The Foodies vs. Big Food

How has reading a book club book influenced your everyday life?

Farmers Market Strawberries

Around this time last year, we read Barbara Kingsolver’s inspiring Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a documentation of her family’s yearlong effort to eat locally sourced food (much of which they grew themselves). I’d always been a fan of our local farmers markets and co-ops, and since reading the book have committed myself to being conscious of where my food comes from. Reflecting over the past year, I’ve canned numerous times (last weekend’s project: strawberry rhubarb jam), make my own yogurt, and signed up for my first CSA share this summer.

This month’s Atlantic magazine has an article by David Freedman, “How Junk Food Can End Obesity: Demonizing processed food may be dooming many to obesity and disease. Could embracing the drive-thru make us all healthier?” Freedman outlines a critique of the Foodies and posits that embracing Big Food will have a greater impact towards curbing obesity than the slow food movement will:

Despite the best efforts of a small army of wholesome-food heroes, there is no reasonable scenario under which these foods could become cheap and plentiful enough to serve as the core diet for most of the obese population—even in the unlikely case that your typical junk-food eater would be willing and able to break lifelong habits to embrace kale and yellow beets.

This was a challenging read, and one I’d  recommend for reading. There are a couple of excellent counter-posts at Mother Jones and SalonThe question I came back to after reading through everything: is there room for both Big Food and Foodies in this?

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Race & Poverty

As I read Continental Drift, I was struck by Bob’s seeming to feel like he was “more than” the people of color with whom he crossed paths, especially considering that his family was really struggling, financially & otherwise, throughout the book. This made the epidemiologist in me wonder about the numbers: How much of a difference does race make when it comes to poverty? In the United States, at least, turns out it makes quite a significant difference.

According to the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Research on Poverty, twenty-seven percent of self-identified black Americans lived in poverty in 2010. The number for non-Hispanic Whites? Just under ten percent.

So is the race-poverty connection causal? What are the drivers of this association? The National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan offers a great policy brief that I found helpful.

Finally, I was interested in the proportion of Haitians living in poverty: It’s 80 percent. (Source: World Bank) Once Vanise arrives in the U.S., will she really be better off? The Census Bureau says she likely will be, financially at least, but she’ll not likely ever be on par with native-born Americans.

Just some food for thought as we prepare for our discussion of the book this evening!

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Continental Drift Discussion 3/15/13

Hello Broad Street Book Nerds!

This is a gentle reminder that we’ll gather at 7pm this Friday, March 15, to discuss Continental Drift by Russell Banks.

Goodreads includes some good reviews should anyone want to take a peek before we discuss.

As I’m finishing up the book over the next two nights, I keep thinking, “What is the price of the American Dream and how do layers of privilege envelop and shape that idea?”

It should be a good discussion on Friday evening. We’ll meet at Jared’s home in Saint Paul. If you’d like the address and directions, please e-mail privately at

Happy Reading!


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I love my PBS!

…because my PBS gave me this 3-hour documentary for Women’s History Month, and they let me watch the whole darn thing online for free.  Sure, it’s lengthy, and you’ll have to get all the way to Part III to see the Half the Sky connection that makes it definitively relevant for sharing here, but I thought it was totally worth the time.  Hope you’ll agree!

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Recent articles on pesticides and endocrine disruptors

As we’re currently making our way through Our Stolen FutureI came across this NYT article from Nicholas Kristof that looks at endocrine disruptors and mice studies. He explains why he, as an opinion writer and “pundit”, now covers the public health concern:

One answer is that obesity is an important national problem, partly responsible for soaring health care costs. Yet the chemical lobby, just like the tobacco industry before it, has impeded serious regulation and is even trying to block research.

A second is that journalists historically have done a poor job covering public health issues — we were slow on the dangers of tobacco and painfully delinquent in calling attention to the perils of lead — but these are central to our national well-being. Our lives are threatened less by the Taliban in Afghanistan than by unregulated contaminants at home.

He cites another article from Scientific American that asks if doctors should do more to inform pregnant women about “environmental risks:” 

But Flynn is in the minority. A new nationwide survey of 2,600 obstetricians and gynecologists found that most do not warn their pregnant patients about chemicals in food, consumer products or the environment that could endanger their fetuses. More than half said they don’t warn about mercury, and hardly any of them give advice about lead, pesticides, air pollution or chemicals in plastics or cosmetics.

Leah also forwarded another NYT link, by food guru Mark Bittman, that looks at the widespread pesticide exposure everyone is exposed to. He includes a nod to a recent statement made by the American Association of Pediatrics to “reduce children’s exposure to pesticides” and ends his piece with a few recommendations of his own:

The long-term solution is to reduce pesticide use, and the ways to do that include some of the typical laundry-list items that find their way into every “how to improve American agriculture” story: rotate crops, which reduces attacks by invasive species; employintegrated pest management, which basically means “think before you spray”; better regulate pesticides (and both increase funding for and eliminate the revolving door policy at the Environmental Protection Agency) with an eye toward protecting the most vulnerable — that is, farmworkers, anyone of childbearing age, and especially women in their first trimester of pregnancy
[4]; give farmers options for “conventional,” that is, non-genetically engineered seeds (around 95 percent of all seeds for soy, corn and cotton contain a pesticide-resistant gene, which encourages wanton spraying); and in general move toward using more organic principles.

What’s the best way to reduce exposures to endocrine disruptors and pesticides? How effective is warning pregnant women to avoid environmental exposures at preventing illness in their children? Is it reasonable to recommend that childbearing folk and parents of kids buy organic food, as Bittman does in his piece? I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks about this!  

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Discussion of Oshinsky’s “Polio” 11/9

Hello Broad Street Book Nerds!

This is a a gentle reminder that we’ll gather to discuss David Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story tomorrow evening (11/9) at 7pm at Jared’s place.

For directions, please e-mail Jared directly at

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Who participates in clinical trials? And Why?

As I’m making my way through Polio: An American Story, I’m struck by the descriptions of Salk’s vaccines going missing during The Clinical Trial. Participating clinicians wanted to use the vaccines on themselves and their families to protect them from polio. It stands in stark contrast to contemporary reports of vulnerable populations being misinformed and misguided into participating in clinical trials overseas. Here’s a BBC article on clinical trials conducted in India among individuals affected by the Bhopal gas leak I found via Mara Hvistendahl on Twitter:

Time after time in Indore, I heard a depressingly familiar tale of poor, often uneducated people saying how flattered and privileged they were made to feel as they were suddenly offered the chance to receive medicines usually out of their reach. All of them claim that, contrary to Indian laws governing drugs trials, there was no informed consent.

I’ve been pondering how did we, as a society, go from stealing study vaccines for our own use to administering study medications to the underprivileged? And from having absolute certainty and faith that a vaccine would be safe+effective to doubting the safety+efficacy of vaccines that have long been in use? I’m looking forward to our discussion of Polio next week. 

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