What Are You Eating?

Have you ever wondered what you are eating? How it came to be placed in front of you? What exactly is in it and how it’s processed? I had never given these issues much thought and probably would not have if I hadn’t been placed in the Senior Seminar class Food In America this year.

There are often misconceptions about Food In America. To begin, usually when I mention that I am enrolled in the class, people tend to exclaim “Ohhh, you are in the class that turns you vegetarian.” While in some cases this is an accurate statement, the majority of the students who take the class do not become vegetarians. The class instead focuses on educating students on what they are eating and where it comes from.

Photo Credit: Rhiannon Boyd

Students give a presentation about the book Where am I Eating?, by Kelsey Timmerman, in the Food In American class. 

In the beginning of the semester, Upper School Senior Seminar teacher Rhiannon Boyd told our class that we were able to choose what path we wanted to pursue in our studies. In other words, each student is in charge of what they want to learn and picks the materials that most interest them. We were given several book options to choose from, along with documentary film choices, all of which focus on different aspects of food and food production. Throughout the semester, each book and documentary group creates projects to present to the class what they have learned through their research. This way, all the students on the class are able to explore the vast topic of “food” through different mediums.

When asked about how she had the idea to begin the class, Boyd stated, “The idea came out of what we were trying to do with Senior Seminar. On paper, the course says ethics, economics, and government. We were looking for courses that would seem relevant to students but also be deeply rooted within exploring issues within those three subject matters. And I thought, here is something that I know, and care a lot about about, that completely fits all three of these things; the ethics of what we eat, government policy around what we eat, and the economics that are involved in making the policy, and the effects of what we eat on Americans’ lives.”  

Cred: Rhiannon Boyd

Students at Polyface Farm on a recent class field trip.

Food in America was the catalyst that forced me to pay attention to what I was consuming, and I’m not the only one who has been effected. Match writer Claire Andress (’17) stated “This class surprised me because I realized how food connects to everything, like global health, public policy, etc. I think it is important for people to know what’s in their food and where it comes from, and I’m not sure I knew those answers myself before I took this class.” In addition, Mabry Kulp (‘17) said that, “I learned how horrific America’s food system is and how interconnected the meat industry and our oceans are.”

As I started to see how much the class had changed the perspectives of the students within, I started to wonder about others within our community. Do people have any idea what is in their food?

I set out to figure out the answer. How much sugar is in one Arnold Palmer? What does “organic” actually mean? How many chickens are killed by KFC each year? How much more would we have to pay for tomatoes each year in order to double the salary of those working in the tomato fields? All of these questions I asked to people around the Collegiate community.

After responding to my questions and finding out the facts, Turner Wood (‘18) said, “I feel like we learn a lot about where our food, clothes, phones… are produced, and we never end up doing anything by ourselves or as a community to change that. I feel like we need a group or event to actually make a change if we genuinely care about these issues.” In addition, Aidan Mickleburgh (‘18) said, “I think that when food is easily accessible to us in terms of price and convenience, it is difficult to comprehend what is required to get that amount of food to so many people.” Chandler Pettus (‘19) said, “I was surprised by the amount of chickens killed annually by KFC each year. I think it’s important that we support our farmers to evoke change.”

Photo Credit: Rhiannon Boyd

Students in Food in America talk about the statistics of food production.

Sugar

Here are the actual facts: There are 72 grams of sugar in one Arizona Arnold Palmer (which are sold here in Collegiate’s Estes Café). However, if you look carefully on the can, you will notice that the percentage of daily sugar is omitted from the label. In fact, you won’t be able to find a recommended sugar percentage listed on anything you buy in stores. Why? According to Duff Wilson, a journalist interviewed in the documentary Fed Up, “The World Health Organization wanted to really restrict sugar intake to a level that scientists recommended. They recommended no more than 10% of calories in a diet should come from sugar. Well, the sugar groups hit the roof over that one, and there was a very strong pushback in Washington from the industry.” The documentary goes on to suggest that Tommy Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2001 to 2005, was pressured into trying to stop the report because industries were claiming that it was “too tough on food industry.” Eventually, Thompson would tell the W.H.O. that the U.S. would withhold the 406 million dollars that we would pay them if they published the documents. Thus, the sugar recommendation was deleted from most World Health Organization documents going forward.

Due to labeling and the mass amounts of sugary items available in supermarkets, people are consuming much more sugar that they realize. For example, Tropical Smoothie puts 112.5 grams of sugar into a 32 oz. Angel Food smoothie. This is equivalent to 28.125 teaspoons of sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that the maximum amount of sugar men should consume in a day is nine teaspoons, and women should consume six teaspoons of sugar. Possible health problems associated with increased sugar intake include obesity, elevated blood sugar, and an increased risk of kidney and heart disease. In just one smoothie, you consume 3-4 times more than the recommended daily amount of sugar. If people could see the percentage of daily sugar on a nutrition label, and were more aware of the repercussions that stem from consuming too much sugar, it’s possible eating and drinking habits could change.

Organic

So what does it mean to be organic? Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, puts it simply, stating that “for meat, milk, and eggs labeled organic, the USDA requires that animals must: (1) be raised on organic feed (that is, crops raised without most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers); (2) be traced throughout their life cycle (that is, leave a paper trail); (3) not be fed antibiotics or growth hormones; and (4) have access to the outdoors.” However, often times these rules are able to be bent. What qualifies as “access” to the outdoors? Nevertheless, foods labeled as organic are considered healthier due to the lack of chemicals, pesticides, and growth hormones and antibiotics given to livestock. But even though organic may be considered healthier for human consumption, that doesn’t mean that conditions for animals are better in the organic farming industry. As Foer states, “‘organic’ doesn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of welfare issues. You can call your turkey organic and torture it daily.”

KFC

How many chickens does KFC kill each year? It is estimated to be around one billion chickens annually. According to Foer, “if you packed those chickens body to body—they would blanket Manhattan from river to river and spill through the windows of the higher floors of office buildings.” In addition, there are allegations that KFC treats their chickens in inhumane ways. Foer writes, “At a slaughterhouse in West Virginia that supplies KFC, the workers were documented tearing the heads off of live birds, spray-painting their faces, and violently stomping on them.” Throughout the next several chapters, Foer continues to talk about the conditions of factory-farmed chickens. The chickens are pumped with antibiotics from birth and then placed in cramped, waste-filled quarters with many other chickens. Often times this leads to infection and the transfer of diseases. Foer states that “upwards of 95% of chickens become infected with E. coli and between 39% and 75% percent of chickens in retail stores are still infected.”

However, not all farms mass produce chickens and treat them poorly. For example, Polyface Farm, located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, is a “family owned multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm.” Their website states that, “We are in the redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture… Experience the satisfaction of knowing your food and your farmer, building community. We are your clean meat connection.” Polyface is known for their humane treatment of animals and emphasis on supporting local businesses.

Photo Cred: Rhiannon Boyd

Laying hens at Polyface Farm.

Farm Labor

How much money would it take to double the salary of a tomato picker? According to the documentary Food Chains, salaries of farm laborers in the US could double if just one cent was added to the price of a tomato. Often times farmworkers are paid by the amount of tomatoes or other produce picked, and not by the hour. This means that workers have to move at an unsafe pace in order to barely make minimum wage. This also means that most farmworkers live in poverty. Food Chains follows the story of a group of Florida farmworkers who fight against Publix Supermarket (which has plans to expand in Richmond) in order to raise their salaries by one cent, with the assistance of the Fair Food Program. The Fair Food Program’s initiative states, “The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) Fair Food Program is a unique partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions for the workers who pick fruits and vegetables on participating farms. It harnesses the power of consumer demand to give farmworkers a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, and to eliminate the longstanding abuses that have plagued agriculture for generations.”

Another issue that contributes to the exploitation of farm workers is that many of them are undocumented immigrants, and potential changes in immigration policies from the Trump administration could have significant effects on the food economy. According to a February article about California farmers in the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s immigration policies could transform California’s Central Valley, a stretch of lowlands that extends from Redding to Bakersfield. Approximately 70 percent of all farmworkers here are living in the United States illegally, according to researchers at University of California, Davis. The impact could reverberate throughout the valley’s precarious economy, where agriculture is by far the largest industry. With 6.5 million people living in the valley, the fields in this state bring in $35 billion a year and provide more of the nation’s food than any other state.” As a result of many workers’ undocumented status and lack of resources, the agriculture industry has been accused of taking advantage of farmworkers, especially those who are undocumented. However, each time we consume a meal or go shopping for food, we have the ability to help make a change by shopping at places that are connected with the Fair Food Program and that treat workers equitably.

There are many opportunities and ways to find healthy, family farmed, and well produced food all around Richmond. Whole Foods and Ellwood Thompson’s  are both chain grocery stores that focus on creating healthier options for their customers. In addition, there are various farmers markets around the Richmond area with many naturally grown and raised products. Places such as Polyface Farm encourage and support local farming, while also providing ecological and animal-friendly environment. There are even options such as Molly Harris’s Lulus Local Food, which provides people the opportunity to order foods online that is farmed locally. 

Cred: Rhiannon Boyd

Students talk about sustainable farming at Polyface.

There is so much to learn about the food industry, and everyone has the ability to bring about change and awareness. As Boyd eloquently stated, “Find something you are passionate about and start there. Find people who share your interests and get together with them regularly. Talk about it, question, get frustrated, get excited, do all of that together (perhaps over some food), and figure out what you do next.”

Photos by Olivia Laskin.

About the author

Olivia Laskin is a senior at Collegiate School.