Fill ‘er up!

When my niece’s husband, BJ, broke his back in a work-related accident last year, their sole source of income was encased in a back brace and told to stay horizontal for about three months. Rather than send flowers and chocolates, i offered to take their grocery list to the store when i was in town taking care of something for Mom.

It seemed a reasonable list for a family of four for a week. Bread. Milk. Eggs. Orange Juice. Bologna. American Cheese slices. Generic (store-brand) cereal. Breakfast pastries and granola bars. Baby food for the one-year old. Pound of hamburger. Tortillas, a can of cooked chicken, salsa and shredded cheese. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. A bag of frozen mixed vegetables… Several more items that are considered ‘staples’ for many families. No soda. No beer. No snack foods. But also no fresh vegetables or fruit.

Carefully scavenging through the center of the grocery store, which isn’t familiar territory for me, i found each item on the list. With a shopping cart that was almost full to the top, i was stunned when the total bill for the groceries was $80. “Eight plastic shopping bags full of food for about $10/bag? That can’t be right?” On the rare occasions i do go shopping, i spend at least that much and carry home half as many bags. What the fuck?

Didn’t think much more about it until i saw “Food, Inc.” a few weeks ago. Corn is cheap. Corn is filling. Corn is in damn near everything we eat. No shortage of alarming articles on this topic are out there, but the best source of info i’ve found so far seems to be a book by Michael Pollan (2006) Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.  Corn products include: ketchup, cheese, Twinkies, batteries, peanut butter, Cheez-Its, salad dressings, Coke, jelly, Sweet & Low, syrup, juice, Kool-Aid, charcoal, diapers, Motrin, meat and fast food. It is also the main ingredient in animal feed, so it’s in damn near every bit of meat in the supermarket.

A food additive? You bet! Cellulose, Xylitol, Maltodextrin, Ethylene, Gluten, Fibersol-2, Citrus Cloud Emulsion, Inosital, Fructose, Calcium Stearate, Saccharin, Sucrose, Sorbital, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Citric Acid, Di-glycerides, Semolina, Sorbic Acid, Alpha Tocopherol, Ethyl Lactate, Polydextrose, Xantham Gum, White Vinegar, Ethel Acetate, Fumaric Acid, Ascorbic Acid, Baking Powder, Zein, Vanilla Extract, Margarine, and Starch. According to the US Department of Agriculture “Corn acreage in the United States has increased from a government-mandated low of 60.2 million planted acres in 1983 [to 87 million in 2009] due to provisions in the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996.“

Never mind that agricultural science has engineered the snot out of our current mutant corn species, and yields are about double per acre over where they were a fifty years ago. It’s a helluva lot cheaper to eat a corn-based diet, whether through cheap grain-fed beef in fast food (“Hey, Give me my fucking 99 cent tacos!”) or filling bags of starchy and mysterious “frooty loopettes”.

No real mystery that my niece is edging up well above 300 pounds, and her fourteen year old daughter is wearing “Huskaroos” from the teen shop… For the price of a dozen tacos at the drive through, you can buy a head of lettuce, 3 apples and stalk of broccoli. And guess which is gonna fill up a family of four better?

So the next time BJ breaks his back and i have a chance to do some grocery shopping for them, i might pick up a cookbook and a few more fresh items. We’ve simply made it too cheap and easy to eat shitty food…