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Scores, Labels, and Learning to Make Your Own Bed

March 07, 2011 | Tags: Exercise , Featured , Food , Fruit , Health , Vegetables | Post comment

Scores, Labels, and Learning to Make Your Own Bed

There are an increasing number of retail food chains using earnestly constructed algorithms to create shelf-level nutrition guidance for their shoppers. Hannaford led with Guiding Stars; Topco’s cooperative of grocery chains employs Nu-Val; Supervalu came out with nutrition IQ; Whole Foods launched Health Starts Here last year; Safeway launched SimpleNutrition this year; Walmart has one in development. And let’s not forget Smart Choices, the labeling system launched by Kraft, Kellogg, and Unilever in 2009 in which Fruit Loops were considered a “smart choice" and which, after a hue and cry from both consumers and several State Attorney Generals and now under FDA investigation, has been stalled.

In the years since scoring systems began to appear, the rates of preventable diseases have only gone up because mostly what grocery stores sell, mostly what manufacturers make, and mostly what our government continues to subsidize in base crops hasn’t changed. These are the real realities, the forces that define what food products make it to the market and what we buy when we shop. These forces are the ocean’s undertow over which the cheerful and seemingly innocent whitecaps of nutrition labeling systems play.

Related, the new USDA Dietary Guidelines are a big improvement over the previous ones because we’re now told that half of what we eat ought to be produce—but without a change in farm bill subsidies and government policies this message is no more (or less) useful than nutrition labeling programs. By the way, while it’s good to see the USDA telling us to eat less, as this flies in the face of food industry economics, it’s not enough: what we eat is fundamentally more important than how much because you can’t get enough or stay well when you eat health-depleting diet.

It will take many years, and more billions spent on the treatment of agonizing and preventable disease, before these realities change enough. Policies, politics, infrastructure, and distribution pathways will all have to change in order for us to eat well as a daily way of life.

Against this enormous effort, nutritional labeling programs give us an illusion of control and choice. Worse, they externalize our knowledge and thus our power to care for ourselves. Just imagine getting parenting advice that suggests that instead of teaching your child to make his bed so that, forever more, he has this skill and can build on it in infinite ways (unconsciously learning the inherent physics in doing anything physical; learning how to care for other things in his domain; attending to his basic needs and comforts), you should tell him each morning for the next 10 years to make his bed. Or that you should just make it for him yourself. Ridiculous, isn’t it? To tell him is what labels are doing. Add in instant foods (microwavable meals, fast foods) and you’re making the bed for him---and badly. Very, very badly.

We need to help people internalize their knowledge and their power. For almost forever, basic food knowledge—what to eat, how to eat-- was considered essential to life. We’ve lost this, and our health--our vitality and productivity and wellbeing--right along with it.

When I was seven and eight I lived with my family in a very rural part of Queensland, Australia. The school my sister and I attended was a two-room building with no electricity or running water, serving first through 6th grade, but what I learned there blended with all that my mother and her mother had to teach me, creating the basis for The Full Yield. Think of it: forty years ago our teacher regularly took us on walks through the bush to identify what to eat and what not to eat, and talked with our parents about our lunches (and inspected our nails and teeth for cleanliness and health). I know this was not a unique practice to this teacher or to this place but if it exists anywhere in the world today, it’s rare. We’ve lost so very much in forty years.

Given the decades and billions of dollars between us and a truly health-supporting culture, what can we do? We can give people not simply the knowledge but the experiences, skills and supports critical to self-care. This is what The Full Yield is all about. And here’s a great example: we challenged our program members to make 50% of their daily dietary intake be produce (more vegetables than fruits) and to set up teams to support one another, using all of our program’s elements (coaching, tracking, information, cooking videos, recipes, and so on), track their intake of produce, and submit a produce-rich recipe to us. The goal? Further internalizing their own knowledge, experience, and power, not just for now, in this program, but to build on forever.

I promised I’d post on my blog the recipe of the team who reported the highest daily average consumption of produce (which turned out to be nine servings). With tremendous happiness for all who participated, and with tremendous dedication to the work we are doing together, here is the recipe below. It is easy to make, versatile (swap in vegetables in season, use different grains), colorful, flavorful, inexpensive, a natural for leftovers (homemade convenience food!) and health-supporting. What more could you ask for?

Spicy Vegetable Couscous from “The Producers”
Serves 4 as a main dish or 6 as a side dish.

2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups turnips, diced
2 carrots, thinly sliced on diagonal
1 can whole tomatoes, drained and crushed (15 oz)
salt to taste
1/2 - 1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 small zucchini sliced
1 can chick peas, drained (15 oz)
*Note: you can also use sweet potatoes, butternut squash, yellow summer squash, or mushrooms.

1. In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil and then add the onion and garlic. Cook until soft.
2. Add turnip, carrots, tomatoes, salt, cumin, red pepper, and stock (add sweet potatoes and winter squash if using) Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 10 minutes or until veggies are tender. Have a bite to check for flavor and tenderness.
3. Add zucchini and chickpeas (add summer squash, mushrooms, if using). Stir, cover and cook until zucchini is tender.

Whole Wheat Couscous
1 1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock
4 tbsp butter or oil
1 cup whole wheat couscous (or quinoa, brown, red or black rice also work well, but allow for longer cooking times)

1. Heat stock and butter or oil in saucepan to boiling, add couscous and remove from heat.
2. Let stand for 15 minutes and fluff with a fork.

Serve vegetables over couscous and garnish with fresh cilantro or parsley.