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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Outside the Box


I recently finished reading Outside the Box by Jeannie Marshall.  Marshall is a Canadian journalist who has spent time living in Rome.  The book details the differences she noticed between the traditional food culture in Italy - which is, unfortunately, slowly changing and becoming more Americanized - and the food culture of modern North America.  Her focus is the impact of these distinct environments on herself and her young son, and on the families around her.

I enjoyed this book immensely and agree with most of what Marshall says: our food environment is toxic; large corporate food manufacturers and restaurant chains are in business to make money, and do so at the expense of our health; cooking is a life skill and should be taught in school; food marketing is often manipulative and detrimental, particularly for children; and there are many complex personal and systemic reasons why people are overweight and suffering from related chronic illnesses.

Like Yoni Freedhoff, I was disappointed that she did not provide potential solutions to any of the problems she addresses.  More than anything, the book solidified my belief that North Americans are not likely to make drastic changes to their lifestyle unless the environment changes.  In order for the environment to change, there have to be much more stringent regulations for food producers, manufacturers and the restaurant industry.

What was perhaps most poignant was her notion that we should be able to eat for enjoyment without being concerned about the macro and micronutrients in our food, or what additives or hidden fats, sugars and salts might be present.  This is not possible in our packaged-food dominated world.  Reading every label is essential.  Virtually every product is plastered with health claims, even if it is a highly processed item devoid of any nutritional value.

She also draws attention to the way food is marketed towards children, and how 'fun' is always associated with junk food.  Even family attractions in Italy now serve only fast food, and the same is certainly true of most attractions here in Canada.  It's both sad and sickening.

I try not to obsess about what the girls eat and hope they will eventually follow our example of eating mostly healthy, whole foods and having treats sparingly.  Unfortunately, the whole 'saving treats for special occasions' seems to still mean that they get junk virtually every day.  There always seems to be a party or event, a birthday, or some sort of outing where they are offered (usually not by us) candy, ice cream, cookies or cake. 

Sometimes I do feel like its a losing battle.  But Marshall suggests that all is not lost and that the food culture in North America is showing signs of positive change.  But her basis for this is the movement towards eating locally and eschewing industrial food.  I have already argued that eating locally sourced food does not necessarily mean eating healthier, if the food is bacon and donuts.  One look at Toronto's restaurant scene and current food trends indicates that healthy eating, whether it's based on a vegetarian, vegan or omnivorous diet, is not nearly as popular as eating poutine, donuts, fried chicken, burgers and hot dogs, charcuterie, and bacon everything.  I doubt it's much different anywhere else in North America.  And despite all the warnings about drinking soda and other sweetened beverages, I hardly see these products disappearing off of store shelves.

This book is definitely interesting food for thought, and I hope it can be used as a springboard for others to examine ways to address the serious state of our food culture that Marshall describes.