America has become the land of the unhealthy. About two-thirds of the nation is considered overweight or obese, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some lay blame at the hands of food conglomerates that bioengineer our food for higher profit margins. Others scapegoat our sedentary behaviors. Looking back at the way things once were, it is easy to ask: Were we better off before microwaveable meals, fast food restaurants and 24/7 on-demand entertainment?
To paraphrase a thought experiment from Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class,” imagine transporting a Minneapolis family named the Carlsons from the 1930s or ’40s to 2009 for a trip to the grocery store.
In their native era, the Carlsons would have had a good idea of the life of their food from farm-to-table. The parents likely purchased their foods from a series of local food providers, including a butcher, a baker, a produce seller and a dry goods merchant. These proprietors in turn purchased most of their inventory from local farms, some as nearby as modern-day Bloomington and Apple Valley. Also, many families often grew their own vegetables. The parents may have known their grocers on a first-name basis, and in turn the grocers probably knew the men delivering the food and the farmers who grew and raised it all. The food itself came from family farms – expansive corporate farming was virtually nonexistent.
Once the parents purchased the raw ingredients, Mrs. Carlson would invest a great deal of time molding those individual components into a nutritious, delicious meal which the entire family would enjoy together at the dinner table with great regularity. People at that time were not only more connected with their food and their community, but also with their own families.
The Carlsons are people who endured a comprehensive economic depression and a total war in which rationing of resources was widespread. They are accustomed to government-ordered limitations on all foodstuffs and were encouraged to grow their own Victory Gardens so the crops in the fields could be contributed toward the war effort.
Now fast forward to the 21st Century to a whole new world of existence. The Carlsons are set up with a conventional home in a conventional suburb. When time comes for them to go buy groceries, they are in for a soul shaking surprise. They most likely could no longer walk to the butcher, the baker, and the produce stand for two primary reasons: (1) they simply do no exist or are all housed under a single roof in a supermarket; and (2) the zoning and city planning of their suburb would be such that they would have to drive to get their groceries.
They most likely would not know any of the people who handle their food. Employee turnover at the corporate supermarket is high and their cashier would not recognize them, let alone would the store manager who answers to a regional boss a few states over, who in turn answers to executives in yet another state. The food would be transported to the store from all over the world and the Carlsons would almost certainly not know the drivers, captains and pilots of the various cargo vessels used to ship the food.
The food itself would be different. Much of it would now come from corporate farms encompassing thousands of acres and because of this it would taste different. Cattle and pigs now spend much of their time crammed into dense cages, like inanimate resources fit for extraction. Cattle may stop at a feedlot where they binge on corn before they are processed and end up at the grocery store. The supermarket foods would have thousands of chemical additives, including emulsifiers, surfactants, thickeners, preservatives, antioxidants and vitamin-enrichments.
The sheer diversity of the cornucopia available to the Carlsons at even their local supermarket would rip the fabric of understanding out of the minds of Mr. and Mrs. Carlson. Snacks of precarious nutritional value but with loads of sugar fill the shelves of the massive supermarket. On the healthy side, the Carlsons would have year-round access to fruits and vegetables that in their own time would have been seasonal (such as tomatoes and peppers) or too exotic to acquire (such as passion fruit, kiwi or star fruit). They could purchase entire frozen meals that could be cooked in minutes in a microwave. Raw materials still are available to the Carlsons, but the temptation of a prepared meal would be hard to counter.
Because, like many of their Twenty-first Century peers, both Mr. and Mrs. Carlson have careers, it is likely they may not even have the same schedule as their children, all of whom would be enrolled in many different extracurricular activities. The regular family dinner time would be replaced with a rolling service of a meal that is heated up in the microwave by each person as they get home. On those rare occasions when they all were home together, they may just as well order a pizza and watch television during their consumption.
With such greater diversity, would the Carlsons live a healthier life than they would have in their own time? As the Carlsons experienced more and more of modern life, they would look in shock as people paid others to allow them access to equipment that would allow them to move their bodies. What happened to walking? They would notice that the longest distance Americans now walk is no farther than 600 feet before deciding to hop in a car. The ubiquity of the television, the Internet and video and computer games ensures that the Carlsons rarely have to leave the house for entertainment.
After the honeymoon emotions of the 2009 life wore off, the Carlsons would miss their old lives in the 1930s. The quick, prepackaged food would take a toll on the family, as would the irregular schedules. They would feel increasingly rushed and disconnected from the world around them. All that electronic entertainment has kept them from physical activity and it is starting to show. The Carlsons are joining the ranks of a majority of America and are becoming overweight. What Mr. and Mrs. Carlson have to look forward to if they don’t return to their old ways: cholesterol-reducing medication, suspicious weight loss programs and an increased chance of cancer and Type 2 Diabetes. Mr. and Mrs. Carlson would learn that people born in the 1980s and beyond would not have much more to look forward to: those individuals belong to the first generation ever to have a lower life expectancy than their parents.
Coming back to reality, we as a nation know what has happened to ourselves as a result of our astronomical explosion of wealth and power after World War II, but what can we do to rein in further decline? How can we recalibrate our eating habits?
What you can do to break the cycle
So you want to eat fresh, local food from sustainable farms and providers? There are two excellent Web sites that can help you in your quest. First, check out the Eat Well Guide (eatwellguide.org). Using your zip code, you can find sustainable, organic farms, markets and restaurants all over the United States and Canada. Say you want a map of all the organic restaurants from your house in the Wedge to your in-laws’ abode in White Bear Lake. Using the site’s adapted Google Maps interface, type in your home address, and the address of your destination. In mere seconds you have a detailed map of dozens upon dozens of organic food providers along your trip. If you would like to maintain the convenience of one-stop shopping while sparing Mother Earth some carbon emissions, the listings in Eat Well Guide include neighborhood co-ops, a delightful way to support a sustainable, organic food culture.
The second Web site, Local Harvest (localharvest.org/csa), allows you to get information, tips and locations of your local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). CSAs are an excellent way to deepen your connection with your community, eat delicious, natural food and maybe even visit the farm where your food was grown and cultivated.
But it is not enough to eat healthfully; you must also get out and move around. Baby Boomer Cynthia Scott of Minneapolis has committed herself to a number of activities to keep herself healthy. One that makes a huge difference for her is her choice of getting to and from work. In the warmer months she bikes to her job at the University of Minnesota from her south Minneapolis home. When it gets colder, Scott walks to the bus stop.
For those who live in areas that lack the infrastructure without an automobile, even 30 minutes of moderate activity can stave off the consequences of our food culture, according to the CDC. It is important to remember that while it may seem a daunting task, you can reverse the decline of health.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson. Broadway 2007.Edge City by Joel Garreau. Broadway 2007.
Minnesota Historical Society— “The Greatest Generation” exhibit (volunteer expert Laurie Johnson) Saint Paul, MN 651-259-3000/800-657-3773 mnhs.org