I was in NYC for a quick jaunt last week, and in the ~24 hours I was there I not only managed to hit the Guggenheim, walk over the Brooklyn Bridge and tour Park Slope, but I also spent a quality amount of time wandering the TriBeCa Whole Foods and the Union Square Greenmarket. I know it’s fairly common knowledge that both looking at and creating artwork is therapeutic and provides a host of positive, calming benefits — this might be weird, but I feel a similar sense of warm fuzzy when I wander through heaps of fresh produce. Same goes for salt water.
Before I go on a tangent about my various happy places, back to food. Such close proximity to delicious, local produce inspires me to buy my weight in goods and spend the rest of the day on a cooking rampage…but then I remember that I live in a Boston shoebox where cooking (despite Mark Bittman’s best assurances that I can cook in a small kitchen, my current setup is too small for even his strongest encouragement) in any proper sense is sadly not possible. I make do with not subsisting on processed crap or takeout galore but there’s serious room for improvement in the realm of practicing what I preach with respect to taking more culinary control.
It hasn’t always been this way, and I look forward to the day in the not-too-distant future when I’ll resurrect my schedule of more regular kitchen witchery. I’ve always loved cooking and made it part of my lifestyle, but over the past few years I’ve realized how important this truly is a) to my own health (and sanity, not to be underbilled) and b) for society as a whole to have a basic working knowledge of cooking and nutrition as a matter of public health, economic productivity, self-sufficiency and even (yes, I’m getting a little soap boxy) empowerment.
Food is so connected to health. I’m ALL for modern medicine (including vaccines), but we over-medicate in this society, are diet-crazed and obsessed with quick fixes, and are all too quick to treat manifestations of illness and not their root causes. Staying healthy in the first place is the best thing each of us can do to maintain good personal health on the individual level and help contribute to a more productive society overall — and one not drowning in health care costs. The health care system needs more attention, to be sure, but there’s so much more we can all do to decrease the inputs of unhealthy, diseased people with chronic conditions. And it starts with food.
From cooking with your kids to taking a little extra time on Sunday to prep for the work week, small adjustments to spend even a few more minutes in the kitchen can make a big difference. This isn’t negotiating world peace, but it does get political in that some of us don’t have the same amount of free time to cook a full slate of healthy meals from scratch each week. Some of us don’t live anywhere near grocery stores, leaving not only refrigerators but also pantries bare. And some of us see the prices and balk at the fact that $15 worth of fresh produce doesn’t nearly go as far as $15 at McDonalds or Domino’s. And some of us don’t know the first thing about where to begin when choosing ingredients that comprise simple, healthy, cost-effective meals. It’s far more complicated than simply a matter of finding more time in the day to get out the cutting boards and take a spin with a shopping cart, which is why it gets political and why “food justice” is a thing, and a big one at that.
Despite the various barriers, there *are* ways to take steps in the right direction and there are people and organizations fighting the good fight. Rice and beans, for example, is a good place to start — it’s 100x better than whatever Burger King or Stouffer’s are slinging any day of the week. Canned and frozen vegetables lock in freshness in a way that fresh produce sometimes doesn’t, and cost less than fresh in many cases. And there are programs like Cooking Matters and Rachael Ray’s Yum-o organization that light me up in their efforts to teach basic nutrition and get kids involved in cooking. None of this is a solution and problems will persist for years to come, but I’m optimistic that we are surfacing issues in a way that’s creating positive change.