SUNDAY POEMS 69: Reviewing Canada’s 2019 Food Guide

There’s a short animation from a computer game I played when I was a kid, called SimAnt, of an ant feeding another through trophallaxis, a mouth to mouth transfer predigested food, with an accompanying squelch that is conjured in my memory alongside the image. If only it were so simple for us humans! Just gobs of food transferred back and forth.

When I was still a young child, we learned in school about portion sizes, food groups, and how many of each to eat in a day from the food guide. I didn’t know how to translate that into what my parents were cooking at home but was pretty sure we ate healthily. Like a lot of kids who ended up tall, much of my growth was confined to a fairly rapid sprint between the ages of 12-15. Preceding this period was a bulking up which gave me a couple of years of a rounded face and a chubby body. I didn’t mind, I don’t think that I really noticed on my own that my body looked any different. But I had people in my life who did, and they convinced me that I should care too.

After I hit my growth spurt and stretched upwards, my body and its weight distribution changed. Unfortunately, I’d already internalized the idea that I was incurably overweight and it would lead to all sorts of problems. Through my teen years, I skipped meals, filled up my hungry belly with water, snuck food to the garbage can, over-exercised and made myself sick with the goal of staying thin. The occasional eating binge when my brain and body were too deprived to resist normal desires for sustenance kept this cycle going, giving me a fluctuating weight I could obsess over.

I fell in love with cooking as a young adult. Through cooking I could build up a positive relationship with food again. I still have a hard time understanding the size of my body or what I see when I look in the mirror, and skipping meals is still easy. I hear similar experiences from many of my peers of damaged relationships to food and their bodies. The numbers bear out: the National Initiative for Eating Disorders reported in 2016 that up to “1,088,700 Canadians will meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder.” I took a look at the new revision of the Canadian Food Guide to see if it had any helpful suggestions.

The 2019 revision of the Canadian Food Guide is, broadly speaking, a simplification. First, the iconography. Gone is the food pyramid that I grew up with, and even its shallow 2007 successor, the food rainbow. That’s been replaced by a round, white plate; a new guide to eating. Half of the plate is neatly covered with an array of vegetables and fruit. The other half is split evenly into a quarter of whole grains and a quarter of proteins. There’s a glass of water beside the plate. The summary given is to eat whole foods (and “water should be your drink of choice). This is an improvement over the calorie and portion counting of the old guides. So far, so good. The fruits on the plate look pretty appetizing, by virtue of the natural appeal of a blueberry, or a slice of strawberry. The problem comes when you look to the rest of the plate with an eye for eating. Nothing else is seasoned! There’s nothing that shows a disconnect from eating more than the pile of plain, cooked, whole grain spaghetti with a piece of dry whole grain toast carefully balanced beside it.

The other recommendations are to spend more time preparing food, and to eat socially more often. These are also good recommendations on the surface: an over-reliance on processed quick foods will obviously be reduced if people can spend more time in the kitchen and eating nice meals with friends and family. But I’m immediately skeptical of the usefulness of this recommendation. Most people surely wouldn’t choose to make quick and cheap meals to eat alone if they could take the time to share with others. People don’t make decisions the same way over and over if there isn’t something pushing them in that direction.

In search of a greater explanation, I read the 62 page report outlining the new dietary recommendations to Health Professionals and Policy Makers. It’s a summary of current nutritional science, and is the source for the recommendations for the Food Guide’s website, or as the report calls it, “a mobile-responsive web application”.

The report continues the frustrating trend of just blaming eaters for their poor nutrition. This is a typical example of neoliberal governance: identify a problem which individuals suffer from, research, draw some broad conclusions about what needs to change, and from there abdicate responsibility for implementing any changes to the systems of food production and consumption. Instead, the report suggests that the citizens themselves be personally responsible for addressing their health concerns through entirely their own extra effort. Nowhere is there any consideration in the report of how much more expensive buying raw whole foods can be, especially when you work in the cost of the extra time needed to prepare them. Nor is there any suggestion of how difficult for an inexperienced cook it is to even navigate a grocery store, or to stock a fridge and pantry in a useful way.

I was briefly hopeful when the report brings up “changes in employment conditions (for example, irregular working hours) and to family life (for example, evolving gendered division of household labour)” as contributors to people’s alienation from food. Ultimately, it refuses to take what I feel is the necessary next step to condemn an economy which demands shift work of so many, and refuses to seek or provide a detailed interrogation of the role that a labour market so disrespecting of workers’ time has in being responsible for any crises in nutrition for individuals, families, and communities.

Only two government policy changes are specifically called for by the report. The first suggestion is to change food labeling slightly with the goal of making nutritional information and allergen contents more accessible. The other suggestion is for government snack rooms to lead the way by stocking up with healthy snacks rather than with granola bars. This cannot be enough to deal with the health problems that the report suggests that we all face from poor nutrition. Nowhere is there any mention of the continuing epidemic of eating disorders, which will impacted by the publishing of any new food guideline.

I would love to see a government that took the harmful relationship many have to food seriously as something more than just an individual’s failure through policies such as subsidized cooking classes, public cafeterias, soup kitchens, as well as strong regulations against food and diet marketing of all kinds. In the meantime, we should remember that individuals can let go of the focus on blaming ourselves for our shortcomings and struggles we may have. We are empowered when we come together as workers, students, artists, and parents and strive to organize and facilitate those institutions which our government refuses to make for us.

Sundays are a great day to have some friends over to try cooking something new. Coordinating a kitchen full of people is a big challenge, but extra hands can make following a new recipe easier. Even splitting the grocery shopping and cooking between different people can make a nice meal so much easier to manage. A little chaos is to be expected, but so are full bellies, and jolly cooperation!

Below is a poem. If you like what you read please consider sharing with a friend. As always, I’m here to chat if you have any questions. Have a great week, everybody.

notes for writing

see if there are any relevant books on the shelf

childhood roots of adult happiness et al
physiology of eating of taste
a trout fish swimming
canned cat food

something longer than intended
jumping in the swimming pool together
splash the cat is concerned about us
but runs in the grass, the joy

passing the windows
painted green around the middle, the
frame skeletal approaching
the ghost i love you
in the windows

Theodore Fox is a poet living on unceded Indigenous lands on Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal Island.
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