Despite the fact that San Diegans live in an ideal climate for growing food -- growing more than we do now, that is, which would mean irrigation systems and reconverting the river valleys to farms and orchards -- we follow the national norm: from source to mouth, food grown in America is shipped an average of 1500 miles. For Baker, the worst part is that this shipped-far food has lost all its nutrition because, in order to travel those 1500 miles, the food often must be processed and preserved for its life on the shelf. What's replaced the nutritional elements of food are nonnutritive sweeteners and chemical additives that add bulk, taste, and preservatives. If the food were nutritious, it would be less processed, and, as a result, it would be local -- or, at least, raised and harvested regionally and seasonally. Baker and I sit down to discuss how, in cities and towns of the world, green grocers still take deliveries of fresh food daily; they sell the fish, the broccoli, the pears to people who soon consume them. Such sellers, however, barely exist in America anymore. Nor is there much authentic regional cooking. Southern, coastal, Western cuisines, boasted of on some menus, have been re-engineered or homogenized with fat-ridden substitutes. Baker says that the closest San Diego gets to a regional diet is Mexican cuisine. "You've got the beans, the corn tortillas, the chiles, the spices -- very heart protective. It's a great diet when proteins complement each other."
In the American diet, with 90 percent processed foods (such as Uncle Ben's) and 10 percent raw (long-grain brown rice), it's easy to conclude that most of us seldom eat fresh food. Our main diet is synthesized corn and soybeans, the staples of processed food. These two crops, in the form of starches and sugars, account for the majority ingredient in processed foods, from Twinkies to veggie burgers. A soda is 100 percent corn by-product; a McDonald's chicken nugget is 56 percent. The average American consumes a ton of corn per year in processed food or in meat from U.S. cows, which are almost entirely corn-fed, not grass-fed. Since corn and soybeans are grown by huge industrial farms, the food processing industry rarely deals with local or small farmers. Monoculture crops are rooted in heavily fertilized soil and laid out in tractor-friendly rows on huge farms. In Iowa, 72 percent of the farmland is given to corn and soybeans; 80 percent of the food Iowans eat is imported. Today, industrially grown and processed corn and soybeans, even in their organic incarnation -- think cows in feed lots or chickens in half-mile-long pens eating corn and soybeans raised without pesticides -- supply the $438 billion food industry its primary stuffing.
A study from the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis says that Americans get one-third of their calories from junk food. "We are a nation of people," the report notes, "who are simultaneously overfed and malnourished." (Why the overfed American is so hungry is a question that nutritionally adjusted food products are not answering; perhaps it's a cultural disorder that centers on the underfed national soul.) Janet Baker has her own twist on why processed food dominates. "We are programmed," she says, "to seek out high-sugar, high-fat foods. It's a survival mechanism. If you get the fat and the sugar, you have more energy and live longer." She says that the sensation receptors on our tongues respond immediately to sugar and fat. "We're programmed to have aversions to bitterness as a sign of poison. What brought us to today is that our ancestors knew how to seek out high-sugar, high-fat foods." In the human past, however, it mattered less to our health if the food was high in fat and sugar. For one, primitive people rarely ate meat and its fat; for another, their food, by necessity, was seasonal and varied. "And, for centuries," Baker says, "we survived with this food because people, doing physical labor, worked off the calories they consumed."
The real reason why nonnutritious food dominates is the economic efficiency of our system of food processing and food distribution. This tentacled structure is examined as part of Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma. To analyze America's favorite meal, Pollan looks at the "blizzard of information" that McDonald's publishes about the "ingredients and portion sizes, calories, and nutrients" in every dish it serves. The company reveals the composition of each food (some items have more than 40 ingredients) but carefully avoids identifying origins. (There's no federal requirement to list source as part of a food's identity.) But Pollan has tracked down its route with Holmesian deduction: "It comes from refrigerated trucks and from warehouses, from slaughterhouses, from factory farms in towns like Garden City, Kansas, from ranches in Sturgis, South Dakota, from food-science laboratories in Oak Brook, Illinois, from flavor companies on the New Jersey Turnpike, from petroleum refineries, from processing plants owned by Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, from grain elevators in towns like Jefferson," Iowa, and from fields of corn and soybeans that farmers plant, mostly from genetically modified seeds.
Grocery stores and fast-food restaurants sell processed foods; percentage amounts are hard to determine but are between one-half and two-thirds of their sales. So where does the rest of the food come from? I asked Vons and Albertsons, the top two food retailers in the county, but neither returned my calls. Terry O'Neil, director of public relations for Ralphs, the third largest, did. He notes that his store, of which there are 30 in the county, buys its produce from all over the world. Meat and poultry come mostly from within the state. Supply and demand is key. "In the world of produce," O'Neil says, "the consumer wants to be fed that apple, that orange, those grapes, those strawberries, 12 months out of the year. To meet the demand, you have to follow the seasons." Fruits out of season here "in other parts of the world are not." Thirty years ago it was different. "Now, consumers demand we have the same apple, the same orange" in any season. Is Ralphs committed to buying from local farmers? "We always look local first -- 'local' meaning the state of California -- then nationally, then internationally." O'Neil says that depending on the area, there is a call for local products, such as wines in San Luis Obispo. But he knows of no similar demand in our county for a local food. He believes that customer diets "are changing. The trans-fats, low sodium, etc. You'll notice the increasing selection of organics, another result of consumer demand. That section has grown tremendously." O'Neil says Ralphs advertises "California grown." A special product, like persimmons, Ralphs will identify as San Diego County grown. "Typically this would be a unique item to our area that has cachet with the consumer."