Nutrients vs Food

I’ve been watching food-related documentaries this month: King CornFresh, and Lunch Line. Each film takes a look at different aspects of food in the US: production, environmental impacts, public policy, and the costs of our current ways of relating to food. I have been learning so much the past two years about food – both how it impacts me and how it affects the world around me. This is another of the unintended consequences of the Hunger Challenge that began this blog and my current foray into learning what my best life/best self might look like.

In Lunch Line, several of those interviewed spoke about changing the school lunch guidelines from “nutrient based” menus to “food based” menus. In case you haven’t heard these terms, current USDA policies require certain nutrients in the lunches served, rather than numbers of servings of types of foods (like 2 vegetables and a fruit, for example). This is the kind of policy which led, during the Reagan administration, to the brouhaha surrounding the consideration of ketchup as a vegetable. One self-described lunch lady said, “When was the last time you saw a food label on a peach? Real food doesn’t need labels.” I don’t begin to consider myself an expert on these issues, but this idea makes intrinsic sense to me. As some of you may know, when I first began to lose weight several years ago, I joined Weight Watchers. I cannot say enough positive things about Weight Watchers and how their approach has helped so many people make changes in their lives – me included. However, I eventually stopped going, in part due to what I consider their pushing of “fake food” – highly processed foods with artificially enhanced nutritional content – rather than a reliance on whole foods, well-prepared.

As I have been reflecting on this concept, Nutrients vs Food, it has occurred to me that the idea may be generalizable to other consumables in our lives, not just comestibles. How often do we settle for something “good enough” to fit the bill, rather than something truly soul-satisfying? Think about how regularly we opt for ease and a quick fix rather than work a little harder for the real deal. We read pulp fiction, but not literature. We hit headline news, without seeking in-depth analysis of world events. We spend more Facebook time than face-time with our friends. I have one friend who puts hot sauce on everything he eats – an easy way to flavor the food on his plate, but everything ends up tasting the same. In our drive-through, a la carte lives, perhaps it might be better to take the time to season things, to enhance and deepen the flavors, rather than cover them up with a single-note sauce to make them palatable.

Some weeks, I feel like nothing more than a hamster on a wheel, and the race I’m stuck in is both a marathon and a sprint. The illusion I sell myself is that this is how life is, there is nothing to be done except keep running and gasping for air. The truth is, I make the choices that keep me on the wheel. The truth is, I don’t change that because change is hard. Really hard, sometimes. But I don’t want my diet to be a list of nutrients to be checked off. I want it to be a menu full of delicious and nourishing food. And that is what I want for my daily life, as well. Rich, full, well-seasoned with spices – and so real and whole it doesn’t require labels to recognize component parts.

To achieve this requires attention. It requires a willingness to go for the slightly more difficult option. Not every time, but often enough that I develop a taste for the more complex selections. Eventually, the headlines (and the chick-lit and the twitter) are seen for what they really are: appetizers – quick and tasty but hardly confused with a real meal. And the meal itself – deep conversation with people I care about, art and poetry, self-reflection and a well-rounded knowledge of the world I live in – becomes nourishing and satisfying in the truest sense of those words.

“When you recover or discover something that nourishes your soul and brings joy, 
care enough about yourself to make room for it in your life”
–Jean Shinoda Bolen 

Conference – Day 2: Activism

I began the day with an early morning trek to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was too early to enter the museum and see the exhibits, but that is not what I was there for, anyway. Like millions of others over the years, I visited the museum to see the Rocky steps. You know, the ones Rocky tackled as part of his training for the big fight in the original Rocky film. One of the reasons that movie has inspired so many is the whole idea of one regular guy taking on a corrupt system and, through application of hard work and heart, overcoming the odds that are stacked so high against him.

Turns out, this was a fitting way to begin the second day at the NASPA Conference. The morning’s featured speaker was Emmanuel Jal, whose autobiography War Child tells the story of his turbulent youth in Sudan, where he witnessed many atrocities, at the age of eight became a child soldier, then a refugee and one of the “lost boys” of Sudan. But Jal’s path was destined to cross that of Emma McCune who saved him (along with 149 other Sudanese children). Jal now works for peace and to better the lives of those in his home country living in poverty. His goal is to change the world. I know he managed to take a bunch of college administrators and turn us into dancing fools this morning, so maybe he will succeed.

The afternoon featured speakers were Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, the documentary filmmakers who brought us King Corn the story of how hidden corn in our diets has literally changed us. They also took on a project of farming out of the bed of an old pickup, leading to their high-profile Truck Farm.  Advocates for sustainable practices in food production, they have also started an activism project modeled on Americorps, called Food Corps. Their aim is to send young adults into communities to teach about whole foods, grow school gardens, and get communities really thinking about the startling effects of our current food consumption patterns in the United States. This is a public health crisis (1 in 3 children is on track to develop Type II Diabetes), it is a social justice concern (our poorest communities have the least access to fresh foods), and it touches everyone. After the session, I spoke briefly with Curt Ellis, who is spearheading the activism side of their ventures. He indicated that Iowa (my home state) is one of the first 10 states to which Food Corps workers will be sent. We spoke about some of the challenges in Iowa of speaking directly and truthfully to farmers and to powerful business interests about these concerns. He said he’s met with higher level management at businesses such as Cargill (to name one major industry in my community) – and he believes that by and large they want the same things he does, among them food that makes people healthy rather than sick. The ten states they’re starting Food Corps in were selected because they already have statewide organizations which will support Food Corps’ mission and purpose. In Iowa, there are a couple of campuses with strong Americorps programs, and they will also be working with the National Center for Appropriate Technology.

In addition to the two featured presentations, I went to two additional sessions. One of these also fit todays theme. The presenters, from Marquette University, discussed the development of a social justice living-learning community based on the life and work of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Dorothy Day, an activist whose example has inspired many to enter fully into lives of those who have little.

In all, I walked away from today’s formal events ready to take action in both my work and my own life. Inspiration is a great thing, but today’s speakers reminded me that without action, great ideas remain just that. As Emmanuel Jal, Ian Cheney, and Curt Ellis know, inspiration must lead to action in order to spark real change.  And this brings me back to Rocky. As we all know, sometimes the road to change is difficult and requires hard work. We love what Rocky stands for because he succeeded through sheer perseverance. Emmanuel Jal fasted for over 600 days to raise money to build a school in Africa because he promised the children he would do it. I don’t know about you, but I definitely call that perseverance! I’m happy to have both the fictional hero and a real life one to learn my lessons from. And the lesson I learned today is that it isn’t really a question of CAN I do it (am I good enough, strong enough, talented enough to change the world). Its more a question of WILL I do it? And the only way to answer yes to that question is…to get busy!