Something is rotten in the state of Denmark…

Janelle Watson is a single mother of two who works two part-time jobs to put food on the table for her children. Despite her work, it’s not enough to ensure that they eat healthy meals day after day.

The Watson family live with food insecurity – without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food – which is more prevalent among households, single-person and single-parent households1.

This is not an isolated case, since these lone-parent families with children under 18 have the highest rates of food insecurity at 22.6% in Canada2. Their precarious health situation is determined by income and social status, an important determinant of health.

Janelle also needs to pay rent, pay taxes, and school materials. Of course, this leaves her with little money when she goes to the grocery store. She’s forced to pick some pre-made frozen calorific meals that are on sale over the fresh and nutritious produce the grocer just stocked because she cannot afford to spend what little coin she has on the healthier option3.

This choice is made because the first will last her and her children two weeks, and the second will only last two days at the same price. Because of this lack of sufficient nutrition in their diet, her eldest son Mateo, 15, developed Type II diabetes. Unsurprisingly, 80% of these food-insufficient households report having diabetes4.

Being a lone female parent with children under 18 makes her part of the most vulnerable group of families that face food insecurity in Canada. Single mothers with children who aren’t yet adults like Janelle make up 34.3% of families that cannot afford to eat well5.

When the landlord phones her to pay her rent, she has to sacrifice two weeks’ worth of work, and she also pays the hydro bill to keep her apartment warm. This leaves her without any money for the rest of the month. Either she feeds her family or risk freezing and eviction.

This is ultimatum is true for many: often people living in poverty sacrifice food dollars for fixed expenses such as rent and utilities6.

When these times come, she can only rely on the local food banks for food. She’s not alone though, because 412,998 other people use food banks in Ontario (in 2012), and among those, 64.5% were low-income, rental market tenants just like her7. In fact 9.8% of these households used food banks for the first time8.

3.2% of people that use food banks are post secondary students like Janelle.  From what I’ve learned during my time volunteering at my university’s food bank, and networking with professionals and social workers that are fighting to end homelessness, and fundraising money to prepare and distribute meals to the homeless, it truly made me realize that low income and social status is detrimental to health.

From this experience, I’ve discerned why first year students experience “freshman 15” – a trope where new students tend to gain 15 pounds in First Year – and it’s simply because new students, either international or from out of town, do not have enough cash to buy nutritious food and stay healthy since they must pay rent or residence fees, on top of tuition. They’re also socially pressured to overly consume alcohol at parties – an unhealthy behaviour.

So they purchase cheaper, unhealthier foods, which increases obesity and deteriorates their prior health status, as well as spending more money at the liquor store.

It is similar to the “healthy immigrant phenomenon”, where acculturation of Western norms, adoption of risky behaviors, and consumption of high-fat, processed foods are often blamed for immigrants’ health deterioration9.

An example of this would be Aarav, a young Indian man who had a job back home, but needed to move to another country to fulfill his education.

Aarav came to Canada to pursue his studies in engineering. He used to have 3 full meals a day, complete with fresh and delicious ingredients that do lots of good for the body. He ate breakfast, allowing him to concentrate on his work. He had a full lunch during his break, and he came home to a lovely supper – his rice, bread, curries and chicken complimented with local spices and ingredients that clear sinuses and has anti-inflammatory properties. He was generally pretty healthy.

But now that he’s here, he doesn’t have time to cook full meals nor does he have his parents to rely on for nutritious food since they had to stay home and take care of his younger siblings.

He is all alone, in a Western country for the first time. In the first few weeks he tried hard to stick to his old habits, but the pressures of school work, studying performance, deadlines to meet and social obligations to make friends and go out made it quite challenging.

Now, Aarav has to spend his money on instant noodles, a cheap processed meal that takes little money to buy and little time to prepare.

But the big companies that produce these noodles need to meet the market’s demands, and those demands are simply that … it just needs to taste the same as the original. If it didn’t, people wouldn’t buy it. People want the full experience for a cheaper price.

It’s why most people pirate songs or videos – because they don’t want to pay for something if they can just get it for free, and why should they pay part of their salaries to see a motion picture at the theaters, or enjoy an hour of their favorite artist’s latest music? They need that money elsewhere.

So, the factors behind piracy and buying cheaper food are similar – except that we cannot illegally download food (yet), so we must buy it. With socioeconomic conditions making that challenging, the lower it costs with the same expectations, the better.

Anyways, back to Aarav: he progressively became less and less healthy as his eating habits changed from eating  fully balanced meals to staying home watching Netflix with two cups of instant noodles on his lap. It should come to no surprise that Aarav is now obese.

Processed foods like instant noodles, the industrialization of bread making, and pre-packaged frozen foods have been all been associated with cardio-metabolic risk factors, development of cancer, increase in obesity, etc.

In South-Korea, a fabulous country that eats bulgogi and bibimpab, studies have shown that the consumption of instant noodles was associated with increased prevalence of metabolic syndrome in women10.

The industrialization of our foods has brought as much praise as it has hate to the staple of food: bread.
A fine thesis by Amanda Benson states that bread’s popularity has come and gone in waves10.

Before the industrialization it was like in the good old days, circa 10 000 years ago, where bread was wet flour that was left in a corner to ferment. Then experimentation or accident led to the discovery that if you beat the dough a bit before letting it rest, it would become bigger. Then someone decided to throw it into a fire and it became the first baked loaf. It was amazing! People created more nutritious and delicious food out of a ball of water and crushed wheat – a true sign of the gods.

Of course, over the years, bread baking has been perfected. Different breads are made, but the techniques and ingredients generally remain the same: water, flour, salt, yeast, knead the dough, let it rest then bake it slow.

However, when industrialization came along, it automated and refined the whole process. Bread giant, WonderBread pioneered the entire industry. They put in dyes to make the flour whiter, which made the bread whiter. They sifted in some chemicals to make the bread softer. They added sugar to make the bread taste a little sweeter – sugar being a natural craving and addiction we all have. There was also government intervention to regulate the food properties of bread which the big companies didn’t like. Media helped play a part in bread’s portrayal, and food trends like gluten-free or low-carb reinforced society’s perception of bread. We either loved it or we demonized it.

Personally I think it is healthier to eat a freshly baked loaf and make it yourself than to buy it pre-made from a big company. The very nature of bread isn’t that it’s bulbous and fabulous and rich and white. It is an appearance that is manipulated and manufactured. Bread should have a simple taste that is not influenced by chemicals and dyes, but rather by the natural reactions between air and yeast. And bread should be enjoyed in all shapes and sizes, not discriminated.

Eating bread is six times more fattening than eating rice – and we wonder why people in the West are getting more and more obese. It’s because bread is something we eat daily. Bread represents our food. Bread is the staple of our civilization.

One cannot take away bread from the equation of global economics, since bread production and wheat distribution is an economy that countries like Iran and Malaysia depend on. Japan, Morocco and Turkey export lots of wheat flour. There is an abundance of wheat here in Canada and the U.S.12.

A shortage of wheat and bread led to a bread and food crisis in the Middle East, and many riots. These happened in 2007-2008, but also sometime before in 197013. You’ve seen the picture of a man protesting with a bread hat – well it was for this reason in 2013.

From the memes: I am bread-hat man. Your arguments are invalid.
From the memes: I am bread-hat man. Your arguments are invalid.

Bread, central to the lives and foods of many if not most cultures, was subject to a price hike which destroyed the livelihood of everyday citizens. In normal circumstances, if a family couldn’t afford to buy meats, they could afford to purchase some bread. But when that became impossible… There were many outcries and many riots. To this day the systemic cause of the increase in food prices is strongly debated.

By now I’m certain you’ve learned a lot about food. You’ve learned about how it is an important and intrinsic factor in our health. You’ve seen how food insecurity is determined by your lifestyle, your revenue, and your social status. You’ve seen the deterioration of otherwise healthy people’s lives into debilitating diabetes and obesity because of the food we eagerly crave.

You’ve seen how the industrialization of food like bread and instant noodles can have bad effects on our health, and how media and society affects the industry. You’ve seen how food is a key part of a global economy.

So the next time you have something to eat, I want you to think about it. And I want you to appreciate what it is that is in front of you. I don’t care if you’re vegan on a small diet or if you eat a full meat-lovers pizza by yourself. I want you to consider how important the food you’re eating is. Maybe someone at a food bank could use an extra box of spaghetti that you have. Perhaps the salad you’re eating was cultivated by a man whose life depended on its harvest. The bread you eat day after day could be baked fresh by a local baker or made by a corporation. One day the price of food may be affordable, but the next day chaos may unfold in the streets of Tehran because it is not.

Food is so much more than something you eat to fill an empty stomach. Food is a culture. Food is a phenomenon, and it is a way of life. What we eat is representative of who we are and what we find at the grocery store is a completely limited view of reality. I’m not saying that eating food is bad.

I’m saying that the way food is handled or made by the industries and the monopoly that big companies have is bad for our health and our economies.

Because beyond the first layer of fresh, perfect ingredients, you’ll always manage to find that one rotten tomato. And if its rotten, it is already consuming the rest.