Home again, home again, to our national food culture

Posted on June 5, 2011 by Anne Basye

“Make half your plate fruits and vegetables,” says the USDA, which recently introduced “My Plate,” a new nutritional icon.

Not a problem for garden-tenders with productive backyards and back fields, or people who live near farmer’s markets and produce stands.  Not a problem for the Obama family, whose 2011 Kitchen Garden is teeming with seasonal produce. Challenging for people in “food deserts” and everyone whose diet is heavy on frozen and processed foods.

This fascinating kitchen garden map hints at the reasons why our national food supply favors frozen pizza over fresh vegetables. It compares two versions of the 2011 White House kitchen garden: the actual garden, and how it would look if it were planted according to how much U.S. taxpayers spend to subsidize crops! (To enlarge the map, hold your control key and hit the plus sign.)

The subsidized garden is devoted to commodities: corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans, and rice. A lot of them, like 70 percent of our wheat crop, end up as processed food. While 80 percent of the rice crop is eaten as just plain rice, about 20 percent goes into processed food or beer. Corn, the only vegetable on this list, ends up as animal feed (40 percent), ethanol (33 percent), or things like corn chips and high fructose corn syrup that nutritionists recommend we avoid. Soybeans become oil, livestock feed, or even cement. Way up in the corner you can see “fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other specialty crops” which receive one-half of one percent of subsidy dollars.

This is not a polemic about crop subsidies but my next step in pondering the subject of local food cultures. After eating so well and so darn locally during my pilgrimage across northern Spain, I’m curious about the foundational ideas and policies of our own food culture. Lots of helpful stuff has been posted on this blog, like this review of the movie “King Corn”. Nancy Michaelis brought up the subject of our lack of crop diversity long ago.  On her visit to a food desert in Detroit, Julie Reishus ran into lots of products made with commodity crops and very few fresh fruits and vegetables.

But we don’t seem to talk about the farm bill, food subsidies, or the values that are built into this system…and how our participation in this system impacts not just our own diet and health, but the world’s food supply.  Hmmm. I guess it’s time to finish my half-read copies of Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma—and time to put a little more energy into understanding agricultural policy. Unsubsidized fruit and vegetable growers are my new neighbors, and now that our rainy spring has ended, their tractors are out in force, prepping for a new season and new crops. If I’m going to live in farm country, if I’m going to eat locally, I have a lot of learning to do.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

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