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How the Pandemic Is Changing the Way We Eat

This episode looks at food production and how it's being impacted by the coronavirus

People eating at a table full of food

Getty Images/AARP

Mike Ellison:

It pays to be aware of the things we eat. It can help us live longer, and it can help the environment. Today, we take a deep dive into food production, it's history, and how COVID-19 is changing the way we eat. Later, we'll discuss a few book recommendations to add to your pandemic reading list.

Wilma Consul:

Hi, I'm Wilma Consul.

Mike Ellison:

And, I'm Mike Ellison, with an AARP take on today.

Wilma Consul:

The evolution of food in America, the way we eat, and bake food has changed drastically since after World War II. What we consume today is very different from what our parents and our grandparents enjoyed at dinner tables and celebrations. Ruth Reichl is of a generation that has seen this firsthand. In her career as a food writer and chef, she has critiqued restaurants for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. She also was the last editor in chief of Gourmet Magazine. Hers is an important perspective on the nation's food scene.

Wilma Consul:

Miss Reichl has just written an article for AARP The Magazine called, The Changing American Table, where she walks us through the history of food production in the United States. She begins at the start of the Cold War, when small, local farms were being gobbled up by bigger, more efficient farms that used machines, nitrate rich fertilizer, and antibiotics, to produce food more quickly.

Ruth Reichl:

The main thing that we all have to understand is that at the end of the Second World War, it became American government policy to make our food as cheap as possible. It was decided at the highest levels that one way to fight the Cold War was for America to have the cheapest, most abundant food possible. In getting to that place, we completely changed the way we farm, the way we manufacture food, and what became the highest calling was efficiency.

Wilma Consul:

After the war, mechanization became a bigger part of the food production process.

Ruth Reichl:

It came at great expense. They converted the leftover munitions factories into fertilizer. And, fertilizer, the widespread use of fertilizer, created what was called the green revolution. At the same time, they started getting rid of inefficient animals on farms. I mean, farms used to have horse-drawn, and oxen-drawn vehicles. They changed the feed so that animals grew faster. Basically, our food became totally industrialized.

Wilma Consul:

In the fifties, Americans filled their freezers with instant meals, fish sticks and tater tots. When women started entering the workforce in record numbers in the sixties, the ready made dinners and snacks hit the market. The seventies gave way to the granola decade, farmer's markets, recycling and Yo plait yogurt. The eighties with food scarce and warnings for salmonella and mad cow disease, forced Americans to pay attention to the safety of their food ways. In the nineties, food television started a trend of cooking, and foodies and chefs became cool. Today, food production is faster than ever, but Reichl says people are starting to understand how and what we eat matters.

Ruth Reichl:

What we really have to understand is what that cost us in terms of our health and the wellbeing of the land. It was a radical, radical change. The other thing that happened was that we all lost a connection to the farm. When I was growing up, everybody knew someone who farmed. A quarter of the population was involved in farming, and people knew farmers. They knew where their food came from. And, in the course of my lifetime, we all lost that connection with food. I literally was talking, and I'm sure that you see this all the time, I was talking to a group of school children in New York about 10 years ago and I held up a cucumber and one little boy said to me, "What is that?" He'd never seen fresh food. That is a major, major change.

Wilma Consul:

You mentioned it a little bit. When we talk about food, we can not not talk about health. You're right that Americans have really suffered from the decline of how we produce food. Is it because of economics, education, or the policy that you're talking about?

Ruth Reichl:

Well, it's the policy and its economics. If you want to make food really, really inexpensive, if you want to be able to sell pork for a dollar a pound, if you're a farmer, you can't grow... you can't raise a pig for a dollar a pound, but if you want to sell it, it means that you have to essentially turn pigs into industrial creatures who are raised in... The animals, the industrial meat that we eat, those animals never see the light of day. They live in factories, essentially. And, they're raised on the least amount of food for the fastest possible growth. In my grandparents' day, it took months and months and months to raise a chicken. We now raise chickens in six weeks. What you lose is you lose nutrition, you lose the nutritive value.

Wilma Consul:

You mentioned in your article that food television has really been one of the most effective ways that has changed the way people eat, cook, and buy food.

Ruth Reichl:

It has changed the way Americans look at food in, I think, a really wonderful way. Anthony Bourdain really changed the way we think about what food television could be. He connected food to people, to culture, to politics. I grew up in a country that really didn't pay any attention to food, at all. My parents never wanted to talk about food, they weren't interested in food. They knew nothing about where what they were eating came from. We now have a generation of people who were raised on food television, and who understand that their food choices really matter, and who want to know what's in that. Who are interested in the farmers. Who are interested in how the animals are raised. Who are interested in the fact that we have, basically, fished out all the wild fish in the ocean, and that if we don't let the ocean recover, their children will never taste a wild fish. They'll only have farmed fish. They care about these things in a way that previous generations didn't, and that's really hopeful.

Wilma Consul:

Ruth, you've been seeped in this for a while. In writing this piece, did you learn anything new that you didn't know before?

Ruth Reichl:

Oh my God. I learned so much. I can't tell you how much I learned in writing this. It was a wonderful education for me. And, I think that the biggest thing I learned, and it's a little depressing, because, for the 50 years that I've been writing about food, I've been saying, "We can change it, we vote with our dollars." And, the thing I've really learned is how much government policy matters. The entire food system really depends on how the government decides they're going to support, agriculture and every other part of the food industry. And, if we want to make real change, that's where it comes from.

Ruth Reichl:

The other thing that I really... I knew this, but I didn't accept it as strongly as I now do, which is that, eating is learned behavior. We teach our children how to eat. And, the most important thing we can do is ensure that our children, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren learn to eat really good food at a very young age.

Wilma Consul:

We're in this pandemic right now. While it has disrupted the American food supply, it also made people do things they've never done before, especially in the kitchen. They're baking, they're gardening, cooking. I can see Facebook posts of their harvest and their cooking from their garden. How do you think American food production and consumption will change after the pandemic?

Ruth Reichl:

I am very hopeful. I think that the good thing that has happened in this pandemic is that the family dinner came back. People were holed up with their families, they had to cook, they cooked with their kids. If you lived in an area where there were farmers, you went to the farm to buy your food. I think we all have a renewed respect for the people who produce our food, for cooking itself. One of the things that, when you don't cook very much, cooking starts to seem difficult. The more you cook, the more you realize it's really simple. So, all these months that people have been home cooking for their family, turning themselves into cooks, that is great. And, it's going to change America. I am convinced that we will come out of this better cooks. We will understand what it means to sit down together, and break bread together. What happens across the table when people slow down, share a meal, and actually take the time to speak to one another.

Ruth Reichl:

What happens with your kids at that table? What happens when, instead of somebody running in and... Everybody eats at a different time, because everybody's schedules are so busy. The kids have band practice, and football practice, and mom's work. And, everybody's coming home and sticking things in the microwave. And, I think we have all learned that there's something really extraordinary happens when you sit down at a table with people that you care about, and share a meal.

Wilma Consul:

Ruth Reichl is an author, and was a restaurant critic for The LA Times, The New York Times, and the editor in chief of Gourmet, a beloved, and sorely missed magazine. Her latest memoir is, Save Me The Plums. You can find her article, The Changing American Table in AARP, the magazine's August and September issue. Ruth Reichl, it's been a pleasure speaking with you.

Ruth Reichl:

Thank you. It was totally my pleasure. Thank you so much.

Jodi Lipson:

Scams or fraud can happen to anyone, and can increase during a crisis. The AARP fraud watch network helpline is here for you. Our trained fraud specialists can help you know what to do next, and how to avoid scams in the future. Protect what's yours. Contact the AARP fraud watch network helpline today at, (877) 908-3360.

Mike Ellison:

A good book can provide comfort, inspiration, or a needed escape during difficult times. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, it might be a great time to start your reading list. If you don't know where to start, Jodi Lipson says, she can be your guide. Jody is director of AARP books, which means that she reads a lot, a lot, a lot, and chooses which books are going to be the most useful to 50 plus readers. Thanks for being here, Jodi, it's nice to meet you.

Jodi Lipson:

Nice to meet you, too.

Mike Ellison:

Do you find that with so many people staying home, more people are turning back to books?

Jodi Lipson:

The print book industry isn't doing quite as well, but the ebook industry is. And, I don't know about you, but I'm reading more. The 50 plus demographic are big readers, and they are really thinking about a lot of things, and working things out, and looking to books for that.

Mike Ellison:

What are some books that you are particularly excited about?

Jodi Lipson:

This year we've come out with a couple of really great, and really timely books. Of course, not knowing that the pandemic was going to happen. One of my favorites, it's, Love and Meaning After 50, the 10 Challenges to Great Relationships and How to Overcome Them. This was a book written by Barry Jacobs, who is a caregiving expert for AARP. And, he and his wife, Julia Mayer, are both therapists. And, they had, a couple of years ago, written a book for me called, Meditations for Caregivers. And, it's just this lovely book with over a hundred pages of meditations and calming and life affirming. Because, when you're a caregiver, things are really tough. This time they came to me and they said, "Well, we want to do a book about relationships, and would AARP like to publish that book?" So, we talked to a publisher, and they agreed to publish this book.

Jodi Lipson:

When we just came out with it, and Barry and Julie are just this beautiful, loving couple. This summer, we were fortunate enough, Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue did a cover story for AARP the Magazine. And, we asked them if they would do a tele town hall for our members, and they did. And, they invited Julie and Barry to be on the tele town hall with them. You can search AARP's website and find this tele town hall [crosstalk 00:15:25] relationships. So, here you have Phil and Marlo telling these beautiful stories of celebrity couples that they highlighted in their new book, complimented by Julie and Barry telling what they have learned, in their experiences, in their practice, and how to overcome challenges. It's perfect timing of course, because, I don't know about you, but it's very... you get closer, living in quarantine, with your family. But, it'll get a little irritating. So, Julia and Barry's book really can walk you through these challenges that we're having.

Mike Ellison:

It is a blessing to spend more time with family. I'm fortunate, I'm around a lot of pleasant people these days. That part of my life is pretty blissful. For the people who are worried about their parents or even caretakers, do you have any uplifting books for anyone that needs a little boost right now?

Jodi Lipson:

The best one is the one I mentioned, which was that, Meditation's for Caregivers. Okay. Also, just came out with another really important book. It's called, Disrupting the Status Quo of Senior Living, a Mind Shift. This book actually has won three awards this year. It's such a powerful book. It's written by a woman, Jill Vitale-Aussem, who has worked in the senior living industry for many, many years. She recently took over as CEO of The Eden Alternative, which looks at alternative ways of living for seniors. And, usually the model that we use in senior living is, what can we do for you? You know, let's make a beautiful dinner, here's a chandelier over your dining room, isn't this a beautiful place to live, let me help you, what can I do for you? And her message is, we need to feel like our lives are meaningful.

Jodi Lipson:

We need to feel like we're giving. And, there's a different way to give that kind of dignity to people that are in senior living. For me, we were working on this book when I had to make some difficult decisions about my mother, and Jill, the author, really helped me look at it in a different way, what my mother needed. So, I ended up finding this facility, and she takes care not to use the word facility, actually, and she uses the word community. I mean, who would want to live in a facility?

Mike Ellison:

No one. No one that I know.

Jodi Lipson:

Right. You want to live in a community. And, I found a place where they treated my mother with so much love and respect. So, that's Disrupting the Status Quo of Senior Living.

Mike Ellison:

Okay. You mentioned the meditation's address mental and physical health, which is very top of mind for people right now. Are there any other books in that realm that go a little bit deeper, or is the one that you mentioned the one that you would recommend most?

Jodi Lipson:

Well, actually, we're very excited about two books that are coming up. One is by Sanjay Gupta. It's coming out on January 5th. It's called, Keep Sharp. In this book, Sanjay Gupta tells us how to keep our brains at their optimal, how to possibly ward off Alzheimer's disease and dementia. We were so excited that, actually, Sanjay came to AARP and asked us if we would do this book with him, and we are absolutely thrilled. And, obviously, since then, he's really become a household name. The second book we're really excited about is called, Diet for Grownups. This book won't be coming out for a while, at least another year.

Jodi Lipson:

It's written by Steve [Poryne 00:19:42], who's behind the Eat This Not That series. He's written a couple of diet books that have become New York Times best seller. I'm not going to give away the diet, because that will be coming out when we publish the book. But, there is actually no diet for people over 50. But, recent science has shown that our bodies are very different, and have very different needs. So, we need to be looking at diet in a different way. Also, the benefits of diet are not just physical. Yesterday, I just read that obesity is a risk factor for COVID-19, and all sorts of cancer, and heart disease, and diabetes. So, this book is going to be really helpful for a lot of people.

Mike Ellison:

Jodie, we talked a little bit about mental and physical health. You talked about, keeping [inaudible 00:20:41] that's coming, and diet, and how that impacts the body. But, what about from an exercise standpoint? Is there any book in that realm that you can recommend for people?

Jodi Lipson:

We actually have an ideal book for that. And, that is a book that just came out this summer. It's called, Yoga for Dummies. It's really for, not just dummies, but anybody, if you've been practicing, and you want to strengthen your program, or you want to start yoga. The beautiful thing about this is it's written by Larry Payne, Dr. Larry Payne, who founded the International Association of Yoga Therapists. He has this lens of how to do yoga without getting hurt. Because, he talks in his book about how people actually end up in the emergency room, because [inaudible 00:00:21:33]. And, he talks about how this is great for relaxation, and stretching, and even fighting off COVID, it builds up your immune system. And, he has over 45 poses. And alternative ways to do things, so that no matter what your body is, no matter how strong you are, if you have weak spots, if you have a chronic condition, if you're trying to avoid a specific injury, or favor this leg, or that leg, he has the answer for you. He is such a gentle soul, and you can feel it through the book.

Mike Ellison:

Jodi Lipson is director of AARP books. You can go to aarp.org/bookstore to find the latest offerings. If you liked this episode, please comment on our podcast page at aarp.org/podcast, or email us at newspodcastataarp.org. Big thanks to our news team, producers Colby Nelson, and Danny Alarcon, production assistant, Brigid Lowney, engineer Julio Gonzalez, executive producer, Jason Young. And of course our cohost Bob Edwards.

Wilma Consul:

For an AARP Take on Today, I'm Wilma Consul.

Mike Ellison:

And, I'm Mike Ellison.

Today, we take a deep dive into food production in the U.S., its history and how COVID-19 is changing the way we eat with renowned restaurant critic Ruth Reichl. And later, we discuss a few book recommendations to add to your pandemic reading list.

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