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Globally Aware: Learning About Food Issues From Another Hemisphere

Once a month, when I was a kid growing up in the 70’s in Minneapolis, my entire family would pile into the car and head over to North Country Coop on the West Bank. We would go into the ‘back room’ where giant blocks of cheese waited for someone to cut and wrap them. In exchange for our contribution as working members of the coop, we received a sizable discount on our organic fruit, vegetable, dairy and bread purchases. This was my first exposure to the culture of organic and sustainable foods and the cooperative system of bringing this food to the public. It was not fancy or grandiose. In fact, it was more like a warehouse than a grocery store. 

What mattered more however, was the coop movements mission to increase awareness and understanding among individuals and families throughout the city about what you eat, where your food comes from and how you access it, and that this makes a difference to your own health as well as the health of your community and of the planet. 35 years later the our local food coops and their patrons look different and the selection of foods, both bulk and packaged, has increased dramatically. However, their mission is essentially the same.

This year, my husband was lucky enough to receive a sabbatical from his Spanish teaching job in Minneapolis and I took a break from working as a sustainable foods chef and nutrition educator. We decided to spend that year in Mendoza, Argentina. Mendoza is a similarly sized city to Minneapolis, but it sits in the high desert foothills of the Andes Mountains. This city is known for over 300 days of sunshine a year and is home to the region that produces 80% of all the wine in Argentina, which is now the largest wine exporter in South America. There is winter here, but not snow, or below zero temperatures that we are accustomed to in Minnesota. The most unusual change for us is the reversal of seasons. I am still figuring out what seasonal means and when my favorite foods are "in-season". When we arrived in mid-July, it was cold (20s and 30s) and brown, and now as it approaches December, we are experiencing the pre-summer heat of 60-degree nights and 90 degree days, while aromatic desert flowers and succulents explode around us. There is no humidity here, so while it is becoming green it is still dry and feels like the desert.

One thing that tickled me when we first got here was that for the first time in my life, rather than debating the merits of buying organic pears from Argentina (is it OK to buy something from half way across the world because it is raised sustainably?) I could actually buy Argentine pears in Argentina!  I was buying local right??

On looking further into this, questions about food sourcing have proven to be as complicated here they are in the US. Consider this tidbit about Argentine food: 

 

According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements 2009 report on organic trends, most of the organic production in Argentina is geared towards exports, the European Union and the US being the main customers. The EU purchases 52 percent of the cereals, 85 percent of the oilseeds, 77 percent of the fruits, 98 percent of vegetables and beans and 72 percent of processed products. Local market development is still slow. For example, the second biggest dairy company in the country stopped supplying organic milk to supermarkets because of low demand. Higher prices cause consumers to drop purchases, although in 2007 some 320 metric tons of organic food were delivered to local markets. Still, recent market studies showed that consumers were well acquainted with the meaning of the term ‘organic,’ and there is a general recognition of higher produce quality among consumers. But demand is yet too feeble to support a constant and significant flow of vegetables and fruits to local markets. (Willer, Helga and Lukas Kilcher (Eds.) (2009) The World of Organic Agriculture. Statistics and Emerging Trends 2009.)

 

In the US, there are countless debates about the meaning of ‘sustainable’, ‘local’ and of course, ‘organic’. It is difficult to define the importance of these things and how or IF they should be prioritized. For example, I always wonder if it is more important to buy an organic apple from halfway around the world, to settle for whatever is available from closer to home (despite its organic status) or simply to go without some things during certain times of year. Additionally, I wonder about whether to take a stance that focuses on a public health perspective, where the most important thing is simply to get people to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, regardless of where or how they were produced??

Having kids makes this discussion even more complicated. I believe in giving kids a sense of the seasonality and cycles of foods which in turn can lead to an appreciation for eating food when it is the most delicious, rich and flavorful. I also understand the challenges of feeding children healthy food and the compromises that sometimes must be made. I give my parents loads of credit for having the awareness and the wherewithal to join the coop and involve us kids when it was not just a "fringe" thing to do, but because it also challenged their own orientation and had little or nothing to do with how they were raised. The fact that this was available to us as a family over 30 years ago says a lot about the rich culture of food, sustainability and health in Minnesota. Something that is virtually non-existent even now in present day Argentina.

I know that many people (myself included) would say that in the U.S. we have a long way to go; food access is a critical issue while sustainable and organic food is not available to everyone. Still, many kids are growing up with poor diets including far too many processed carbohydrates and not enough fresh produce. I believe that no matter where you live, there is a way to find healthy options.

 

Before I lived here, on the other side of the world, in a relatively well off community in a place with incredible growing ability, I was leading this battle cry. That perspective is evolving…. 

Our kids are attending one of the most expensive private schools in this region. They are socializing with kids who are growing up in highly educated, professional, internationally travelled families. They have the means and the ability to procure whatever foods and/or other items they desire. And, by all accounts, the parents really care about their kids. One might think that this would be a community full of values around food…or at least aware of the issues around food.


In reality, I have never seen kids (or adults) drink so much soda or eat so much white sugar and white flour in any given day as I have while spending time with these families. Although food and snacks are a part of most gatherings, rarely is there a vegetable to be seen. Additionally, whole grains of any kind do not cross our paths, ever. As parents, we have made numerous concessions this year in terms of the food and drinks our kids are allowed to choose. It is hard enough to be the odd kid out, still learning the language and adapting to the norms and habits of a new culture. But to also be restricted from sharing everyone else’s idea of a treat is too much to ask. 

One can't even begin to wonder where the food has come from, or how it has been grown, because its doubtful that any of these folks have ever been curious enough to inquire. The level of interest or desire to understand anything related to the origins of one’s food, how it was raised and how that might affect their own health, the health of the planet, or the health of the people who raise their food seems to be off the radar screen entirely, and apparently their children’s consumption of extreme amounts of highly processed foods is entirely acceptable. Did I mention that most of these kids are on the heavy side?  Currently, Argentina holds the prestigious title of having the highest rates of childhood obesity in Latin America, second highest rates worldwide, behind only the US. This is not a small problem, it is literally, an epidemic.

While I was less happy to see that the school has a ‘kiosko’ that is open to the kids all day and offers such things as ice cream, candy and soda, I was encouraged to know that our girls are required to play field hockey (or soccer for boys-don’t even get me started on gender issues here), and that they have gym twice a week. Physical activity however, is not necessarily a cultural value here. Sporty brand-name clothing and flashy running shoes are definitely common, but whether they are used for exercise is another question altogether. There are people who exercise and are active in the big park and the nearby foothills. Running and cycling groups are common, but we have yet to meet a family that ventures out together to exercise.  

Recently our daughter’s fourth grade class did a field trip to a near by nature refuge. It is 20 minutes from our door, and 10 from some of the higher-up (read: wealthier) neighborhoods. We have been there a few times since we arrived. Not a single child in this group had ever been to this refuge. Ever. Sometimes you wonder why people are living in such a stunning place, if never to actually engage with it. That said, I recognize that there are probably as many people in Minnesota who have never paddled the boundary waters, or in states like Colorado or Wyoming who don’t venture into the mountains to hike. As I continue to search for like-minded people and create some sort of community based on shared values or lifestyle commonalities, I realize that this process takes time and that my community in Minneapolis is one that I have cultivated and built over many years. It is not a representation of ‘typical’ Minnesotans nor do we eat or feed our children, or recreate generally, like ‘typical’ Minnesotans. Probably the Argentines who I am meeting and the children I am observing are more similar than different to those in my own hometown, but my perspective is so skewed to one side of the spectrum that I can’t remember what ‘typical’ is.

So, in many ways this leads back to the ‘battle cry’ I mentioned earlier. Class is not the only issue involved in creating equity and balance in a food system. Education is the great equalizer. While I don’t believe any of the families in this community would wish danger or disease on their fellow humans, or on their land, it is clear to me that these issues and ideas are simply unfamiliar to them. Like many people in the US and throughout the world, there are other things keeping them occupied, like the value of the Argentine Peso (recently the Argentine government told it’s citizens that it would no longer allow them to exchange Pesos for Dollars) and the government’s policies toward unemployment. Throughout my studies in the school of Public Health, I came to understand more and more clearly, that to simply tell a person that something should be important to them does not make it so. One needs to find a meeting place, a commonality that inspires or moves someone to care about an issue. This may be a cultural tradition, or the health of their child, or preventing diabetes or obesity. Or, it might simply be a love of cooking delicious food for one’s family.  

I am learning that food can be a source for division, or a way to connect. While the idea of baking cookies with honey, or eating vegetables with every meal may seem strange around here, I’d rather keep offering it into the mix, sharing it with pride and hoping that some day, at some moment, something will click.

I am also wondering why is Minnesota such a hot bed of progressive food ideals? What makes this Midwestern town, with a relatively short growing season and not a single mountain or ocean to speak of, such an ideal place to learn about, and access healthy, sustainable food? I am still figuring it out. What do you think?

Check out part 2 of this series.


Jenny Breen
has been a professional chef in the Twin Cities since 1986. She is co-owner of Good Life Catering, and previously owned the Good Life Cafe. Jenny is a passionate advocate for local and sustainably raised foods, and has been working directly with farmers and producers since she opened her restaurant in 1993. Jenny has been teaching cooking and nutrition to adults and children at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, in the Twin Cities Food Coops and with Twin Cities schools since the mid 90s. She is a 2009 recipient of an Archibald Bush Foundation Leadership Fellowship and recently completed her Master's Degree in Public Health Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Her first cookbook "Cooking up the Good Life" which emphasizes local, seasonal whole foods cooking for families, was released in April of 2011.

 

Comments

Hi Jenny ... I did some catering work with you years ago when you owned the Cafe, good to hear you're still making great food! I am also nostalgic for my childhood memories of the co-op, back when Linden Hills Co-op was next to the hardware store and was a tiny, dusty, closet of a store that smelled like a grain silo. My dad and I would walk there to get bulk grains and honey. As a teenager I worked at the 2nd building and organized their cheese dept, managing the working members there much like how your family was involved in the 70's. I really miss the working member programs that the co-ops used to have, and I think they've lost something by getting away from that business method. In that position I made dozens of great friends, most of which were twenty years older than I, who I looked forward to seeing when I went to work. We drank wine, listened to music, and actually had a lot of fun at "work" cutting, wrapping, and pricing cheese. And besides the community aspect, as you mentioned, the working member programs were a viable way to save a great deal of money on pricey co-op items when I was a young, poor adult. After I left LHC I became a working member at Hampton Park Co-op and saved something like 20% on my groceries by "working" a few days a month. It was great. Now as an older, poor adult with a family I wish there were still those programs for us. I love the idea that you did that as a family, what a great way to spend time together. Still, we do bring out kids with us when we do our shopping (now at the Wedge) and also involve them with as much of the cooking in the kitchen as they have the patience for. I think this kind of active involvement with food and diet is the best way to avoid some of the poor dietary choices that our kids now face as they spend time out of the home at other family's homes at snack and meal-time.

Jenny - Although I have lived in Mendoza, Argentina for almost 3 years, I have yet to really learn about the extent of organic foods in this city. Your article offers a lot of insight, especially from the perspective of families (by far the most important social institution). As you said, there are a lot of immediate concerns about the economy in Argentina, how do you get people to think about more long-term health, nutrition, and sustainability issues? Do you think the fact that people walk more here in Mendoza helps to balance out the white sugars and flour?

I am looking forward to reading the next article in this series!

Carrie (Mendoza, Argentina)

Loved reading this article and I love it when you remind me of those days (I think Dad took you guys and I stayed home probably cutting and wrapping our own cheese!

Hope you can share this article more broadly. Lots of people who would enjoy reading it and learn from it don't see this magazine.

So many great points. I long for the day I can travel and live overseas, though I assume I'll miss this great area (the Cities). My inlaws (from Palistan) have such a hard time understanding my family's new- found passion for "local" and "sustainable", "organic", etc. To them, food has always been local and farmers never had the means to obtain or pay for fancy fertilizers and pesticides, etc.
Now things are changing there as they are all over the world. This global food economy is having a negative impact everywhere.
The Cities will be seen as the leaders in this discussion that will undoubtedly grow louder. We are lucky, for sure. We must keep talking and supporting one another- so, bravo for speaking out and for taking positive steps!

Great thoughts and comments from everyone.Benjamin, I agree the working member programs at the coops really gave a strong connection between the members and the products-something we don't really have as only paying members. I think it has become much harder to maintain that connection in our modern world of convenience and speed. However, I also think that we need to want that connection, and if we do, we will find it. The trick is getting people to seek it out-to understand it's value in our world. What you are doing with your kids is probably the most important act of all-engaging them with their food and where it comes from.

Carrie, I am not sure about the walking. I wouldn't say that it balances out the white sugar-really there is just a lot of consumption of highly processed sugary foods. That said, I am still trying to get a handle on the perspective of these parents-what they feed their kids for 3 meals a day, and what they think about that. I am sure there is a range, just like in all places, but the choices that I observe in terms of what parents are making available for their kids seem to be pretty narrow. I'd love to see some other examples though! Again, it is hard to say how unique to Argentina this is.

Leigh Ann-I agree it is interesting and sad that what used to be simply the way that food was raised and accessed has now become something unique and expensive... how did that happen? Again, I believe we need to work hard to educate everyone about where their food comes from and why it matters, and also about how to prepare healthy food from those raw ingredients instead of relying on the easy and fast options that are making us sick.

There are times that it would be easier to be 'sustainable' if we weren't organic. Sustainability is the issue, it is all about how far you look into the future. If you look far enough, sustainable is local and organic. The difficulty is in stepping over the conveniences and customs of the modern world to do what is 'right' ( values are troublesome, ya know ).

We can have local strawberries year round. They come out of our freezer or from Sno-Pak. Pie cherries and kale only seem to come out of our freezer...

I think that the reason that the co-op and local food movements are so strong here is because we all had a farmer in the family and there was a serious back to the land movement in the late 60s and early 70s. Food, as in Food, Shelter, and Clothing, is pretty important when you think about it.

What was happening in Argentina in the 60s and 70s ?

Greg

Greg, that's a great question. Undoubtedly there was, and still is farming going on here. In fact, I found a statistic stating that Argentina has the second highest amount of Organic farmland in the world! That is however, almost exclusively for export. I think here the economy is so messed up-for a variety of reasons inflation is out of control and many people are receiving government money that others think should be spent differently, that the cost of food is a real driver for people. Also, the beef industry has changed, and while it used to be a big, and mostly grass fed industry here, they are running out of meat and changing their farming methods to save money and compete globally.

I also think the idea of separating sustainable and organic is super interesting. So many people don't make that distinction, and don't really understand that sometimes organic is NOT sustainable. I am all for looking more specifically at who grows my food, how it is raised, and the conditions related to the production of that food than whether it is certified organic. That raised a whole other issue related to safe, and healthy food. I think there is a lot of education still needed.

In any case, thanks to you for your hard work and continued passion for this issue. Happy holidays!

Hey Jenny. Great article. I too remember working at Linden Hills Coop as a kid with my family! Funny, it seems so long ago.

Anyways, one dynamic that I think occurs in Latin America sometimes is a reversal on socio-economic class and healthy eating habits. I think as folks attain a higher socio-economic status often times there is interest in emulating US eating habits, aka McDonalds or other fast food, because its a status symbol. Folks that don't have that kind of disposable income often are eating simpler, more traditional foods - that sometimes, not always, have more balance and tend to be less processed. Unfortunately, Coke and McDonalds have been very successful at exporting that status image. If only the sustainable, organic foods industry had the same kind of marketing budget.

Be well. Lojo

Hey Lojo
thanks for those thoughts-it is an interesting element here that emulating the US and implying affluence is tied to eating some of the worst of what we have to offer. I agree that Coke and McDonalds have succeeded, both in Latin America and in the US. It is somewhat of a David and Goliath type of battle, but I am still convinced that small and local is the only really sustainable way to proceed-in terms of the health of the land and of people. That said, education has to come first, before any other change can be made, and that education must happen with respect for cultural and economic context as well as awareness of the typical ´white savior´mentality that is still so pervasive. Slowly but surely I am finding more about local and regional traditions, but it has taken leaving the city. I will keep everyone posted as I learn more, and look forward to many more exchanges along the way.

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