Once You Label Me, You Negate Me

Whole Foods announced this week that it would label all genetically modified food in its stores by 2018.  This is a good start–but it’s just that: a start.  I hope it encourages continued discussion about the food industry and our right to know what we’re eating.  I doubt we’ll ever get total transparency from the food and biotechnology industries, but it’s a good goal.  I’ve decided not to wait, though–I’ve made my own food labels!  You can print them on sticker paper if you’d like and join me in my labeling adventures.  Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

The food industry has been capitalizing on labels for a long time and I think we should call them out on it.  You can’t just go into the grocery store and buy eggs–there’s free-range, cage free, organic, natural, Omega 3, fresh. . .

They’ve also capitalized on America’s obsession with “nutrition.”

By encouraging Americans to buy food because it’s “low-fat” or “organic” as opposed to delicious, in-season and fresh or because we trust the person who made it, the food industry, whether intentionally or not, is on its way to making real food obsolete.

Once you put a label like “organic” or even “GMO free” on something–you’re only going to see the label.  You miss the list of 20 ingredients you can’t pronounce on the back of the box.  You don’t see the excess packaging, you don’t see the money and political sway that the company has wielded to get that label.  Not only does the quality of the food become meaningless, so does the label.

Labels should not tell us that a food is as it should be—organic, natural, fresh or grass fed.  We should be able to take this for granted.  Labels should be used to warn us of adulterants and protect us from ingredients and practices we wish to avoid.

In an ideal United States, we could assume our food was made with care, skill and humane animal husbandry by people who take pride in their work and want to make quality food for their community.

Food labels tell us what our food is–and if we need to know what our food is, we might need to rethink how we shop and eat.  Made with Whole Grains, Natural,  Heart Healthy–these labels are proof that we take for granted that most of our food is processed and unhealthy–do we really need a package to tell us what’s natural and healthy (hint: if it’s in the package, it’s not)?

Labeling has legitimized artificial food and allowed the food industry to capitalize on nutritionism and people’s resulting confusion about diet and health.  Real food has been pushed to the sidelines of every major grocery store in the country, replaced by aisle upon aisle of packaged food with labels like “natural” and “wholesome.”  We’ve negated the truly natural and wholesome by believing the food industry’s lie that things with colorful labels and pictures of cartoon characters on the box are real foods.

The illusion of choice in the supermarket has blinded us to the fact that our food choices are more limited now than they’ve ever been.  Most of what’s in our supermarkets is made of corn.  Most of this corn (often genetically modified) is one of very few varieties mass produced in this country.  And most of this seed is produced by a handful of mega corporations who also sell the potentially dangerous chemicals we must treat the corn with in order for the plants to survive.

Our choices have gotten fewer every decade for the last century.

Instead of hundreds of varieties of apples–we get three.  Instead of beautiful, colorful, misshapen tomatoes, we get one of two varieties bred (at the expense of all flavor) to travel long distances and be perfectly red and uniform.

Labeling perpetuates this myth of choice.  We walk down the aisles and see “sugar-free,”  “low-sodium,” “gluten free”  and we think, “Wow, isn’t it great that we have so many healthy choices now.”  In reality, nearly all of this food, to varying degrees, is bad for us.

We should challenge the paradigm maintained by the food industry.  Our food shouldn’t need packages or labels–and packaged food should be labeled for what it is–bad for your health.

We shouldn’t just accept that our food has unrecognizable ingredients and ingredients never before considered edible.  We should demand a food system that encourages health and well-being for all Americans instead of huge profits for the food and biotechnology industries.  We’ve done this for most of human history and it’s worked out okay (at least for people who have enough food in the first place).  It’s only since the advent of industrialized food that we’ve had to put any effort into figuring out what’s in our food.

To fix our food system, the first thing we need to do is stop eating things that need labels.  Stop buying packaged food.  Stop buying meat and eggs from the grocery store.  Buy your food from people you know, from farmers’ markets, neighbors.  Grow your own food.

We may have to give up cheap hamburger and chicken.  We may have to give up some conveniences.  But these “sacrifices” will improve all our lives.  We’ll be healthier and we’ll be able to give our children a future less compromised by global warming, super bugs or chronic disease.

What Michael Pollan dubbed “The Dinner Party” is still in its infancy.  Our voices are being heard, though.  Outspent by 3 to one, the backers of Prop 37 last fall took on the biotech Goliaths and posed a real threat.

The verdict is still out on whether GMOs are a danger to our health.  That’s not the issue, though.  The issue is that corporations like Monsanto who control the patents on these GMOs also control the “scientific” studies.  This is an issue about our right to know what’s in our food and about who gets to decide if something is safe or not.  This also applies to nutrition labels and health claims on packaged foods.

Let’s use the food industry’s tactics against them.  If we label processed food for what it really is, people will begin to see it that way.  Consumer’s will see it’s all the same.  It’s not really food–just different configurations of corn, soy and artificial ingredients.

I keep thinking about my favorite scene in Wayne’s World when Wayne asks Priscilla (in perfect Cantonese), “Was is Kierkegaard or Dick Van Patten who said, “Once you label me, you negate me?”  I think Kierkegaard and Wayne were talking about the individual, but maybe we can apply it to food, too.  If we put honest labels on packages, we can negate the idea that packaged food is healthy food.  Once this illusion is destroyed, we’ll all be able to make better choices for our families.

A Godzillian articles I really want you to read:


What We Spent and What We Ate: The Case for Slow Lunch

Tomorrow is a milestone for our youngest son:  he’ll be eating lunch at school from now on.  He’ll be eating at school for the next fifteen years.  This will help shape his attitudes about food, eating and socializing.  Unfortunately, for most of these years, he’s going to learn to scarf down what he can in ten minutes and shout to his friends above the din of the school cafeteria.  He’ll learn that food should be cold and fast and that most people eat it out of plastic packages.

We spend a great deal of time and energy discussing state standards, test scores, accountability, teacher quality and safety, yet we barely give a nod to issues about food and health.  This is in the face of an obesity epidemic and the likelihood that our children will not have a longer life expectancy than our own.  We can’t divorce children’s health from our attitudes about eating.  Food is a contributor to health–good and bad–and therefore should be approached as seriously as immunizations and safety.  We say we want our children to be healthy, yet we avoid the very thing that could have enormous, lasting effects on their health:  teaching them to eat in a way that keeps them happy and healthy.

I often walk through my eldest son’s cafeteria at lunch time and it’s an assault on the senses.  The noise is almost unbearable, I can never find the kids I know in the huge, packed in crowd, with kids alternately standing, walking, waiting in line and squirming in their seats.  Last month my son got in trouble for throwing a handful of ketchup soaked tater tots.  I was completely mortified.  It was entirely his fault, I know.  But I also wonder if he were eating in a calm, relaxed environment with proper teacher supervision, wether he’d be able to control such impulses.  I’ll probably never find out.

My littlest, however, will start his school lunch experience in such a place.  When I walk into his classroom at lunch, I see twenty preschoolers sitting in a sunny room at little wooden tables with silverware and green place mats.  They chatter quietly while the teachers visit with them and remind them to maintain good manners and polite conversation.  The room is so quiet, I can whisper to the teacher twenty feet away and she can hear me.

It’s hard to know, however, if this experience will be drowned out by the nerve wracking cafeteria experiences of the following ten or twelve years.

It’s not easy to teach kids to eat slowly and mindfully, but we could at least try.  In most schools, lunchtime means herding hundreds of kids into a giant, cold, artificially lit cafeteria, getting them fed as quickly as possible and herding them back out for a few minutes of exercise.  Teachers are expected to skip lunch and patrol the chaos–they rarely get a chance to enjoy a lunch break themselves.

We are missing a great opportunity to teach kids how to enjoy food and conversation.  We are missing an opportunity to show them how adults eat lunch.  And most of all, we are missing an opportunity to keep them healthy.

We should stop thinking of eating as something we need to hurry up and get done so we can get to the next thing.  Last month, I was working with the kids on the school’s Wellness Council.  We were in the kitchen making roasted cauliflower and cookies.  The kids loved washing and chopping the vegetables, mixing batter and watching through the window of the oven.  When I asked them to smell the mint and the ginger, they did so eagerly–and often just popped in their mouths.  While we waited for the cookies to be done, one kid said to me, “You know, cooking takes a really long time.”  This not only cracked me up, but it also made me think about kids’ attitudes about food.  Most kids think food should be ready instantly.  You just open a package and you eat.  It’s high time we re-educate them.  Teach them to cook, let them watch us in the kitchen, feed them food, wether at home or school, that we’ve prepared with love.  Teach them to slow down and enjoy the day.


Here’s what we ate this week.  We spent $249 last week so we spent under $200 this week.

Saturday: kale, sardine and risotto gratin, warm beet salad with yogurt and goat cheese dressing (from Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express)


I know.  What was I thinking with the sardines?  It sounded French and I want to start using sustainable fish.  So sue me.

Sunday: white bean ragout w/toast


Monday: Moroccan Venison Shepherd’s Pie (with elk instead of Venison) from www.deeranddeerhunting.com on which you can find an article about how to give input on hunt guidelines in Arizona.



Moroccan Venison Shepherds Pie


2 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 pounds venison hindquarter,

cut into 1-inch cubes

1/2 teaspoon roasted ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoons tomato paste

2 cups beef broth

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/3 cup raisins

3 tablespoons honey

1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, divided

1 cup frozen green peas

4 cups sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped

1 large egg, lightly beaten


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Heat oil in a medium-sized skillet over medium high heat. Sprinkle venison with cumin and salt. Add venison to the pan and brown  for about 1 minute on each side. Remove venison from the pan. Add onions and saute for 3 minutes. Add  garlic for about 30 seconds, then add the tomato paste. Stir well.

Add broth to the pan. Bring to a boil, scraping pan to loosen the browned bits. Stir in olives, raisins, honey, ground red pepper,  turmeric, and one half of the cinnamon. Add venison back to the pan. Reduce heat, and simmer 30 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the peas.

Meanwhile, place sweet potatoes in a pot of boiling water until tender and drain. Sprinkle  with a pinch of salt and the rest of the cinnamon. Beat potatoes with a mixer and add egg.  Continue mixing until well combined. Spoon venison mixture evenly into 4 ramekins.  Spread potato mixture over the venison mixture. Place ramekins on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until bubbly. Serve immediately.

Tuesday: roasted potatoes and crustless duck egg quiche–quick, simple and easy

Wednesday: tofu curry with all the vegetables left in the fridge–I used a Seeds of Change jarred curry sauce I got at Sprouts on clearance for 99 cents.  This took all of 10 minutes to prepare.

Thursday: hot wings from JH Ranch (with crudite and ranch dressing), baked macaroni and cheese and steamed broccoli–requested by the birthday boy

Our oldest turned nine today!  As for the cake, he said he loved Whoppers and wanted chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting.  Ikey chose the devil’s food cake recipe from Tate’s Bake Shop: Baking with Kids,  he got for Christmas.



Friday: leftovers

What We Spent and What We Ate: Halloween Grinchiness

I fully intend to give trick-or-treaters Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups this Wednesday and then I will stay up late, watch The Daily Show and eat the rest of the bag (along with purloined selections from the boys’ orange buckets).  But I’m still going to promote some alternatives to sugar for Halloween.  Since many kids don’t go trick-or-treating these days (even though the razor blade in the apple was long ago declared urban legend), parents must attend events designed to take the place of this age-old tradition.  These include such euphemistic gatherings as “fall festivals”  and classroom “celebrations” (maybe to make Jehovah’s Witness children feel less like Halloween pariahs).  Several mandatory parties make their way to the family calendar as well.  At every function, kids are met with a barrage of candy the likes of which we couldn’t have imagined as children.  At tonight’s fall festival, an annual fund-raiser, the kids supported their own educations by buying sugar in every conceivable form, including, but not limited to: soda, syrup, powder, floss and various polymers.

I think most developed nations use tax dollars to pay for education.  But who am I to rethink the federal budget?

We could, however, re-think school fundraising.  One local rancher provides grass-fed beef for PTO raffles.  The Vig does fundraising nights and Khalsa Montessori Schools provide an amazing spread of local vegetarian cuisine at their functions.  I’m sure other local businesses would be willing contribute.

In addition to fall fundraisers, many classrooms have parties.  Despite legislation designed to eliminate junk food in schools, parents and teachers still provide candy and baked goods on many occasions throughout the year (one of my children’s classes celebrated every birthday with a sugary treat from parents).

I don’t want to ruin Halloween, but maybe we could limit the candy to just one night–Halloween night.  For classroom functions and parties, we could provide healthier options.

Here a few ideas from one of my favorite web sites, peachsf.org and from foodday.org:

What We Ate:

Saturday: Pat and I had a date night for my birthday.  Luckily our favorite place, Little Saigon, is also one of the cheapest places to eat out.  The back room has a little romantic vibe going on and they have the best Pho (with Pho Thanh a close second and Maxim maybe third) in Phoenix.  It’s all about the broth and their broth is sublime. I always get the Pho with the ox tail broth, but I’ve tasted the chicken, vegetable and pork broths too and they’re almost as good.  My birthday is usually the first time it’s cool enough to eat soup.  This time of year is extraordinary–the city comes alive and there’s suddenly people everywhere and a million things to do–festivals, markets, food trucks, parties, concerts.  The best part, though, is getting to eat comfort food again.  Comfort food=Pho.


Sunday: birthday burritos

My mom and dad had a little family birthday party for me.  My mom made her green chile burritos and Spanish rice.  She promised she’d run through the recipe with me so I could post it–maybe next week.  Her green chile is loved by all–it’s mild and flavorful, with perfect little cubes of browned pork. Then there’s the fact that it’s wrapped in La Purisima tortillas and deep fried.  When you put a little sour cream on it, you feel like your life could not possibly be any better.


Monday: watermelon gazpacho, venison tacos

On Saturday I got what was to be our last watermelon of the year.  We thought we should have a little farewell to summer (or F-YOU Summer.  Take that!) party.

So I wanted to do something special with our ginormous watermelon.  Gazpacho sounded good, since it will be too cool for that sort of thing in a few weeks.  Pat got ground venison at Sprouts and made amazing tacos.  It was a nice send-off if I do say so myself.

Watermelon Gazpacho that I should remember to make next summer:

4-5 large heirloom tomatoes (blanche and peel first, then remove seeds)–use your ugliest ones

¼ watermelon (cut in chunks) with juice

4 peeled diced Persian cucumbers (I removed most of the seeds, but you don’t have to)

1-2 cups watermelon diced in small, neat cubes

¼ cup minced green onions

one Serrano chile very finely minced

1 TBS minced basil

1 TBS minced cilantro

1 TBS balsamic vinegar

juice of one lime

salt and pepper

In a food processor, puree tomatoes and chunks of watermelon.  Add vinegar, lime juice, chile, salt and pepper.  Then, in a large bowl, combine puree, watermelon, cucumbers, onions, basil and cilantro.  Chill for at least an hour.  Serve with a drizzle of crema on top.

The tacos were easy, too.  Pat carmelized onion and sauted them with diced green chiles and minced garlic.  Then he added roasted, diced pasillas.  Then cumin, chili powder, oregano and the ground venison.

Cook it slowly until meat is browned.  Serve with tortillas, Cotija cheese, avocados, diced tomatoes, lime wedges and hot sauce.


Tuesday: pumpkin gratin, brussels sprouts (I know I don’t have to tell you) with bacon (for the boys) and greens for us

The pumpkin gratin tasted like quiche.  It was really good–but if I’d wanted quiche, I’d have made quiche.  So I’ll try again.  In the meantime, if you’re interested in pumpkin quiche, here’s the recipe:

Pumpkin Gratin that tastes like quiche:

1 sugar pumpkin (remove seeds, roast at 425 in an inch of water, then scoop out the squash–or read this)

4 eggs (maybe if you only used 3 it wouldn’t taste like quiche?)

½  cup cream

1 cup shredded gruyere

1 minced shallot

some grated parmesan

some ground nutmeg

salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender, pour mixture into a buttered casserole, sprinkle with paremesan and bake at 350 for about 40 minutes.  After the first 10-15 minutes, you can sprinkle ½ cup of dried fresh breadcrumbs (tossed in melted butter, of course).


Wednesday: parsnip and apple soup and baked salmon

I am no great maker of soups.  But I nailed this one.  One of Pat’s patients gave us enough parsnips to feed the free world, so I’ve been stretching my culinary talents trying to use them up.  The soup was subtly sweet and delicately flavored.  Pat ate three bowls.

I think what really made it was that I used the broth I’d made and frozen a few weeks ago.  It was a chicken broth, but it also had a lot of celery, parsnips, carrots, bay leaves and onion.  A good broth always makes a good soup.

Parsnip Soup that you will love:

About 10 parsnips, peeled and chopped

2 pears, peeled, cored and chopped

3 medium/large apples, peeled, cored and chopped

3-4 TBS chopped ginger

1 chopped onion

3 cloves garlic, sliced or crushed

2 TBS apple cider vinegar

salt and pepper




Sauté onion and garlic, then parsnips, apples, and pears, ginger and seasoning in butter, add to stock pot with 8 cups broth.  Cover and simmer for 30 minutes or until parsnips are tender.  Work in batches pureeing soup in a food processor or blender.  Then strain mixture into a pot.  Add about one cup cream, bring just to simmer and serve (with a little parsley on top).


Thursday: I thawed dal and naan from a few weeks ago for a crazy busy night of homework, piano practice, chores and Boy Scouts


Friday:  Fall Festival at Madison Heights!  Dinner was a hot dog, chips and a soda.  Maybe we can do better next year.


What We Spent:

We only spent about  $145 this week.  $105.90 plus $10 for venison at Sprouts.  Then we spent another $40 at the farmers’ market.  My mother in law went to the Wednesday market for us and got us tomatoes, apples and tiny little cute pears.  Yes, I am lucky to have her.

Related articles:

Study: Junk Food Law Help Curb Obesity (www.azcentral.com)

Picky Eaters Part 2: The Cause (It’s All Your Fault)

Parents of Picky Eaters, It’s Not Your Fault!  Or so said one mother, writer, and former picky eater in a New York Times Motherlode blog this summer.  I’ve been stewing over it ever since.  Steaphanie V.W. Lucianovic, author of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, boldly stands up to the judgy mothers club–but she misses a few really critical points.  I speak for all the “Mommy McJudgersons” out there when I say, parents of picky eaters–it is all your fault.  Or at least it mostly is.

I came to this realization at Montessori preschool orientation night.  The director began discussing lunches and I settled in, ready to hear the typical harangue about packing natural, nutritious, environmentally friendly lunches in containers the kids could open themselves.  Instead he says, “Just pack what they’ll eat.  Don’t try to impress us with your lunches–just pack something that won’t end up in the trash.”  Then he went on to relate how one kid ate a vegetarian hotdog every day the whole year.  And if that’s what it takes, we should do the same.

What?  Is this what it’s come to?

Of course, I am guilty of the other extreme–I remember sending elaborate bento lunches to preschool with our first son.  I was so excited and I wanted to impress his teacher.  Well, he couldn’t open the containers and he didn’t know what to do with the little onigiri triangles and edamame pods.  Only his teachers wouldn’t put it in the trash.  He’d bring home a box of warm, greasy garbage every day.  I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t impressing anybody.  I get that you should pack something the kid can eat.  But a vegetarian hot dog every day?  That’s going too far.

Our generation has just thrown up our hands and given up trying to eat normally.  We’ve also given up a huge responsibility we owe to our children.  It’s our job to teach them how to appreciate a wide variety of healthy, well-prepared, delicious food.  If we  act like we can’t do a damn thing about what they eat, then where are we?  I’ll tell you where we are–we’re in the midst of a nation-wide obesity epidemic affecting a generation of children who are on their way to enjoying a shorter life expectancy than their parents.  Nope. We can’t just sit back and let them eat vegetarian hot dogs.

Or white bread.  Or cheese pizza.  Ask yourself who’s in charge of your kids’ meals.  If it’s not you, then you have a problem.  Blaming bad eating habits on “picky eating” is a cop out.

Sure, many toddlers (some studies say around 20%) go through a picky eating stage.  And nearly all young children avoid bitter tasting foods.  This is most likely evolution’s way of making sure we didn’t poison ourselves to extinction.  A picky eating stage may be an evolutionary adaptation, but it’s no longer beneficial.  Picky eating usually means kids aren’t eating vegetables and can even mean kids are malnourished, so it’s something parents need to address.

Letting your kid eat Pop Tarts for breakfast or chicken nuggets every night (or, God help you, vegetarian hot dogs), will just make matters worse.  Read the ingredients list on the back of the packages you’re buying.  If there’s more than three or four ingredients, your children probably shouldn’t be eating it–even if it has a day’s worth of vitamins inside.  Take Pediasure, many well-meaning parents’ go to solution to picky eating:

Pediasure Kickstart Strawberry Flavor Ingredients:


I want to hear the justification for feeding this to your kid instead of food.  What did parents with picky eaters do before KickStarts?  Obviously, the human race didn’t starve to death.  I bet not even one little kid starved to death because he was a fussy eater.  Parents of generations past simply put food on the table and expected the kids to eat it.  If they didn’t, parents assumed the kid would eat more at the next meal.  What they didn’t do is hand them a high fructose corn syrup laden nutrition bar and call it a meal.

My mother is a biologist and my father is a psychologist, so for me everything is a dichotomy between nature and nurture.  This is no different.  Food preference is certainly heritable–according to one study, over 75% of food preference can be attributed to genetics.  But lots of things are genetic and not necessarily desirable.  Bad teeth are genetic.  So are you going to let your kid walk around with a snaggletooth for the rest of his life?  No.  You get him braces.  Genetics isn’t destiny–if you come from a bad food gene pool, do something about it.

Picky eaters may be born, but let’s pause a minute before we say they’re not made.  We begin to shape our children’s eating behaviors in infancy (and even in utero).  What a mother eats during breastfeeding (and wether she breastfeeds), how and when parents introduce new foods, the variety of foods introduced before age four and maternal feeding practices can all affect a child’s food preferences.  Studies show that mothers’ eating habits and attitudes about food shape their children’s habits and attitudes.  If you’re always on a diet, your kids take notice and if you won’t eat anything green, neither will your kids.   Children are more likely to try new things if they see their parents and siblings trying new things.  The reverse is also true.  If you’re weird about food, your kid’s going to have issues, too.  For example, mothers who are emotional eaters may be more likely to have picky children. Parents who are overly controlling can negatively affect children’s eating behavior and possibly increase their risk of obesity.  Parents can exert a great deal of positive influence by simply modeling healthy eating behaviors.  Clearly, what we do as parents makes a critical difference in how our children eat.

Developmental stages, evolution and genetics are beyond our control.  But even if we assume we can do nothing to change our child’s genetic destiny, we can still agree that the 25% of food preference that isn’t heritable might be under our control.  Let’s be conservative–say we can influence 20% or our kids’ food preferences (keeping in mind that this a ridiculously low percentage).  Well, then let’s have at it!  Let’s do everything we can to teach them how to eat good food.  Let’s work as hard on food appreciation as we do times tables or reading.

We can’t just chalk our kids’ bad eating habits up to “picky eating.”  We need to take some responsibility.  Our kids’ lousy eating habits are more likely the product our lax (or over-controlling) parenting and our own bad eating habits.

Okay, I’m judging, but I’m not excluding myself from the judgment.  I’m just as guilty as the next over-worked, over-scheduled, exhausted mother of three fussy, hungry kids who need to eat all the damn time.  We just want them to eat something.  I fed my kids macaroni and cheese (but it was organic!) and steamed broccoli every other day when I was working full time.  I don’t know how it happened–I certainly didn’t plan it that way.  It happens to all of us.  But at some point, we have to make it a priority to feed our children well.  We are missing a good opportunity to enrich our children’s lives when we don’t prioritize teaching them how to eat well.  As a society and as families, we need to decide that what our kids eat is just as important as what they learn in school or what they watch on TV.

We’ve forgotten how to eat.  It’s not just our fault for accepting the status quo, it’s the fault of the status quo itself.  Americans don’t eat normally.  French fries are the most common vegetable eaten in the United States.  Our school lunch rooms sell Cheetos.  We eat 20 percent of our meals in the car (and you can’t drive a mile without passing a fast food restaurant).  Our grocery stores are lined with aisle upon aisle of packaged food and we are so busy and tired, we justify buying it to save time.  It’s almost impossible not to make these kinds of desperate choices as parents.  And it’s hard to change habits when you’re exhausted and stretched thin as it is.  It feels like all you can do to get the chicken nuggets on the table.

But this isn’t something that we can’t fix if we acknowledge that our food culture is damaged and we’re partly to blame.We can examine our own attitudes about food and eating.  We can reject the food system American industry (with the help of American government) has created and embrace real American food culture.  There’s a bounty of fresh produce at your farmers’ market.  There’s a world of ethnic cuisine to sample.  There’s a spot in your back yard waiting for a garden.  And there’s time to cook and eat dinner together (almost) every night.  We just have to make it important enough.


Low Hanging Fruit: Support Prop 37

Two of my favorite brands, Organic Valley and Eden Organics, are among ten popular brands to endorse Prop 37, California’s GMO food labeling initiative.

Organic Valley

The usual suspects (Cargill, ConAgra, Heinz, Coke) are spending like crazy to support Monsanto in defeating the measure.  But some seemingly innocuous brands are in on the shenanigans, too.  Show your support by avoiding these at the grocery store:

Kashi, Bear Naked, Morningstar Farms (owned by Kellogg’s)

Muir Glen, Cascadian Farm, Larabar (owned by General Mills)

Horizon, Silk, White Wave (owned by Dean Foods)

R.W. Knudsen, Santa Cruz Organic (owned by Smuckers)

“O” Organics (Safeway)

Boca Burgers and Back to Nature (owned by Kraft)

While this doesn’t directly affect us here in Arizona, we will likely be faced with similar decisions in the future.  Monsanto recently threatened to sue Vermont for trying to pass similar legislation.  Send the message that we won’t tolerate bullying and give your support to brands that support transparency.

Picky Eating Part 1: The Cure

Our first son never really had a picky eating stage.  But our second more than made up for it.  He ate absolutely everything until he was about three and a half.  Then every day he would stop liking another favorite food.  Eventually we were down to little more than boxed macaroni and cheese and broccoli.

One night, he decided there was cheese on his casserole.  No amount of swearing on Bibles, explaining, or demonstrating would convince him otherwise.  Finally Pat just started yelling at him.  One thing we know is that if we engage this kid in a battle of wills, we will not win.  But it was too late.  Isaac threw himself on the floor kicking and screaming and pretty soon everyone at the table was either yelling or crying.  Something had to be done.

I looked up “picky eating” the next morning and came across Karen LeBillon’s bestselling book, French Kids Eat Everything.  By the third chapter, I knew I’d struck gold. Le Billon moved to her husband’s home town in France with their two daughters.  Culture shock set in quickly.  Especially when it came to feeding her daughters.  Her husband’s family, their friends, their girls’ schools all rebuked her for her permissive, indulgent attitude toward snacks and meals.  Instead of retreating or growing resentful, Le Billon began observing and asking questions.  She soaked up everything she could learn about how the French eat.  She was amazed at how French children enjoyed food and she wanted her daughters to be able to join them.  Her determination and success were encouraging.

Le Billon’s book is a quick read, peppered with funny anecdotes and relevant research.  For something so light, it’s surprisingly powerful.  Her principles of healthy eating are ones my family innately understands, but has trouble putting into practice on a day to day basis.  Le Billon, however, puts them in simple terms and lays out a plan that any busy parent could live with.

And why should we do what the French do?  For one, France’s rate of childhood obesity is one of the lowest in the developed world.  Obesity is increasing in most of the Western world, but in France, obesity rates are stable and may even be decreasing.  The French are to be envied—they’re thin, healthy and well-fed (this is true of most French people–not just the rich). Another reason is French kids really do eat everything.  They are often adventurous, curious, enthusiastic eaters.  Why should we not want that for our own children?

In principle, I’m opposed to rules.  Especially rules about food.  Rules make eating a source of anxiety and can turn food and cooking into a chore instead of a pleasure.  This book didn’t scare me off, though.  There are rules, but throughout the book she reminds us the most important thing is that we relax and enjoy meals together. Sometimes advice to relax makes me anxious, but this makes sense.  She shares how hard it was for her to fit in and understand how the French do things.  She recounts many of the times her mother-in-law scolded her for how she fed her kids.  She is like most American moms- worried about her kids’ eating habits and health, but too busy to cook and too tired to deal with the whining and tantrums that new foods inspire.  She put all her energy into learning to fit into French society–and that, of course, meant learning to eat.  If she could do it under such stressful circumstances, I can at least try.  So these rules (slightly edited) are the exception to my rule about no rules.

1.  Parents:  You are in charge of Food Education

2.  Avoid emotional eating.  Food is not a pacifier, a toy, a bribe, a reward, or a substitute for discipline.

3.  Parents schedule meals and menus.  Kids eat what adults eat:  no short-order cooking.

4.  Food is social.  Eat family meals together, with no distractions.

5.  Eat vegetables of all colors of the rainbow.  Don’t eat the same main dish more than once per week.

6.  For picky eaters:  You don’t have to like it, but you do have to taste it.

7.  Limit snacks, ideally one per day (two maximum), and not within one hour of meals.

8.  Take your time, for both cooking and eating.  Slow food is happy food.

9.  Eat mostly real, homemade food, and save treats for special occasions.

10.  Eating is joyful, not stressful.  Treat the food rules as habits rather than strict regulations. 

Le Billon also offers some examples of how to respond to complaints of hunger and demands for snacks:

You don’t like it?  That’s because you haven’t tasted it enough times yet.  Maybe next time!

You’re hungry:  That’s fine.  You’ll really appreciate your [insert next meal].  We’er having something really yummy: [insert name of dish].

If you eat well at mealtimes, you won’t be hungry in between.

You’re still hungry?  I guess you should have eaten more at your last meal.

When I finished the book (24 hours after I got it), I sat down with my husband and we discussed the rules.  We agreed to implement them for at least four weeks—putting all our effort into following them as closely as possible.  We had low expectations—we’d tried “methods” before and always gave up after a week or so.  Two nights later, however, we looked at each other across the dinner table and just shook our heads in disbelief.  It was working.

The next week, I heard Isaac talking to a friend (a notoriously picky eater) about trying some fruit salad.  “Just take one bite to see if you like it,” he said.  I almost fell over.  Soon after this, upon trying some grilled fish (he hadn’t tried fish in three years, by the way), he asked, “Is this one of those things I’ll like when I’m older?”  My other son piped in, “Yes, Isaac.  You’ll like it when you’re my age.”  Score.  We are by no means perfect parents of perfect eaters.  We never will be.  It’s a process and forming good habits takes years.  The proof will be how our kids eat as adults.

When we do “follow the rules,”  we all eat far better.   And cooking and eating together is making us closer as a family.  If you’re going to listen to anybody about food, it should be the French.  Nobody in the world takes the enjoyment of food more seriously.  But it helps that Le Billon isn’t French.  She is like most moms in the U.S. (although she’s Canadian), so you know she’s been through the same meal time trials.  Besides, I wouldn’t want to listen to some skinny French woman telling me how to feed my kid.

Watch the Katie Couric interview with Karen Le Billon!

Farm to School FAQ and Some Emails

What is Farm to School?

Well, I’m not entirely sure.  I just think it’s a good starting point for school lunch reform.  School nutrition coordinators keep abreast of changes in federal regulations, so they’re the ones to ask what farm to school means right now and in this district.  Really, they’re the only ones who can manage the quagmire of bureaucracy involved in dealing with the Federal School Lunch Program.

I do know that to start a farm to school program, in addition to a good nutrition coordinator, you need a farm and a school.  The school, for now, is Madison Camelview.  We still need the farm.  I hope we find a farm.

I also know that Farm to School is program of the USDA.  This means Farm to School programs entail sifting through mountains of regulations and legislation.  I have issues (about which I have written  and will write again) with the USDA anyway, so this should solidify my feelings.

Finally, I know that getting local organic food into our schools is one of the most powerful things we can do for our community.  A Farm to School program (and grant) in the Madison District will provide students and their families resources for a healthy future.


What are these emails you speak of?

One from Patty Hunn, Nutrition Director at Madison Camelview:  Said we need to inquire of all interested farms whether they have “written safeguards”  and an HAACP plan.

And from Michael Winters, principal at Camelview: referred me to Kristen Soulsby (Director of Food and Nutrition Services)

And from Kristin Soulsby, RD:  referred me to Patty Hunn


What now?

Looks like Patty is the one I talk to–which I knew anyway, I just figured I should contact the administrators involved.

It was Patty who told me to start asking around for farmers, so I want to do this thoroughly.  I’ll need help.  So far I’m talking to the IRC, Crooked Sky Farms and Pinnacle Farms. I was rejected by One Windmill Farm.

Safety concerns are paramount, so when you’re talking to farm owners or employees, ask about the HAACP (hazard analysis and critical control points) first.

Then ask about transport–can they get food to the school/schools?  According to Patty, most farms are just too far to make a program like this feasible. Interestingly, every farm I’ve talked to said transportation was a logistics issue.  So. . . .I’ll email Patty back to see if there’s any way the school could provide transportation.    Specifically, I’m wondering if a grant would finance transportation.  I’ll let you know.

Patty thinks we’ll be able to get going on the farm to school thing in a few weeks.  The first few weeks of school are chaotic for everyone, so I’ll try to leave people alone for a bit.

Maybe I’m jumping the gun, but who’s going to write this grant?


How do I find out more about school lunch reform?

I think the best place to start is by reading Dana Waldow’s PEACHESSF (Parents Educators and Advocates for Healthy School Food)  How-to-Guide:


And familiarizing yourself with lunch-speak:


And thinking about school food:

Center for Ecoliteracy: Rethinking School Lunch

More FAQ: Farm to School Grants