“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” ~author and food activist Michael Pollan
In 2016, I published a book titled Sensible Wellness for Women. In it, my co-author Andra and I discussed our approach to finding more health, wholeness, and happiness in our lives by making small changes to our mindfulness, diet, exercise, and sleep patterns. We called it following the four: invite, digest, move, and rest.
I recently read my own book for the very first time. Mostly I still agree with my advice. I believe we all should learn to sit with our thoughts and feel through our emotions. I believe most of us need to move more often and hit the pillow a little earlier. But the digest section made me cringe a little. I owe my readers an apology.
I still believe that diet is a four-letter word. I still hate how we have demonized caffeine and alcohol and carbohydrates. I still think that disordered eating affects far more people – particularly women – than we want to acknowledge. But Sensible Wellness leaned too far into my individual experience without considering how the advice would play out more broadly.
I proposed an individual solution to what I know now to be a systemic problem. I wrote in my book that we have made eating complicated when it shouldn’t be. My current understanding is that it is actually far more complicated than I ever imagined. I thought the worst thing about the American diet is that we mindlessly shove over-processed, chemical-laden foods into our bodies.
Perhaps the actual worst thing about the American diet is that most of the population cannot afford to eat anything except over-processed, chemical-laden foods. When I wrote about “voting with my fork,” I was really just defending my privileged choice to spend $8.00 on a pint of strawberries at the Farmer’s Market. But the real tragedy is the migrant worker that picked the berries may or may not be making a living wage doing so.
I’m not blaming Michael Pollan for my tone-deaf views on our nation’s industrial food systems. But he’s not entirely innocent here either. After reading Pollan’s books In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I gifted copies to everyone I knew. Pollan is an advocate of slow, mindful eating. He believes that American agribusiness has lost touch with the natural cycles of farming, and suggests it’s a political act to demand “food with a defensible story.” For example, when I buy my lamb at the Farmer’s Market, I personally know the farmer. I drive past this farm every week and know those animals have been treated humanely. If I order lamb at a restaurant without asking where it came from, I am “voting with my fork;” i.e. supporting inhumane factory farming conditions and meat laden with synthetic hormones.
I am so squarely in Michael Pollan’s audience demographic I might as well have a target on my back. He caught me in his net of “we should understand where our food comes from.” I lapped up his romanticized descriptions of running a small farm. He set the perfect pastoral scene, one that is far more idealized than reality. His books made me passionate about supporting local farmers and local restaurants where everything is made by hand (rather than trucked in and reheated).
One cannot use nostalgic idealization to describe farming. You don’t have to go too far back in our nation’s history to see that the success of most farms were borne on the backs of enslaved peoples. Even today, it’s a labor of love, but back-breaking work. And if you didn’t inherit land from your family, current land prices and mortgage rates make it hard to even get started. That carton of eggs that cost $5 at the Farmer’s Market? Worth every penny, when you consider the amount of blood, sweat, and tears it took to get those eggs to market. I have many friends that run small farms and I am always exhausted listening to the long list of daily chores a small farm requires in every season.
But I want to acknowledge that it’s a privilege to be able to afford those products. It’s a privilege to get takeout from Taj or Don Señor. I have only ever seen it as supporting my local infrastructure without acknowledging that lots of people would love to be able to do so as well, but are not in the right tax bracket or cultural group. Our local Farmer’s Market is on Depot Street, just a few steps from Washington Street, but seemingly miles away based on the scant number of dark-skinned faces you see shopping there on a typical Saturday morning. I naively believed that people simply need to understand where their food comes from to eat healthily. But one needs more than knowledge to gain access to fresh, nutritious, and affordable food.
Winchester is still officially a geographic food desert, where grocery stores are more than 5 miles away from a majority of county residents and fast food restaurants far outnumber locally owned restaurants. I used to groan every time a new fast food sign went up. But the lines at McDonald’s are always long because cheap, convenient food does have a place both in our diets and in our budgets.
I now believe that true social change is directly tied to policy. To improve access to quality food, we need to vote not only with our fork, but also elect officials that support farm subsidies and policy changes to encourage regenerative farming practices.
Shout out to the amazing podcast Maintenance Phase for helping to enlighten me on the history of what we eat, anti-fat bias, and the general ludicrousness of America’s diet culture.