Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What is "Food"?

I have been noodling the American Obesity/Food Stamp nation issue much of late. Then I saw this article.

Much of it was the usual blather - except this:

The committee also grappled with one of the third rails of American politics: farm policy. Price-support programs for wheat, cotton and other commodity crops prohibit participating farmers from planting fruits and vegetables on land enrolled in those programs. Partly as a result, U.S. farms do not produce enough fresh produce for all Americans to eat the recommended amounts, and the IOM panel calls for removing that ban.

Got that? The USDA (Department of Agriculture), the Federal Agency charged with shaping and enforcing Agriculture policy, the Agency that issues guidelines for healthy eating - is the same agency whose policies have led to insufficient supplies of the food stuffs that THAT Agency recommends for THEIR recommended diet. WTF??!!

Which leads me back to the basic question: What is "Food" in America? Is it enough calories, as in a state prison cafeteria, to maintain life? Or something else?

I often see articles like "The 10 Super foods". The list varies, but blue berries, wild salmon, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, and other fresh fruits and vegetables seem to always make the list.

Then a looked up what the average family receives in food assistance from the Federal government. There are 115mm households or so in the U.S. 22mm of them receive food assistance - receiving an average of $277 per month? I have a farm and we produce most of our own food and still spend $1200 per month on fresh fruits, vegetables, sea food (although some of that is surely household supplies unrelated to food) for the family. One of the reasons I put in the soft fruit garden was our berry bill has averaged several hundred $$ per month... (and, no, I am not advocating expanding increasing Food Stamp benefits... we have already addicted 1/5 of all households to government food assistance.)

In any event, it seems to me that the average American cannot afford the foods on the list of the 10 super foods. Yes, the average American has enough to eat - actually TOO MUCH to eat - but the foods on the "Super Foods" list is not represented in the average American's diet.


"Food activist" (whatever that is) Michael Pollan blames farm subsidies. Maybe. And maybe people just don't like broccoli as much as they like potato chips soaked in partially hydrogenated corn oil/twinkees/coco puffs.

The fact is that growing blueberries is difficult and expensive compared to growing corn.  If people are not willing to pay for it, well, farmer's won't grow it. Is Pollan suggesting we subsidize broccoli/cabbage farmers? I really don't think that that will influence your average 4-year-old's opinion on broccoli, but hey... you never know.

Let's be even more forthright: I sincerely doubt that the U.S.'s upper middle class and lower wealthy are  eating all that unhealthily. My bet is that the entrenched underclass and the lower working class - the people actually receiving food assistance (see, the government would have you believe that all of those "fatherless" homes have NO adult male present - Baloney. These homes have one/or more adult males present consuming those food calories provided by SNAP/Food Stamps... he's just not the father of the kids in the household - and he is not officially receiving assistance) have abysmal diets.

And we can adjust the diets of these people with farm policy?  NAFC.

The hard fact is that there is very little that can be done for the diet's of the inner city poor and working class from a policy standpoint. Not to worry. People are NOT dumb. Given enough time and incentive they will work it out or perish, and nobody likes that second option.

A bigger question is: Why are 25% of people in my rural county on food assistance? Why no blueberry or asparagus patch instead of a yard that needs to be mowed (and never is)?

The industrial demands of the 20th century that brought the rural population to the cities will needs be undone - and it will get undone, one way or the other. Mechanization, robotization, computerization, off shoring, et all, will continue their onslaught on people with average abilities, gifts, and motivations.  These people are no longer needed on any assembly line because there ARE NO assembly lines anymore (at least not in the G7 nations) - and we need to get over that. China is not stealing "our" jobs, The Machines are.

But who in their right mind would want a "job"? "Jobs" are for poor, "uneducated" (people with humanities degrees that don't actually know how TO DO anything) people that do not own land.

For eons, our ancestors migrated at risk of life and limb for the promise of land and the security it brought. Today our young people think a corporate job/municipal job and a mortgaged condo represent security, and maybe that was true - for a couple of seconds on the evolutionary day scale for mankind. How much longer that is true is very, very much up for debate.

I was visiting with my Amish friend at Brubacher's Tack in Scottsville, KY. We got to talking about things financial, the Japanese earthquake, and GMO seeds from Monsanto (among other topics)... he was interested in my experiences working in New York in the securities business. I looked around at his 120 acres of land with planted crops, mature fruit trees, hand pumped and windmill pumped wells, barns, draft horses, buggies, 30 head of cattle, 50 head of sheep, gardens, green houses, horse powered saw mill and grain mill, his artisan shop where they make leather tack, harness, and saddles, and his 10 children and 30 grandchildren (he's my age give or take) all living within walking distance (none of whom will ever develop a drug or alcohol problem, go to jail, get divorced...) and I said: "this (gesturing to his spread with my hand) is real wealth. Paper money can be gone in an instant."

I wonder if he could sense a touch of envy.


dennis said...

Baffles me that I can get food stamps and not medical stamps. I can grow my own food. Preforming open heart surgery on myself is not the best option.
I'd like to see options for us poor folk that make since. Let me drive a battery powered golf cart to work. Yes it takes twice as long, but I can afford 50 cents in electricity rather that 50 dollars in gas. The insurance has got to be cheaper too. Heck I can build a shelter for myself in what I pay for a years rent...just keep the building inspectors away from me.

Greg T. Jeffers said...

How very true.

PioneerPreppy said...

Why do you think you can take a golf cart to work in third world countries but not here? Keep Government and their regulations out of everything and it will work itself out.

Once they begin to fund this or that it snowballs and then as Greg said "The liberal arts majors become the poor workers" to paraphrase.

Anonymous said...


Beware ALL recommendations on food. It seems to me to be the most politicized of markets. If you can't find a double blind study to support marketing claims (10 best foods included) you can be 99% sure what they are feeding you. (Pun intended.) When you do find some original supporting data it is AMAZING how far marketeers spin from the base results. Many claims, though based in fact, may provide only marginal health benefits. And then, there are some BIG LIES of diet and dieting.

How gross misconceptions get embedded in the collective psyche is the true miracle of modern marketing. How do they do it? How did they convince us that tap water is bad for us or junk food is cheap? The city sends me a report every year that lists the concentrations of contaminants in my water. It is safe. A half hour walk through the grocery store disproves the junk food theory by a 3x price differential. Yet we hear this crap from "authoritative sources" all the time. Most people believe it in the face of concrete evidence to the contrary.

I intend to comment a couple more times to this post as time permits.


Coal Guy

tweell said...

Those Super foods are generally expensive, while HoHos and ranch dressing are cheap calories. The ability to cook is also an issue. It's amazing how few lower-class Americans know how to cook. The skill loss there has been going on since at least WWII.

Government regulation has made small farms become subsistence-only. The cost of compliance with regulations is too high for non-corporate farms to bear, and the paperwork hurdles for collecting subsidies is the same way.

Greg T. Jeffers said...

I look forward to your further comments, Coal Guy.

l do think Tweel's point is spot on - cheap and easy calories have great appeal.

While I wandered in the post, the point that I wandered from and wanted to make was this: Here is the USDA, a BIG BUDGET agency of the Federal Government. An agency that tells us what we should eat (presumably, there is value in their opinions (snicker)). However, the policies of the USDA have assured an inadequate supply of the very food stuffs that we spend Billions on tax dollars on being told we need.

Anonymous said...

Since when did government money ever come without strings attached? Ok, other than the 24 trillion we gave the banks, when has government money ever came without strings attached? Take the kings shilling, and you take all that goes with it.

What boggles my mind is the staggering sums farmers employ for marginal yeilds. It seems to me best bets for a farmer would be in fruits and vegetables. Low capital with high yeilds and high labor. Sure beats high Capitol low labor and low yeild with a job in town to make ends meet.


tweell said...

I know a 'truck farmer', who has some decent spreads around Yuma and grows veggies there. He doesn't get government subsidies (but does use LOTS of illegal workers).

He stated that the fruit and vegetable market was extremely volatile, what you made depended on weather all over the world. He would lose money one year, break about even two years and make bank one year, he claimed that it was a 4 year cycle on average.

A farmer has to not only be good at farming, but have ferocious self-discipline. Those good years are the dangerous ones, he said. If you don't plan for the bad to come, you were soon finished. Farmers are planners.

agriculture investments said...

The idea that any government agency "knows" what people should eat is ludicrous. People need to be independent enough to make their own choices, no need for the nanny state advising anyone.

Anonymous said...

Hi Greg,

I haven't seen bare shelves at the grocery store, so supply equals demand at present prices. Prices are reasonably cheap, too. What we ar suffering from is the introduction of what I'd call BIG LIES into the common psyche. A few of the biggest whoppers are:

1. Tap water is not fit to drink.

2. Junk food and fast food are cheaper than nutritious food.

3. In general, the food at the grocery store is so contaminated that you have to buy organic and specialty foods.

I'm of the opinion that we are all being worked on by marketing efforts outside of traditional advertising. These include product and attitude placement in television and other entertainment as well as planted news stories.

In the food industry, there are three visible goals. One is elimination of tap water as a choice for human consumption. Another is to drive the poor, and anyone else that might want to, to eat junk and fast food. Finally, they'd like to convince the rest of us to buy expensive odd and organic choices at great expense.

In this comment, I'll concentrate on perhaps the most ingenious big lie of all time. That is, the poor are obese because they are forced to eat fast food and junk food as the cheapest form of nutrition. You can disprove this for yourself by taking a 1/2 hr walk through the grocery store. Check out the frozen crap food, the chicken nuggets, frozen dinners, pizzas, etc. Then check out the chip aisle. Then go to McDonalds. You will find that all of that food is pretty uniformly priced between $5 and $7 per pound. Then look at the fresh vegetables. The basics, potatoes, onions, celery, carrots, etc are about $1 per pound. The next level up, green beans, peppers, cukes, leaf lettuce, beets, etc. are around $2/lb. Boneless, skinless chicken (raised in a bucket?) is on sale every 2 weeks for $2/lb. Once a month whole pork tenderloin is $2/lb, too. Milk is cheap. Eggs are cheap. Dried peas, beans and lentils are cheap. Macaroni and rice are cheap. I see no problem in providing a decent balanced diet for about 1/3 the cost of junk food.

What a F%^$%ing lie. Yet it seeps out of the MSM news and politicians' and experts' mouths all the time. The attraction for junk food is convenience at the expense of nutrition and price. My take on this is that if you can afford to get fat at McDonalds, YOU ARE NOT POOR. As Greg has said, very little appears in the news that doesn't serve some special interest.

The genius of this lie is in its two-fold purpose. To those that can least afford it, it encourages a poor and expensive diet by providing the rational it is the cheapest. To the power hungry liberals, it provides a rational for further government control of the food industry. Damn, I wish I were that smart.


Coal Guy

Anonymous said...

And then there is water...

How do you get the majority of the population to switch from drinking tap water to bottled water??

Plant news stories that imply that your tap water might be contaminated. I saw a clear example of this on the ABC evening news one night. Diane Sawyer was positioned at the lower right quarter of the screen. The rest of the screen was filled by a black and white image of a water spigot with a stream of water flowing out. Here is a synopsis of the story:

Researchers (unidentified) have discovered that a component (unidentified) of rocket fuel may be present in the drinking water in as many as 20 States (unidentified). The EPA may (or may not???) look into it.

What is the message? Don't drink the water. There is absolutely NO hard information in the story. It is a plant to scare people into drinking bottled water.

The social damage from this type of marketing is incalculable. Beyond that, what information sources can be trusted in the face of this kind of corruption?

As you said, changing agricultural policy won't fix obesity. How do you fight ubiquitous sophisticated media that instill neuroses in the population for profit.

Fear your food.
Fear your water.
Fear to breathe the air ( even though it is MUCH cleaner than 40 years ago).
Fear to let your kids play outside.
Fear germs.
Fear the Sun.


Coal Guy

Anonymous said...

Coal guy,

You're generally right about the fear factor in food advertising and advocacy articles today, but I'd fine tune what you say about food and the poor.

Yes, per pound, the unprocessed food is as cheap, if not cheaper per pound that the processed stuff, but one also has to consider calories per dollar as well. Celery, potatoes, chicken breasts are all fairly low calorie density food, not so much fried chicken nuggets, etc.

I still think your point is valid, but I don't it's valid quite to the extreme that you are getting at once one accounts for the calorie per pound advantage of processed food.

I'll go further, however, and, not to be Captain Obvious here, but being poor nowadays usually means living a super sedate lifestyle on the part of both kids and adults.

I also think that cooking skills have diminished among the poor even more than among the rest of the population, so that also impacts people's ability to turn the unprocessed stuff along the outside isles of a grocery store into cheap meals. (Some people also say that poor folk don't have the time to cook because they're working long hours, but that kind of contradicts with what I just said about sedate lifestyles. I suppose it depends on the individual poorer family's specific circumstances.)

In any case, it all adds up to FAT.

Stephen B.

Anonymous said...

I forgot soda as well. High fructose sugar waters have to be some of the cheapest-priced calorie sources out there, though maybe not so on a dollar per pound basis (it being mainly water and sugar - two fairly dense consumables.

Stephen B.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a lot more to nutrition than the nutritionist realize; and that doesn't just come from readiness Pollan. Though, his books are certainly interesting. Take any food calorie table drop it into excel and convert it from calories per serving to ounces per 100 calories.

I did this when I decided I needed to diet and the results are shocking. For instance 100 calories of broccoli is 10oz ergo 1600 calories of broccoli is ten lbs! Esenntaly all the vegetables are similar. If calories are all there is too it, why don't vegitsrians starve?


Anonymous said...

Oh wow, atrocious spelling. Type on a "smart" phone and the autocorrect feature will make you look dumb.


Anonymous said...


Don't worry about the spelling. Having acquired a smartphone myself some months ago, I've suffered the same spelling "corrections", so much so that when I read something somebody else has written that has a quite puzzling word inserted, I now know to stop for just a moment, and reverse-engineer what the person's phone did. It's usually pretty easy :-)

Stephen B.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dan and Stephen,

Only sugar in soda is on a par with sugar on the grocery store shelves. Vegetable oil is about $12/gal or $2/lb. Rice and macaroni are around $1/lb dehydrated. Beans, $1.50/lb dehydrated. The fattier cuts of chicken and pork sell at a discount to the leaner cuts. Only beef gets a premium for fat because well marbled beef is tenderer. A good diet that you cook yourself is cheaper than a bad diet of processed food. A bad diet that you cook for yourself can be even cheaper.

Best Regards,

Coal Guy

tweell said...

When I was single and poor I cooked beans and rice for my meals. If I was feeling really hungry I'd throw in some cheap meat or crack an egg in it. That got supplemented by whatever was cheapest in the fruit & veggie section. For a change I'd do Ramen with an egg in it.

We have the most pampered poor the world has ever seen.