The New (Pay-to-Attend) Food Deserts

I hadn’t had a bite to eat since yesterday, so Jim he got out some corn-dodgers and buttermilk, and pork and cabbage and greens — there ain’t nothing in the world so good when it’s cooked right — and whilst I eat my supper we talked and had a good time. — Huckleberry Finn

And we danced all night
To the fiddle and the banjo.
Their drifting tunes seemed to fill the air.
So long ago, but I can still remember
How we fell in love at the Roseville Fair. — Bill Staines

Over the weekend, we attended the final day of the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair, a sprawling affair of equal parts livestock buildings and carnie rides. Maya loved patting the bunnies, and couldn’t get enough of the cows. And there were these pretty amazing owls.

We enjoyed the day as well — except that we couldn’t find anything even remotely worth eating in the whole durn place. We paid $10 for parking, and another $10 each per adult to get in, so in we were, stuck amongst the barkers and colored balloons.

There were battered and deep-fried oreo cookies, funnel cakes, french fries, pizza and corn dogs, as well as signs touting “fresh squeezed lemonade,” which, it was clear upon sampling, was an utter fiction. I picked at a relatively inoffensive brisket sandwich from the one place selling pit BBQ, and my hubs tried to eat a bit of a “gyro” that sported flabby, texture-less bread, watery, chemical-laden sauces and tubes of mashed meat. Mmm.

A single church-run place sold roasted chicken, and one shack dispensed mostly-naked roasted sweet corn (likely GMO, but still tasty) which at least is actual food. But there was nary a green, orange or rainbow-colored vegetable or fresh fruit to be had, except in the produce tent where the flora was present only to be judged, and not eaten. Cabbages and greens, hah!

Because we were, I dunno, at a county fair, when Maya sensibly asked for “watermelon,” I went searching and turned up zip. Processed dippin’ ice creams? Check. “Premium” ice cream from Turkey Hill loaded with:

HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, NATURAL FLAVORS, CITRIC ACID, MONO & DIGLYCERIDES, GUAR GUM, CARRAGEENAN, RED 40, BLUE 1.

Check. Even the coating on the chocolate covered bananas was chemical-flavored. Though at least the banana couldn’t really be messed with, once you got into it.

Instead of food, stall after stall sold nothing but junk. High-fat, triglyceride-fests on a stick. A poke around the Internet told me the obvious: fairs and festivals have become venues in which vendors compete to see who can deep-fry the most shockingly unhealthy foods– one even sells frozen, battered deep fried sticks of butter. Others hawk fried frozen kool-aid and similarly unnatural feats alongside the fry-battered snickers bars and Oreos.

Now, I’ve been known to appreciate a little key lime pie on a stick sometimes myself. But it was still striking that at a fair bedecked in 4H signs and clearly intended to build our reverence for people who drive tractors, there was no sign of either practitioners of a greener, more sustainable approach to farming — something common now in Maryland — or of any appealing, healthier foodstuffs produced by the aforementioned farmerfolk.

Amidst the cutesy pig races down the “hamstretch” around the Hogway Speedway and tractor pulls designed to stir up nostalgia for our not-so-distant agri-past, something important evidently got lost, which is that people have always best connected to the land by eating its wondrous outputs.

Indeed, the World Fairs, in the mid- and early twentieth century, were places for people to sample international foods that may never have gotten attention from such a broad swath of the population, including a French tent from the 1940 fair that became a popular restaurant in New York, Le Pavilion. Of course, the Fairs were also places for the new industrial processes around food to be debuted and marveled at, such as cotton candy and Wonder Bread.

Fast forward, though, to 2012, and it feels as though the Frankenfood has eaten the fair. Most traces of a home-made past — pickles, preserves, pies — were not for sale. Instead, we got the industrial fryer, loads of sugar, and distracting, hyper-kitschy lights on every surface of the food conveyance truck, as if to say — look here, instead of down at the glistening brown surface of your greasy funnel cake.

At the risk of seeming like I’m not in on the joke, I’m just going to say it: what is so durn “fun” about eating crap served up by fairly miserable people trapped in little metal boxes? We are living in a time in which chemical-laden, highly addictive calories that trip every one of our biological triggers (salt! sugar! fat!) are cheap, and actual food is scarce, despite the ample offerings in every convenience store, every ball park, every amusement park, every beach or public place where the goal is supposed to be entertainment or ease.

But, really, isn’t this just a cheap trick on all of us? A way for us to pony up $5 (which seemed to be the cost of anything at the fair) or more for our own deprivation and illness, gussied up as self-indulgence?

And if we grownups are a lost cause, we should consider that there were thousands of kids at the fair who really had no option except to eat what was given to them. Cass Sunstein, in his book Nudge, described the power of “defaults” in structuring choices — which basically means that we choose from what is in our faces most of the time.

After all, we’re just bodies in space.

And when it comes to things we are biologically predisposed to like, you can bet that the food marketers know exactly how to dangle it in front of us as a form of perilous fun so that we’ll bite. And bite again.

We publicly wring our hands about childhood obesity, and the fact that record and growing numbers of children are acquiring Type 2 diabetes (from somewhere, hmmm), but our public policies allow soda and other sugary junk in our schools, and our public norms are to pay decent money to be admitted to a “fair” that serves our children expensive, dangerous processed swill in place of anything resembling food.

And don’t even get me started on children’s menus at restaurants, which are generally vegetable-free zones made entirely of a newly engineered item known as pizza-hot-dog-pasta-grilled-cheese-chicken-tenders.

Of course, you might say that if I’m going to be this picky, I should always bring along some of my foodie provisions to ensure that we have the uber-organic, sustainably raised squirrel seeds we prefer. And sometimes I do have it together enough to plan ahead and pack snacks. But one of the things about being out in the world is tasting at least some of its flavors, and toting whole meals along for all-day excursions is not a fair expectation for us or other parents, especially when we’ve paid for the privilege of attending some event.

Even when I bring food, that really only takes care of my family. But we need larger solutions to the problem of a lack of nutrition in our public food. And am I really supposed to bring my own grub to a restaurant? Please. In other words, on this one, its really not us, its them.

Unless we start getting ticked off about this pathetic state of affairs, though, I don’t see how things change or how we can get the food marketers’ ugly, deep-fried, doughy fingers off our arteries and those of our kids. I’m working on a friendly but firm letter to the Montgomery County organizers of the fair, asking them for a greater variety of healthier stuff to eat next year. In a pinch, they could set up a green tent as some fairs do, or bring in food trucks with more variety for some of the time, which are options I’ll suggest.

Today’s column by Mark Bittman has more great ideas for how we should really honor farmers and their labors making something essential out of sun, water, and dirt:

  • We need to reduce unemployment and increase the minimum wage (including that for farm and restaurant workers). This (obviously) goes beyond the realm of food, but it’s key to improving the quality of life for many if not most Americans. (Here’s a strong argument for that.)
  • We need to not cut but raise the amount of support we give to recipients of food stamps. A good example is New York City’s Health Bucks program, where food stamps are worth more at farmers’ markets (which don’t, as a rule, sell sugar-sweetened beverages!).
  • We need not only to attack the nonsensical and wasteful system that pays for corn and soybeans to be grown to create junk food and ethanol, but to support local and national legislation that encourages the birth of new small-and-medium farms. We need to encourage both new and established farms to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, to raise animals in sensible ways and, using a combination of modern and time-tested techniques, treat those animals well and use their products sensibly.

Amen, brother.

I’m also thinking about designing a small, polite but clear card, addressed to the chef, that folks could hand to restaurants to raise the issue of improving offerings on kids’ menus. If you think this is something you would possibly print and use, please let me know.

The Twinkie Did It, Mom, I Swear: The Crisis in Child Nutrition and What It Does to Our Kids

English: Hostess Twinkies. Yellow snack cake w...When I read Kelly Dorfman’s new book, What’s Eating Your Child, a few weeks back, I was stunned by the number and variety of child health problems that turned out to be related to diet. The book is a quick yet informative read, built from clearly explained case studies of children with health issues ranging from anxiety to Asberger’s, all of whom are significantly helped by her simple, effective nutritional fixes.

Here’s Dorfman’s compelling version of “we are what we eat:”

One basic law of physics says that you cannot make matter from nothing….In the case of the body, its ability to create must start from what it takes in or is born with. In other words, any growing, healing, development and functioning you accomplish must evolve from from what you come with, eat, drink or breathe. You are born with about seven pounds of matter that will expand into a hundred-something pounds….What one eats has bearing on mood, energy, susceptibility to illness, digestion, sleep, learning, healing capacity, and more.

The book centers mainly on Dorfman’s sensitive, case-specific assessments of the issues affecting particular families, and the tone is gentle and explanatory rather than judgmental. But it was nonetheless amazing to me that so many children in the book, living in a food-abundant society like our own, have such utterly crappy diets.

In many cases, though it should perhaps be obvious, diet is the last place it seems anybody looks for a solution, even for serious child health problems. The book is full of stories of families who have been to an elaborate pantheon of expensive medical specialists for their child’s health issues, and of drugged-up children taking medications more suitable for adults — medications that do little to address the problem, and carry a risk of serious side effects. All the while, the kids are snarfing down nothing but Twinkies, Wonder Bread and soda, yet no one apparently connects the dots until Dorfman gently suggests a vegetable or two might improve the situation.

Predictably, she puts it in a nicer way than I just did:

Few parents start out with the goal of feeding their children toaster pastries for breakfast and peanut butter crackers for lunch, yet an astounding number (if my practice is any indication) end up there. … The scenario of a typical diet gone bad starts at age two when a sleep-starved mother hands her red-faced, screaming toddler a cracker or cookie so he will just shut up.

She goes on to rightly label cookies and crackers for toddlers “like crack.” As someone who very recently violated every principle I hold dear to repeatedly stuff “Toppables” crackers into Maya in an attempt to get her to shut up for the duration at recent family memorial service, I can personally attest to their addictive, and seductively taming, properties for toddlers.

Even my own impertinent darling, despite our generally uptight dietary controls, asks for “biscuits” “crackers” and “cookies” daily and by name. While she only very rarely gets them, and the ones she typically does get are made of organic oats and taste like wallpaper paste, this has yet to cool her ardor. Toddler crack? I’d say more like heroine.

And past the toddler stage, things don’t look very bright either. Dorfman reports that most children over-consume salt, bad fats, and added sugar, adding:

An October 2010 study reported that the top sources of calories for 2 to 18-year-olds were [] cookies, cakes, granola bars, pizza and soda. Nearly 40 percent of the total calories consumer were from empty-calorie foods.

Up against these odds, Dorfman is undaunted. To find the cause for a specific problem, she becomes what she calls a “nutrition detective,” putting the clues together either to figure out when a food is a harmful irritant, or to identify a deficiency might be causing the problem. Some of her conclusions are astonishing, as when she demonstrates that chronic ear infections may be related to milk allergy, or that speech delays in two children were likely caused by a lack of adequate essential fats in their diets.

She also points out that each of us has highly individualized nutritional needs, a factor called bio-individuality. This means that even within a family, the dietary needs of one child for a particular nutrient or mineral may be higher than for her sibling, a reality that unhelpfully may conceal the relationship between nutrition and that child’s health issues.

On the flip side, there are also linkages among family members due to genetics, as in the family in which a shared intolerance for gluten negatively affected the behavior of both parent and child, causing irritability, behavioral irregularities and distraction in both.

How a Nutrition Detective Clearly Links Child Health Back to Food

I highly recommend this book. I found its approach balanced, sensible and sensitive. When families and other doctors were skeptical about the contributions of nutritional factors, Dorfman explains how she would patiently allow them to exhaust the traditional medical diagnoses first, and then move in to restate the obvious. Her approach, overall, is both gentle and painstaking. And behavioral change is obviously harder than popping a pill. Still, at times I wished the book was a little more directive, as it lacks a chapter that summarizes all the dietary “do’s.”

Nonetheless, the overall message is obvious: sugars, highly processed foods and refined flour products tend to take over the diets of children, taking up space where real foods should be, and creating taste preferences that lead to “picky eater” syndrome. She suggests a method for insisting that picky eaters diversify their food preferences, and also takes this problem of a mono- (and nutrient-deprived) diet as seriously as it likely deserves.

For stiffer medicine, she also suggests that we not keep anything in the house that we don’t want our children to eat. This is harsh, but good advice. I know the day is fast approaching with Maya that “do as I say” won’t work anymore — and this rule of thumb seems right to me (and will push me into the final clean-up of my own dietary act, as it were. Ahem.).

In addition to emphasizing organic, whole foods and a wide range of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and highlighting the importance of a protein- and nutrient-rich breakfast (a few of my own ideas on that one are here), she recommends that children (and adults) take a multivitamin, and she touts the significant properties of cod liver oil for its essential fatty acids.

Since I have always been skeptical about the uptake of minerals and vitamins from supplements, her insistence that these additions are important to the diet, and her well-reasoned arguments in support of that idea, are causing me to do a rethink.

I looked around briefly for products that would fit the parameters in the book, and they were hard to find. For vitamins, she recommends one with a good variety of minerals, and the full set of B-vitamins (which gummy vitamins are typically missing), and not more than 2,500 IUs of Vitamin A.

For cod liver oil, she indicates that we need more than 1,000 mgs total of the active ingredients of EPA and DHA. We were already taking a popular brand of fish oil capsules, but a closer reading of the label revealed we’d need choking hazard-levels of 15 pills per day each to get that amount of active EPA and DHA! (She also recommends probiotics — the more live bacteria the better, and chewable ones should be avoided because they are too low in live cultures.)

So I wrote to Dorfman to ask for recommended brands for vitamins and for high-potency fish oil that had been cleansed of mercury, PCBs or other pollutants found in fish. And wonder of wonders, she actually wrote me back, of course with some very helpful answers. Noting that it would have been far more dicey for her to officially recommend particular products in her book, she said:

With [cod liver oil], it is tough to stabilize the potency so to get the higher amounts of EPA/DHA you may have to get regular fish oil.  Nordic Naturals has a patented process for purifying fish oils and are good.  They are available widely.   Their Ultimate Omega (which is also available with vitamin D) comes in a bottle as a liquid.  I recommend it a lot.  However, their products have a strong fish flavor.  If you need a neutral tasting clean product, consider 2 tsp. of Omega Cure.  It mixes easily with other foods.

As far as a well balanced multiple, check out these wafers.   Two per day contain 15 mg of zinc.

We’ve ordered both products, but they have not yet arrived. I’ll just note that the Omega Cure site also includes fish oil chocolates and cookies, thereby introducing significant cognitive dissonance into my nutritional wanderings. I’m so curious about whether these are tasty or not that I’m sure to break down and order some eventually… if you’ve tasted them, please let me know how they are! Fish oil chocolates, mmmm!

Two New Zealand chocolate fish.

They don’t really look like this.

One more note:  Given the frightening lack of any real regulation of food supplements, you may want to check the products you are using against the testing being done by the only private group to fill in doing what the government should be.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to pay for the privilege. The group is called Consumer Lab, and membership is $33/year. They do regularly find problems with supplementation products, so if you spend a lot of money on these kinds of things, it would easily be worth it to join.

You also can and should look for labels on supplements that indicate that they adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), the highest sanitation, process validation and quality standards that are voluntary standards from the federal government. Especially if you are feeding the supplements to children, this level of compliance with basic health standards is a no-brainer.

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This book may be for you if…

Because Dorfman’s book presents nutritional solutions to such a wide range of child health problems, below I provide a list of issues with her accompanying suggestions so that readers grappling with these issues in a child’s or their own health will see that this book may offer some useful insights, or at least some avenues to try as an alternative to prescription drugs or mere desperation.

If you are dealing with any of these issues, the list below by no means should replace your review of all of the information in the book, which includes detailed case studies, full descriptions of the problem and methodology and a candid discussion of how well the nutritional solutions worked. Dorfman is also available for consultations and is based in Northern Virginia.

Health Conditions Addressed by Nutritional Changes, by Issue, Cause and Solution

Frequent nosebleeds/stomach pain — Gluten intolerance (despite negative test for Celiac disease)

Lyme disease symptoms not addressed by antibiotics — High Iron levels in Prenatal Vitamins (brief mention)

Very picky eater, upper respiratory and ear infections — milk (casein) allergy or other food allergy

Serious reflux (GERD) — Milk allergy, addressed by alternative formula (not soy-based), probiotics and zinc carnosine

Near-constant stomach pain, craving wheat-based foods, eczema, anemia, severe mood swings and/or behavior issues — Gluten intolerance (again, despite negative test for Celiac)

Very picky eater, deficient growth, lack of hunger — Zinc deficiency

Constipation, Eczema — Milk allergy, addressed with pro-biotic supplements, Liquid-L Carnitine

Rash or “chicken skin,” dry hair, lack of thirst — Essential fatty acids deficiency, addressed with fish oil supplement

Insomnia — Melatonin, in small doses (caution about drug interactions with SSRIs); other practical advice, such as increasing exercise and decreasing sugar/caffeine

Hyperactivity, Aggression, Moodiness — Decrease sugar (she notes that a small subset of sugar-reactive children do get hyperactive from sugar, despite more general findings of no link between hyperactivity and sugar); increase magnesium; DMAE supplements (sardine oil nutrient)

Anxiety — fish oil supplementation to increase amino acids, protein and nutrient-rich diet

Ear infections linked to ADHD — Eliminate common allergenic foods (dairy, wheat, soy and/or eggs); address with probiotics; evaluate auditory processing

Autism with behavioral deterioration from some foods and sudden rash, or                 Itchiness or red cheeks or rashes from certain foods — Pesticides on strawberries (my note: likely methyl iodide or methyl oxide) or other foods, such as fruit

Hives (after all food allergens and contaminants are removed) — Allergy to genetically modified corn and soy

Dyspraxia, or speech delays — Deficiency in essential fats, addressed with Fish oil supplementation, Vitamin E complex, and Choline supplementation (one child also needed Taurine supplementation in addition). The book also helpfully contains a guideline by which to measure speech delays in toddler development, and highlights the developmental urgency in addressing this issue as early as possible.

Hyper-sensitivity (Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD) — Deficiency in fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, addressed with fish oil, and mineral and vitamin supplementation