I love this country… I hate this country… I love this country… It is my home.

I woke up early this morning, and given that I wasn’t working today, I decided to watch the inauguration on TV. Of course, it’s quite the event. And since I’m watching it on MSNBC, the color commentary doesn’t annoy me all that much.

I find myself surprisingly happy to watch Obama be sworn in. It’s fun to watch the happiness of the crowd, and I have to admit, if I was there, I’d be happy too. And of course, the celebration and ritual is uplifting. It’s meant to be.  And the truth of the matter is, there is a part of me that is proud of this country.

You say, “proud?” How is that possible? How is it possible that I am proud of this country? The country that enslaved my ancestors, wiped the Native Americans off the continent with disease (purposely spread, in many cases) and force of arms? The country that props up dictators all over the world, and allows the extraction of precious resources at the expense of people who live near them. The country that sends drones to kill people all over the world, not really to “preserve freedom” but to continue to make enemies that we’ll then be forced to fight. The country that coordinated a police response to lawful, peaceful Occupy protests all over the country. The country that allows a simply staggering (and, frankly, criminal as well as insane) level of economic disparity. This rich country that can’t get it’s act together to give everyone health care, or child care. I could go on, and on, and on. You get the picture. You know all of this.

But if we step back and zoom out, things look different. We are inaugurating the first African-American president – something that I did not believe would happen in my lifetime. We are rapidly approaching a time where gay rights are becoming completely mainstream. Women have chances to do things that could not be imagined even 70 years ago. We have had peaceful, orderly transfers of power for a very long time, longer than most countries. There are still many countries in which this cannot be taken for granted at all.

I am a woman, and a queer one at that. I live a life of freedom and relative to the rest of the world, luxury. And the truth is, there aren’t very many times and places in which that would be the case. In most other times in history, and now, in many countries of the world, I would have been married off to a man I didn’t know or even necessarily like when I was a teenager. I would not have gone to high school, college or graduate school. I would not have been able to travel far, work for myself, love who I wanted, how I wanted. And, I would be dead already, given life expectancy.

Human beings, as smart and wonderful as we are in some respects, are deeply flawed. We allow ourselves to be driven by fear, hatred and delusion. We have organized ourselves in many different ways, some have been extraordinarily bad.  Perhaps, in all it’s failing and flaws, in all of it’s bloody, exploitative history as well as present, that this country is doing some things right. We have changed, and we still can change. That, at least, is in our country’s DNA.


Food, Part 3: The Spiritual and Ethical

Food is not only a biological necessity – it has been endowed with spiritual significance in most traditions. Perhaps this is because it is a necessity of life.

In Christianity, the core ritual, communion, is centered around food. It is a remembrance of the final meal that Jesus had with his followers. That meal itself was quite significant for them: it was the passover meal, the celebration of the freedom of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.

Most spiritual traditions include some sort of blessing over the food before eating. Native American spirituality included rituals of thanksgiving and respect at the end of a hunt.

I am a panentheist. A panentheist is someone who believes that God interpenetrates every living being. God is more than that, which is why I’m not a pantheist. But I do believe that there is some of God in every creature, and that means there is some of God in every meal. I find deep spiritual meaning in the cycle of life–all of the cycle of life. I’ve written about it before.

People make many ethical and spiritual arguments about what they choose to eat. There are spiritual traditions that forbid some foods. For example, Hinduism and Buddhism forbid eating meat, Judaism and Islam forbid pork, shellfish and other foods.

People who don’t follow a specific tradition may choose to be vegetarians because they feel that they don’t want to harm animal life. Some people are vegans because not only do they not want to harm animal life – they don’t want to benefit from animals in captivity. I do appreciate those arguments, and have chosen, at varied times in my life to eliminate (or greatly limit) my intake of animal protein. And I am also very aware of the ethical/political arguments about the carrying capacity of the planet – it can’t possibly sustain 7 billion people who eat like Americans. But I have chosen, at this time, to eat some meat. But I want to decrease the suffering of the animals I eat as much as possible, which is why I only eat humanely-raised meat and eggs, and stay away from anything factory-farmed.

The idea that there is a food chain, and we are on top, is both true, and not true at all. If an animal eats meat, it is true that there may be one, two or more layers between the sun-fed plants (or algae) and their stomach. But the truth is, it’s a cycle. The molecules entering our bodies, whether it be through breathing or food, will leave our bodies in one way or another, to be eventually part of life again.

Spiritual traditions that embrace this understanding make the most sense to me. Tibetan Buddists have Jhator, where they “bury” their dead by feeding them to vultures. Jhator is considered a final act of generosity.

Sky burials aren’t legal in the US, but you can get a natural burial, where your body will become food for the myriad organisms under the soil. I think that’s the least I can do for the years I’ve lived on other organisms.


Food, Part 2: The Economics of Food in the US

In the mid-1960s, the federal government developed the poverty threshold based on the “thrifty food plan.” It was a plan based on the knowledge at the time, that the average family of three used 1/3 of their after-tax income on food. If you are a standard US family now, you spend way less than that – about 6%.

We spend less on food than anyone else in the world. In comparison, Kenyans spend almost 1/2 of their incomes on food. And although this is extremely recent historically, we have come expect spending so little of our income on food. Remember the recent “Dairy cliff,” the threat that people might have to spend $8 for a gallon of milk because of the expiring farm bill? Well, it’s the farm bill that we have to thank for low food prices.

Basically, it goes like this. In the 1970s, the government focused on the production of huge amounts of corn, wheat and soy, on large farms, using what was then cheap fossil fuels to aid production. And cheap corn, soy and wheat flooded the food system, which converted all of that into a wide variety of foods, as well as eggs, dairy and meat. In fact, our food system is basically centered around one thing: making as many calories as possible as cheaply as possible.

On its face, given the context of a growing population, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As a country, you want to make sure that your populace does not starve. But the problem is that the cheapest calories, especially as transformed by the food industrial complex into addictive items for our consumption, are not the best calories for us. I think we’re learning, slowly but surely, that this probably isn’t a good thing.

Because of this legacy, the federal poverty threshold, which has still not been modified from this standard, is extraordinarily low. For a family of one, it is $11,139. This assumes that someone would spend about $300/month on food. And you know that someone making that little would never be able to spend that much on food. The government still uses this threshold to determine eligibility for a variety of programs, and states use this as well. I remember when I was doing epidemiological research almost twenty years ago, 200% of the poverty threshold was generally considered the actual poverty threshold for purposes of understanding the effects of poverty on health outcomes.

The real truth is that food should be more expensive, and everyone should pay a higher percentage of their income for it. Artificially decreasing the price of certain food items through government subsidies distorts the food production system so that it produces food that is not good for us (high fructose corn syrup laden everything, grain-fed animals, food made with refined grains.) And food that is not good for us is, as I think everyone is becoming aware, one of the reasons that the US has the lowest life expectancy of any industrialized country (and I could wax on about how that one statistic shows how crazy this country is.)

There is a very active movement to change the way we grow and eat food, but isn’t really affecting most people in the country. In 1994, there were 1,744 farmer’s markets registered with the USDA. In 2012, there were 7,864, a 4.5 fold increase. Whole Foods, the largest supermarket chain that focuses on organically grown food, had $9 Billion in revenue in 2010. But Walmart had about $100 billion in revenue from food sales, organic food only accounts for 3.7% of the food grown in the US, and people spend the largest percentage (23%) of their grocery dollars on processed food, a lot more than what they spend on fruits and vegetables (14%), and more than they spend even on meat.

Organically grown food, as well as meat, dairy and eggs from organically fed (and in the case of cattle, grass-fed) and humanely-raised animals is far more expensive than food that does not meet that standard. Even though I spend much less than 5% of my grocery bill on processed food, the most expensive items in most people’s grocery cart, because of the choices I make, I still spend more than twice the average percentage of after-tax income on groceries. I am very strict about the meat, eggs and dairy I buy. The health reasons include the fact that animals concentrate toxins fed to them, and most factory-farmed animals eat things that they are not designed to eat, which means that they aren’t very healthy, and that can’t be healthy for me (there are ethical reasons as well that I will explore in my next post.) I often, but don’t always buy organically grown grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables, because sometimes they are simply too expensive. It’s just not possible for anyone who lives in poverty to eat this way.

And, in the future, food will become more expensive: 1) The drought that’s affecting a big swath of the US. (See all those red and brown spots in the countries “breadbasket”?) 2) Increasing price of fossil fuels. 3) Local, small-scale, organic, humane, and/or fair trade food will always be more expensive than its counterparts, even if more people bought their food that way.

I don’t know what changes are in store for the food system. The big players, like Monsanto, have bought the congress lock, stock and barrel. Hopefully, as more and more people realize that what they are eating is doing them more harm than good, and they start making different choices about what they buy or eat, things will begin to shift. But people in poverty may still be left behind.


Food, part 1: The Biological (and personal)

Food is necessary for human survival. It also is a core part of our culture. It has deep religious significance in many traditions, so much so that many traditions tell you what you can and cannot eat, and when you can and cannot eat it. It’s complicated, and as a culture, Americans are making it even more complicated still.

Food is something that intrigues me greatly, so I’m going to spend some time writing about it. This part, is about biology and health, and food’s role. I might expand on issues relating to our food production system in a later post. I’ll also touch on spirituality and economics in this series. I might even talk about cooking, one of my favorite activities ever.

In my life, I’ve mostly been an omnivore, with some periods where, for health or ethical reasons, I’ve chosen to limit the kinds of food I eat. At times, I’ve been a lacto-ovo vegetarian and a pescadarian (vegetarian who eats seafood.) More recently, I was a vegan because of a flare up of pancreatitis, but now that I no longer live in the city, that has cleared up, and I’m back to being mostly an omnivore (with some refinements I’ll describe in some detail.)

Food, in a biological sense, is either other organisms, or their products. That’s it. There aren’t any other things we can eat that will give us nutrients. Ultimately, even carnivores are dependent on plants (or blue-green algae in the oceans), which are dependent on the sun. It is, then, the sun, through a very complex set of biological processes, that keeps us alive. Every day, we eat the gift of the tiny part of the sun’s energy that reaches this planet.

We are deeply a part of the biological system of the planet, even though we like to forget this. Those organisms, like us, who are at the top of the food chain, are still eventually food for others. It’s the way it works. (I’ll have a spiritual reflection on that in a later post.)

Human beings have, since the agricultural revolution, modified this cycle of life to benefit us. We domesticated animals, selected certain strains of plants that gave us better yields of fruits and seeds. More recently, we have made so many modifications in the cycle of life that we have little idea of what the effects will be. And we don’t really have an idea of how the food we produce, particularly processed food, really affects our bodies.

I live in the country now, and pretty far away from the places I’ve been used to getting food in the city. I now have to go to Safeway for some things. There is a nice, cute, natural food market about 15 minutes away, but it is tiny, and limited in what they have. It has been a very long time since I’ve shopped at a standard grocery store with any regularity. (More on economics in a future post.) I am, frankly, stunned at the things that are called “food.” Sometimes, when I’m behind someone in line who has a basket full of sugary breakfast cereal, frozen pizzas, squishy bread, and not a vegetable in sight, I feel like screaming.

When I got sick two years ago with pancreatitis, I’ve had to really notice what I took into my body. I actually count myself lucky in this regard, now. Because I think that I was slowly making myself pretty sick over the years, even though I only gave McDonald’s (or, more like, Taco Bell) very occasional visits. As much as I like to cook, I still ate a lot of prepared foods, and ate a lot of wheat and soy. And I’ve come to learn that those were a mistake.

Everyone is different – I am not one to prescribe a diet for anyone else except me. And everything I’ve done to figure out my diet in the last two years has been totally experiential. Do I feel better or worse if I eat this thing, or that thing?

And what I’ve found actually is pretty much in line with what a lot of people say about some foods. There is a lot of brou-ha-ha about wheat, and how bad it might be for us. And I’ve found, by experience, that I should not eat wheat. At all. I recently, as a trial, eliminated it from my diet, I felt really great, but it wasn’t until I ate some wheat that I realized that a lot of the arthritis pain that I’d taken as just par for the course had everything to do with my eating wheat. It’s been over a week since I ate wheat, and I’m still feeling it, although I also feel it slowly leaving my system.

So by experience, I’ve found the diet that works for me. Funny, that it’s sort of a mediterranean-paleo hybrid. Tons of vegetables, a lot of fruit, and moderate amounts of other things. I eat more meat than the mediterranean ideal, but less meat (and more legumes and whole grains) than the paleo ideal. I eschew wheat and soy, and any none-whole grains, and as much as I possibly can of things that are processed or prepared. I have yet to figure out how to make my own ketchup or worchestershire sauce, but I’ll be making my own mustard and mayonaise. And, of course, I have to use varied oils, but I try to use those that are less refined. I’m eliminating sugar and juice. I’m considering eliminating most dairy as well, except eggs and occasionally treating myself to cheese (I love cheese.)

It’s actually the diet that many people in the world eat. It’s the diet that humans have largely been eating until the mid-20th century. And, by experience, its the diet that works the best for me.

It’s worth trying, figuring out what works for your body. It takes work and dedication, because it’s not immediate. It sometimes takes eliminating something for a week or more before you feel different. But it’s really worth it. You might end up feeling like this or that health problem that you just thought was par for the course was because you were eating something your body didn’t want you to.