Americans eat a lot of grains. Most of us grew up with a Food Guide Pyramid that told us to eat 6-11 servings of grain per day. The Pyramid below looks exactly like the one I remember going over in science class as a kid. What grains can I choose from for my 6-11 servings per day? Rice. Bread. Pasta. Cereal. See below. That is how they trained me.
Luckily as I've gotten older, I've taken it upon myself to learn about what I eat (which is a product of my social class and educational opportunities, no doubt). I found out that there are a mind boggling number of grains out there if I am willing to spend the time to learn how to cook them. As a vegetarian I have always had to watch my pasta/rice intake, and normally I do pretty well in that category. Before I started the Food Stamp Vegan challenge last month I had moved from brown rice to mostly quinoa. At one point I would pretty much only cook barley, quinoa, oatmeal, or millet at home. While there are lots of nutritionists out there touting the merits of different grains, quinoa and millet are usually rated pretty high in nutritional value and low in calories. This is a decent comparison chart for grain nutrient values. (Does anyone have any others that they recommend?)
On the Food Stamp diet my grain intake totally changed. As you might have noticed this past month I ate a lot of brown rice and oatmeal (still do, actually - haven't run out yet!). When I bought that crappy loaf of high-fructose corn syrup "whole wheat" bread, I ate all of that too. Those were pretty much my only grains for the month. While they aren't horrible, they are not nearly as nutritionally powerful as grains like quinoa or millet would have been. Unfortunately, they were my only options.
The grain options at the stores I was going to all month were very limited. I usually had to choose between these items:
- white tortilla, whole wheat if I was lucky
- brown or white rice - sold in BULK sometimes
- white pita (never found whole wheat)
- highly processed breads - there were often multi grain or whole wheat options but they were by no means baked on site and always had high fructose corn syrup in them
- crackers, cookies, chips, pretzels in every flavor I could ever dream of and at a relatively low price
- cereal - always the boxed variety, always with a handful of healthy options (such as that box of Total) but still not too many
Quinoa was nowhere to be found anywhere I shopped last month. Millet, no way. I did find some "Whole Wheat" that had some things written on it in Arabic, but I haven't been brave enough or motivated enough to try to cook it yet.
If I had really wanted to get quinoa, I could have. Whole Foods accepts EBT in most LA locations, and they sell quinoa in bulk for $2.99/lb. But think for a second. I lived off that $3 five pound bag of brown rice from A Grocery Warehouse for almost the entire month (and counting). There was NO way it was worth it to me to truck it all the way to Whole Foods and pay almost 5 times as much per pound for a specialty grain. Even if it is a complete protein.
After 1 month of my food stamp challenge, I have come to the conclusion that there are some major issues surrounding grains for low-income Americans. Here are my biggest concerns:
- Low quality carbohydrates, such as chips, crackers, highly processed breads and pastas, are a very large part of our diet. These inferior grain sources are cheap and readily available in mini marts and chain grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods. We have developed a real taste for these types of foods, despite the fact that they are high in calorie and low in nutritional value.
- In order to get any higher quality grains, one would have to shop at Whole Foods or an expensive specialty market. What would motivate people to try these strange and exotic grains even if they were available? You may recall a lesson from my recent post about my bean soup fiasco: experimenting is not a good idea when you are on a very tight food budget. If something goes wrong or you don't like a food you have made you are stuck eating it anyway, and you are also out a bunch of time and money.
- Most Americans are very comfortable cooking items like pasta or rice, but would likely find more nutritious grains such as quinoa, barley, or amaranth (which I had never even heard of but is apparently now ranking above quinoa on some grain rating charts...) incredibly strange and intimidating to cook. Again, it would be risky to experiment with these on a tight budget. It took me months of experimenting with quinoa to figure out exactly how I liked it, and now all of a sudden there is this new grain called amaranth that I am supposed to learn to cook? Seriously. It makes me want to throw in the towel and go back to something simple again like rice.
- There is an unhealthy degree of fad diet publicity and guilt surrounding grains and carbohydrates. I am no nutritionist, but I feel like sticking to whole grains in moderation and getting a variety of different grains is probably a safe strategy, but I don't seem much of that happening in American food culture. First, there is the food pyramid telling us to eat a lot of grains all the time, across the board. Then there are the low-carb diets that have spiraled out of control - it seems I could buy a low-carb version of any junk food I want these days. Oreos? Are they low-carb? Great! I can eat as many as I want and still not be cheating on my diet! There are even fads surrounding grains in the whole food circuit - take the switch of spotlight from quinoa to amaranth as a prime example. I think most people just don't know how to feel about grains, myself included. One second we are supposed to be limiting carbs and the next minute we're supposed to be eating more "whole grains". More whole grains. Ok. Great. But what is the difference between the highly processed bread or the chocolate chip granola bar that now has the words WHOLE GRAIN printed all over the package and a bag of brown rice or oatmeal?