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The Way We Eat Now

Andrea Della Monica has a rather heated and interesting article at TIME magazine on the classism and superiority often demonstrated by the organic movement:

I hate the whole organic food movement. Notice I said “movement,” because it is the mindset that is perverse and insufferable. My hatred stems from the fact that this trend is a repudiation of my own working class background. Eating organic is eating more expensively and, in my opinion, often unnecessarily.

… People who eat primarily organic are the same hipsters who make their little ones toil in community gardens after picking them up from child care cooperatives. What they can’t harvest, they buy in small shops that sell two dozen kinds of honey, and enough soy and tofu to choke a cow. … And as for cows, they are regarded as one moo short of pure evil by people who fear the possibility they may be treated with antibodies or growth hormones and steroids. The organic foodies raise children who may never experience the lush, velvety feel of a milk mustache. Instead, they get the flat, chalky aftertaste of some almond-based alternative milk product. Rather than dunk Oreos rich with refined sugars, they wash down carob biscuits baked with agave.

A lot of the points that Monica makes are very true. The “organic movement” carries with it a sort of superiority that is impossible to ignore. Those who shop exclusively at Whole Foods can develop a snobbish attitude toward those who don’t. It’s borne, perhaps, out of a sense of moral superiority in some ways: in a world that deifies health, striving for a healthy body becomes an almost religious pursuit. We fall prey to the legalistic, holier-than-thou eating that Monica protests. We become susceptible to ridiculous excesses, like the drinking of expensive “organic birch tree water.” Monica is also correct to note that the organic movement doesn’t always make a demonstrable difference in the health factor of a product, as this Washington Post article points out.

But I’d like to refute a couple of the other claims Monica makes: first, the myth that eating healthy has to be expensive. She is right to point out that buying organic products can be expensive—but even so, there are ways in which to minimize costs while maximizing health. The answer really lies in 1) cooking from scratch, and 2) knowing what to buy.

Some of the most expensive products (organic or otherwise) that you can buy at the store are those that are already prepped or processed: organic cookies, kale chips, granola, etc. Buying these things is often egregiously more expensive than simply making them from scratch would be. Making kale chips is easy, and takes very little work. Baking a batch of cookies decreases the cost considerably.

But many people often don’t know how to cook healthy, cheap meals—even though it can be quite simple. My mother-in-law is one of the healthiest, and cheapest, cooks I know. Her meal staples are garbanzo and black beans, brown and white rice, oatmeal, chicken, and eggs. She buys flour in bulk, and bakes her bread from scratch. She grows her own vegetable garden in the summer, and cans tomatoes and pickles veggies for the winter. She uses a lot of dark leafy greens (like kale, chard, mustard greens), mushrooms, and onions—while more expensive fruits and vegetables are a rare treat.

But it’s also true that she makes the best cinnamon rolls I’ve tasted, and my father-in-law the most delicious burgers. They eat healthy 80 percent of the time, and enjoy their treats—homemade coffee cake, pizza, mac and cheese, etc.—the rest of the time.

And this is second point that I’d like to make: not all healthy eating has to display the same excesses and superiority that Monica perceives in the organic movement. This is a false idea—one borne out of the aforementioned deification of healthy, a sort of idolizing that makes it impossible to achieve any sort of balance or moderation. There is a false dichotomy that we often establish between healthy eating, and fattening foods. We draw lines in the sand, and refuse to cross them. The organic “foodies,” says Monica, are unwilling to give their children Oreos, ever—and sadly, this is often true. Many are unwilling to consume any dairy product, be it butter or milk. But oftentimes, this attitude arises out of a fallacious conception of what is healthy, and what is not. Various diets and movements have touted that certain foods are always bad for you: the paleo movement cuts out all grains and legumes, the raw diet decries cooked foods. But these attitudes are often guilty of excess, of painting food with black-and-white dogmatism. The only reason we as an American populace are struggling with these things, be they carbs or fats or sugars, is because we have adopted an excessive attitude toward them in the past—and are now reaping the consequences. But we cannot fix this dilemma by now abstaining from all the dairy products, all the french fries, all the cookies.

C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters that there are two types of gluttony: one of much, and one of little. Modern versions of gluttony amongst sophisticated people, he wrote, are often characterized by close attention to diet and an insistence on less of one thing or another—even when it puts other people at an inconvenience. Such a person, writes Screwtape, is wholly enslaved to sensuality, but doesn’t realize it because “the quantities involved are small.” Yet “what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern?” This seems to be exactly the disposition that irks Monica so.

It seems that the best path is the moderate one: one in which we enjoy healthy foods, but aren’t afraid to splurge once in a while—be it on alcohol, cheese, pizza, french fries, brownies, or some other “unhealthy food.” We ought to savor the fruits of the earth, their wholesome goodness—but we ought also, then, to appreciate the occasional indulgence, too. It needn’t be either/or: the question is, how do we act in a moderate and virtuous fashion toward what we eat? As I’ve written in the past, virtue is about a modest pursuit of the mean, a sweet enjoyment of life that is considerate and moderate. No matter the diet regimen you embrace (or reject), your life will not fall into health until it falls into balance.

Perhaps much of the resentment Monica feels would be fixed by this more moderate attitude toward health. But it’s also true that there is a relational problem here that must be fixed: namely, a lack of charity in our social interactions. We are often guilty of an ungracious disposition toward those who eat differently than us. Those who eat organic foods or enjoy the paleo diet ought to respect and love those who do not. Those who eschew dieting methods or healthy foods ought to respect and love those who do.

Why? Because we are more than the sum of our physical parts: we are more than sentient beings with appetites. We have minds, souls, feelings—we come from different life circumstances, struggle with different weaknesses and sins. We have different budgets, different lifestyle convictions. Food should never create a barrier of resentment between family members, friends, or neighbors. Perhaps, if this were true, articles like Monica’s wouldn’t have to be written.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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