Thursday, May 10, 2012

Book Review: Jeannie Marshall's Outside the Box - Why Our Children Need Real Food

[Full disclosure - book sent to me by the author]

I’m a newly minted Jeannie Marshall fan.

I first learned about Jeannie when she sent me a direct message on Twitter asking for my address so that she could send me a copy of her new book, Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products for review. Being immersed in writing my own book, having 3 young children, running a busy medical office, and working on two new ventures that still aren’t ready to be unveiled, I wrote back thanking her, but that I was likely too busy to read it right now. She rapidly tweeted back not to worry, I didn’t need to read it, I just needed to put a sticky note on it stating, “Brilliant” , and then leave it on my desk. I think I literally laughed out loud.

The book arrived a week or two later, and (sorry Jeannie), without a “Brilliant” post-it, it sat on my desk.

When it came time to pack for my recent 40th birthday trip to Scotland (thanks Dad!) for the Speyside Whiskey Festival (amazing), and having read a beautifully written article by Jeannie in the Globe and Mail, I decided to bring it along.

It didn’t disappoint.

Simply put, in the book Jeannie uses her own personal experiences raising her young son Nico in Italy as a means to frame her thoughts around the role of food in modern culture. Her thesis is one that I wholeheartedly share – that a global loss of cooking and its replacement by “food products” created by profit-driven corporations is one of the primary drivers of malnutrition and chronic disease in society today. It’s an ironic cause given that many of these products are being marketed on the basis of claims of health benefits, claims often splashed on the product packaging and advertising, but really where as Jeannie so aptly puts it,
Science again is being used as a marketing tool to convince parents that these children’s foods are superior to the traditional foods that previous generations have eaten”,
and that in turn that we as consumers,
read the health pages of the newspaper for advice on which nutrients we need, or we read the labels on boxes to find out what to eat instead of following the traditional wisdom of our culture”.
Scarier still that traditional wisdom is often two generations old at this point, and is at risk of disappearing altogether.

Jeannie’s concern is that our tastes and our relationships with food are forged when we’re young - really young, and that our busy lives might be setting up a generation for struggle. In discussing ready-to-eat baby foods she notes,
If we feed babies food like this, even though it might not be bad for their overall health, that’s the taste we are teaching them to like”,
and then in a commentary on food advertising targeting kids and its impact on their relationship with food laments,
I don’t really want Pepsi Co. and Coca-Cola and other food companies giving my child health and nutrition advice. The problem is not only what these companies tell children to eat, but how they depict food as entertainment, and as something to grab on the run.
Jeannie’s writing is a delight. Very easy to read, warm and engaging, and she makes a strong case for a return to home cooking. The bond she’s forming with her young son Nico permeates her work, and more to the point, it's being forged in her kitchen.

Politically Jeannie wonders, as I do, why the multinationals' interests seem to matter more to folks like the World Health Organization than in fact, our health. She interviews a senior nutritionist with the UN who notes that at a recent conference around the challenge of ensuring adequate nutrition that virtually every single one of the hundreds of talks and posters dealt with the fortification of heavily processed foods, and states that,
The food industry acts as though micronutrient deficiencies are a disease that people need to be cured of, rather than something that happens when you don’t have enough to eat.
The one area where I wish Jeannie spent more time were in solutions. While she definitely covers the issue of the time involved well (it doesn’t need to be fancy or take forever), she doesn’t spend much on the dollars involved in procuring fresh food and indeed, this is a very common and regular argument that comes up when discussing home cooking. That said, in part I think it’s about priorities. I’d argue that actual food and cooking are often prioritized far lower on the totem pole of needs than they need to be, where families, including poor ones, are spending as much or more on a fast food dinner than they might have on home cooked meals.  What I think is missing isn't necessarily the direct dollars, but the indirect effect poverty might have on the skill set as a function of lesser access to higher education and greater time demands, and that failing is part and parcel of the problem Jeannie’s described – the industrialization of not just modern day food, but also our modern day relationship with it.

I’d also have loved a few recipes. Whether it was for her pappa, Valencia’s soup and meatballs, fresh pasta, or a pasta madre – her writing is so passionate, it made me want to try them all. I also have to call her on one small paragraph of the book where she suggests whole foods have magic calories that somehow don’t count (they all do, healthy or otherwise), but all told, this was a wonderful read and one I’d recommend to everyone, and especially to families with young children.

Ultimately I think this is Jeannie’s real message,
The one thing I feel I cannot do is abandon my little boy to the food industry. Individuals can do whatever they want. They can microwave frozen dinners or order in Thai food. But parents have to protect and nurture their children, and feeding them is part of that job. Many parents try to do it within the confines set by the food industry, but I don’t think an industry can give us the foods our children really need to eat”,
I have friends who defiantly refuse to cook for themselves and their families: they buy frozen pizza, canned soup, salad in a bad and factory-made cookies. I don’t think that’s the way to go. It seems like refusing to brush your teeth or wash your clothes. Cooking is a life skill. It’s one we should practice and definitely share with our children.
Jeannie, thanks for a great read, and if you’re ever in Ottawa and you’d like to trade an airport pickup and a night in my home for teaching my wife and I a few recipes from Italy, you’ve got a deal (and if you bring me part of an old pasta madre, I'll even share some of the 30 year old Glenfarclas I was drinking while reading parts of your book).

Consider this my "Brilliant" post-it.

(You can follow Jeannie Marshall on Twitter)

[Here's an Amazon Associates link to the Canadian Amazon listing of Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products (for some reason, I can't find a US Amazon link, but Amazon Canada does ship books to US as well]