Monday, April 26, 2010

I'm All for A Revolution

When I was growing up, my mother made a cake from a mix every Saturday, and it served as nightly dessert for a week. We drank Coke with dinner, ate fried everything like good southerners; and snacked from a drawer filled with Twinkies, Archway Cookies, Chips Ahoy and Mars Bars. My father put all of those things in his lunch box, and they were free for the taking. It's no wonder that during my first semester away at college, I lost nearly 10 pounds.

Dinners in my own house are much more balanced, and the snacking choices are more moderate, sometimes much to the dismay of the others in the house. While I currently have a cornmeal cake with lemon glaze on the counter, we usually don't have dessert, and we don't drink soda with dinner. Granted, we drink wine, but the sugar content hardly compares. It hasn't always been so healthful here—one summer, the girls were so demanding at lunch time, we had drive-thru fastfood crap almost every day just to shut them up, and we even picked up chicken strips at four different joints one day and held a contest to see which was the best—Arby's won, if I recall.

With all of this in mind, here is today's opinion piece as it appears in Small Town Newspaper:

Time for a Revolution

English chef Jamie Oliver has come to the States to spark a food revolution, and he has used a television show, “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” aired on ABC, to do it. He’s starting small by focusing on one town, Huntington, W.Va, chosen because it is central to one of the most overweight areas of the country.

As with most revolutions, gathering troops has been initially slow going, and Oliver has been faced with obstacles typical of any big fight—sustainable funding and fear of the unfamiliar. But he is making headway, as he did with a similar experiment he conducted in Greenwich, England, a town with demographics not unlike those of Huntington.

At first, the chef discovered younger students were unable to identify basic fruits and vegetables—children couldn’t distinguish between an apple and a potato, for example. And some of them had to be taught how to properly use a knife and fork. Uncooperative parents were sending their students to school with soda, sweets and snack foods because the kids were unaccustomed to freshly prepared meals.

But Oliver’s cause began to catch on. Now, school officials in Greenwich are reporting that since the introduction of the revised lunch program, test scores have improved, and students are more mentally engaged in the classroom. Beyond the increased academic success of students being fed more nutritious food, officials are reporting health improvements as well. Absenteeism has decreased significantly, and asthmatic students are requiring inhalers much less often.

Similar success has yet to be proven in Huntington, but the revolution is gaining support. Mission: Readiness, a group of senior retired military officers, has reported that being overweight is now the leading medical cause for rejecting recruits, and they are calling the poor physical condition of our youth a matter of national security. Pointing to poor eating habits as one of the leading culprits, they are now asking Congress to pass a pending bill that will require schools to improve the nutritional value of foods offered in the lunch line.

It seems a food revolution in this country really is in order. And it seems to me this revolution needs to begin at home before kids reach school age, because we have done our children no favors by failing to set better examples with our own eating habits. The revolt against bad food will only be successful if we all join in the fight, even those of us without children at home to feed.

There was a time when I couldn’t find my way around the kitchen for anything, and my husband and I survived on spaghetti and meatless sauce from a jar and frozen chicken parts from a box. Having dinner was a matter of necessity, and the only good thing I can say about those meals was that we weren’t hungry after the last bite. I have since learned to cook properly, and to my delight, I have discovered there is satisfaction in preparing real, fresh, whole ingredients and in connecting with the food we eat.

Now, when I wheel the shopping cart down the grocery store aisles, I am astonished at the shelves devoted to pre-processed foods. These shortcuts promise to make creating meals easier, but I believe they rob us of the joy of eating and food preparation without giving us any real benefit in exchange, only a few minutes saved mixed with addictive and often hidden sodium, fat and sugar.

There is value in taking a few extra moments to prepare and appreciate quality ingredients, to savor a meal made up of healthful dishes instead of shoving down rubbish for the sake of quelling hunger. Too many of us have lost the sense of that value and have settled for much less. And now our children are following our lead, so much so that this next generation will be the first to have a shorter life span than the previous one if current trends continue.

For the sake of everyone, school-aged children and adults alike, I am all for this new food revolution. I am all for allowing ourselves the pleasure of feasting on quality ingredients, for rebelling against poor eating habits and pre-processed foods and for leading the charge against creating an unhealthy generation. Huzzah.

1 comment:

MmeBenaut said...

Bravo Robyn. This is a great piece to provoke some local thinking. Jamie Oliver is well known in Australia as his tv series, several of them, have aired here.
I even have one of his cook books which I have thumbed through. The good thing about his style is that he makes healthy food preparation look easy.
We have a huge range of delicious foods here and generally speaking we eat a very healthy diet. There are always fresh vegetables on the plate every day, whether they are steamed, roasted or stir fried. We have a portion of either meat, chicken or fish with every meal. The fruit bowl is filled every week - mostly with seasonal fruits but sometimes with imported unseasonal fruits. I try to support the local growers and buy their produce.
Just occasionally I will buy prepared pasta sauces but, interestingly, I usually have some sort of allergic reaction to them - I suspect it is sulphur dioxide but possibly msg too - resulting in headache, nausea and (mild) asthma.
We have fresh milk, cream and yoghurt. Our sweet treats are jams made by a local hills producer, mostly plum, raspberry, strawberry and my favourite apricot. Our "junk food" treat is usually a Sara Lee pastry dessert - apricot or blueberry.
Summer dessert is invariably fruit salad with either yoghurt or icecream. Nuts (usually roasted but sometimes raw) are always available for snacks - they provide essential minerals and brazil nuts in particular have selenium and zinc which is often otherwise missing from our diet. Dark greens and reds are valued - spinach, broccoli, bok choy, capsicum, red grapes, strawberries, and of course, carrots and pumpkin.
I was cooking by the age of 14 - often the main meal so that it was ready when my mother came home from work. I still managed to complete my homework from school, play sport, read and see my friends. By the age of 18 I was cooking meals for 10 or more in Canada when I was placing au pairs in Canadian homes. But I confess, I don't make many cakes from scratch or fancy meals. "Fresh is Best" and simplicity don't necessarily mean that a meal is any less delicious plus, I'm lazy and can't be bothered measuring ingredients.
This is not to say that I'm not slightly overweight; I eat too much sugar but it is usually from taking 2 teaspoons in my coffee and the occasional chocolate bar or extra piece of cake. I do buy ready-made cakes sometimes, MB likes a piece after dinner usually.
Just before I click on this, I should tell you that the word verification today is "condoms". Fancy that!