Linda, the scene you describe from the movie "Food Inc.," in which a family of four is unable to afford fresh pears and instead is compelled to choke down fast-food "dollar meals" sounds heartbreaking.
I have yet to see the movie because -- most frustratingly -- it is not playing anywhere in the D.C. area, where I live (though I did read both '"The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "Fast Food Nation," on which the film is based).
Like you, I am lucky. I go to my farmers' market every week; at the supermarket I can choose to spend my grocery money on organic eggs and milk and high-quality meat and poultry that don't come from factory farms. And, like you, I decry the fact that thanks to government subsidies (more than $60 billion since 1995), corn, often in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, is now in just about everything we eat and drink.
And then some. Here is what Michael Pollan says in "The Omnivore's Dilemma":
"Even in [the produce section of the supermarket] on a day when there's ostensibly no corn for sale, you'll nevertheless find plenty of corn: in the vegetable wax that gives the cucumbers their sheen, in the pesticide responsible for the produce's perfection, even in the coating on the cardboard it was shipped in. Indeed, the supermarket itself -- the wallboard and joint compound, the linoleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself has been built -- is in no small measure a manifestation of corn."
Indeed, trying to shop for groceries without buying corn is like trying to shop at Walmart or Target without buying something made in China; that is to say, nearly impossible. I agree that government support would better serve those in need if it were put toward programs that connected local farmers with school districts -- a notion President Obama has mentioned -- or that put farmers' market prices within reach of more people.
At the same time, I reject the premise that fast food is the only alternative for people on a limited budget. How much cheaper is it, really? An article in yesterday's Washington Postfood section, in which the writer determined she could make more-nutritious, cheaper versions of "fast food" burgers, pizza and such in her own kitchen, did a fine job of poking holes in that premise. Besides, what kind of "deal" are we talking about? Is losing a parent to a heart attack or dealing with a lifetime of diabetes symptoms and treatment really a better deal?
The problem is many people have no idea how to shop -- or cook -- effectively.
That's where Jodi Balis comes in. Balis, a registered dietitian, is the director of nutrition education at the Capital Area Food Bank, which distributes 23 million pounds of food -- including 6.6 million pounds of fresh produce -- each year to 700 food pantries and other charities that assist low-income people. Balis teaches staff members from the organizations how to prepare the donated food in creative and cost-effective ways, information that they then pass on to their clients. She also oversees programs that teach kids how to prepare healthful snacks and low-income people how to shop and cook on a budget.
"Most people are worried about the upfront cost of ingredients," Balis told me. "But what they don't take into account is that there are no leftovers at a fast-food restaurant." Balis likes to demonstrate this in her classes by making vegetarian chili and comparing it to buying a can of pre-made chili (which in all likelihood contains a good deal of sodium and corn syrup). Then she displays the leftovers of both meals. "On one side there's an empty can; on the other there are leftover lentils, carrots and celery. So, not only do you have leftover chili, but you also have leftover ingredients to make more meals."
One of the biggest obstacles to better eating, of course, is accessibility. Where I live, not only do I have a Safeway within a mile of my house; I also live within five or so miles of three Harris Teeters, a Whole Foods and Balducci -- not to mention at least three weekly farmers' markets.
On the other hand, take the city of Detroit, where I used to live. Vast portions of it are so-called "food deserts," where residents have limited or no access to full-service grocery stores, and obesity rates are skyrocketing.
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