Society's Health Reflects Changing Food Culture

Society's Health Reflects Changing Food Culture

By Jaclyn Tan
(Based on interviews by Nicole Konen and Jaclyn Tan)

Food culture defines what people think about food, and is shaped by one's upbringing. It encompasses what one knows about food based on experiences such as what mom made for dinner or what grandma baked for Thanksgiving. "All of us, no matter where we're from, how we got here, we all have a food culture," said Georgia Jones, associate professor of nutrition and health sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

But American food culture has changed, Jones said, in such a way that today, most Americans don't know a lot about food or food preparation. Combined with the time crunch from hectic schedules, Americans today are more sedentary, are eating more processed foods and are not consuming enough fresh fruits and vegetables. These practices, Jones said, have contributed partially to rising levels of obesity and diet-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.

What frustrates some people is that having a balanced diet requires knowledge of what nutrients are in different kinds of foods and how to consume these nutrients. "I think a lot of times people want to know what to eat," she said. "And it's not as simple as that, because there's no one way to do it. I think it's about moderation, it's about eating some of what you enjoy, but a lot of it is learning to cook."

Through her appointment as an associate professor and an Extension food specialist, Jones helps people discover the joys of preparing their own meals and learn how to eat a balanced diet without cutting out anything completely.

Two-income households changed U.S. food culture

Dramatic increases in obesity rates within the last 20 years hint at changes in U.S. food culture. In a 2009-2010 national survey, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that 36 percent of American adults are obese. For children and adolescents, that number was 17 percent.

In a family, it used to be that only one parent worked and the other could have time to cook and teach children about cooking and nutrition, Jones said. But with the increase of two-income households, where both parents work, there is little or no time to cook. Add to that the fact that home economics has been eliminated from most schools- because of budget cuts or because administrators believed it wasn't important- and "there's just no place for kids to learn to cook anymore," she said.

But Jones does understand that people often don't have time or energy to cook after a long work day. "Most people cannot spend two hours after work to prepare dinner," she said. In fact, most people probably spend about 30 minutes preparing food for dinner, she added.

That's why Jones promotes these kinds of easy-to-prepare, nutritious recipes in brochures on UNL Extension's dedicated food website and on her blog, Discover Foods. "It has to be relatively easy to do because most people probably, I would say, spend less than 30 minutes on dinner," she said. Jones said she tries to work in whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables into her recipes.

Processed foods and larger portions

Georgia Jones in the testing kitchenBecause people cook less, food companies also have taken advantage of busier schedules to promote pre-packaged, convenience foods such as frozen dinners, frozen chicken strips, frozen pizzas, instant macaroni and cheese and other similar products. There's nothing wrong with eating those foods once in a while, Jones said, but high consumption of these foods could lead to diet-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. That's because these processed foods are usually higher in fats, salt, sugar and calories, she said.

Food portions also have increased. Restaurant meal portions often are double what an average healthy adult should consume, but most people don't realize that. Things like sodas, which Jones said used to be a treat in her lifetime, have become an everyday food and have almost doubled in portion size. "Soda used to be 8, 12 ounces," she said, "and you know, a 20-ounce soda nowadays is no big deal. If you have several of those a day, that's a lot of calories."

By preparing their own foods, people can control how much they eat at each meal and how much salt, sugar and fat goes into their food. But Jones understands people may be afraid to try new foods if they don't know what it is or how to prepare it. UNL Extension specialists and educators across the state have realized this, Jones said, so many others, like herself, go out to teach Nebraskans how to cook.

After testing out recipes in her lab, which happens to be a kitchen, Jones puts together brochures featuring local produce obtainable at local Nebraska farmers markets or grocery stores. By buying local produce, Jones said, people don't just support local farmers and the local economies; they also can get fresher, better-tasting produce because it hasn't been shipped from far away.

Most people find her recipe brochures online on the UNL Food website, but she also distributes them at farmers markets. Jones said she also conducts cooking demonstrations at farmers markets sometimes. But she hopes she is reaching a lot more people with the brochures than just those who go to farmers markets.

Re-connecting with native foods

Sometimes access to fresh or local produce is a problem, Jones said. Dietrelated diseases are rampant among lower-income and minority groups, Jones said, who tend to live in areas where fresh, nutritious food such as fruits and vegetables are scarce.

One group that lives in such areas and suffers high obesity, heart disease and diabetes rates is Native Americans. "I mean, it's almost a rite of passage to have diabetes if you're Native American," Jones said. "It's kind of presumed that you're sooner or later going to get it."

Through a one-year U.S. Department of Agriculture grant through Nebraska Indian Community College, Jones and two other UNL professors Marilynn Schnepf and Julie Albrecht, have been working with Native American families in Nebraska to "help them reconnect with native foods and get a better understanding of their culture through food," said Schnepf, a UNL professor of nutrition and health sciences.

Schnepf and Jones have met four times with 10 families from the Santee Sioux and 10 families from the Omaha tribe. Both groups live on reservations in Nebraska. What they found out from tribe elders is the food culture on these two Native American reservations has changed drastically.

The Santee Sioux used to be hunter-gatherers and traditionally lived off bison and wild plants such as milkweed and chokecherries, Schnepf said, while the Omaha were more agricultural, living off crops that they grew. But they weren't able to farm the same plot of land continuously because they didn't have chemical fertilizers, Schnepf said. "They simply moved on."

Today the Santee Sioux and Omaha have lost their ability to move around and live off the land, Schnepf said. They get commodity food such as white flour, sugar and canned meats from the government and came up with what people today consider a traditional Native American food: fried bread, she said. "It's what they have called traditional Native American reservation food," Jones added, "not traditional Native American food."

Furthermore, the families live in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls "food deserts"- areas that lack access to affordable, fresh produce. Food deserts can occur in rural areas as well as urban areas, such as inner cities. Supermarkets or grocery store chains may not want to set up stores in such areas because they might not make a profit due to lack of customers or people who can't afford these products. "Grocery stores live on very small (profit) margins, so they have to do a lot of volume," Schnepf said.

For the Santee Sioux and Omaha families, the nearest large supermarket is about an hour's drive away, Jones said. Most of the families don't have a car, so they cannot get there easily. "I don't think they want to be unhealthy," Jones said, but they have no choice but to rely on food they can get at convenience stores. This food is similar to what might be found in gas stations, Jones said. They get highly-processed food, such as soft drinks, chips and hot dogs- all of which are laden with additional salt, sugar and fats, Jones said. Produce sold at these places usually has been transported a long distance and looks unappetizing because it is no longer fresh, she added.

To overcome some of these problems, one part of plan is to teach these families how to garden according to their native traditions. Schnepf said the UNL team has gained insight from Omaha tribe elders about a traditional planting method called the Three Sisters, where corn, beans and squash are planted together. These plants work well together because the corn grows tall, the beans can climb up the corn, and the squash grows on the ground and helps with weed control, Jones explained.

When the gardens produce fruits and vegetables, Schnepf said Albrecht, the third professor on the team, will teach the families food safety and food preservation techniques such as canning. Jones and Schnepf also have planned three cooking classes for the Native American families as well. Each participant receives a recipe booklet with simple and healthful recipes focusing on incorporating fruits and vegetables into their diets.

Food knowledge for the future

When Jones is not cooking up new recipes in her kitchen or doing research, she is busy sharing food knowledge to UNL students, many of whom will be the next generation of dietitians and doctors, she said. One of her classes, Scientific Principles of Food Preparation, helps students learn the chemistry behind food preparation. For example, "They know grandma makes a pie crust," Jones said. "They know grandma doesn't put a lot of water in. They know grandma adds fat into it, and then grandma maybe uses lard. Well, my goal is to tell them why."

Students who will become dietitians attend lectures in cultural aspects of food and nutrition. Jones, who is African American and originally is from the southern part of the U.S., gives a guest lecture on African American food: soul food. Because everyone has a food culture, Jones said, it's important for dietitians or anyone who works with food to appreciate the different food cultures that their patients will have.

With the resources available through UNL Extension- the UNL Food website, recipe brochures, food blogs, local produce guides and so on- Jones hopes she and other UNL Extension specialists and educators are doing their part to equip Nebraskans to lead a healthier life. "We don't cook for the sake of cooking," she said. "We cook for the sake of helping you to be healthy."


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