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When Did Healthy Food Become a Luxury Product?


Health & Wellness  (tags: americans, children, diet, disease, drugs, environment, ethics, exercise, family, food, FOOD INSECURITY, government, healthcare, illness, investigation, medicine, nutrition, prevention, protection, research, risks, safety, science, society, study, women )

Kit
- 520 days ago - takepart.com
In an exclusive interview, the author of a book on how America eats describes the many, many barriers to a good-for-you diet.



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Kit B. (277)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 8:37 am
In her book on how American eats, Tracie McMillan describes a food system that puts barriers up between many Americans and fresh, healthy food. (Photo: Scribner)




Tracie McMillan remembers the day well. She was working in the fresh produce section of a Walmart near Detroit. Part of her job was to rotate foods to keep the produce fresh. But it was a challenge. Her 20-year-old manager, who had transferred to produce from the electronics department, had no training in managing fruits and vegetables. And one of the store's produce coolers had a leak, throwing humidity levels off and causing food to rot easily.

One day, the staff threw out 200 pounds of what had once been fresh, delicious, and nutritious asparagus. "This was straight-up mismanagement," says McMillan, an independent journalist who was working in the store in order to research a book on the industry. The manager, she says, "wasn't somebody who should be in charge of the fresh-food supply for half the town—for 2,000 people. I had to ask myself: If this is the kind of produce people are offered, can I blame them for eating processed food and junk food?"

How Can Someone Be Both 'Stuffed and Starved'?




Those are the questions raised by McMillan in her book, The American Way of Eating, which was published in late 2012 and has since triggered a growing debate about why healthy foods seem so inaccessible to so many people. "It's really been interesting to me to realize that people want to have the conversation with me about the American way of eating," says McMillan, the keynote speaker at the Natural Products Expo, held recently in Anaheim, California. "We're at an international crossroads with the way we think and talk about food. We are just beginning to have a conversation that having truly healthy food is not a luxury product."

McMillan, a senior fellow at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, calls her book "an investigative look at what it might take for America to eat well," she explains. "I wanted to understand how our food system works. It was important to me to get at the whole of how we eat when time and money are at a premium."

Can a Grocery Store Really Create Zero Waste? This One Can

To research the book, she worked in the Walmart near Detroit because the area served lower-income people, who have the most difficulty eating healthy, and because Walmart is the largest grocer in the United States.

McMillan also spent time harvesting garlic in California's Central Valley and worked in the kitchen at an Applebee's near Brooklyn. The jobs illustrated how tough it is for people to improve their diets if they don't have much money. "One of the big lessons I learned was that everybody wants good food," she says. "The second big thing I learned is it takes an incredible amount of skill to run the food system, to feed America...I think there should be an advanced degree for produce management. We never really think about how critical the work in a grocery store is. The way grocery stores are run really matters."

'I Work at a Chicken Processing Plant and I Know Where Your Food Comes From'

In the Central Valley, she witnessed the huge discrepancy between what farm workers are paid for harvesting foods that Americans pay a premium for in grocery stores. While labor laws in California are supposed to protect workers and guarantee minimum wage, McMillan found she could only make $2 to $3 an hour, "even though this is incredibly skilled work."

"People say food would cost more if we paid workers more," McMillan says. "For every dollar we spend on food at the store, only about 14 cents goes to the farmer. We probably don't need to look at squeezing the farmer. We need to look at squeezing the other 86 cents."

One study showed that a 40 percent increase in farm workers' wages would cost the average U.S. family about $15 a year, she says. "Every single farmer I've talked to says there is no way you can cheat someone out of wages that are so regulated. [But] I saw it all the time," she notes. "If you're really committed to the idea that healthy food is important...then you're arguing for the minimum wage to go up."

The Wage War: Should America's Working Poor Get a Raise?

At the Applebee's where she worked—which she selected because it was the largest casual dining operator in the United States—she was stunned to learn that the only whole, fresh foods in the kitchen were potatoes, onions, lettuce, and tomatoes. Other fruits and vegetables used in the meals were prepackaged, and sometimes the quality of those foods was questionable. She writes about having to heat packets of broccoli and mashed potatoes; sometimes the plastic would disintegrate on the food in flakes that appeared to be salt, "but was actually plastic," she says.

The problem, McMillan says, is that healthy food is really only easy to access for people who have sufficient incomes. "We've treated healthy food as a luxury product."

Tactics to address child and adult obesity in the United States have focused on educating people on how to eat healthier. But for most people that's not just hard, it's nearly impossible. And what we've tried so far is simply not making enough of a difference, she argues. "I've met a lot of people who say, 'I know I should eat well but it's hard,' " she says. "The food that will keep us healthy is out of reach, and we act like that is normal.”

Reducing Childhood Obesity—One Cupcake at a Time

Lower-income parents have a particularly hard time feeding their children, as McMillan witnessed while sharing a house with several families of farm workers in the Central Valley. Meals were based around cheap and filling foods: beans, rice, tortillas.

It's not much different for kids in low-income urban areas. The book idea, in fact, was sparked by McMillan's encounter with a teenager in a poorer section of New York. The girl ate mostly junk food, such as meals at a nearby fast-food restaurant, even though she admitted that she knew it was unhealthy. When McMillan asked her why, she replied: "Because it's easy and it's right here."

Can Walmart and Big Business Change the Food System?

Meanwhile, food manufacturers, grocers, and restaurant operators are aiming for the more affluent customer, she says. In fact, she adds, "there's a huge, untapped" business opportunity for someone who wants to get fresh, healthy food to people at prices they can afford.

In the meantime, she has a message for those people who run America's complicated food system: "Take your work seriously. You are responsible to make sure we are fed not just profitably, but well."

How Can Someone Be Both 'Stuffed and Starved'?

Those are the questions raised by McMillan in her book, The American Way of Eating, which was published in late 2012 and has since triggered a growing debate about why healthy foods seem so inaccessible to so many people. "It's really been interesting to me to realize that people want to have the conversation with me about the American way of eating," says McMillan, the keynote speaker at the Natural Products Expo, held recently in Anaheim, California. "We're at an international crossroads with the way we think and talk about food. We are just beginning to have a conversation that having truly healthy food is not a luxury product."

McMillan, a senior fellow at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, calls her book "an investigative look at what it might take for America to eat well," she explains. "I wanted to understand how our food system works. It was important to me to get at the whole of how we eat when time and money are at a premium."

Can a Grocery Store Really Create Zero Waste? This One Can

To research the book, she worked in the Walmart near Detroit because the area served lower-income people, who have the most difficulty eating healthy, and because Walmart is the largest grocer in the United States.

McMillan also spent time harvesting garlic in California's Central Valley and worked in the kitchen at an Applebee's near Brooklyn. The jobs illustrated how tough it is for people to improve their diets if they don't have much money. "One of the big lessons I learned was that everybody wants good food," she says. "The second big thing I learned is it takes an incredible amount of skill to run the food system, to feed America...I think there should be an advanced degree for produce management. We never really think about how critical the work in a grocery store is. The way grocery stores are run really matters."

'I Work at a Chicken Processing Plant and I Know Where Your Food Comes From'

In the Central Valley, she witnessed the huge discrepancy between what farm workers are paid for harvesting foods that Americans pay a premium for in grocery stores. While labor laws in California are supposed to protect workers and guarantee minimum wage, McMillan found she could only make $2 to $3 an hour, "even though this is incredibly skilled work."

"People say food would cost more if we paid workers more," McMillan says. "For every dollar we spend on food at the store, only about 14 cents goes to the farmer. We probably don't need to look at squeezing the farmer. We need to look at squeezing the other 86 cents."

One study showed that a 40 percent increase in farm workers' wages would cost the average U.S. family about $15 a year, she says. "Every single farmer I've talked to says there is no way you can cheat someone out of wages that are so regulated. [But] I saw it all the time," she notes. "If you're really committed to the idea that healthy food is important...then you're arguing for the minimum wage to go up."

The Wage War: Should America's Working Poor Get a Raise?

At the Applebee's where she worked—which she selected because it was the largest casual dining operator in the United States—she was stunned to learn that the only whole, fresh foods in the kitchen were potatoes, onions, lettuce, and tomatoes. Other fruits and vegetables used in the meals were prepackaged, and sometimes the quality of those foods was questionable. She writes about having to heat packets of broccoli and mashed potatoes; sometimes the plastic would disintegrate on the food in flakes that appeared to be salt, "but was actually plastic," she says.

The problem, McMillan says, is that healthy food is really only easy to access for people who have sufficient incomes. "We've treated healthy food as a luxury product."

Tactics to address child and adult obesity in the United States have focused on educating people on how to eat healthier. But for most people that's not just hard, it's nearly impossible. And what we've tried so far is simply not making enough of a difference, she argues. "I've met a lot of people who say, 'I know I should eat well but it's hard,' " she says. "The food that will keep us healthy is out of reach, and we act like that is normal.”

Reducing Childhood Obesity—One Cupcake at a Time

Lower-income parents have a particularly hard time feeding their children, as McMillan witnessed while sharing a house with several families of farm workers in the Central Valley. Meals were based around cheap and filling foods: beans, rice, tortillas.

It's not much different for kids in low-income urban areas. The book idea, in fact, was sparked by McMillan's encounter with a teenager in a poorer section of New York. The girl ate mostly junk food, such as meals at a nearby fast-food restaurant, even though she admitted that she knew it was unhealthy. When McMillan asked her why, she replied: "Because it's easy and it's right here."

Can Walmart and Big Business Change the Food System?

Meanwhile, food manufacturers, grocers, and restaurant operators are aiming for the more affluent customer, she says. In fact, she adds, "there's a huge, untapped" business opportunity for someone who wants to get fresh, healthy food to people at prices they can afford.

In the meantime, she has a message for those people who run America's complicated food system: "Take your work seriously. You are responsible to make sure we are fed not just profitably, but well."

What do you think should be done to increase access to healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods?


• Three Simple Ways to End Hunger in America

• Should We Be Eating More 'Expired' Foods? A Former Trader Joe's Exec Thinks So

• Farmers Markets Are Actually Cheap—So Where Are the Low-Income Shoppers?
***

By: Shari Roan| Take Part |

Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California. She is the author of three books on health and science subjects.
 

Betsy Bee (1042)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 10:35 am
Farmer's Markets are cheaper and are usually easier to get to. Why are they not popular enough? How many farmer's markets advertise on television?
 

Arielle S. (316)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 10:39 am
Great article! I believe eating is not just filling your stomach - it's also a - for lack of a better phrase - a spiritual act. When you eat, you are nourishing your body, your senses, your mind - done with the right food under the right circumstances, food can change your mood from ho hum to peaceful and content. We would all do so much better to eat less but better.... slow down.... really taste what we are shoving into our mouths....even think about where this food came from and who might have grown it. Nothing wrong with eating a decadent chocolate brownie as long as we enjoy it.... but so much better to make it than order it at Applebee's!!
 

Kit B. (277)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 11:01 am

A new report, released last week by the Project for Public Spaces, sets out to answer that question—and Obadia says it has already been helpful in shaping practices for the future. In the report—“Farmers Markets as a Strategy to Improve Access to Healthy Food for Low-Income Families and Communities”—researchers analyzed market financial data and surveyed a sampling of individuals in eight mostly low-income communities served by farmers markets across the country.

The report, published by PPS, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Columbia University, shed light on what residents are looking for in a market—and it may have even busted a few stereotypes along the way.

http://www.takepart.com/node/35617

If you have access to the Internet check for "Bountiful Baskets" in your area. For $15.00 you can feed a family with fresh fruits and veggies.
 

Many Feathers (134)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 12:25 pm
many people of need lack easy access to farmers markets
 

Sue Matheson (70)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 12:38 pm
thanks.
 

Mike S. (86)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 12:45 pm
Great article Kit! Thanks very much.
 

Val R. (235)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 12:59 pm
In some places here it is illegal to have a garden and especially not in the front yard - then to top it off them chem-trail and poison the fresh produce - just look at the price of donuts - cheaper than any healthy breakfast you can buy - pop tarts- every cereal except shredded whet (the original) and oatmeal tyou make yourslef has sugar in it - since when was choloate milk and sweet cereal a healthy breakfast?
 

Kristine H. (75)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 1:15 pm
Interesting article, thanks for sharing. What a shame that processed and prepackaged foods are more readily available and more affordable than fresh foods. Luckily I live in an area with plenty of farmer's markets!
 

Theodore Shayne (56)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 1:32 pm
I have a large co-op just north west of me so I must soon check it out and find out how expensive it is. I'm surprised that more poor neighborhoods such as those in Chicago and east LA haven't started growing their own.
 

Jeni P. (21)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 1:34 pm
i live in the UK...and fresh fruit and vegetables are not at all cheap to buy....why do supermarkets insist on pricing junk food so cheaply but then healthy foods they have to price dearly...i tend to buy my fruit and veg from a market as often as i can....there are less worries bout packaging, and fruit and veg is a lot cheaper....now if markets are still making a profit on prices they sell at...then it makes you wonder what sort of profit margin supermarkets have.....i feel so sorry for parents with young children now....cos even though its not right, it does work out cheaper if they buy junk foods instead of fresh...its only way they can make their money stretch that little bit further....we are definitely living in a rich mans world these days and its unfair when everyone has the right to healthy eating
 

Malgorzata Zmuda (181)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 1:37 pm
Jemy coraz gorzej i coraz więcej przetworzonej żywności. Najgorsze jest to, że ten co produkuje np, kiszoną kapustę sam nigdy by tego nie zjadł (bo wie jak to robi). To samo dotyczy innych artykułów spożywczych. Dlaczego rolnik dla swojej rodziny uprawia na osobnym polu niż dla innych?
 

Sandra Patterson (60)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 1:43 pm
noted,ty
 

Iona Kentwell (134)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 1:46 pm
Very interesting thank you Kit. There are some very god points here about managing food, we treat it like any other commodity on the shelf, but it is very different and so much more important.
 

Frank S. (457)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 1:54 pm
"we are definitely living in a rich mans world these days" - Jeni P.

The quote above says it all! In this world its profit above anything else!
 

Jaime A. (32)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 2:08 pm
Noted, thanks.
 

Angelika R. (146)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 3:34 pm
Hm, guess I need to see a US supermarket from the inside to comment here, are you saying that fruit and veggies are sold packed up there and not layed out loosely? Generally I would insist that the cheapest food is the healthiest in most cases, by that I don't mean the condition of the food, like old, not freh, but the sort /choice one buys. Plus you may have the additional problem of looking for non-GMO foods, making it all the more difficult and expensive.
 

Yvonne White (231)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 3:40 pm
"When Did Healthy Food Become a Luxury Product?" About 1972 as I recall..;) But it didn't get extremely pricey until 2011.
 

Frank S. (457)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 4:48 pm
Another thing is that you used to go to a restaurant and get quality food, but now most of what you pay for not natural, and also not even made well. What I hate the most is that many places really pretend that they are serving up quality food. By the way, I sure miss the old days when all food was real!

 

Kit B. (277)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 4:52 pm

I miss the old family restaurants, the ones where Mom and Dad ran the place, and they were not happy unless the customer was happy. The food and service were good, each meal was fresh food, and the prices were fair. Or maybe I was just having a dream.
 

JL A. (275)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 7:06 pm
A sad commentary that begs the question of how we got to be this way and why no one stopped it during the gradual change?
 

Bryan S. (98)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 9:34 pm
It is true that healthy food can be more expensive. But the thing is, it's much cheaper to make your own meal from organic food than it is to buy some crap from Applebees. And any extra cost of eating healthy food can be looked at as an investment in one's health -- which can be a very significant investment financially and otherwise.

All this info has been out there for so long now that i think a lot of people just don't want to take responsibility. But not to say it isn't a real problem especially for kids in an urban area surrounded by junk food. But even there, most anyone can throw some organic beans, cheese, and salsa in a whole-grain tortilla and it will end up being cheaper than going to Taco Hell.
 

Bryan S. (98)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 9:37 pm
And also, it would help if we (the US) stopped subsidizing big agri's crap while forcing organic farmer who don't get any help to pay more to be certified.
 

Patricia H. (468)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 9:51 pm
noted
 

Past Member (0)
Sunday March 17, 2013, 11:08 pm
Noted , thanks .
 

Patricia GG (107)
Monday March 18, 2013, 7:49 am
Let's hope that in soon times the food suppliers will adjust their prices at reasonable & moderate margins to accomodate all buyers in all income levels.
 

Past Member (0)
Monday March 18, 2013, 9:08 am
noted - ty
 

Shanti S. (0)
Monday March 18, 2013, 10:32 am
Thank you.
 

Ro H. (0)
Monday March 18, 2013, 10:58 am
ty
 

Connie O. (42)
Monday March 18, 2013, 11:27 am
interesting article...thank you
 

Angie V. (41)
Monday March 18, 2013, 2:35 pm
Noted ty.
 

Donna G. (38)
Monday March 18, 2013, 4:48 pm
I've read in comments that Farmers Markets are cheaper. Our Market runs once a week from the first Saturday in May through the last Saturday in October. It is not cheaper to shop at the Farmers Market in our town. I once asked a local farmer how he determines how to price his produce and he told me that he checks the prices at the local supermarkets and takes an average then rounds up to the next whole dollar. Where our Market has corn on the cob for 2 or 3 ears for a dollar, I have heard that other Markets sell corn on the cob for 10 or 12 ears for a dollar.

Corporations do not want to give up their huge profits. They will pay the least amount for the most work. In our area migrant workers do most of the harvesting, whether by hand or by machine. If the farm workers are to get at the least minimum wage, the companies will still want to make their huge profits. So, the cost will be passed on to the consumer.

There are so many things that I do not buy anymore because they are priced out of my reach.
 

Dandelion G. (385)
Monday March 18, 2013, 5:57 pm
I've been asking that question myself.

Within the article:

At the Applebee's where she worked—which she selected because it was the largest casual dining operator in the United States—she was stunned to learn that the only whole, fresh foods in the kitchen were potatoes, onions, lettuce, and tomatoes. Other fruits and vegetables used in the meals were prepackaged, and sometimes the quality of those foods was questionable. She writes about having to heat packets of broccoli and mashed potatoes; sometimes the plastic would disintegrate on the food in flakes that appeared to be salt, "but was actually plastic," she says.

Egads......I've never eaten at Applebee's I guess I won't start now. I gave Kit a star for her Mom and Pop places to eat. It seems many of the things we recall Kit from our former years are a dream now. This is what happens when Greed took over and Common Sense and Common Decency left the territory.
 

Theodore Shayne (56)
Monday March 18, 2013, 6:10 pm
It started in 1999 when then POTUS Clinton with the support of the Republican senator Phil Gramm joined forces to repeal the 1929 Glass-Steagall Act; the very act that prevented investment bankers from having an unfair advantage. By 2000 commodity traders found a way to make food a commodity along with the nod to GMO firms such as Monsanto. This is a great part of the reason why organic foods are so pricy. Monsanto in many cases controls the seeds through contract with the individual farmers. It is tough to compete with factory farms that supply most of the fast food and other type restaurants and hotels with produce at a cheap price. Everyone involved is there to maximize profit and minimize costs. You pay more for grass fed beef but you can taste the difference. It's best to buy from a co-op or farmer's market where you know the produce is produced locally. Still, organic labeling and testing have a ways to go and sometimes I wonder just what type of seed that tomato came from.
 

Nancy C. (795)
Monday March 18, 2013, 7:00 pm
Green star to Theodore. And I, too, remember a healthy home made meal at most restaurants "back in the day"! The US products which are at 90% gmo (or so) are soy, corn, cotton seed oil and canola. Sugar beets and alfafa are in the running. 85% of packaged goods are expected to contain gmos.

Other Sources of GMOs:

Dairy products from cows injected with the GM hormone rbGH
Food additives, enzymes, flavorings, and processing agents, including the sweetener aspartame (NutraSweet�) and rennet used to make hard cheeses
Meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals that have eaten GM feed
Honey and bee pollen that may have GM sources of pollen
Contamination or pollination caused by GM seeds or pollen
I like to cook for myself (vegetarian). My daughter also prefers fruits, nuts and veggies to packaged goods...
 

Robert O. (12)
Monday March 18, 2013, 10:25 pm
Healthy food used to be for everyone, now it seems to be the exclusive domain of the elite who wouldn't touch the stuff most people are forced to east (or otherwise starve to death) and worse yet probably make money hand over fist from comapnies like Monsanto that ruin the food for the rest of us peons.
 

Mariah Wilson (1)
Monday March 18, 2013, 11:04 pm
For those of us living in a city, without a car. It's hard to get to a farmers market and too expensive to go to a health food store, so we're forced to buy what the grocery stores offer. :/
 

Ana R (220)
Tuesday March 19, 2013, 12:43 am
Great article! Noted with thanks
 

Debra Van Way (12)
Tuesday March 19, 2013, 6:28 am
Great article as always, Kit!. I am lucky to have space for a garden to grow all the organic fruit and vegetables I want. I think laws about growing food on one's own property should be struck down. These hoity-toity housing developments with their Nazi acting HOA should be outlawed. Why is it we have so many hot and cold running idiots in this country that have say so over what others plant that is legal anyway? There is nothing ugly about a row of tomato plants or beans. They bloom-I call them flowers with benefits.
 

Susanne R. (249)
Tuesday March 19, 2013, 8:40 am
What do you think should be done to increase access to healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods?

A lot of people in the inner-city have been converting vacant lots to gardens. So many homes have been demolished that vacant lots are scattered all over city blocks. Why should this land go to waste? The local residents plant and tend the gardens and share the harvest. I applaud these people for taking the initiative!
 

Dale O. (193)
Friday March 22, 2013, 8:59 pm
Fascinating article, so much needs to be done to ensure access to a healthy food supply.
 
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