About this Blog

Welcome! Thanks for checking out On Food Stamps.

I created this blog in 2009 when I began working at the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank. My work at this organization opened my eyes to food justice issues in America, and I had a strong desire to better understand the difficulties many people face when trying to access healthy food on a limited budget. So, I embarked on my own Food Stamp Challenge, living on $31/week as a vegan. I used this blog to chronicle my experience.

While my Food Stamp Challenge project has come to an end, you can see what I learned from it by reading the Greatest Hits posts linked to the right side of the page. Please excuse any out-of-date links, as I am no longer updating this blog on a regular basis.

Stay Hungry,


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread: Have We Arrived at an Evolutionary Crossroads?

I have calmed down from yesterday's rant about dieting shortcuts.

I might even be singing a different tune. Well, slightly.

This evening was full of food conflict. I got home late. I wanted something healthy, mostly vegetables. However, I really really didn't want to cook. I wanted to read and meditate and write in my journal. I was in the mood for some higher level activities, some genuine spiritual evolution, not hours in the kitchen. Hm. Healthy fast food? No, I was too broke to hit up the Whole Foods salad bar or anything of that sort.

So, I sucked it up and spent an hour chopping and cooking. It wasn't enjoyable. I felt rushed. I just wanted to get it over with so I could do the things I wanted to do. I honestly felt that cooking tonight was holding me back somehow from pursuing much more important tasks. It felt primitive.

It got me thinking about what hunting and gathering must have been like for Homo sapiens living on the verge of the first Agricultural Revolution. Think about that for a second. Imagine being an upright walking hunter-gatherer with an ever increasing amount of brain function. You're cranial abilities call you to develop a written language, study the astrological calendar, build permanent dwellings, develop religions and civilizations... but you aren't quite there yet. Every member of your species still has to spend nearly every waking hour acquiring food like the rest of the animals. Imagine what it must have been like to live through any part of that slow Neolithic transition from nomadic to sedentary civilization.

While the transition was slow and complex, the development of agriculture was a huge part of man's evolution at this stage. It allowed for surplus time which led to specialization of labor and increasilying sophistocated societies, for one thing. At that point in time, "faster food" was a major asset to man's evolution.

Flash back to me in the kitchen. I'm chopping. I'm cutting. I'm 10 pounds overweight. I wish I was reading and increasing my brain power. I wish I was free to develop in more sophistocated ways. Faster food would have been a real asset to my personal evolution.

Am I in the middle of another evolutionary food crossroads for humanity?

Gone are the days, in America at least, in which taking in enough calories to survive is a challenge. Instead, I am surrounded by cheap, fast, incredibly calorie dense foods. As a human trying to acquire food in 2009, I am faced with a perplexing situation. Food choices that match up with my animal instinct to maximize calories and keep the cost of acquiring those calories low are everywhere. As far as the primitive Homo sapien in me is concerned, McDonald's is a really good deal.

Lots of calories at a low cost.

"Bingo," says the primitive being inside of me.

That is when the evolved being inside of me speaks up. It brings my awareness to the fact that those calorie dense foods are actually harming my body. Unfortunately, as calorie dense food has become cheaper and easier to get, I have become more sedentary and need less and less of it to thrive. I don't hunt for a living anymore. I sit in a chair. Hopefully, my brain has developed enough to internalize that fact and respond with more self control. Hopefully, my brain is sophistocated enough to turn down the animal voice inside of me that wants more fats and sugars, and turn up the voice of higher brain functioning. Let's be honest, many Americans (myself included sometimes) feel stuck in that primitive place where we know what our bodies need and don't need, but we can't seem to intellectually overpower the physical cravings for harmful, calorie dense foods.

In my better moments I transcend the calorie craving animal inside of me and think even bigger. I tap into that part of myself that is really educated, that has even become mentally sophistocated enough to grasp the impact that my food acquisition methods have on the rest of my environment. If I am really on, I might move beyond the battle of self control to the desire to be a benevolent force in the universe, to make sure my food choices weren't contributing to pollution or the exploitation of other living creatures.

But lets face it, evolutionarily speaking, most Americans don't seem to be there yet. I know that I certainly don't always eat as a highly evolved human, and I write a blog about sustainable food access. That certainly says something, don't you think?

I admit it. I had a spoonful of Nutella with Peanut Butter before I wrote this post. The calorie craving animal in me took over, God damn it! I just couldn't be bothered thinking about the production of Nutella, and how much fossil fuel was spent shipping that vat of sugar and chemicals to their spot in front of me on the counter. All I could think about was the sweet flavor of Nutella on my tounge.

My spiritual evolution it still young and fragile, and it failed. Then my intellectual evolution failed. Then, finally, my self control also failed.

So, faced with the consequences of this all too common pattern of human behavior (Need I say it? An obesity epidemic, a collapsing health care system, an industrial agriculture system that is raping the pilaging the environment... yada yada yada...), what do we do?

Do we accept that self control and highly evolved eating habits are just beyond most of us right now and develop a mechanism to correct for this limitation? Humans are really good at recognizing our limitations and building tools to overcome them, after all. That is what separates us from most animal species.

I'm thinking futuristic, space-age food solutions here: an iPhone application (50 years from now, when iPhone technology has become as basic in America as running water) that measures exactly how many calories we need in a day given our activity level. The technological application communicates with our fridge, via USB cord maybe, and out pops a meal with the appropriate level of calories. This meal was produced in an incredibly efficient and sustainable way. All the veggies in the meal were grown on the roof of our home, for example.

In this futuristic world of carefully prescribed sustainable food solutions, we wouldn't have to have self control, and we wouldn't have to spend time on food. Ever. Instead, humans would spend time on spiritual evolution and intellectual growth. We'd invent things that helped our planet thrive in harmony with other species and with other planets in the solar system. We'd be highly evolved creatures.

Not a bad sci-fi vision, if you ask me. The only problem is that in the above system, all of the sensuality is taken out of food preparation. Although, given the fact that Americans spend about $1 billion on fast food every year, maybe that wouldn't bother most of the population that much after all.

Part of me screams, "No! No! Don't take away cooking. Food production is an essential sensory human experience, like sex. It helps us connect with our most basic physical needs. It is essential to our awareness of our bodies!"

But, then I wonder - did primitive man feel that way about hunting?


  1. Anthropologists say that hunting/gathering actually took significantly less time than our 40 hr work week to accomplish, as I've read in a variety of texts (Pollan, Taubes, Collins). They had plenty of time to follow more cerebral pursuits. The pre-ag cultures also usually ate lots of meat from hunting, even (or sometimes) particularly in drought times when everyone huddled around the water hole together. Meat (with all its fat) is calorie dense and conveniently comes in large servings in many cases. In many areas, the transition to an agricultural existence had a null or deletrerious effect on food availability/quality and thus quality of life, but the human desire for predictability and stability encouraged it.

    As for your "willpower" - the body has an awfully strong and well tuned set of instructions it carries out ruthlessly. Your body wants a certain level of fat and protein and you'll crave until you get it (carbs being what is usually cheap and easy in our culture). As unavoidable as PMS or fatigue, hunger is a natural bodily drive that it's usually wise for us to follow. A slice or two of cheese when you crave dense calories is not unreasonable. A couple Hershey's kisses when you crave sugar is not Evil. I often have weeks where I crave RED MEAT and my body refuses to accept anything else. I could eat platefuls of anything else and not have it satisfy like 4 oz of beef, and I've tried. (Obviously I am a poor candidate for vegetarianism...) Telling ourselves that we should be able to be stronger willed than our bodies is self-defeating. We should be listening to them, not trying to subdue them. We'd never try and restrain our bodies from getting rest, so why do we insist they not get fuel in the forms they indicate they most need? It's a fascinating cultural trend.

    Note my current thinking is undoubtedly influenced by the fact that I'm reading "Good Calories, Bad Calories".

  2. Interesting post. Progress attempts to solve problems but it often accidentally creates them and then we want to rewind; most food ideologies are examples of that pattern.

    Once upon a time, humans spent nearly every waking moment thinking about food. Then we invented the bow and arrow, and agriculture, and McDonald's, allowing us to spend almost no time thinking about food. Now, we are being asked to take a step backwards.

    The implication is that the time we save with convenient food is not sufficiently well-spent to outweigh certain negative consequences. That is a big assumption and probably the main point of disagreement between food ideologues and conscientious McDonald's customers. The food people are right, though: our free time is constantly being attacked by advertisers and stuff. Making food is probably better than whatever else you might do with your time. Most of us aren't big self-improvers. Most people either consume inane media or drive themselves insane in their unoccupied moments. Making food is better; it is healthy and meditative.

    We should no longer try to make things more complex and efficient. We should begin making things more simple and inefficient. Modern life is a knot that needs to be loosened, not tightened. Neo-luddism is becoming mainstream.

  3. Beautiful post Julie. I love the stream of consciousness and your honesty as to the struggle. Perhaps we'll find a spiritual answer to the issues of over-consumption - not only of food, but of everything in the developed world. My guess though is that the answer may come from within and strength of will to survive will trump natural instincts to open a can of frosting and eat half of it before lunch. (oops, TMI)

  4. This comment comes from Linda Samuels from the blog "Cause of the Week" (http://causeoftheweek.blogspot.com/)
    She was unable to post it so I am putting it up for her. Here it is:

    This is a good one Julie. There is so much in here worth contemplating, some snaking around the surface of other ideas. Like - ten pounds overweight? Are you crazy? Even the presence of that sentence shows how our food and body relationships are warped by the media and generations of gender manipulation.

    Then, of course, there is the latent (or not so latent) idea that everything now equals money, and money, of course, is the great divider. The poor have less access, are less healthy, are more likely to develop diseases that then go untreated, etc etc. Those hunter and gatherers sure did not need to join a gym. But they also died, when, around 27?

    Once you connect food and sex, your point, too, is more primitive - in a good way. We also no longer NEED to reproduce, to populate the earth to stave off extinction or to have more working little slave hands - at least not here in the US for the most part. I wonder, now that you so eloquently say it, about that moment you refer to, the one where someone first took a stick as hoe, made a line, figured out what a seed might do if put in just the right place at just the right time. Imagine that same moment when we realized - particularly as women - that sex and procreation could be completely free of each other.

    But it isn't completely free of each other. Nothing is. Some of us still hunt and gather, someone - on a big machine sometimes - still fashions a hoe and makes a line. Some do it more sensitively, others not. Some of us define 'good' choices by the way that hoe is fashioned, some of us define 'good' choices by how we feel, or how it makes our neighbors or our children or our parents or our earth feel. In the end, it's all about balancing options, being as educated as you can be, seeing the whole picture, and making the decisions you make not from a place of guilt, but from the best, happiest, healthiest place you can find - either at that moment or in all the moments of life strung together.

    We are human, and that means we will always cook and drink and have sex (sometimes, some of the best times, all three together) and do things that are 'good' for us and things that are 'bad' for us and then ponder them and share them, discuss them even. That, in itself represented in blog and email and phone and even the printed word, is our modern gift.

  5. Stacey - Thanks for the great comment.

    I want to clarify that I don't mean to suggest with this post that we should stop listening to our bodies and eat only incredibly healthy and sustainable food all the time. I am a huge believer in eating what your body tells you is right on a given day. I think though, that too often we are tuned in only to our taste buds, rather than our entire organism. Not that the occasional taste-bud fiesta is a bad thing. As you know, I do love my occasional tablespoons of Nutella!

    I also agree that the emotional and psychological element is important. That, as you said, "Telling ourselves that we should be able to be stronger willed than our bodies is self-defeating." I'm not advocating for impeccable control and joyless eating. I just think that so many of the foods that surround us in America are at once not so good for us AND engineered to make us want more and more of them. In those cases I think we do need to turn down the cravings and turn up the evolutionary and globally conscious mind. Personally, I'm striving to eat well, achieve balance, and not beat myself up too much over those spoonfuls of Nutella.

  6. Julie,
    Great post, and I agree with your point on technology. It has the potential to do a lot more good for us than being without it did, in any way we want it to - we just need the time to develop it in proper ways and the foresight to connect our long-term desires (lower health care costs, ability to walk up stairs..) with what we ask from our food. Michael Pollan says that our nutrition science is just too coarse to really understand enough to guide our eating choices, but who's to say that will always be the case.

    I see your point about energy and love in the preparation of food, and while I don't disagree, to me it's not so important if I'm getting what I need and the love can come elsewhere. But if we're getting dead carcasses when we should be getting freshness, that's a problem to me.

    I particularly like your last few posts; they are very insightful. In part thanks to your diabetic posts and in part thanks to my recent trip to Europe and the smaller portions, I have begun experimenting with eating less and adjusting to that. It was a revelation when you said that even though eating less feels like starving yourself at first, after a few days your body adjusts and really didn't need monstrous portions to start with.