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Understanding Our Food Choices

USF researchers discuss the food supply, from health issues and trends to how our environment and culture shape our choices.

By Kim Franke-Folstad

Picture of food with a clock laying on a table

For a few remaining cultures, living off the land is a way of life. In good times and bad, they feast or subsist on what the earth provides. Hunting, fishing, trapping, gathering. It isn't necessarily a choice. It's how they've always existed. Thousands of years ago, most people lived this way, and it took commitment. Hunters often came home empty-handed. Hunter gatherer bands and tribes moved frequently because the land was depleted.

Agriculture, which came about because of climate changes and increasing populations in some areas, slowed the nomadic way of life and led to more permanent settlements – there was now a reliable food supply of crops that would grow and of animals that were easy to domesticate, depending on where you were in the world. Farming offered more food security, but it wasn't easy. Still isn't. The days are long, dirty and physical. And the outcome is always iffy. 

And yet, it seems, more and more of us want to go back to gathering our own food, sowing our own seeds, and eating as we imagine a forager or a farmer would. There's the paleo movement, the slow food movement, the farm-to-table movement, the push for more community gardens, and the increasing popularity of farmers markets. Partly, it's born of a nostalgia for simpler times and a desire to be more environmentally friendly. But most people will tell you that, for them, it's about making more healthful decisions – taking control of what, where and how well they eat.

Growing it yourself

Sara Dykins Callahan '99, MA '03 and PhD '10, has taught Introduction to Food Studies to USF undergraduates for seven years, and she says the course has never been more popular. The class covers the historical and contemporary relationships between people and the food they produce and consume and includes plenty of reading and research. But the big draw for students is the hands-on component. Every spring, they head to the USF Botanical Gardens and get their hands – and feet and faces – dirty as they grow their own organic produce. It's labor-intensive, frustrating and time-consuming, and the students love it, says Dykins Callahan, a senior instructor in USF's Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies and director of food studies.

"Nothing tastes better than cucumbers and carrots you grow yourself," she says. They also see what it costs to get those crops started, even for their small harvest. They know the disappointment when things don't come out the way they expected because of weather, insects or disease.

USF is among nearly 400 colleges and universities across the country offering food studies, sustainable agriculture or agroecology courses and programs. This resurgence of going back to the land is more than just casual interest; it can also boost employment. The U.S. Department of Agriculture puts the median age for farmers and ranchers at about 56 years old, but says college graduates with expertise in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources, or the environment will find good job opportunities. Besides offering careers in the food industry, many courses are aimed toward meeting the intense demand for greater insight into how our food happens.

Male student holding up baby carrot

Students in Dykins Callahan's course learn where and how food is produced and consumed, the ethics and politics tied to food systems, and how to affect change if they choose to do so. In the past couple of years, she says, those topics have become more mainstream. Now students are taking the class because they're interested in food studies as a cultural phenomenon.

"I try not to preach," she says. "I try to give them tools that will be useful all their lives." Occasionally she runs into students a year or two after they've been in the class and they'll tell her how much it impacted their lives. All those terms that once were just buzzwords – organic, sustainable, local, GMO and GMO-free – now have meaning. They're eating better and feeling better.

Whole class in garden

Sara Dykins Callahan's Introduction to Food Studies students learn how to build a working vegetable garden from planting to harvest. Interest in the class reflects an interest in healthy, locally grown produce and an interest in back to the land. The course is taught in USF's Botanical Gardens every spring.

Progress or marketing?

Picture yourself on a Disney-like ride that takes you – in just a few entertaining and educational minutes – from being a mom who gathers berries, to a mom who grows berries, to a mom who preserves berries, to a mom who buys frozen berries at the grocery store or makes berry muffins out of a box, to a mom who buys berry smoothies at McDonald's for her kids to drink with their burgers.

Progress? Or savvy marketing?

It's tempting to attribute the relatively recent shifts in what and how we eat to advertising, says Laurel Graham, an associate professor and associate chair in USF's Department of Sociology. But another, often overlooked, factor is the "scientization" of homemaking from about 1910 onward, Graham says. In her book on Dr. Lillian Gilbreth, Graham says the key goal of the famous industrial psychologist (and mother of the Cheaper by the Dozen children) was to improve women's daily lives, in part by introducing labor-saving devices and ready-made products. And that included prepared foods.

Throughout the mid-century, "home economics curricula and popular media pictured ready-made foods as indicators of the modernization of homemaking," Graham says. "Frozen dinners, like Swanson's TV Dinner were marketed in the 1950s in tandem with a growing sense that women should be able to engage in meaningful activities – including paid work outside the home. The TV Dinner would make her new freedom possible."

The rapid rise of fast food also was emblematic of these social shifts, Graham says. Increasingly, prepared, heavily processed foods became a staple of the American diet, with advertising pushing the popularity of the latest trends. According to the USDA's Economic Research Service, in 1970, 25.9 percent of all food spending was on food away from home. By 2012, that share rose to its highest level of 43.1 percent.

During that period, between 1977-78 and 2005-2008, U.S. consumption of food prepared away from home increased from 18 percent to 32 percent of total calories. And overall, the food was higher in what Americans over-consume (such as fat and saturated fat) and lower in what we under-consume (calcium, fiber and iron).

Despite the convenience and "coolness" of fast foods, modern consumers haven't been completely fooled into thinking they're getting the same kind of nutritious meals their grandmas or great-grandmas used to make. A 2013 Gallup poll found that about 76 percent of Americans were aware these foods were "not too good" or "not good at all for you." That response, Graham says, inspired a research question: Why do people engage in eating behavior they know isn't healthy?

Graham, USF associate professor Jennifer Friedman, and graduate and undergraduate student researchers are looking at how families reconcile their food practices with their food knowledge and ideals. "We have been surprised by the depth of our respondents' knowledge about food," Graham says. "And yet, the intense time and budget pressures faced by many families mean that, quite often, they grab something for dinner on the way home from work or afterschool activities." 

The children they spoke with (ages 8 to 15) also are aware of the food pyramid and its successor MyPlate and the types of food they should be eating, she says. Some attend schools where gardening is part of the curriculum and others participate in gardening with their families through community or home gardens. "These kids can sound almost nostalgic about growing food for yourself and they readily list the arguments about how fresh, organic produce is better for the Earth and for human beings," Graham says. "At the same time, they admit they often crave foods high in salt, fat and sugar."

Children also provided the most brutally honest insights into the social dimensions of food choice, Graham says. Middle-class kids in the study described the "cool" foods that other children in the school lunchroom prefer. Some children of immigrants felt uncomfortably conspicuous eating the ethnic foods packed in their lunchboxes; they complained about how their parents wouldn't purchase Lunchables and other American packaged foods for them to bring to school.

"Children knew they were a reflection of their parents' food values and they sometimes resented this," she says. "Interestingly, our USF student researchers from immigrant families also often recalled a time when they were embarrassed by the ethnic foods their parents expected them to eat. They now look back on these moments of feeling excluded and insecure, and realize their parents were trying to instill a sense of pride in the culture of their home country, and also to share a love for their particular cuisine with their children."

You eat where you are

Roberta Baer, a professor in USF's Department of Anthropology, has seen similar results as she and assistant professor Dillon Mahoney, along with USF graduate students, study the dietary and health issues of Congolese and Burmese refugees who have relocated to Tampa. 

The Burmese adults, Baer says, mostly stick with their traditional diet, which includes rice, green vegetables and a little meat. And their children follow this diet on the weekend. But during the week, when the kids eat breakfast and lunch at school, "They're getting this barrage of American food."

The children were making some good choices, she says. They were eating the chicken fingers and pizza offered at school, but they added a salad and fresh fruit. Unfortunately, they also were drinking flavored milk and juice. And at home, they were getting those same liquid calories – plus plenty of junk food snacks their parents were purchasing to help their kids transition to the American way of life. 

Baer says that, although both the adults' and children's growth had been stunted by years spent in refugee camps where they weren't getting enough calories or nutritious foods, now the children are packing on pounds with their new American diet and the adults aren't getting enough exercise.

"We have a recipe here for all kinds of illness that we're seeing in the American population as a whole. There's obesity and diabetes," Baer says. "In the American population, this has been going on over a period of 20, 30 years. For the refugees, it's been about five years."The research team replicated the study with Congolese refugees and had similar results. "It's a condensed version of what's happening in America," Baer says.

Whether you're a Congolese refugee who can't find the cassava to make your traditional ugali, or an urban dad who has to drag bags of heavy produce home on the city bus, if it's too tough to get what you want, you tend to settle. It's difficult to pass up a cardboard "bucket" with eight pieces of fried chicken, a large cole slaw, four biscuits and two large mashed potatoes with gravy for $20 rather than plan, buy, prep and cook and clean up from a meal. Convenience wins the day.

And, apparently, it has ever been thus. Even thousands of years ago. One example: When analyzing the skeletal remains of ancient Native Americans in Florida, archaeologists learned that those on the Gulf side ate far more seafood than those on the Atlantic side. "The explanation I've come up with has to do with the basics of how you go and collect the fish," says Robert Tykot, a professor in USF's Department of Anthropology. On the Gulf side, you can walk hundreds of yards into shallow water, set up your nets and return later for your meal. On the Atlantic side, where the water is deeper and the waves are higher, the fishing wasn't so easy, Tykot says.

And in the middle of the state? "They didn't eat seafood, indicating they were happy with what was locally available year-round." We often think of many Native Americans as being mobile – they may have lived mostly in one area, but perhaps for three months in the winter they traveled to one coast or the other for access to better eats. "But basically, what we've found so far, at least starting 1,500 years ago, is they were pretty much there year-round and not eating any saltwater fish," Tykot says.

Health risks of modern life

They say you are what you eat – and, it seems, most people eat where they are. Seeking food security by planting and replanting the same crops year after year, early farmers lost nutritional diversity in their crops and in the soil that grew the crops. Seeking convenience, city dwellers and mid-century suburbanites gave up diverse selection of farm-fresh produce, and both groups turned more to processed foods.

That shift – along with less physical activity – is contributing to an epidemic of obesity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 70.7 percent of U.S. adults age 20 and over are overweight or obese. And related health risks, including diabetes, heart disease and some cancers, are costing the country a fortune.

The Trust for America's Health reports that by 2030, medical costs associated with treating preventable obesity-related diseases are estimated to increase by $48 billion to $66 billion per year in the United States, and the loss in economic productivity could be between $390 billion and $580 billion annually by 2030. Although the medical cost of adult obesity in the United States is difficult to calculate, estimates range from $147 billion to nearly $210 billion yearly. 

Anna Dixon is instructor of anthropology in the Department of Society, Culture and Language at USF St. Petersburg. A significant portion of her course – Food, Health, and Culture – includes current data on the meteoric rise of Type 2 diabetes in this country and across the globe. Offering perspective, she paints the picture like this: The International Diabetes Federation notes that while there are about 320 million people in the United States, worldwide 415 million people now live with diabetes. In 2000, that global number was 151 million. 

"The lack of diversity in our diets and our lack of physical activity means that, metabolically, we just put on fat," Dixon says. "And Type 2 diabetes is based, in part, on us being overweight. There's a phrase that sums it up: When feast or famine becomes only feast, that's when the problem kicks in. And that's exactly where we are now." 

We know all this is a problem. And we want to do better, but it's hard. We've evolved to crave sugar, salt and fat that were scarce in the past but now our foods are full of them. "Fat and sugar trigger a very ancient reward center in our brains," Dixon says. "We are very hardwired to want them and we get a huge payoff from the calorie-dense foods. They're very comforting and we feel better when we eat them."

Even with the best intentions – and much input from consumer health news – we can go off course. Take for example, the debate over farmed vs. wild salmon. Most experts recommend going for the wild – which has added nutritional value and lower saturated fats – if it's available and you can afford it. But you shouldn't give up eating salmon if you can only get farmed fish. Eating more of either kind should lead to an improvement in your intake of the omega-3 fatty acids, which can protect against heart disease, stroke and rheumatoid arthritis. 

The same holds true for organic produce. If the cost of that carton of organic strawberries is going to eat up your entire produce budget, skip it, says Cecilia Nunes, an associate professor in USF's Department of Cell Biology, Microbiology and Molecular Biology. Better to have non-organic broccoli, snap beans and berries than just that one pricey organic choice.

And don't be fooled at the farmers market. The produce you see may or may not be organic or locally grown, so it pays to know the vendors and what's in season. (In Florida, you can go to for information.)

Don't drop your guard at the grocery store, either. Food retailers know we want produce that's pretty, Nunes says. But a lot of nutrition opportunity is lost through waste in the effort to display only beautiful bounty every day. Even the pretty ones are lower in nutrients than what our grandparents ate. In the Organic Center's 2007 report Still No Free Lunch, food scientists compared the nutritional levels of modern crops with historic ones. They found modern-day foods produced 10 to 25 percent less iron, zinc, protein, calcium, vitamin C and other nutrients.

Add to the mix that our produce often travels great distances to get to our grocery and these losses can be huge, especially if transportation and distribution aren't optimal. "Agriculture is unpredictable," she says. "It's too hot. There's too much rain. But retailers have to get their produce from somewhere."

That could mean those lovely fruits and vegetables are shipped across the county in refrigerated trucks, whether it's good for them or not. (The strawberries won't mind, but the eggplant and other tropicals will.) And many times produce is picked ahead of optimum ripeness, which means less nutrition, to allow for transportation. The longer we wait to eat our produce, the more nutritional value and flavor is lost – up to 50 percent of the vitamin C, Nunes says.

To break the chain, we need to educate consumers and retailers, Nunes says. If local strawberries are in season, don't buy something that's shipped in from far away. "And why not use ugly fruit?" she asks. There's good nutrition in them, despite their appearance. 

Will the ugly produce movement be the next cool thing? In the United States, according to the National Resources Defense Council, 48 percent of the produce we buy is thrown away. In Europe, and some parts of the United States, people are starting to choose the twisted carrot, the contorted cucumber, the dented apples and pears. They've learned that despite these imperfections, produce still tastes delicious.

It's an important step in reducing waste, and getting more produce to people who need it. "It's sad, what we lose between harvest and houses," Nunes says.

Going back to go forward

If advertising and food fads got us into this dietary disaster – at least in part – couldn't they be part of a positive evolution that gets us out? And if restaurants and fast-food joints are motivated by demand to sell more locally sourced and nutritious foods, who cares if they're cashing in on a trend?

As long as that's what you're really getting. Unfortunately, for some, "getting fresh" is more of a marketing ploy than a true change, says marketing expert Dipayan Biswas, a professor in USF's Muma College of Business.

Those locally sourced and farm-to-table restaurants we all love are often selling a story that's inflated or misleading, he says. The "fresh cut" apples in your child's Happy Meal are sliced and packaged off-site. And the good feelings you get from Chipotle's "local grower initiative" might be offset by the knowledge that your burrito has about 1,000 calories.

But you know what? That's kind of on us. These days, you just have to do a little Googling to get calorie counts, nutrition information, and good or bad reviews. The same social media outlets that help consumers find food trends can help them make more informed decisions, says Joe Askren, PhD '17, a professor at the College of Hospitality and Tourism Leadership at USF Sarasota-Manatee and a certified executive chef.

"A person in the middle of nowhere, who normally wouldn't be exposed to what's new and tasty and good for you, can now see what people are eating across the world," Askren says. "It gives 'word of mouth' a whole new meaning," as people seek those ingredients they just read about and raise the bar for what's expected in their own communities."

Biswas, whose research has included sensory marketing, behavior judgement and decision-making, and healthful consumption related to foods and beverages, says "consumer preferences can shape business practices and if consumers prefer fresh, healthy foods, businesses would respond accordingly."

Increasingly, young people ask for those changes, Nunes says. "New generations are much more aware of the benefits of a balanced diet, including fresh fruit and vegetables," she says. "They're smarter than us. A lot of the things we did, they don't do it."

Today's youngsters generally get more education and firsthand experience with the good stuff. Graham, who participated recently in an externally funded research project with USF's Friedman and Rebecca Zarger, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, as well as a handful of graduate and undergraduate students, found the community garden phenomenon accomplishes some key goals.

"It brings children and parents to a new understanding of where food comes from and why organically grown fruits and vegetables are better for the environment and for our bodies," Graham says. "Children in the Tampa Heights community are learning not only diverse methods of gardening, but also how to prepare, present and market healthy foods within their own community.

While community and school gardens are often portrayed as prime instruments for improving the diets of people living in food deserts, the group found that, generally, the food grown there is only supplemental to family diets and only when in season. "The primary functions of this community garden seem to be in fortifying neighborhood solidarity and in training children and youth in an array of high-demand occupations generated by the healthy, organic foods movement," Graham says.

Gardening also clearly represents a license to spend time communing with nature and has been shown to improve both mental and physical health in unexpected ways, she says. "Reconnecting with gardening and whole foods is, in a way, like reconnecting with an agrarian past, where many of our ancestors sustained their families." We are farming again, and regaining that connection with the land.

tomato seedlings

Hed: Want more information? Here's a reading list from our experts:

Food and Culture: A Reader
By Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik; Routledge, 2012

The Global Food System: Issues and Solutions
By William D. Schanbacher, editor; Praeger Publishing, 2014

More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave
By Ruth Schwartz Cowan; Basic Books, 1983

Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market
By Susan Strasser; Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989

Color Atlas of Postharvest Quality of Fruits and Vegetables
Edited by M. Cecilia Nunes; Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2008

Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal
By Tristram Stuart; W.W. Norton & Co, 2009

A History of Food
By Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat; Wiley-Blackwell
Publishing, 2009

The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating
By Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon; Random House, 2007

Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition, and Health
By Marion Nestle; University of California Press, 2002

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
By Michael Pollan; Penguin Press, 2008