Monday, May 11, 2009

Paradox of Nutrition

A piece in our local paper seems timely: "Healthy, affordable food frequently hard to find for poor."

The article by Sarah Chacko brings to light a paradox of nutrition, health and poverty that results in millions being simultaneously overfed and undernourished, a common condition in my state:

"Poor nutrition is linked to many health issues that are especially prevalent in low-income populations.Families often turn to food banks, churches and other nonprofit organizations to supplement their monthly food needs. But nutritionists question the types of food poor families are getting.In 2007, 65 percent of adults in Louisiana were overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta."

"Carol E. O’Neil, a professor of human ecology at LSU, said she and other professors researched the diets of a group of lower-income women. She called the results 'appalling.'

“'They’re setting themselves up for some sort of dietary failure,' O’Neil said. 'Foods that are recommended as being healthy, like fish, are expensive. It takes a fair amount of skill to put together a balanced diet with not a lot of money.'”

"A fair amount of skill" is another way of saying "culture," which has been responsible until recently for transferring the skills of self-sufficiency from those who inherited and honed them over lifetimes to the younger generations in need of them.

Since my grandfather's time (i.e., Brokaw's Greatest Generation), American social movement has been toward greater mobility, urbanization, and careerism---three trends that explain most of my personal history, and of course my father's, and his father's. The result is perhaps a greater wealth per capita, in terms of merchandise and cheap transportation, but a clear loss of cultural wisdom that would have made life with less stuff and fewer escape routes a possibility.

Put another way, now that the chickens have come home to roost, we no longer raise chickens and don't know how. It's a kind of cultural poverty, shared by the cash-poor and the rich alike.

It's not a problem you can solve with money alone. Fortunately, some of the same programs that seek to pay our way out of poverty suggest other possibilities. As Chacko notes:
"Aside from groceries, food stamps can be used to purchase seeds and seedlings...

"A significant increase in seed sales nationwide indicates a growing interest in gardening, said Bobby Fletcher Jr., assistant director of the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service.

"AgCenter staff and 'master gardeners' are available around the state to help people start gardens by showing them how to prepare a bed and care for gardens and by teaching them what produce will flourish in their area. The AgCenter is also teaming up with 4H programs to create community gardens at schools.

"Fletcher said students are more likely to eat what they grow. 'If we can start that at a younger age, over time, we can have a positive impact on childhood obesity and adult obesity,' Fletcher said. 'Personally, I think school and community gardens are going to be to this generation what Victory Gardens were to World War II.'”

My kids are, thanks largely to their mother, aware of the benefits of good nutrition. They know a surprising amount about fat, sugar and sodium contents, and the caloric values of different foods. But thankfully they also like good food. And for this, there's no substitute for eating it. Being able to share with them the growing (and hunting and cooking) of it adds that final and most important ingredient: culture.


mdmnm said...

I recall being struck by Peter Jenkins' contrast of the eating habits of two of the families he stayed with in North Carolina in his book "Walk Across America". That's not a perfect example of lack of culture, though, as he helped one of them build a pig pen that they used to raise hogs for meat.

Good post, Matt.

NorCal Cazadora said...

So, Matt, do you think this economy is enough to whip people back to self-sufficiency, or does it take something much more catastrophic to do that?

Knowing what I know (mostly from watching my boyfriend do all the work of gardening and cooking), eating well takes more time. And we've all gotten accustomed to spending that time elsewhere...

Matt Mullenix said...

MIke: There must be a lot of variation in the cline between the cultural and acultural sets. I'm a pretty good example (of something!), having come by my hunting and gardening through apprenticeship rather than family (Mom and Dad taught much else, but not these). There are many ways to pass and receive cultural goods, and probably every little bit helps.

Matt Mullenix said...

Holly: That's a great question. Certainly those like Howard Kunstler feel the failing economy will bring about catastrophe and force self-sufficiency (or else feudal servitude) on us all. Others such as Wendell Berry might tell you the present economy is a catastrophe and that we are living in its wake now. (I heard the phrase recently: "Hell is here, nor are we out of it.")

I think the present situation is complicated and the future impossible to predict. However, it's clear that people do respond in certain sensible ways when pressure is applied; and generally they respond in a measured way.

The current up-tick in kitchen gardening and bike commuting, for examples, are probably reasonable responses to changing economic realities. Recent years' rising gas prices prompted many to move closer to work (or accept work closer to them). My wife and I did this five years ago. Then being within biking distance made that change possible, and it's immediate benefits (economic and health-wise) provided plenty justification.

The situation with gardening is similar, although the benefits come perhaps on a slower schedule; it may take two months to produce and a year to sink in as worthwhile. But in the mean time, things grow. And evidence of growth is intrinsically pleasing to some. I think it's a taste that can be acquired, or reacquired.

Matt Mullenix said...

"And we've all gotten accustomed to spending that time elsewhere..."I want to adress that good point too.

The fact that we have any time to spend elsewhere is probably an artifact of this economy. In a different economy (the one we've almost always had), we would be spending time at home or near home. Our current roaming habits are supported by cheap fuel, widespread car ownership, good roads and retail shopping centers.

What does a life look like that is centered instead around a home?

One thing apparent to me is that a home, if it is to entertain and support a family, must be a place of work and interest and some beauty. I think these characteristics can be acquired by any home in an incrimental fashion, a measured way responsive to changing needs. Mine has.

Over the past five years, our family life has become more centered around our home and neighborhood. Depite the fact we still need to paint it(!), the house's setting has become a more interesting, welcoming and beautiful place. The Confederate jasmine we planted at the base of each carpor support pole has now grown thick and spread along added latticework to frame an outdoor living space. We've moved the cars from beneath the shelter and replaced them with outdoor furniture and plants. There is a durable central playset inthe back yard, which has grown a clubhouse on top. The garden has spread from one raised bed to three and now surrounds the hawk's pen.

Our neighbors are now our friends and we spend a lot of time with them, relaxing after work, sharing meals and swapping kids. The more time we spend at home, the more reasons there are to remain.

We have a sit-down family dinner every night.

Is this all a waste of time?

Would I rather be in traffic? Would I rather be dropping my kids off at structured after school activites half-way across town and eating fast food to make up the time?

Obviously not! :-)

NorCal Cazadora said...

Good answers!

Part of me wants that simpler life. I do live a lot of it - gardened food, home-cooked meals, hunting.

But here I am glued to my computer with my high-speed internet connection, tied to a job 18 miles away that pays my mortgage.

I'm quite sure humanity will revert some day to that lifestyle that has dominated most of our time as a civilized species on this planet. What goes up must come down. The only question is when.

And if it happens in my lifetime, will I still be able to blog about it? ;-)

Matt Mullenix said...

And if it happens in my lifetime, will I still be able to blog about it? ;-)May be time to dust off the manual typewriter and recharge the Pony Express. :-) Hay is probably cheaper than stamps these days!

My dad once asked me if I'd be happy if everyone returned to the horse and buggy. Of course I would, given some stipulations: antibiotics and analgesics have to stick around.

But I don't think that will happen. I think "peak oil" will prove a brief hickup and be replaced with durable electrics and nuclear power. In a way, it will be worse, even with a substantial switch to "green" energies. Whatever we choose outside the horse and buggy (and all other forms of creaturely work) will release us from our natural limits. And we have proven time and again we are not reliable animals when unfettered.

What difference will it make to tuna stocks if the fishing fleet is nuclear or diesel powered?

What difference to sage grouse if our energy comes from high plains drilling or high plains wind farms?

What we know is that given energy without limits, we will use it without limits.

To avoid this scenario we have only one option: opt out. We will increasingly have to choose to do more physical work and rely more upon outselves and neighbors. We will have to accept greater responsibilities and live within creaturely limits.

What are the odds even a sizable minority of us will do so given an easy alternative?

Who knows? But it's time for us inclined in this way to start making a good argument.

Steve Bodio said...

A lot of us are coming to this way of life both through a commitment and because of varying degrees of poverty(especially as we age). And then we find it is attrative, end write about it, and if we are lucky find younger people, even family members, going in the same direction.

My ger or stone house will have hounds and hawks and pigeons and maybe a horse, but I suspect it will have a laptop.

Matt Mullenix said...

Steve I was thinking also about your house when writing about my increasingly home-centered life.

Our place has a ways to go before reaching Bodio-grade richness and interest. But then, we don't have a good bar within walking distance, so we may never get there!