When considering the issue of obesity in the United States, a formulaic outlook is appealing: Americans are eating too many calories, so the silver bullet to stop the epidemic must be foods with fewer calories. This idea was evident in Robert Nelb’s recent editorial, “Organic doesn’t always mean low calorie” (9/20). But however logically appealing this approach may be, it has failed repeatedly in the past. When news spread that fat has twice the calories of carbohydrates or protein, Americans reduced their fat intake dramatically. Yet while Americans now drink more skim than whole milk, they eat more than enough carbohydrate and protein calories to compensate for the fat reduction in their foods. The American dream is one of excess, and the American diet is no exception. A cut that feels like sacrifice in one area leads to a binge elsewhere.
The emphasis on diet and health in the media has given Americans a guilty and calculating attitude toward food. Under this nutritional stress, the majority of the population feels guilty slowing down to emphasize food enjoyment and buckles under the pressure to restrain their caloric intakes. Instead, Americans absentmindedly snack on highly processed snack and fast foods, replete with genetically altered corn and preservatives. While the attitude of excess may seem evolutionarily programmed and impossible to overcome, food attitudes vary dramatically from culture to culture. While, for example, quality food forms cultural centerpieces in much of Western Europe, Americans eat more calories and have dramatically higher rates of obesity than Western Europeans. To reliably cut waistlines, Americans should consider learning to consciously indulge in quality instead of quantity. This is where the Yale Sustainable Food Project comes in.
The YSFP organic brownies are high-calorie and satisfying. They’re made of real butter and chocolate — energy-rich and nourishing ingredients. While conventional brownies are also high-calorie, they are not satisfying — made of corn oil, cornstarch and mysterious “natural and artificial flavors.” There is high-calorie sustainable food and there is low-calorie sustainable food, just as with conventional foods. Sustainable food is not about taking calories out of food; it is about emphasizing quality. Quality comes from the satisfaction of supporting local farmers who take advantage of natural symbiotic relationships to maintain their land’s fertility without excessive outside inputs. Quality comes from eating fruits and vegetables harvested at their flavorful and nutrient-rich peaks; this forms a stark contrast with varieties bred to have hard skins and long shelf lives. Quality comes from the avoidance of antibiotics, synthetic chemicals and genetically modified organisms, all of which have ambiguous impacts on human health. Quality comes from knowing that the person in the kitchen is now a chef rather than an assembly line worker, and that he or she is sauteing garlic with zucchini instead of microwaving a shrink-wrapped tray. The preparation of sustainable food cannot be separated from the rest of the process, because local production plays a key role in sustainability. Part of appreciating these elements of quality is accepting that we are not entitled to the widest variety of foods year-round. Benefiting from sustainable food may mean more squash and fewer tomatoes in the winter.
A sick America comes from a sick food infrastructure. It comes from one that locks us into the roles of consumers with power only to vary our caloric intake. The conventional food industry denies us our role as citizens in a food community. Citizenship means rights, knowledge and expression; we need these forces to change from the current infrastructure to one that encompasses the moral and economic considerations of reduced energy consumption from transportation, healthy local economies and environmentally conscious food production. Citizenship means the authority to slow down to think about food. Delectation, rather than nutritional calculation, should preoccupy students. This is why the Sustainable Food Project does not generally brand food with nutrition facts. YSFP creates community meals. At the community table, people enjoy food without hoarding it. On community food nights — sustainable food nights — fewer students leave dining halls with cups of Lucky Charms and more savor lamb and chard. Our community’s sustainable tables do not create obesity — they create healthy, well-fed and satisfied students.
Emily Hallet is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.