Food For Thought: Can Good Foods Keep Your Growing Brain In Tip-Top Shape?

You are what you eat. Everybody’s heard that old saying. However, it’s easy to forget that food fuels the human mind as well as the body. The brain isn’t a big organ, but it’s a greedy one. Up to one-quarter of all the energy you consume is burned up by the gray matter inside your head. To think right, you have to eat right.

Brain Superfoods?

It’s no surprise that sugary or fatty junk foods aren’t the best sources of nutrition. They can contribute to obesity and poor health. As it turns out, they can also muddy your thinking. Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles found that rats fed a junk-food diet did much worse on memory tests than did rats fed a balanced diet. And according to research described in the magazine New Scientist, kids who ate sugary breakfasts before school performed at the level of 70-year-olds on tests of memory and attention!

Fine, so you’ll skip the soft drinks and doughnuts before your next big test. What should you eat instead? Are there specific superfoods that will boost your brainpower and make you as brilliant as Einstein? “Probably not,” says Harris Lieberman, a nutrition researcher for the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. “The brain needs most of the things that the rest of your body needs. A balanced diet is just that–balanced.”


Balancing Act

Plenty of vitamins and nutrients have been linked to a healthy brain (see “Brain Boosters” below). But rather than seek out specific “brain foods,” it’s smarter to aim for a well-balanced diet. So what is the proper balance? “The brain needs protein, it needs carbohydrates, it needs fats,” Lieberman told Current Health 2.

Protein is used by the body to make the chemicals that transmit signals between neurons, or nerve cells, in the brain, Lieberman says. Digesting proteins triggers the release of certain brain chemicals that make you alert, according to Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Students who eat high-protein beans and toast for breakfast do better on tests than those who eat toast alone, researchers from the University of Ulster in the United Kingdom have found.

Although a high-fat diet can be bad for the brain, so is a diet without any fats at all. The brain is about 60 percent fat. But some fats are better than others. Evidence is stacking up that one group, the omega-3 fatty acids (substances found in some fish oils), is important for good health in the body and the brain. Lab animals that don’t get enough omega-3s have problems with learning. And omega-3s appear to slow dementia, the loss of memory and mental function, in elderly people. Most researchers agree that omega-3s are important for overall health in people of all ages.

Despite all the attention that low-carb diets have been getting lately, carbohydrates are important for keeping the brain running smoothly. “The brain prefers glucose as a fuel in order to think and work its best,” Sandon says. And glucose, a simple sugar that is the main energy for the body, comes from carbohydrates. However, Sandon says, complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains) are better than simple carbs (such as sugary snacks or refined white bread). “A simple carbohydrate like sugary cereal is absorbed and used up quickly [by the body], and halfway through a test, you get tired because your energy is used up,” she says. “Whole grain or bran will stay with you a little longer.”

Break for Breakfast

Good balance is about balancing your food intake throughout the day as well as the contents of each meal. One of the most important things to do, both Sandon and Lieberman say, is to eat a healthful breakfast. In the beans-and-toast study, eating beans boosted test performance, but the plain-toast eaters still did better on the tests than those who ate no breakfast at all. “Students who eat regular breakfast perform better in school than those who don’t,” Sandon says. She suggests a breakfast that combines protein and whole-grain carbohydrates, such as whole-wheat toast with peanut butter or oatmeal and a hard-boiled egg. “Kids should have a balanced breakfast,” Lieberman agrees, and should maintain a healthful balance in their meals throughout the day. If your body is hungry, so is your brain.

RELATED ARTICLE: brain fuel.

A balanced diet is the key to a healthy mind. Balanced meals include:

  • proteins, which the body uses to make the chemicals that transport messages between brain cells.
  • fats, especially good fats such as omega-3s, which are found in foods such as salmon. Fats coat the nerve cells in the brain, allowing messages to be transmitted quickly from cell to cell.
  • carbohydrates, which are the preferred fuel for the brain. Complex carbohydrates such as bran and whole grains are especially good for the mind because they are used more slowly than simple carbohydrates, so they keep everything running longer.


Brain food

Neuroscience for Kids: Nutrition and the Brain:

TeensHealth: The New Food Guide Pyramid: pyramid.html

How Your Brain Works:

How Food Works:

Brain Boosters

Many foods and nutrients help keep the gears in your
head turning smoothly. Here are a few examples.

Brain Boost Nutrients, Vitamins, Minerals Good Food Sources
Quick thinking Omega-3 fatty acids Salmon, almonds, seeds
Alertness Protein Legumes, nuts, fish, meats, chicken, eggs
Energy Carbohydrates Whole grains, cereals, pasta, breads, fruits
Souped-up memory Choline Egg yolks, liver, milk, soybeans
Overall brain health B vitamins Whole grains, cereals, meats, poultry, fish, legumes, eggs, dairy, nuts
Magnesium Whole grains, legumes, nuts, green vegetables
Potassium Apricots, avocados, fish, bananas, cantaloupes, strawberries, oranges, meats
Calcium Milk, cheese, yogurt


  • How much of the energy you consume is used by the brain? (up to one-quarter)
  • Why is a well-balanced diet important for brain health? (The brain needs all types of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, including protein, carbohydrates, and fats, to optimize its functioning.)
  • How do whole grains compare with simple sugars as brain food? (Whole grains take longer to break down, and they sustain energy longer.)
  • How can you change your eating habits to improve your brain’s health? (Answers will vary.)


Using the “Brain Boosters” chart as a starting point, students can research foods that are good for their brains. For homework, have them create a sample diet that would maximize the nutrients needed for brain health. Then ask them to compare their recommendations with the food served in your school’s cafeteria. Lead your students in lobbying for more brain-friendly meals and snacks.

Weir, Kirsten

–> Related Articles: What’s American Food? A Blend Of Old And New

Easy as ABC? Why pills can’t replace food

Before Reading

  • Ask students whether they think they need to take supplements.


  • Should teenagers take multivitamins? (Getting vitamins and minerals from natural sources is the best strategy, but when that isn’t possible, multivitamins can help teens stay healthy.)
  • Why don’t teens always get all the nutrients they need from their diets? (Answers will vary but may include excess consumption of junk foods, lack of access to healthy foods, lack of knowledge, lack of foresight, dieting for weight loss, eating a vegetarian diet, and so on.)

Brianna Kinney knows some smart mice. She credits vitamin with the little guys’ spike in intellect. For a science fair project, Kinney, who was a senior last year at Big Foot High School in Walworth, Wis., tested how quickly mice that were on different diets navigated a maze.

The group with no dietary supplement “sat there like bumps on a log,” taking as long as 20 minutes to complete the maze, she says. The mice on vitamin, however, performed up to 150 times faster.

Kinney, now studying at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va., doesn’t take vitamins. But after her study, she wonders if she should.


–> View more: Food For Thought: Can Good Foods Keep Your Growing Brain In Tip-Top Shape?

No Substitute

Whether or not to take a multivitamin is a question without an easy answer. Our bodies need nutrients such as vitamins (from plants or animals) and minerals (from nonliving things) for growth, digestion, and other functions. But recent studies have found little proof that vitamin and mineral supplements enhance health or help prevent disease.

“A multivitamin is not really a replacement for food,” says Lindsay Reaves, a dietitian in Estherville, Iowa, who has surveyed teens about vitamin use. “They don’t help prevent against disease the way an apple would, because other chemicals in our food help keep us healthy, and [nutrients and those chemicals] need to work together.”

Certain vitamins, if taken in excess, can also cause harm. Dietitians point out that teens might already be getting enough vitamins if they consume fortified energy bars or protein drinks. “I wouldn’t say in general that teens should go out and get a multivitamin,” says Nicole Larson, a University of Minnesota researcher. “The most promising thing we know in terms of health relates to good dietary patterns and not supplements.”

Better Than Nothing?

Yet teens’ diets, in general, aren’t making the grade. Because they often skimp on fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and lean meats, many teens lack nutrients critical to growth, such as iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D. Take Joanna Kraft, a 16-year-old from Boise, Idaho. Kraft says she gets most of her vegetables at dinner and doesn’t drink milk. A bagel, juice, granola bar, sandwich, and raisins ate her main sources of nutrition during the day. Kraft’s diet, though not terrible, might lack enough calcium–dietitians recommend that teens get the equivalent of four and a half 8-ounce glasses of milk, but most teens get fewer than three.

Like 25 percent of teens, Jake Hoium, 15, believes in the power of supplements. He takes a daily multivitamin, a calcium supplement, and vitamin E, among other dietary supplements. “I take the calcium because I only drink a glass of milk a week and the multivitamin just because I think I should,” the Minneapolis teen says.

Some experts say such vitamin supplements may have value for teens who don’t get enough nutrition through their diets. “If you do the math comparing diet versus nutrient requirements and see what are not getting in terms of nutrients, it’s probably not a bad idea for them to be taking a multivitamin,” says Connie Weaver, head of Purdue University’s department of foods and nutrition in West Lafayette, Ind.

What’s your best bet? Try to get as many nutrients–especially calcium–from the foods you eat every day. If you think you’re missing anything, check with your doctor for advice.


  • American Dietetic Association
  • National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements

Calcium Calculator

To figure out your calcium intake in milligrams (mg) from food labels, add a zero after the daily value (DV) percentage. For instance, if an 8-ounce container of yogurt shows a 45 percent DV, that’s 450 mg of calcium. Aim for 130 percent of DV, since you need 1,300 mg.


Supplement Savvy Here are the top vitamins and minerals you need, the recommended

Calcium 1,300 mg daily

* Builds the bone mass that lasts for life

* Teen years are critical for getting enough.

Good sources                    Serving          mg per serving

American cheese                 2 ounces (oz)    348 mg
Fruit yogurt                    1 cup            315 mg
Milk (skim or low fat)          1 cup            300 mg
Salmon (pink, canned,
with bone)                      3 oz             181 mg

Good vegetarian/lactose-free sources

Soy milk (calcium added)        1 cup            250-300 mg
Tofu (calcium added)            1/2 cup          204 mg
Rice milk (calcium added)       1 cup            150-300 mg
Broccoli                        1 cup            90 mg

Vitamin vitals

* Consider a supplement if you can't get enough calcium through foods; should also contain vitamin D

* One calcium pill or multivitamin provides about half the daily calcium allowance.

Vitamin D 5 mcg daily

* Critical for the absorption of calcium and phosphorus

* Keeps bones strong

* Sunlight also stimulates production In the skin.

Good sources                    Serving          mcg per serving

Salmon (cooked)                 3 1/2 oz         9.0 mcg
Tuna (canned in oil)            3 oz             5.0 mcg
Milk                            1 cup            2.5 mcg
Eggs                            1 whole          0.5 mcg

Good vegetarian source
Breakfast cereal (10% daily     3/4 to 1 cup     1.0 mcg      value of vitamin D)

Sunlight (midday sun, no sunscreen, at least twice a week)

(fair skinned) 10 minutes per day *
(dark skinned) 40 minutes leer day *

* If in the sun longer, use sunscreen.

Vitamin vitals

* Follow recommendations for calcium.


11-15 mg daily

* Builds cartilage, ligaments,
tendons, bones, and teeth

* Low levels can cause a low red-blood-cell count

* Best absorbed from protein sources

* Vegetarians: Pair iron-containing and iron-boosting
foods (rich in vitamin C, such as tomatoes).

Good sources                    Serving          mg per serving

Liver                           3 oz             5.8 mg
Sirloin beef                    3 oz             2.9 mg
Turkey (dark meat)              3 oz             2.0 mg

Good vegetarian sources

Breakfast cereal (25%           3/4 cup          4.5 mg
daily value of iron)
Lentils                         1/2 cup          3.3 mg
Spinach (boiled)                1/2 cup          3.2 mg
Almonds (unblanched)            1/2 cup          3.1 mg

Mineral maybes

* You may need an iron supplement or a multivitamin if
you are a vegetarian or have been ill.

* Don't take iron supplements without a doctor's OK:
Too much iron is toxic (max for teens is 45 mg/day).


9-14 mg daily

* Boosts the immune system

* Helps form enzymes, proteins,
and cells

* Best absorbed through meat;
vegetarians need twice the recommended amount
from plant foods.

Good sources                    Serving          mg per serving

Oysters (battered/fried)        6 medium         16.0 mg
Beef (pot roast)                3 oz              7.4 mg
Pork (tenderloin)               3 oz              2.5 mg

Good vegetarian sources

Breakfast cereal (100%
daily value of zinc)            3/4 cup          15.0 mg
Baked beans                     1/2 cup           1.7 mg
Cashews (dry roasted)           1 oz              1.6 mg

Mineral maybes

* Zinc lozenges haven't been proved effective against colds.

* Ask your doctor before taking a zinc supplement;
too much can harm immune response and cholesterol levels (max for teens is 34 mg/day).

What’s American Food? A Blend Of Old And New

American cuisine is a blend of regional foods. New England tradition combined Puritan fare and the foods of new immigrants. Southern dishes are based on corn, pork and African foods. Dishes from Europe produced Midwest cuisine. Native Americans were a strong influence in the Southwest.

Say “American food” to almost anyone, and they will probably say hot dogs and hamburgers. But, true American food is best represented by traditional regional foods. Regional cuisine grew out of the necessity to adapt to what was locally available. The Native Americans introduced immigrants to many new, unfamiliar foods, and taught them how to grow, prepare, and preserve them. However, the many immigrant groups brought old traditions they didn’t want to give up. And the regional cuisines are a result of the blending of the old and new, creating dishes we now identify with different parts of the country.


New England–“The Three Sisters”

The first English settlers, finding no beef or wheat in the new world, nearly starved. Luckily, the Native Americans taught them how to grow and prepare the foods they called the “three sisters”–beans, corn, and squash. Finding an abundance of fish, game, and other local foods, the English colonists learned to adapt to their new environment. They soon were using new foods in old recipes. For example, corn (a new food to them) was included in a pudding (an old recipe) to make Indian pudding.

The Puritan no-nonsense approach to life was also applied to their foods. New England cooking became known for its simple and direct flavors. Boiled lobster, fish chowder, New England boiled dinner (corned beef and root vegetables) are tasty, easy-to-prepare dishes. The strict Puritan rule of no work on the Sabbath led to the development of slow-cooking recipes such as baked beans and brown bread. These meals were cooked in an earthenware pot over Saturday night so they were ready by noon on Sunday.

New England’s role as an international trading center brought in supplies from around the world. Spices, molasses, and chocolate were among the ingredients available to the colonial cook. Combined with local foods, the colonists created pumpkin pie, cranberry raisin tart, and gingerbread.

In the mid-1800s an influx of immigrants from Ireland, French Canada, Portugal, Italy, Poland, and Finland brought new traditions, tastes, and foods. New England foods gained diversity that continues even today with the newer immigrants from Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

The South–Grits and Cornbread

European settlers in the South ate, for the most part, what the natives ate–corn, beans, squash, deer, turkey, fish. They soon added pork to their diet, which had a significant effect on how foods were cooked. None of the pork was wasted; all parts were used in one way or another. Lard, or pork fat, was used to flavor foods and for frying.

Corn, the principal food crop, was prepared as a vegetable, roasted, boiled, ground, fried, and made into hominy grits. Native Americans taught early settlers to make hominy. When the hulled kernels of corn are dried and coarsely ground, they become grits. Grits are usually cooked into a thick, hot cereal and served for breakfast.

Grits and cornbread are strongly identified with the South. A traditional Southern breakfast always includes grits, and every family has a favorite cornbread recipe. Other popular corn dishes are spoonbread, hush puppies, and hoecakes or corncakes.

African food traditions made a significant contribution to Southern cuisine. Okra, sweet potatoes, peanuts, black-eyed peas, watermelon, and collards originally came from Africa. Slaves who cooked for plantation owners further developed the unique qualities of Southern cuisine by blending African, European, and Native American foods. Gumbo, a thick soup with vegetables, gets its name from the Bantu word for okra.

Slave ships often stopped in the West Indies and South America on their way to the Southern colonies. There, chilies, potatoes, and tomatoes were added to the cargo. These foods were added to the mix of the developing Southern cuisine. The ships also brought another important import: the method of slow-roasting meat, called barbecue.

In the early South, there were two different cooking styles, the sumptuous meals of the plantation owners and the country-style or “soul” foods of the poor whites and black slaves. Over the years these have merged to become the Southern cooking we know today.

The Midwest–Cheese and Pizza

Unlike the Native Americans in other parts of the country, the early inhabitants of the Great Lakes region depended on wild rice rather than corn. Wild rice is an aquatic grass with a taste and texture quite different from rice. Usually cooked as a gruel and seasoned with maple sugar, berries, or animal fat, wild rice was also used in soups and stews.

The first European immigrants to homestead in the Great Lakes region were Germans. Their contribution to Midwest cuisine includes bratwurst (a sausage made from pork, veal, and eggs), potatoes (used in dumplings, pancakes, warm potato salad), and noodles.

Soon to follow were the Scandinavians, who brought rye bread, Swedish meatballs, herring salad, and Danish pastries. With the influx of Europeans in the mid- to late 1800s, many ethnic groups found themselves living together in the cities and towns of the Midwest. Their cultures converged to create what we now think of as Midwestern fare: pot roast, stuffed pork chops, sausage and kraut, Wisconsin cheese, deepdish pizza, apple strudel, hot German potato salad.


The Southwest–Corn, Beans, and Chilies

The strongest influence of Native American cooking is in the cuisine of the Southwest. The native inhabitants of this region grew many different varieties of corn, beans, squash, and chilies, long before the Spanish arrived. More than 200 varieties of corn were developed by Native Americans. Various colors of corn were created to represent the cardinal points of the universe: blue (west), white (east), yellow (north), red (south), multicolored (zenith), and black (nadir). Blue corn is still identified with the Southwest.

A wide range of beans were also grown. As with corn, they were hybridized to produce different colors. Certain varieties were also best suited for local growing conditions. Beans were used in soups, stew, and cakes, added to salads, and ground to make flour.

Spanish explorers traded cattle, pork, fruits, and vegetables for beans, corn, and squash. Although the roots of Southwestern cuisine lie mainly in Native American cooking, it has evolved as a mixture of Hispanic and Anglo-American styles as well. Basic ingredients are still chilies, corn, beans, and spices. Corn tortillas are served in small roadside cafes as well as the upscale restaurants. Regional specialties that reflect the blend of cultures include: posole, a stew made with pork, hominy corn, and chilies; and blue corn-black bean rellenos. As you can see, American food is much more than hamburgers and hot dogs. It offers you a wide variety of tastes that blend the old with the new.

RELATED ARTICLE: Cornmeal Pancakes

1/2 c cornmeal 1 1/2 c flour 2 1/2 tsp baking powder 3/4 tsp baking soda 1/4 tsp salt 3 Tbsp sugar 2 eggs, beaten 3 Tbsp vegetable oil 2 c buttermilk

Combine all dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, beat egg and add buttermilk and oil. All liquids to flour mixture and stir only blended; there should still be some lumps. On hot, lightly greased griddle, pour 1/4 cup batter for each pancake. Turn pancakes when they are golden brown. Serve with syrup or fresh fruit, such as strawberries or blueberries.


1 Tbsp vegetable oil 1/2 c chopped onion 1 clove garlic, minced 1 lb extra lean ground beef 1 14 1/2 oz can dized tomatoes in juice,

undrained 2 15 oz cans kidney, pinto,

or black beans, drained and rinsed 1 6 oz can tomato paste 1 1/2 cups water 2 tsp chili powder 1/2 tsp salt

In a Dutch oven or large saucepan, saute onion and garlic in vegetable oil. Add ground beef and stir to break up into large pieces. Cook until meat is browned. Stir in tomatoes, beans, tomato paste, water, chili powder, and salt. Cover and simmer 15 to 30 minutes. Serve with tortillas, crackers, or cornbread, or over cooked spaghetti or rice. Make 6 to 8 servings.



It might seem easy to find agreement on the joys of good food that is lovingly prepared, nutritious, delicious and enjoyed in the company of friends and family. Yet ensuring universal access to good food is more complex and challenging than nostalgia for a home-cooked meal.

Power, inequality and privilege are interlarded within struggles for good food. Despite our best intentions, Canadians face serious food-related pathologies: greater food insecurity, growing numbers of food banks, rising obesity statistics, breathtaking rates of eating disorders, and an unsustainable mode of agro-industrial production that sheds farmers as quickly as it degrades topsoil.

Is it viable to expect these issues–particularly the social/equity concerns of the “reds” and the ecological agenda of the “greens”–to coalesce in a single food-security movement? FoodShare, a Toronto-based community., food-security organization, answers this question with a resounding yes, insisting that food can inspire social action against ecological and social injustice.

Community Food Security through FoodShare

Community food security (CFS) unites ecology and social justice almost by definition; these approaches define themselves as attempts to build locally based systems of production and consumption that support justice, democracy and sustainability. Yet uniting red and green issues on paper is easier than reconciling ecological concerns and social justice within an organization–let alone in a larger food movement. The CFS approach is not without its critics. Most significantly, it been charged with having a middleclass bias and for developing an inadequate response to the severity of food insecurity in neoliberal welfare states. School snack programs don’t solve the problems of student nutrition, community gardens have not stemmed the steady growth of food banks, and community kitchens don’t eliminate the food insecurity, of low-income families.


The FoodShare mandate explicitly endorses CFS goals, promoting universal access to culturally, acceptable, nutritionally adequate sustainable food through non-emergency channels. Like a food bank, FoodShare is concerned about hunger. Unlike a conventional food bank, however, FoodShare works on a smaller scale and within a longer time frame to develop more sustainable food links from field to table. FoodShare’s programs include community gardens, training and employment for youth at risk, roof-top gardening, public education campaigns, baby-food-making classes, an incubator kitchen project and catering company, and a Good Food Box program that anchors the organization in the Field to Table warehouse in the east end of downtown Toronto.

The initial FoodShare vision was not particularly green or radical. When it was created in 1985, FoodShare was originally envisaged by Art Eggleton, then mayor, as a way to coordinate access to the emergency food sector, and as a self-promotion tool for his reelection campaign. FoodShare still runs a hotline that refers callers to food banks, but the “Hunger Hotline” was renamed “FoodLink,” and now also contains information on community gardens, farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture. This change in name embodies a more general shift toward community development programs and sustainable food provisioning, and away from a charity-based model of immediate hunger relief.

The Good Food Box Program

FoodShare’s move towards a community development approach has not been easy, automatic, or uncontroversial. Simultaneously balancing environmental goals with income redistribution is an exceptionally difficult, often contradictory, task. Delivering an organic produce box that is accessible to low-income consumers is a near impossibility, since paying small farmers fairly means produce prices above those at Price Chopper. At least half of the patrons of the regular Good Food Box program are low-income Torontonians, yet the program is still unable to reach the poorest and most marginalized populations relying on food banks. The Good Food Box program supports local agriculture and feeds at least 5,000 people every month, yet these substantial achievements are dwarfed by an emergency-food sector that feeds at least 160,000 people monthly, and an equally large population that is food-insecure but does not access the city’s food banks.

CFS programs can be quite successful at the micro-level, but seem more limited in scope when the macro-picture of food insecurity and poverty is considered. They have not stemmed the rising tide of food insecurity in Canada, nor have they forced greater state accountability for meeting citizens’ basic needs. As social-assistance provisions shrink, large numbers of people continue to rely on the emergency food system, while the majority of consumers buy industrially processed food sent across thousands of miles through corporate distribution channels.

Mass mobilization for food and income security does not yet exist, yet it is desperately required to pressure the state to subsidize sustainable food production and fulfil basic rights of citizenship. At minimum, this includes guaranteeing a basic income that fulfils shelter and food needs, building infrastructure for sustainable agriculture, channelling surplus food away from landfills, and subsidizing projects that connect local eaters and growers and shorten food links.

The history of social movements suggests that none of these things will be provided voluntarily by governments. Massive social pressure is required, directed through well run organizations and popular social movements. Where will such a mass movement come from, and what role could CFS organizations like FoodShare play in its development?

Building a Red-Green Fend Movement

No singular CFS organization or approach can single-handedly solve the problem of hunger. Yet, despite the limited scope of micro-projects, collectively these approaches are an important part of the ongoing struggle to develop a mass-based food movement that connects ecological concerns with social justice. This can happen in at least two ways: through social modeling and state pressure, and through the politicization of food issues.

1. Social Modeling

CFS projects are important not only for their direct effects on participants, but because they provide models of more sustainable and socially just ways of growing and eating food–as well as a sense of hope that alternatives are possible. Innovation occurs through processes of experimentation that find novel “third sector” solutions outside pure market models or alienating bureaucratic channels.

Partially inspired by the success of FoodShare’s programs and the publication of several how-to manuals, food-box programs are sprouting up throughout the country at just the same time a national network of community gardeners is also emerging. Student-nutrition programs may not solve the problem of student hunger, but they do feed thousands of kids and mobilize popular energy behind the need for a universal school-lunch program. Community kitchens do not eliminate the problem of inadequate income, but they can break the social isolation of low-income women struggling to make ends meet. These innovations often blur the line between the emergency food sector and community development approaches, as food gleaners experiment with community kitchens utilizing surplus food, and as food banks develop programs to provide multicultural food staples and community-garden space.

Food provisioning in the non-profit sector has clearly been used as a material and ideological cushion to compensate for the withdrawal of the welfare state under neoliberalism. But minimizing these grassroots achievements encourages defeatism and plays into a neoliberal logic that insists that there are no alternatives. These approaches cannot and do not single-handedly “solve” problems of hunger or ecological degradation–no single solution can–but they do provide inspiration, create networks of food activists embedded in communities, and provide living examples of alternative modes of food production and consumption.


2. Engaging in Struggles with the State

While community-level innovation and modeling is important, they should not obscure the importance of the state as a critical resource regulating communal resources and guaranteeing rights of citizenship–an emphasis lost in much of the CFS literature, with its focus on community empowerment and individual opportunity. Yet not all CFS organizations are apolitical, or refuse to engage in struggles with the state. Developing a relationship with the relatively accessible scale of municipal government has been a particularly important part of FoodShare’s success. City Council was responsible for FoodShare’s inception in 1984, and the original version of the Field-to-Table program was developed through the Toronto Food Policy Council.

Not all cities have supportive municipal structures, however, particularly since the neoliberal process has downloaded responsibilities onto municipalities without offering compensatory resources. Yet support at the provincial and federal levels is required to broaden access to affordable, sustainable food within Toronto and across the country. Federal agricultural policy, for example, currently supports the expansion of chemical- and energy-intensive industrial agriculture, which favours corporate ownership. A different kind of federal support might not only provide financial incentives for ecological stewardship on family farms, but could also connect low-income consumers with small farmers through expanded good-food-box programs, food stamps, or electronic cards used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets, or through subsidized meals at community-managed popular restaurants.

A variety of exciting alternatives are available for meeting basic food needs, but accessing state support requires the construction of broad coalitions to lobby the state at multiple levels. This process is exhausting and conflictual, but also recognized as vitally important by at least some CFS organizations. While FoodShare staff devotes much of its energies to roof-top gardening and packing food boxes, it reserves staff time and resources to build food-security coalitions through participation in structures like the Toronto Food Policy Council, the Toronto Food Justice Coalition and World Social Forum events. FoodShare has also emphasized the need to develop a national food-security network, and sponsored a national food-security conference that brought together nutritionists, anti-poverty activists, sustainable agriculture advocates and green entrepreneurs, among others. Disagreement, tension and debates are common at such gatherings, but so is a sense of common struggle.

Politicizing Food

While the goal of mass participation remains a serious challenge to a potential food movement, a greater consciousness of food politics is emerging in the Canadian public sphere. This is exemplified by heightened interest in food issues in youth subcultures, the anti-globalization movement and the rise of forms of cultural resistance like Slow Food chapters. Changes in public consciousness are required to build social movements and involve long-term processes of politicization. Food politicization occurs when actors reveal the power relations involved in eating (and not eating), and destabilize popular understanding of issues previously thought to be obvious and self-evident.

Eating an imported strawberry in January loses its innocence when issues of bioregionalism, transportation costs, labour rights and pesticide contamination are exposed. Politicization processes also expose the contradictions of rising food-bank usage when juxtaposed against the withdrawal of the social-safety net, an increase in corporate tax breaks and heightened income inequality.

Ecological politicization demonstrates how growing your own tomatos is a radical gesture against global food chains; at the same time, poverty activists politicize the class privileges built into gardening and organic-food consumption. Politicization of food raises tough questions for CFS activists–like whether poor people should be expected to access food staples through community gardens and collective kitchens, while middle-class folks garden as a hobby and shop for food staples at Loblaw’s.

Food politicization makes for difficult dinner conversation, particularly between the red and green camps that continue to divide social activists. Yet debate and disagreement are necessary to change consciousness about food, and for building a mass-supported movement that connects social justice to sustainability.

Social movements must expose the exploitation involved in global commodity chains, but they must also provide practical alternatives and models for feeding ourselves in less exploitative ways–through food co-ops, fair-trade practices, good-food boxes, roof-top gardens and local barter systems. It is here that CFS approaches excel, even though the small may not always seem beautiful to those demanding a singular big solution to hunger in our appallingly polarized social world.

Josee Johnston researches issues of food security and globalization at the Monk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto, and recently joined the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of British Columbia. She sustains hope that university research can be both intellectually meaningful and dedicated to social and ecological justice.

Johnston, Josee

–> Read more: The trick to making adult booze-sicles

The school lunch debate

Susan, Erica, and Ann Marie sat on one side of large room behind a rectangular table. A banner with the words “The Pros” hung in front of them. Josh, Greg, and Jake sat across the room. They were “The Cons.” Each team huddled in a tight circle whispering to each other until Mrs. Otto, the debate coach, came into the room.

“Your time for discussion is up, teams,” she said. “Remember, this is just a practice round, but I want you to think of this as the real thing.” She cleared her throat before continuing.

“As I said before, you will be debating how to eat a healthy school lunch. Each team has 5 minutes to state its side of the issue. Then both teams will have 5 minutes to ask questions. The team that can get the other side to agree to its point of view will be the winning team. Any questions?”

Mrs. Otto looked up from her notepad. When she didn’t see any hands raised, she said, “Pros, you may begin now.”

It Must Be Balanced

Susan spoke first. “I think more kids should eat school lunches. The hot lunch program started in 1946, when military doctors noticed that young men recruited for World War II were undernourished. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) wanted to make sure that kids ate at least one balanced meal a day. Toddy, food-service managers must follow nutrition guidelines from the USDA when planning their meals. Lunch menus have to include foods from all the groups in the Food Guide Pyramid so they are nutritious.”

Erica added, “School lunch menus used to be pretty high in fat. The USDA figured out that wasn’t so great, so they made some changes. Now the fat content is limited to 30 percent or less of the lunch’s calories over an average week. Menus must have plenty of protein, calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C. Schools offer the meals free or at a reduced price to kids who can’t afford to pay for them.”

Ann Marie continued, “Schools have made a lot of changes over the years–so that we want to eat the food they serve. Creative menus with everything from meat and potatoes to fast foods like burgers, subs, and pizza help cut down on food waste. Some schools even contract with chains such as Taco Bell, Subway, Chick-fil-A, Inc., and Arby’s to offer favorite foods.”

“Thank you, Pros,” Mrs. Otto said, and turned toward the Cons. “It’s your turn now.”

It’s Fast

Josh went first. “When I ate school lunch a few years ago, I went away from the table hungry. I playfootball and need a lot of food. I don’t get filled up with the hot lunch, but I do with the a-la-carte stuff. You know, pizza, fries, and a sports drink are just fine with me.”

Jake nodded at Josh and said, “I don’t have time to eat lunch. After I stand in line to get my food, I have less than 10 minutes to eat. Then there’s no time to talk to my friends. It’s just easier to grab something out of the vending machines, like a bag of chips and a soda.”

“Yeah,” agreed Greg, “anything is better than school lunch. I head to the snack bar for french fries and a bagel with cream cheese.”

Mrs. Otto interrupted. “Time’s up, Cons. Now, each team may ask the other team questions. We will start with the Pros.”

The Face-Off

“Josh,” Susan began, “you say you get filled up on your i-la-carte lunch, but how much energy do you have for football practice?”

“Well,” Josh said sheepishly, “not a whole lot. I get tired really fast, but I eat some candy and I feel better.”

Jake asked the next question. “Susan, how nutritious can school lunch really be if they are serving fast foods?”

Susan thought for a minute. Then she said, “Even the fast: foods served have to fit into the nutrition guidelines set by the USDA. Some schools don’t allow i-la-carte foods to be sold, so everyone gets the same balanced meal.”

“Jake,” Erica asked, “we learn all about good nutrition in school. How do chips and soda fit into a balanced diet?”

Jake looked at his team-mates. “I think nutrition is important. I just don’t have time to sit down and eat a meal in the cafeteria.”

Making a Healthy Choice

“Is there any way you could eat a balanced meal at school?” Ann Marie asked.

The Cons huddled together to talk about their answer. Josh said, “We decided that we could probably’ make better choices at school. We want speed and convenience and you want balanced nutrition. To compromise, I could order fresh fruits and vegetables, a sandwich, and a juice box from the a-la-carte line.”

“I could talk my friends into eating school lunch with me,” Jake said. “It would be less expensive than the vending machines, and I’d still get to talk to them.”

Everyone looked expectantly at Greg.

“Don’t look at me,” he said. “I’m not giving up the snack bar.” Then he looked at the floor and muttered, “But I suppose I could order a fruit smoothie with my bagel instead of the fries.”

Mrs. Otto cut in, “We’re out of time. Both teams did a good job of researching and deciding how to eat a healthy lunch at school. You have discussed lots of options, but you all seem to be convinced that a healthy, balanced meal is important. That means you all win.”

Be a Menu Planner

When food-service directors develop school lunch menus, they choose at least one food from each of the groups in the Food Guide Pyramid: grains/breads, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat/fish/poultry/nuts/dry beans. The USDA requires this in order to keep the menus nutritionally balanced. If you were the food-service director at your school, what foods would you pick for the hot lunch menu?

Write menus for a week that are nutritionally balanced and tasty. Use foods that teens will want to eat. Then share ideas with students in class and vote on the best menus of the week.

Truth and Consequences

In a recent study in California, researchers looked at the blood vessels of 249 high school students. They discovered that some teen’s eating habits are causing a problem. To find out what the problem is, answer the following questions, and put the numbered letters in the spaces at the bottom.

1. What favorite ballgame food has over 1 tablespoon of fat?

-- -- --   -- -- --
1     5    6

2. A can of cola has around 7 teaspoons of -- -- -- -- --.
                                           8        3  4
3. Pepperoni pizza is high in -- -- --.

4. Fruits and -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
                 2     9                 11
are often lacking in teens' diets.

5. School lunches sometimes serve this sweet treat.

-- -- -- -- -- --
            7 12


-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10    11 12

Answers: 1. hot dog, 2. sugar, 3. fat, 4. vegetables, 5. cookie.
Problem heart disease

The trick to making adult booze-sicles

THE DECADE-LONG CULINARY game of rejigging the comfort foods of youth to better reflect adult tastes is now so well entrenched that it can be divided into periods and subtrends. First came gentrification (think hamburger and seared foie gras getting together in the same bun). Then there was vulgarization ($2,500 pizza scattered with gold leaf). And now hard times have returned some good sense to the picture in the form of alcoholization–and specifically, as it applies to that venerable childhood favourite, the ice cream truck.

So far as I can tell we have fun-loving Miami to thank for this one. For it was there, last year, that after losing her marketing job, Felecia Hatcher decided to have a go at the ultra-popular gourmet food truckbusiness that was overtaking Los Angeles and New York. But instead of serving hot savoury food, she went with cold and sweet. “Our newschool twist on the childhood ice cream truck allows you to experience ice cream like never before!” she promised on her website, back when she launched her company, Feverish Ice Cream.

If she was guilty of overpromising at the time, let it be said that this spring, Feverish delivered. Order up one of her rum raisin popsicles nowadays and it means the usualspiked with a frozen shot of Wray & Nephew “100 proof.” Other booze-sicle flavours run to strawberry mojito, cosmo, peach bourbon, salted margarita and mai tai. And better yet, Feverish is not alone. “Lately I’ve seen a lot of my competitors starting to experiment with booze. It’s fun-and at the same time, it’s tricky,” Hatcher explained from Miami.

Naturally, I was keen to know what she meant, so I ran off and went out to buy a nice array of vibrantly coloured, freshly squeezed juices, lots of liquor, and one Zoku Quick Pop Maker.

You could of course get by with a dollar-store ice cube tray and some toothpicks. But if you are hosting a lakeside or pool party and not a frat party, the Zoku will help provide some finesse in shape and uniformity. It also contributes speed-for the cocktails poured into its moulds will freeze solid in five minutes flat, and then you can pop them out and get on with the next uniform batch.

Actually, the box says “juice,” not cocktail, and my first attempt at freezing the latter confirmed that this was no accident. As Hatcher was obviously alluding to when she referenced booze-sicle manufacture being tricky, alcohol is reluctant to freeze-unless you get the ratio right. For example, as appealing as the notion may be of a hot sunny afternoon, a poolside deck chair and an ice-cold licking-martini frozen solid on a stick, anyone who keeps a bottle of vodka in the freezer knows that this is a pipe dream. But then, everyone who has ever had a winechilling emergency and then forgotten the bottle in the freezer can tell you that something with only 15 per cent alcohol will freeze solid all too eagerly.

So, after cleaning out my first failed batch of strong and stubbornly liquid tequila-and-blood-orange-juice popsicles, I weakened the mix and everything began working out beautifully. With a 1:4 booze-to-mix ratio, vodka and orange and greyhounds work brilliantly. Gaining confidence, I next concocted a triple-layered seasonal freezie for Canada, wherein two red layers (tequila-blood orange and vodka-cranberry) were separated by a white layer of gin and tonic. Cheered by the result, I did a July 4 American number with some white rum and blueberry in place of the vodka-cranberry. On which note, if you try this at home and get carried away, for the next day I recommend my frozen twist on a Bloody Mary, made with clear tomato water.

The possibilities are fabulously unlimited. Which brings us sadly to the story of the recent convergence of vulgarization and alcoholization and the popsicle as it played out this spring at the Marquis Los Cabos hotel in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where they began offering a popsicle made from Clase Azul Ultra tequila, soda, sugar, and gold flakes for, er, $1,000 a pop. Strangely, no one has yet bought one.