Food Porn, the Snack Police, Control, and the Spiritual Practice of Fasting

I’ve become very interested in food.  Not as a foodie—I don’t have that gene that many people have these days, including my wife, which creates an innate desire for an endless variety of rich and interesting foods.  Sure, I’ll eat most anything.  I’ve learned (because my wife gives me no choice) to like a wide variety of ethnic foods.  I’ll stick an octopus in my mouth if I have to.  But I also could probably eat a carrot, an apple, and a peanut butter sandwich every day and not care.  I’m just not interested in working that hard for my food.  I consider the over abundance of food magazines and food blogs a kind of food porn.  In fact, C.S. Lewis made the exact analogy in Mere Christianity more than sixty years ago.  He was making the point that modern society has become over-sexualized.  Sex is natural, he argued, but we’ve overdone it with nudie mags and strip clubs and sensational TV programs.  He pondered what it would be like if the same thing happened to our natural desire for food.  Imagine if we all sat in a club somewhere while someone slowly and seductively lifted a serving lid off a steak dinner.

Sixty years later we’ve got the food network—porn for food lovers.  My wife gets more excited over the latest edition of Bon Appetite than I do when we accidentally get my neighbor’s Victoria’s Secret catalog.

Not that I’m against porn for foodies (or Victoria’s Secret).  It’s soft core.  My wife’s hobby is to read cookbooks and try new recipes, just as mine is to write songs and novels and rambling blog posts.

But food is a problem these days. Food is a problem mostly because we eat too much of it (or too little if you’re suffering from anorexia), and we get our food from the wrong places, and a lot of our food is not good for us, and, it turns out, the choices and nuances of each food debate are endlessly complicated.  Buy local.  Know your farmer.  Get organic.  Yet a recent piece in Foreign Policy by Charles Kenny pointed out all the flaws in these recent trends.  For one, buying local is not always good for the environment.  It’s better to buy products from places where production is more efficient.  Kenny writes, “New Zealand cattle eat clover from the fields while British livestock tend to rely on feed—which itself is often imported.”  Meaning that in some cases it’s four times more efficient to eat imported meat.  The same trend plays out (sometimes) with local organic crops and organic milk, which require dramatic increases in land and herd size in order to produce comparable amounts to the nonorganic varieties, which in turn destroys more land and resources while also raising prices, often making products too expensive for the poor.  Finally, buying everything local also cuts out the struggling nations that live off their agriculture industry.

Best intentions are not always best decisions.  We can’t always really know the ramifications of each choice we make.

But the debate that has really got me into food is the one regarding our children.  One third of our kids are obese, yet the government is now paying for or subsidizing roughly two thirds of our kids’ basic food intake.  Isn’t that suspicious?  At my sons’ public school, all kids are forced through the free breakfast line every morning, where they are given crappy cereal we won’t buy at home, as well as processed crackers and high sugar juice.  A majority of the kids then receive the same crap for lunch.  Then they’re told they’re getting fat.

In Chicago, some schools have banned lunches from home—because kids only bring junk.  In a district in Baltimore, parent-patrols linger on street corners by convenience stores.  They’re not looking out for drugs and gangs.  They’re looking for soda and hot chips, trying to stop the kids from loading up on junk before and after school.

Yet we still can’t seem to stop kids from getting fat.  Shouldn’t it be fairly easy?  Just stop all the junk food ads and give kids access to healthy options.  Right?

Wrong.

Another article in the Washington Post (“Skepticism About Healthy Eating Campaigns”) dispels five common food-health myths:  1. poor people lack access to good food; so why are there healthy poor and unhealthy rich.  2. advertising tricks kids into making bad choices; but do we really need ads to convince kids that candy is better than broccoli. 3.  eating healthy is too expensive; not if you eat bananas, beans, and rice. 4. people will make better choices with better information; come on, I still eat Big Macs, and I know that it’s made of crappy crap.

What’s left?  Send the marines in to clear out the junk aisles and greasy spoons?

Again, a bit of a digression—but there’s something strange in all of this.  What is the bottom line from a mystified mystic’s perspective?  Food porn.  Food police.  Food myths.  Buy local, sometimes, unless it’s killing poor people.  What to do?

The irony, I think, is that even though America is the land of the free—and we hate when people take away our choices—we are also the land of control.  We like to have control.  We have this ingrained belief that we can stop bad stuff from happening, and when we don’t, we want to blame someone.  I’ll never forget my first trip abroad to Germany.  I was shocked by the lack of safety procedures on trains and street cars.  Doors slammed shut without warning.  Huge, child-sized gaps were left unwatched on landings.  Kids roamed the streets with beers in their hands.  Later, I would go to the third world and marvel at the utter chaos.  Open manholes on sidewalks outside schools.  Kids sitting on the tops of buses and trains.

In the US of A those are all lawsuits waiting to happen.  And aren’t lawsuits just a way of trying to control the uncontrollable?

Control.  Things are out of control and we’re trying desperately to bring them back.  We have too much, think too much, and argue too much about food (oh yeah, and we eat too much too).

Perhaps America could benefit from a good dose of letting go.  Spiritual masters—and new age coffee table book writers (and whimsical bloggers)—all agree that in the micro-problems of our personal lives, giving up or letting go is often the first step to health.  And, of course, that’s the entire theory behind Give Up and Die.

Would the same work for our economy, our health crisis, our environmental issues?  Or have we dug our pit so deep now that at this point, we need control.  We need the government to step in and tell our kids what to eat.  We need to be told.  We need clear laws banning advertising to kids.  We need to ban happy meals and Tony the Tiger.

I do not know.  I struggle every day with what I eat and what my kids eat and what is right and what is not.

What I do know, is that on the personal level, spiritual practices were designed as a way to open us up to the complications of the universe.  And maybe that’s the answer, not to get smarter about the problem, but deeper.

As a spiritual practice, I’ve started experiment with fasting.  In a few weeks, when I complete my two month experiment, I’ll be writing a full post on its effects.  But for now, I have noticed that the act of giving up food, even for a little bit (one fast a week) has changed my relationship with food.  Having that short period of chosen scarcity, especially when surrounded by the food abundance of America, has opened small windows into the nature of desire and control.  It has also given me the slightest hint of empathy for those who live with hunger constantly.

So perhaps the answer to America’s abundance is a good old dose of classic spiritual discipline.  Try a day without food.  Tell no one.  Spiritual disciplines should not be about advertising virtues.  In fact, dress up and be happier than ever.  See what happens.

Give Up (all that is not essential) And (remember you will) Die, you’ll be glad you did.

Also, learn more about Give Up and Die here.

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