Food Matters, so Let’s Start Acting Like It: Student Guest Blogs

Welcome back from UConn spring vacation, readers! This week I’ll be giving the spotlight to two students’ reflections on their academic experiences outside of the classroom at a Benton Museum panel titled “Food Matters, The True Cost of Industrializing the Food Supply.”

As we discussed today in class, an important practice for proactive learners is to engage with intellectual interests regularly beyond the classroom. Here at the University of Connecticut we’re lucky enough to have access to a wide variety of in-person panels, lectures, workshops, film screenings, and other events every day. Please enjoy these four perspectives on food in the United States, nested within two student perspectives on one such Omnivore’s academic adventure.

Sorry, I didn’t have a three. Happy reading!

Published with permission.

By Jessica Mathieu 

The Benton Museum of Art is hosting “Sweet Sensations,” an exhibit of art held in conjunction with the UConn Reads’ initiative of reading the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan to strike up conversation about American food consumption. Throughout his book, Pollan makes points that help us peel back the wrappers and see what Americans are really consuming. At “Food Matters: the Cost of Industrializing our Food Supply,” a panel hosted by the Benton, the speakers were asked to add tinder to this conversation about the food industry that America is feeding and what that industry really looks like.

Nutritionist Shoshana Levinson moderated this panel. She began by speaking to this system of industrialized food by saying it is “a system that values profit over health and sustainability.” Of course, the food industry is an industry, after all. When your lens is shaped like a dollar sign when trying to rethink and reform your product, your problem solving skills go directly to figuring out how to make as much of it for as little as possible. Thanks, American capitalism! But on the other side of that phrase, the food industry, the idea of an industry has a very specific context that should (but often time does not) consider the value of what makes up their products; not in cost, but in nutrition.

The “quantity over quality” mentality has never set the stage for the production of sustainable goods, as Levinson gets at with that statement; nothing, especially in a powerful corporate setting, is built to last. I don’t mean last in terms of time (after all, the Twinkie’s lifespan is probably longer than the average American’s), but in the product’s ability to fully and sensibly serve its purpose. Sure, a single box of Twinkies could be passed down to your children and grandchildren, but how does that translate when it’s actually consumed? This is what Levinson expresses to us as she introduces the panelists. She wants us to be aware of all perspectives and motivations of the food industry and its consumers. We can do so by critiquing the relationship this industry has set up between consumer and producer: it is heavily one-sided. We buy and buy from companies that supply us with so many (empty!) calories and sugars that end up stressing our bodies out more than properly sustaining them. As the food industry stands currently, it’s as though we are feeding them more than they are feeding us. Each of the panelists present at “Food Matters” express their passions in deconstructing that relationship and giving it a healthier, level-ground. This is the exact system they seem to reject in the quest for sustainable food. 

Levinson opens the floor to Rudd Center representative Renee Gross, who explains the Rudd Center’s initiative to change policies to restrict some of the legal liberties that food corporations take advantage of. Not only are they looking to tighten the reins on bigger corporations, but to make the sensible choices more widely available. Gross goes on to tell us that these sensible options are not equally available to all; factors such as low socioeconomic status are heavily restrictive on the kind of foods a person can purchase. Something that the Rudd Center works toward is making it so food stamps are accepted in a variety of places (the ultimate goal being everywhere). When we talk about being informed consumers, that knowledge can only take us so far if we do not have access to the choices we would ideally like to make. Another point that Gross emphasized was the way these sugary goods are being marketed: toward children. While using childhood obesity to drive her point, Gross encourages us to examine the way marketing targets children; it keeps them in the dark and has them running toward what their favorite cartoon characters are endorsing, like juices pumped with high fructose corn syrup. She tells us that the Rudd Center wants to focus energy on a demographic that often times cannot make their own decisions on what they’re consuming, informed or not.

The third panelist was a sociology professor at UConn, Phoebe Godfrey. She expressed that her focus was mainly on the cost of our industrialized food source claiming that said is cost is “not something singular”; they are not isolated and in fact, are many. The way we have managed to build this food industry is poisonous for many aspects of life that are not immediately visible to us. Among other facets of life, our communities, animals, and land are all extorted by the food powerhouse of America. As an industry situated in a capitalist society such as America, it is inherently cost/profit driven. They think cost in terms of their own; the consequences everyone and everything else faces due to this extortion are simply water under the bridge as long as revenue comes in at a steady rate, if not an escalating one. Professor Godfrey gathered students together to wear brightly colored shirts to help drive her point forward. They sat among the audience with various costs the food industry presents us with written on the backs of these shirts. She called on them, and one by one they stood and spoke to the individual cost they represented. Among them were: climate change, the overall environment, dairy cows and animals in general, global inequalities, and the extortion of laborers. The way the food industry has been built and is sustained takes without looking to give back. There are food laborers who will never see the finished product of their labor, or even be able to afford said product (I’ve known this to be from Marx’s alienation theory). Dairy cows’ bodies are constantly strained, the demand for milk is larger than what these dairy cows are capable of producing without exhausting and harming their bodies. Smog and general wastes from factories and packaging plants contribute pollution and its harmful effects on our environment. Food corporations are blind to these costs; many affluent CEO’s and other employees of said corporations are very much removed those costs, never having to feel them immediately or directly. We need to consider, as Gross mentioned formerly in the Rudd Center initiative, how to pull these corporations in to limit their ability to extort these resources. There must be a way to feed America in an ethical way; by changing policies and creating restrictions we can force this industry to get creative in that aspect.

Endocrinologist Dr. Fadi A. Al Khayer was the last to speak on this panel. He spoke to bring us back to what food is supposed to do to begin with, and that’s to sustain our lives and keep us healthy. He began by telling us the astounding statistic surrounding diabetes and young Americans born in the year 2000 and onward: there is a 1/3 chance that a child born in that time will be diagnosed with diabetes in their life time. Imagine that! Could you imagine one in every three people you encountered were bogged down by that chronic illness simply because of America’s food culture? That is the reality we, and this industry, are shaping. For an industry that is supposed to be about sustaining life and keeping America healthy, its methods are counterproductive. However, there is still responsibility on consumers (who have that agency) to understand their choices and what they are putting on their, and their family members’, plates.  Dr. Al Khayer emphasizes the need to differentiate between the types of diabetes in this conversation about the harm of American food culture. One type, type 2, is the one we need to be focusing on for this discussion, for it the one we are helping to cultivate. That doesn’t goes to say that the way the food industry is set up in general does not make things difficult for all diabetics, because it certainly does. Speaking as a person with type 1 diabetes, I can say that there is a lot I must do on my part to assure my health is in check. When I am fixed in a world obsessed with sugar intake, it is challenging to keep my head high and my options open.

Dr. Al Khayer presents us with this thought: as we are attempting to become a nation that is more aware of the dangers of excessive sugar intake, we also need to reconsider our approach to solving this problem. Often times, companies try to bank on “diet” things; diet this, diet that, and none of it “tastes diet”! Well, of course not, because artificial sweeteners are being pumped into these products to satisfy that sweet tooth. These artificial sweeteners ultimately confuse our bodies and do nothing to solve the actual problem. We are still feeding this sweetness addiction of America, and we have done so in a way that we think is “healthy” and “beneficial”. If anything, they are equally as harmful. Dr. Al Khayer tells us that as we exhaust our bodies’ ability to produce insulin (a hormone that help the body convert carbohydrates to energy) by consuming sugar, that loophole we’ve created does not get us out of risk of diabetes. Diet sodas cause insulin resistance almost as much as sugary sodas and foods.  Artificial sweeteners are just another way to keep America satisfied and to keep them buying as obesity and other health risk awareness spreads, doing so in a way that makes us think we are doing our bodies good when this substitute causes its own set of health problems. 

These panelists made profound contributions to this conversation our campus is having about rethinking our food sources. They provided us with many different perspectives, showing us who is benefiting and who faces the drawbacks. There is an astounding amount of damage being done to our communities, bodies, and planet. The American food industry needs to be redirected in a way where it provides for our communities and does not extort them. There are many different approaches to solving this problem; none of them being easy or immediate. We need to consider the words of these professionals and find ways that each of us can be a smart consumer, making the best choices when we can. So, in short, food matters…so when are we going to start acting like it?

Published with permission.

By Jordan Angel

 Attending the Food Matters Discussion Panel allowed me to gain a new perspective and understanding of why America is such an overweight country as a whole. The most disturbing part of the obesity epidemic is that one of the most-at-risk demographics for obesity is children. What is even worse is that this is due greatly to our own marketing and habits as a country. For example, as Renee M. Gross, the coordinator of Legal Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, pointed out, the average child sees 13 food commercials per day. Most of these commercials advertised are for foods that are very high in fat or added sugars like Chips Ahoy! Or Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Children are extremely vulnerable to creative and manipulative advertising, which often uses popular celebrities, athletes, or cartoon characters to entice children to eat the often very unhealthy product. In contrast, the average child sees only one “healthy” commercial per week (which are commercials that urge children to eat healthier or be more active). Despite Michelle Obama’s nationwide program, Let’s Move!, which is aimed at combating childhood obesity, childhood obesity remains to be a major problem in the United States.

Another major reason for obesity among Americans that was discussed by the panel was the lack of exercise, we as a nation get. One older member of the audience noted that she was 88 years old, and stated that she used to walk everywhere as a kid, “I remember my dad picking me up once from school in my entire life because it was absolutely pouring out! Today, everyone drives everywhere – you never see people out walking anymore!” Fadi Al Khayer, an M.D. in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, was one of the panelists in the discussion. He compared the United States with the Western half of Europe, which he explained was most like America in terms of culture and socioeconomic status. When comparing the two, one thing that sticks out is how much more people in Western Europe walk then Americans. Khayer explained that on average, Western Europeans walk about 5 kilometers per day while Americans only walk 1000 ft. per day!

Khayer, along with Phoebe Godfrey, a UConn Professor of Sociology who teaches a course on food, climate change, sustainability, and social justice, tried to emphasize the extreme costs of the unhealthy American diet. Khayer focused on the more economic costs of obesity, stating that Type II diabetes will literally bankrupt the United States. As a whole, the cost of healthcare for all people affected from Type II Diabetes whether that be health costs, inability to work, etc. is astronomical and only growing! In fact, Khayer exclaimed that the only way China will not become far more powerful than the US in the upcoming years is because, they have the same problem with childhood obesity and Type II Diabetes and it will severely stunt their economic growth. Godfrey, as well as her students all discussed other costs of obesity throughout the U.S. One student spoke of child slave labor and explained that many children are being forced to work for far below minimum wages in third-world countries in order to process foods like chocolate, for the rich. Other costs include food deserts, as many people living in urban areas lack the ability to purchase affordable and healthy food, and well-being of the animals. In conclusion, this discussion was an exciting way to hear first-hand about medical news from established and respected doctors, as opposed to on TV or the Internet.

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