish if you know how, including why is it or isn’t easy (with renewed divagation into contemplation of working-class lives and time budgets). The best part of this thread was the comparison of cooking from scratch to good sex and fast/frozen food to masturbation (it gets the job done, but….).

Discussions about how valueless reality TV is, and why this isn’t a good medium for creating real food use change, or that it is a good venue because: “unfortunately western culture is inspired by sound bites, celebrities and brands…if the message comes from ‘Victoria Beckham’ it has far more impact than Joe Schmoo who is an MP and has worked tirelessly on the same issues! I suppose the same can be said for the masses…who prefer entertaining reality TV over listening to a doctor or nurse ‘drone’ on about nutrition….”. Which neatly reified the condescending tone of the whole taradiddle.

And of course, the many additional posts to confirm that one already did do, or didn’t do, what Jamie espoused. Many of these were solidly self-congratulatory and (back to back) usually contradictory. The highlight was a link to a youtube video that lauded the work of the poster and dramatically asked why Jamie’s Food Revolution “didn’t teach people to cook”… thereby ignoring his “Pass it On” campaign, community education kitchens (Food Centres), and solid record of really quite good (and endearingly simplistic) cookbooks assuring readers that ‘cooking is easy, and you can do it!’

The most trenchant complaint was that by stating that the “Food Revolution Starts Here!” Jamie ignores all the important work done by other schools, groups and individuals around the country. Since this is a very legitimate gripe, I was surprised to see that it didn’t have legs in the thread wars. However, the obvious reason for this omission –  reality TV thrives on manufactured drama and dichotomies – was mentioned, although on the Comfood list there was some consternation that the producers hadn’t reached out to members of the school-food-change community before the show was filmed. However, as a result of this complaint the producers did invite various activists to participate in the last episode. We shall see what happens.

Many writers popped up to support him, and to remind others that he did indeed cause positive change in British schools. This encouraged a new set of posts, which questioned any changes, and cited studies demonstrating the opposite. Which led to posts citing studies that demonstrated that other methods like Jamie’s methods work, and can be linked to any number of positive outcomes. Further posts ensued, mentioning studies demonstrating a correlation between children preferring and eating fresh food and doing better in school. Today, one writer explained that Jamie’s Britishness was the reason for the hostility, and that “It’s a shame though because borders and nationality don’t really have a lot to do with all this, and what’s being missed here – and it worked in Britain – is a prime opportunity to overhaul some food habits that are simply killing people. What’s revolutionary about Oliver is that he’s a celebrity chef who’s genuinely interested in helping people and his track record is good.  Ah well, you can lead a horse to water…”

My take on this extended commentary and controversy will come in Part Three…. And in the meantime, don’t miss Episode Two: http://www.hulu.com/watch/138201/jamie-olivers-food-revolution-episode-102#s-p1-so-i0

Posted by Janet Chrzan

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Filed under economics, media, nutrition, obesity