Some Mixed Thoughts On Larger Purpose, Food Technology, Prejudice, And Change…


Nothing new this week.  I’ll have something fresh in 2 weeks.  I wrote the essay below over two years ago.  Little has changed in the collective awareness we have of our food system since I wrote this — and little has changed in the system itself, or how we use it.  Me thinks the train has left the station and the 300,000,000 drivers of the train don’t realize they are the drivers…

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Larger Purpose; Time’s Arrow Slowing Down

Americans are less healthy, less fit, and less discriminating in the choices which comprise our physicality than ever.  We had seen this coming for decades, and we let it in anyway – because letting it in required less work than keeping it out.  And there’s this; the National Institute for Health now suggests an alarming trend that could manifest within a few decades.  Unless serious efforts are met to combat the increasing rate of childhood obesity, for the first time in American history, children born in subsequent decades will have a shorter lifespan than their parents.

It is suggested by critical thinkers like Michael Pollan, and others like him, that we should work our way toward the past, in hope that we change our future to become a healthier food-nation.  Enter, Michael Pollan’s open letter to President Obama.

Inspiring but unrealistic…?

However, from historic human social and technical trends, I see little which has happened in the past to suggest these proposed changes of national bad habits could have a wide-spread effect on the future.  I suggest using the non-wellness related books of Charles S. Maier (Among Empires), Jared Diamond (Collapse), and Andrew J. Bacevich (The Limits Of Power) to further examine the ultimate wellness concern; the ability of a society to identify what needs to be changed, and the willingness of its people to insist on making those changes.

These works of social and political scholarship attempt to demonstrate that human societies are often capable of, but very often unwilling, to learn from their mistakes.  Thus, what we try to think of as advancements, are often just highly devised concessions to a more dangerous road, but one which is more easily traveled.  Increasingly, I am convinced the waters of our advanced food system, and the obesity culture it has created, flow too fast and too wide to be slowed down, let alone altered or reversed.

Perhaps a less fit, less healthy food-culture is just our social and evolutionary destiny – our Manifat Destiny.  And the white elephant in the room might actually be 300 million white elephants, each wondering what went wrong, and why everyone else is so heavy – and what time the drive-thru on the way home from work closes.

Homo-big-gulpus…

Advancement: It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time

Modernity is a playground for the unintended consequences of our advanced food system.  Billions of people have contributed to the advancements of our food culture in the past 10,000 years, and billions more have been its victim.  Hunters, gatherers, herders, farmers, and then scientists, engineers, transportation specialists, nutritionists, and consumers have all played a part in paving the road on which we now roll.  We have all benefitted and suffered from these advancements, as we will continue to benefit and suffer from them.

Seemed like a good idea at the time. I mean to us, not to them…

Despite that, this is where we are in our food culture, there is an increasing prejudice from a few toward the many who consume highly processed foods, as well those who have helped to create these products.  I am reminded of my father who wants to move to a new assisted living center; one with fewer old people in it.  That scenario seems both contrarian, and prejudiced.

There are now volumes of books available distilling all the political and economic reasons – the contributing factors of how our food system has evolved into its current state.  Yet there is little credence given to the concept that; it all might have seemed like a good idea at the time…  Be it Diet Coke, Snack Well cookies, or single-serving ravioli in a can, we have often embraced these advancements at their introduction, as meeting the needs of changing human, social, and economic conditions.  But we learn and quickly forget, again and again, that from such good ideas, sometimes comes a whole lot of not-so-good.  It seems the unintended consequences of advancement, might tend to stifle…   advancement?  Or, humanity itself is God’s own Ponzi scheme.

Concepts And Realism

Though the notion of turning back our food system one hundred years seems like an enticing idea on the surface (to me it is a supreme idea), what Mr. Pollan and others like him amay not be accounting for is a lack of willingness on the part of many people to make those necessary changes – individuals and leaders alike.  That is, people can be informed of what needs to be changed and of how those changes can help us, but history shows we’re not very good listeners.  Our best shot at success with the food system may just be to keep on pumping those extra B vitamins into those Ho-Ho’s, and to keep trying to perfect protein infused Gummy Bears and pork rinds.

History offers us few good examples of us reversing strong social and technical trends.  We may abandon some social and technical trends in favor of others once we realize they are not working well for us, but we tend to not reverse anything.  Humans are more the walking away type.  It is frequently proven that the next positive advancement in the food system is just as laden with unintended consequences as the advancement we had just abandoned.  It’s official; I have no answers, only questions, and a heart full of concern.  Be well.  rc

I end this diatribe with 2 questions from which I would appreciate your responses to:

1)      Do you believe that our food system will truly be in a better state in 10 years than it is today?

2)      Will this column affect how you think about our food system?

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Please check back in 2 weeks to see what happens when I push the “stop” button on the blender in my head…

16 responses

  1. Okay, great post as usual, but I have a problem with what the NIH recommends. As you know, I was there a week and a half ago. Their cafeteria foods were appalling!!!!! Come on NIH take some of your own damn advice and offer your patient’s families healthy choices. NIH: how are you any different in culpability in regards to feeding into this problem?!

    I watched Food, Inc. a few weeks back and the chicken coops, corn in almost all of our products, and methods used to feed the masses makes me sick.

    What to do? How do we fix this? I was telling my husband the other day that why doesn’t someone come up with a fast food style restaurant that features whole foods – apples, oranges, wraps made from organics, etc. In this microwave society where everyone wants it NOW, NOW, NOW, if someone invested in whole food offerings in quick turn around it would be a gold mine waiting to happen.

  2. I’d like to think that in ten year’s time the food system will be in a better place. However, it is going to take a pretty sophisticated grassroots effort to get there. I worked for the Department of Agriculture and the standards for what constitutes a healthy meal is appalling. When our own government is a huge part of the problem, it’s necessary that we raise our voices a couple of octaves higher if we want to be hear.

  3. Unfortunately, I don’t think our food system as a whole will be in a better state. It’s all about the dollar to food manufacturer’s. They may tweak things in their processing systems to make things “seem” healthier, but as far as all out change – no. I do think they are aware of the slow outcry from the public towards highly processed foods, but that is their life – highly processed.

    I think unless the movement to fix the childhood obesity epidemic starts at the grassroots level nothing will truly change. The government is rarely effective at truly leading and/or regulating people’s individual choices.

    Great post Roy. I think about this a lot.

  4. Roy, I am so glad I got to read this before my busy next few days! So much to think about in there… so much to “digest” & think about.

    I actually hope that in 10 years, we have not ruined our earth to the point of no return & that we are still around! Well, maybe not 10 years but 25 or so… scary really!

    Yes, there is so much info out there & I often wonder if some of it is not that people don’t listen, but that they just don’t “want to do it” or maybe too lazy because it is HARD like exercise & losing weight for many of us out here in blog land. If it is too hard or takes too much effort, people seem to give up rather than try… if it is not the “easy fix”.

    Like Diane & Dr. J says too, we need preventative measures & grass root measures & parents & adults wanting to get involved but it seems like it is too hard for them.

    I know in this day & age, with people working so hard & multiple jobs to make ends meet that one more thing is like a dead weight on them.. BUT the prob is it will be death if we can’t do something about it….

    Roy, like you, I don’t know the answers. I try, I offer up info, but I can’t make people do it if they don’t want to. All I can do is try.

    Thx for this very thought provoking post!

  5. The best any of us can hope for on this spaceship earth was summarized quite nicely several years ago by a patient of mine who was a psychic for her day job. She said:

    “The world will get worse,

    but your life will get better!”

    Ah weltschmertz, I know you all too well.

    You are a treasure, Roy Cohen. Long may you run, brother…

  6. Bobbie: I agree with your healthy fast food idea; but the problem is, 7 out 10 people (guessing) probably don’t. I honestly do not see a time when one can zip though the drive through and get “2 apples, and a range chicken breats — easy on the rosemary” to go. I pray there will be that time.

    Karen: I love your input as a former employee of the system. I love more your acknowledgment that “our own government is a huge part of the problem”. The good news: I think our government is changing. The bad news: We’ll be dealing with a lot of rookies after the next election.

    Diane: Thank you. I agree that it TRULY starts with the children. If we can not correct this trend with our children; game over. On the up-side; at least for the moment, people are getting more involved with their government. Close hands, pray.

    Jody: I guess that’s where it all begins, with the word “hard’ Work is hard. Change is hard. Progress is hard. Humanity is on a very fast path right now. When I say, “Humanity itself is God’s own Ponzi scheme”, I mean, I wonder — do we have chance to keep up with what God has laid out for us. Sometimes I think the test is rigged so nobody wins.

    Dr. J: Love that thought!!! And for all the negativity I ponder and entertain, I do see the good in life. Though I do not practice Judaism, I was raised in that faith, and “LIFE” itself is always seen as a gift. Just wish more people would wish to taste it. Thank you Sir.

  7. Another great post, and it has got me thinking a lot. As much as we would love to blame the obesity problem on the “system”, and the government, and the food industry, it really all comes down to one thing really. Our own choices. There are piles and piles of good wholesome food at reasonable prices all around us. People go out to eat fast food places and then complain that they can’t find anything healthy there? I don’t believe it. Stay home and prepare something quick and easy. People complain that healthy food is more expensive? I don’t believe that either. Eat at home and save money by not wasting it on those fast food places, spend it on real foods, found at the grocery store. The food system is the way it is because that’s the way the majority of people want it. But for those of us who don’t, we have just as many options to eat healthy. No excuses.

  8. Carla: Thank you for the comments. Trust me, I do include the will of the people in the construction of the problem. That said, we do have corporations willfully feeding the beast; just like the tobacco companies. Give people a consumable, addictive product, and you’ve got them for life. Highly processed sugars and fats, enhance foods with a more addictive tendency. There is more than one “smoking gun” memo out there relating the knowledge of this by corporations, to their actions in increasing the production, distribution and marketing of these foods.

  9. Bad as it is – and you didn’t even mention the epidemic of Type 2 diabetes – the gradual increase in our level of awareness of this problem has produced some hopeful signs of progress; I’m thinking, for example, of the fact that trans fats have been largely eliminated from processed foods, and many school districts have removed all soda machines from their school campuses.

  10. John: Thank you for taking time to comment. Very good points! I love that we are making some progress in some areas; schools removing soda machines is a great example of this. I am looking forward to when schools start putting food back in their food.

  11. So to revisit:

    Sure the train has left the station! The outcome is set in stone, but being the iconoclast that I am, even if the outcome is fixed, I still will play the game, cause I like to play 🙂

  12. Pollan writes: “But it should not be difficult to deflect the charge of elitism sometimes leveled at the sustainable-food movement. […] And what is a higher ‘family value’, after all, than making time to sit down every night to a shared meal?”

    For many families, organic foods are not affordable and how they are supposed to “make time” to share a common meal is beyond me, when both adults have to work in two minimum wage jobs.

    If Pollan comes up with ideas that really understand the plight of those less privileged than he is, I might look at his words more kindly. Eleanor Roosevelt certainly doesn’t represent those people.

  13. LOL… Homo-big-gulpus… ok, its not funny, but the word Homo-big-gulpus is funny; I will be sure to use that amongst friends and give credit of course.

    Seriously, to your fine post & questions…
    1) Do you believe that our food system will truly be in a better state in 10 years than it is today?
    A) NO… I do not see the ‘system’ giving proper consideration to producing and promoting foods that are what we really need anymore tomorrow than they do today. There is huge profit in high-sugary-carby products that the Homo-big-gulpus craves. The system, is profit driven, and will bend to what drives it.

    2) Will this column affect how you think about our food system?
    A) Well, it certainly has caused me reason to stop and think. I’m looking for evidence that society-at-large is willing to abandon trends that have allowed Homo-big-gulpus to evolve. Unfortunately, I only see society-at-small concerned with the pain the continued evolution of Homo-big-gulpus will bring upon society.

    Ok, I have to say it one more time… Homo-big-gulpus

  14. Thanks Patrick, as always. I must confess I’a Homo-big-gulpus as well, but I do restirct mine to Diet Coke.

    Sadly, with regard to the system, I think we’re screwed. Keep hunting my friend!

  15. Being an optimist, I would say yes, I think our food system will be better shape in 10years, somethings got to change, hasn’t it, with so many warnings? I laughed my head off last night, I’m not a regular at BKing, but it was the only place open on the motorway and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. As I waited in the long queue , an en-or-mous woman ordered her burger and chips, the youth serving punched in the order to the keypad and yelled it through to the kitchen. Then Miss Huge leaned forward and whispered ” can I go large please” ….. the whole queue erupted into laughter!

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