On a hot day in late November, I'm all set to enter Vons: my role for the day — food archaeologist. Janice Baker, a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and medical nutrition therapist, is my guide. My goal is to learn what food we San Diegans buy. I want to understand what should be an uncomplicated question: Where does that food -- displayed in unrepentant quantities at supermarkets, fast-food chains, soup-and-salad lines — come from? Baker is a svelte, chestnut-haired woman with the most sensible eating habits you'll ever envy. She's your food conscience. Once a week, Baker escorts the weight watchers and the diabetics, or anyone on a doctor-prescribed diet, through Vons. She lectures them about caloric density and sodium concentrations so they'll unlearn their shelf behavior. I like it that her high diet IQ is sauced with wit: "A food has nutritional value only when you eat it." As we go through the doors, she reminds me that before we can know what people eat and where it comes from, we must evaluate how it's presented. The first thing we see — we're in the Vons on Bernardo Center Drive, which is warehouse-big and airport-busy and feels no different from the Vons in Chula Vista or Santee — is the soft light. In the past year, most of the Vons markets in San Diego have received a lighting makeover, harsh fluorescents replaced by nonglaring canned or recessed lights, along with homey touches of fruit in out-leaning bins, a fake-wood slatted floor, and an almost mulchy feel, at least in produce.
The barnlike come-on is accented with the warm smell of baked goods, produce's neighbor. "It used to be," Baker says, "if you shopped the perimeter of the store" — the perishable meats, fruits, and vegetables on the sides and rear, not the canned and packaged foods of the inner rows — "you'd be fine." (Is it Vons' idea to confuse us: health/junk, diet/binge? Are confused shoppers impetuous buyers?) Across from the donuts (big sign: "At Vons a Dozen is 14") and muffins ("not healthier than a donut," Baker says, "just a different version of cake"), we pause at a stand of mandarin oranges, carroty bright in their bags of green netting. She swivels back to the muffins, whose tins are mostly empty: "One of these is 400 calories. That's not bad -- unless you're a diabetic or pre-diabetic." In the U.S., there's 21 million of the former, 40 million of the latter: that's one in six Americans. Baker stresses that with obesity, fatigue, and diabetes epidemics, the American life expectancy rate, rising steadily for a century and now standing at 78, may for the first time begin to fall.
People's food judgments, she says, are more fantasy than uninformed. Sure, we're all drawn to organic, but "it's a marketing tool; you can slap the designation on anything, but it's not any more nutritional." The biggest blunder for Baker is that people don't (or won't) think about the quantity of what they eat. Food labels, she laughs, "have great information. But people still have to be trained to read them. They seldom look at the portion size. They see a macaroni-and-cheese frozen dinner, 250 calories per serving, and they think the whole box is one serving. They should be multiplying 250 by 2.3." Cooking directions scare people, she says. "Since they can buy a convenience product like Chef Boyardee, they think it's too hard if it's a raw product." To make regular oatmeal is the same thing as instant. But a raw food, in their hounded minds, means that it "takes too long to cook."
Baker steers me to the aisle of packaged rice products, food she hates. We survey lots of friendly-faced boxes: Uncle Ben's; Rice-a-Roni; Pasta Roni; 10-Minute Success Rice. Elbowing the rice dishes are pasta dishes such as Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner with Scooby-Doo shapes. These boxes, which take up the top six of seven shelves, gleam Las Vegas gaudy. Baker says that they "wouldn't be prominently placed here," at eye level for adults and kids in carts, "if they didn't sell." Such Frankenfood is a synthetic mélange: Enriched Macaroni Product, Wheat Flour, Niacin, Ferrous Sulfate (Iron), Thiamin Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Folic Acid, Cheese Sauce Mix, Whey, Milkfat, Milk Protein Concentrate, Sodium Tripoly Phosphate, Citric Acid, Sodium Phosphate, Lactic Acid, Milk, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Enzymes, Cheese Culture (many of these ingredients are organic compounds derived from corn). Pasta packages with added sauces are "majorly packed with huge doses of sodium," Baker warns. "A tsunami of kidney disease is coming." In time, as the kidneys strain to filter out excess sodium, they break down, resulting in high blood pressure and an overworked heart. On the bottom shelf is the commodity itself: Safeway brand California long-grain brown rice. It's washed but otherwise unprocessed. A raw food in a plastic bag requires cooking, not microwaving. A food with the lowest profit margin, but with the highest nutritional value, always finds the lowest shelf.
Confirming this, a few steps farther, are the raw legumes -- pinto, navy, split -- basic food in generic array, also outlawed to the bottom shelf. A one-pound package of great northern white beans is 99 cents. "You can't get any better than that," Baker says. "Beans are one of the most perfect foods: protein, the cholesterol-lowering fiber, no fat, no sodium. One of these packages could feed several people for several days. Anytime someone says that eating healthy is expensive -- you can't pass that one off on me."
Though Baker's been decrying the health dangers of packaged foods and our penchant to make such choices, she's also suggesting what should be but is not obvious: none of the food we've examined in an hour at Vons is local. Few of us, when we think about food, think "origin." Labels like "product of USA" or "organic USA" are no help. Vons's source for its food is massive warehouses, with shrink-wrapped products stacked to the ceiling on pallets, in Pleasanton, California. (Vons, a subsidiary of Safeway, has more than 300 stores in Southern California.) And before that? The Central Valley? Mexico? At my neighborhood Vons in Clairemont, I ask the produce chief -- he's stacking, with cartoon swiftness, a bin of yellow onions, "product of Peru" -- whether any of the produce is local. He shakes his head at a tempo half as fast as his hands pyramid the fruit. If it were, would it be labeled? Another shake no.