An Ethical and Nutritional Fail: It’s What’s For Dinner

by Christine Adams Beckett

My husband often jokes that virtue is for sale at Whole Foods, and it’s a big ticket item. Another acquaintance made an enlightening observation: that the parking lot there is not filled with Chevy Volts, but Hummers and Mercedes Benzes. I bumped into my dentist in the Whole Foods parking lot, the enormous one in West Orange, and he simply asked me, “What brings you to Whole Paycheck?” Only special occasions bring me to Whole Foods, frankly, as my food budget isn’t limitless. But I am not sure the virtue of Whole Foods is, either.

There has been a public discourse between Michael Pollan, author of many books on food and its many ethical implications, and the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey. Mackey’s outfit has been criticized as being a museum of contradictions, the most conspicuous of them penned by Mr Mackey himself: his essay on Conscious Capitalism. I am intrigued by Mr Mackey’s ideas, but the fact remains that he still pedals expensive food stuffs which the average American cannot afford.

It’s no big secret that they aren’t giving away the organic, grass fed beef; the organic ground local variety is $9 a pound at Whole Foods currently. It’s not classified information that to eat well, is to pay well. With the publication of Michael Pollan’s books, most notably The Omnivore’s Dilemma, we’re all in a tizzy over what to eat. Even the charming Mark Bittman has gotten on the soap box next to Pollan to preach about the ethics of what we put into our mouths: the inhumane treatment of the animals, the use of fossil fuels to transport produce hundreds or even thousands of miles. We’re eating too much beef, which requires too many cows, which requires too much cow feed. We’ve been educated and now we have responded by demanding the best quality food that money can buy.

In Mark Kurlansky’s book, Cod: The Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, we have learned that cod is essentially all but commercially extinct. We have overfished dozens of varieties of fish, mainly by trolling the bottoms of the ocean floor with sea nets, leaving no chance for our gilled suppers to repopulate. So scratch that off your list. As a matter of fact, according to Seafoodwatch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, you should also avoid Chilean seabass, cobia, imported king crab, flounder, halibut, sole, grouper, Brazilian spiny lobster, mahi mahi, blue and striped marlin, monkfish, orange roughy, farmed Atlantic salmon (stick to the wild Alaskan kind instead, offered at Whole Foods for anywhere from an astronomical $22 – $27 per pound), shark, skate, imported shrimp, red snapper, imported swordfish, Asia farmed tilapia, and tunas of all kinds: albacore, bigeye, skipjack, tongol, yellowfin (except troll/pole), bluefin, and canned (exept troll/pole).

It’s an entrepreneur’s dream, but the soap box derby boys have a point. The beef under plastic wrap at the A&P is likely to come from a cow that has been fed corn,and treated with antibiotics and growth hormones that will make your children hit puberty years earlier. The chicken is about 50% likely to be tinged with e-coli, having been dragged through feces. The eggs are now a whole lot less tasty, too, after Nicholas Kristof’s exposée of Shop Rite’s major egg provider, Kreider Farms. Kristof writes that as many as a dozen Kreider hens are crammed into a cage the size of an oven and the barns are fetid and unsanitary. Rodents abound and automatic feeding carts often decapitate the chickens. Others have found their demise in the wires of a coop and left to rot for days. Makes that goat cheese and asparagus frittata a whole lot less appetizing to say the least.

Most markets have begun to offer organic alternatives to the distributor giants. Seasonal farmers markets have sprung up in many a suburban town. Community supported agriculture, three of which exist in Montclair, are overwhelmingly popular, and less expensive than Whole Foods and the Farmer’s Market. Yet, you may be stuck eating pounds and pounds of kale for weeks. You get what you get and you don’t get upset, to borrow a line from my children’s 3rd grade teacher.

Heck, if you’re REALLY ambitious you can live off the grid entirely, cultivating your own food, rejecting the processed world we live in. Hook up your lava lamp to a solar panel (unless like our house, there isn’t enough direct sunlight to make a dent in your PSE&G bill). With our limited open space in Montclair, feeding a family of five might be a hard lot on such little acreage. If both parents are working, finding the time to reap what you sow might be a bit of a task to boot. The rodents and birds might have a differing idea about what to do with those luscious zucchini, too. So much for your mom’s ratatouille.

To complicate matters: I have learned through one of my exercise buddies, who is a nutritionist, that in order to maintain a healthy weight, it’s best to cut out processed carbohydrates entirely, sticking instead to whole grain rices and breads — and only then in moderation. Sweet potatoes and potatoes are better, but only every so often. Pasta is a no-no. Forget about those tortillas, flour or corn: too many carbs. Hand fruit can be loaded with sugar so you should try to stick to berries, and although a high protein diet is essential, you should limit your intake of meat. A recent seminar she attended actually recommended that you keep track of your own stool. One should actually inspect their own feces to make sure that any undigested food does not remain and adjust it accordingly, as those are the things in your diet to avoid: those that are not easily broken down. So long corn, take a hike salad, hasta la vista seeds and nuts.

We’ve got 21 meals a week and snacks to worry about. A handful of berries and one pound of $27 salmon will only take me through 4% of that toil. A suburban mom with lots of car pools, play dates and homework coaching sessions is left to wonder: what the hell is for dinner?

Please see Mackey’s essay on Conscious Capitalism here for further details on why post Industrial economics isn’t cutting the mustard anymore.