Friday, March 26, 2010

Slate on Fresh Food - Doesn't Quite Get the Point, Again

Once again, Slate has an article that touches on food preservation (Not So Fresh). In this case, the point of the article is to defend preserved foods from the recent emphasis on fresh and local food.
Take a close look at the policy approaches listed above—farm-to-school programs, foodstamp discounts at green markets, and tax credits for grocery produce sections—each one is designed in large part to improve access to fresh produce. Not just any old produce, but fresh produce—unprocessed, uncooked, and untarnished by industrial machinery. School cafeterias already have frozen carrots and canned peaches. Our kids need fresh, fresh, fresh!

This strategy may seem unobjectionable. Why challenge this devotion to plants just tugged from the warm soil? A single-minded focus on fresh produce distracts us from the bigger problem: Our children are suffering from a lack of any fruits or vegetables whatsoever. Canned, frozen, dried, juiced—anything would help
Well, I agree that preserved foods shouldn't be dissed and should be an important part of our diet. Nevertheless, I understand the emphasis on fresh food.

Nutritionally, preserved foods can be as good as (in most cases) fresh foods and, occasionally, better. So, yeah, we don't need things to be fresh in order for them to be nutritious. Heck, I'm a promoter of (home) preserved foods.

But that isn't really the point of fresh and local. First, fresh usually means unprocessed, which means that real cooking must take place. Cooking is a real key to eating better and more healthy. Learning to cook is a key benefit of fresh. Sure, you can learn to cook with frozen and canned foods, but you learn more by starting from scratch. Once you've learned to cook from fresh, then you are much better equipped to incorporate some processed foods in your meal.

Second, wherever they sell even minimally processed foods, they also sell ultra-processed foods. One of the advantages of encouraging people to shop in farmers' markets is that it keeps them out of the supermarkets where the temptations of industrially processed foods are too great. You can't buy a frozen pizza in any of the farmers markets I've ever been to.

Even within a supermarket, more time and money spent in the produce section means less time and money spent on processed foods. Sure, some of minimally processed foods are a good deal, but too often they are also right next to the ultra-processed foods that, while inexpensive, are not so good from a nutrition point of view.

Third, while processed foods are more convenient, you can take that argument too far, and we have. After all, fast food is the ultimate in convenience and we've seen how well that has worked out. The emphasis on "food deserts" is an attempt to somewhat level the convenience playing field a bit. Fast food and heavily processed foods are conveniently available even in the poorest neighborhoods. Food that you actually have to cook - not so much. So not only does home cooking have an inherent inconvenience factor (you actually have to cook), but access is inconvenient as well.

Fourth, although preserved foods may lead to less wastage, sitting on a shelf for years isn't that great an improvement over the status quo. What is important is knowing how to stock a pantry (fresh and preserved) and how to cook out of one. If you know how to cook, then much less goes to waste. Most of my cooking is actually figuring out how to put what I've already got to use - bits and pieces of this and that, combined into soups, hashes, frittatas and other leftover classics. I am efficient at this because I know how to cook. So, it comes down to cooking again.

Fifth, fresh connects us closer to where our food comes from. Community gardens and farmers markets are excellent examples, but even simple, fresh produce ties us closer to the origins of our food than a can or a waxed frozen carton (not to mention ultra-processed foods). Although the author of the Slate article complains that we are confusing nutrition and culture, that is sort of the point. Preparing and eating food is, inevitably, a social act. Food is a huge part of our, of every, culture.

The more we rely on industrially processed foods, the more we undermine our connection to the social and cultural elements that kept human beings on a healthy diet for thousands of years. Frozen and canned food is less than 150 years old. Our social and cultural relations to food were built on fresh, not processed. Although processed foods have become part of our culture, we've gone a little bit overboard and an emphasis on fresh is a welcome corrective.

Sixth, and finally, as a promoter of home food preservation, you need to start with fresh in order to preserve in the home. So, let's bring preserved foods into the pantry, but let's also learn how to make them ourselves. I use plenty of commercially preserved foods in my cooking. But it is my cooking, and I know how to preserve many of the foods myself. Knowing how to preserve fresh, makes me more efficient at using the fresh as well as the preserved results.

So, yeah, I think that Michelle Obama should invite me (or any food preserver) into the White House Garden to demonstrate some old-school food preservation techniques. But that doesn't mean I think the emphasis on fresh is wrong.

You can go overboard with the emphasis on fresh, true, but the pendulum is a long way away from going to far in the other direction.

What the emphasis on fresh needs is an equal emphasis on cooking. I think it is sort of assumed sometimes, but it needs to be more explicit.


  1. Great response -- I, too, thought the article was odd in its narrow vantage point.
    (I think you mean "food deserts" not "desserts", though -- right?)

  2. Thank you (and thanks for catching the typo ... fixed).

  3. Great response. I also felt the article was really poorly named (although I realise it was probably not named by the author) - most "foodies" I know, that is, people who are really interested in food, understand that there is a place for preserved food (including frozen and canned) and there is a place for fresh food.