A Magical (Food) Journey

by Hannah Macfarlane

Some people visit theme parks to go on the rides, others go to investigate the food. For Hannah Macfarlane, her winter vacation presented an opportunity for both. Keep reading to explore Orlando’s famous parks as told through meals and learn some tips for eating your way to a great vacation .

Over winter break, my mom and I headed to Orlando for four days of theme park hopping: two days at Walt Disney World and two days at Universal Studios. We walked more than forty miles, rode nearly every roller coaster designed for people over the age of six, and took lots of awkward selfies so our family at home in the Northeast could envy the beautiful weather. And because I am a food-loving nutrition student, I made it my mission to find the healthiest, most satisfying theme park food I could.

Quick disclaimer: if you want to eat cheeseburgers, churros, and cotton candy while you’re on vacation (or not), go for it! No food is bad food, ESPECIALLY when you’re in the Happiest Place on Earth™. For me, eating balanced meals was important because I have a sensitive stomach and experience acid reflux, so my goal was to find foods that wouldn’t make me feel sick while riding roller coasters that made me feel sick. Isn’t that great logic?

Day 0:

We had originally planned to do one day at Disney and two at Universal, but thanks to some last minute inspiration and a free flight change from Delta, we ended up arriving in Orlando a day early. That meant more time for rides, and more food to eat! Before we checked into our hotel, we stopped by the supermarket (Publix, obviously) to pick up some food and local beer for our mini fridge. Breakfast ended up being the one meal that stayed consistent all week: fresh berries with plain Greek yogurt and chocolate granola, and whatever coffee we could find. I referred to my breakfast as “room service,” but really it was my wonderful mother waiting on me so I could sleep in. She’s a saint.

Day 1:

Not food, but I had to throw in a photo of Cinderella's castle at night! (Image source: Author)

Not food, but I had to throw in a photo of Cinderella’s castle at night! (Image source: Author)

We officially began our adventure in the utopia that is Magic Kingdom. I’d downloaded the Disney World app the previous week and looked at the menus about 17 times each, so I knew I wanted to drag my mom to Columbia Harbour House for lunch. I ordered the Grilled Salmon; she had the Broccoli Peppercorn Salad. The food was good, but the best part of the meal was making a new friend in the form of a flight attendant from Seattle who had run the “Dopey Challenge” the previous weekend—a 5K, 10K, half marathon, and full marathon in sequential days. I discovered that not only are there obsessed Disney World fans and obsessed runners, there are a ton of people out there who are both. Personally, I prefer to get my physical activity in by skipping from ride to ride, but to each their own.

For dinner, we swung by the Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn, located in the Frontier Land area. I went for the tacos, but quickly fell in love when I discovered the UNLIMITED GUACAMOLE. Yes, you read that right. After you order your food—I got a Taco Trio with Seasoned Ground Beef, Seasoned Chicken, and Spicy Breaded Cauliflower topped with 5-spice Yogurt and Pineapple Salsa – you head to the toppings bar for all the fixin’s. I am not kidding when I say I helped myself to a full cup of guacamole, or $10 worth if we’re talking in Chipotle terms.

Day 2:

This was our longest day; we were in the parks from 8 am (pre-rope drop for those in the know) to 11 pm. Lunch was this bowl from Satu’li Canteen in the new Pandora section of Animal Kingdom, and it was DELICIOUS. I hadn’t decided what to eat until I walked past the restaurant and scoped out the menu (I spent a lot of time looking at menus, clearly). As soon as I saw it was a build-your-own-bowl place, I knew I had to get that food in my belly. I would have gone back for dinner but we were in Epcot by that point. Go to Pandora for the food, stay to watch people suffer through the ridiculously long lines for the Avatar Flight of Passage ride.

(Image source: Author)

(Image source: Author)

Our second park dinner was our only real sit-down meal during the four days of park hopping. One of my mom’s best friends and her daughter had planned a trip to Disney at the same time, so we met up at Restaurant Marrakesh in the World Showcase. My mom and I ordered two dishes—Roast Lamb Meshoui and Shish Kebab—and swapped halfway through so we could try both. Honestly, the best part of the World Showcase is the food—you can try food from all around the world in one place!

A typical menu at Universal Studios. (Image source: Author)

A typical menu at Universal Studios. (Image source: Author)

Day 3:

As much as I love Disney (and I do LOVE Disney), I was most excited to visit Universal for one reason only: the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I don’t love being surrounded by hordes of people, but I’m happy to deal with crowds of Muggles trying to catch a photo of the Gringotts dragon mid-fire breath.

The food at Universal Studios is generally pretty limited, making me wish there were house elves on hand to cook up our favorite foods. When you search the park’s website for “healthy options” in the two main parks you get one result, and it costs $50 for an adult. That said, it’s the Marvel meet-and-greet restaurant, so you may get to hang out with Thor.

I made the rookie mistake of winging lunch that day, and I ended up struggling to find something that met my requirements (read: not a burger and fries) while fighting through my “hanger.” We finally ended up at Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck for—you guessed it—more tacos. Sadly, the guacamole there was NOT unlimited, but I did enjoy the Korean beef. Universal closed at the non-magical hour of 7 pm, so we didn’t waste time getting dinner at the park. Why eat when you can ride the Hulk again and again?

Sunset over Hogsmeade. (Image source: Author)

Sunset over Hogsmeade. (Image source: Author)

Day 4:

After my lunchtime annoyance of the previous day, I had already decided to visit Fire Eater’s Grill for our final lunch. The food wasn’t the best, but my gyro came with a side of veggies (carrots and celery sticks) and hummus. Not too shabby! Disappointingly, there were no fire eaters to be found. 

Ice cream at Florean Fortescue's Ice Cream Parlour (*authentic British spelling!) (Image source: Author)

Ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour (*authentic British spelling!) (Image source: Author)

I only got ice cream once during our four days in the park, but this cup from Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour* was totally worth the wait. As a huge Harry Potter fan, just having the experience of eating ice cream in Diagon Alley would have been enough for me; this ice cream also happened to be incredibly tasty. My mom and I ordered separately and somehow both ended up with salted caramel blondie and clotted cream. Accio deliciousness!

After picking up souvenirs at Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment, we headed back to Hogsmeade only to discover that the park closed at 6 pm. I didn’t get to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey again, but we did have extra time to get tasty Ethiopian food for dinner near our hotel.

Overall, I was pretty satisfied with the food I found at both parks, especially Disney World. It definitely takes some effort and planning, but there are vegetables to be found! Most importantly, I had a blast.


  1. Do breakfast/coffee in the hotel so you’re in a good mood by the time you reach the park. Those crowds can be brutal and you don’t want to face them when you’re hangry (trust me on that one).
  2. Bring snacks. I had plenty of dried mango in my bag so that I could raise my blood sugar whenever I felt myself getting cranky (see above). We also had pretzels, cheese crackers, beef jerky, nuts, and granola bars—snacking is a serious business for us!
  3. Plan ahead. This is especially true if you have any kind of dietary restrictions. I’m just picky, but I still got a little hangry (again, see above) on the one day I didn’t pick a lunch spot ahead of time. (Sorry, Mom!)
  4. Look into the meal plans. We didn’t do this, but both Disney and Universal offer flat rate meal plans that are accepted at many on-site dining locations. As a bonus, you’ll feel like a freshman again!

Hannah Macfarlane is a second year student in the Nutrition Interventions, Communication, and Behavior Change program. Her favorite activities include re-reading Harry Potter, snacking, and pretending to be a kid again.


To Meat, or Not to Meat? (Is That Really the Question?)

by Kathleen Nay

After eight years of keeping a vegetarian diet, I’m compelled to ask myself: why am I still a vegetarian? And more intriguingly, why are my former-vegan and -vegetarian friends not?

Photo: Pexels.com

Photo: Pexels.com

Eight years ago, transitioning to a vegetarian diet was my New Year’s resolution. I’d just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals about the dark side of animal agriculture, and I’d been with my partner—a lifelong vegetarian—for three years. At that point making the swap seemed inevitable, and I’ve pretty much been vegetarian ever since.

It wasn’t a difficult transition. My dad had become vegetarian when I was a pre-teen, and we never had much meat in the house to begin with. Meat was a “special occasion” food, or something I’d order at a restaurant, but rarely prepared at home. For me, the choice was convenient and socially acceptable. I felt convinced that a vegetarian diet was best for the planet, and it neatly sidestepped the complex feelings I had around causing harm to sentient animals and the workers who kill and process them.

But I’ve never lost that particular craving for meat that substitutes just don’t quite satisfy. Some people seem to get over this; my dad, for example, always said that he eventually stopped craving it, and no longer enjoys the taste or texture. Not so for me. If we’re operating on strict definitions of vegetarianism, then I’m technically not one—I sample a bit of turkey at the requisite holiday gatherings, and occasionally give in to a craving for a roast beef sandwich when I need a quick lunch away from home. I try not to hold myself to such high definitional standards, however, and usually identify as a plant-based eater. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve fleetingly thought about abandoning my vegetarianism, though I know that if I were to return to eating meat, I would struggle with the dissonance between my values—the social and environmental benefits of a low-impact diet—and my tastes.

I certainly wouldn’t be the first to experience such turmoil over my diet. I know several individuals who just couldn’t make a plant-based diet stick, and Internet listicles abound with people sharing how they lost their “veginity.” Reportedly, even celebrities once famed for being vegan—Bill Clinton, Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman, and others—have ended their exclusive plant-food affairs.

So I got curious. Why do so many people, once persuaded to give up meat, transition back to it? How do those reasons compare with their motivations for avoiding animal products in the first place? Do they experience guilt or social pressures around their dietary choices, and why?

Much research has been done on factors that predict the likelihood of someone converting to a vegan or vegetarian diet. For example, being female, having greater educational achievement, and higher IQ scores in childhood have each been linked with greater likelihood of becoming vegan or vegetarian as an adult. Some research has linked feminism with vegetarianism. Other work has demonstrated that people who are oriented toward social dominance—that is, those who believe that hierarchical systems should be maintained, a personality trait that predicts social and political attitudes—are actually less likely to become vegan or vegetarian, and are also likely to view vegetarianism as a social threat.

However, the research into factors predicting lapses from vegetarianism is scant, though there are some studies beginning to appear in the literature. One very recent study by Hodson and Earle (2017) looked at whether ideology plays a role in returning to meat consumption. They found that political conservatism tends to predict lapses from vegetarian/vegan diets, particularly among eaters for whom reasons of justice (animal welfare, environmental concerns) are weakest, and for those who do not have strong social support for their dietary choices.

I wondered what I would find if I surveyed my networks. I created a survey of 25 questions for former vegetarians and vegans about why they went vegetarian in the first place; how long they adhered to a vegetarian diet; and what caused them to revert back to eating animal products. In comparison to Hodson and Earle’s work, my investigation is perhaps less academically rigorous and more qualitative in nature, but still valuable for understanding former vegetarians’ dietary motivations.

Through conversations around Friedman I’ve gathered that there are a fair number of us who once identified as vegetarian and no longer do. But I didn’t limit my query to Friedman students or alumni. A large number of people in my life are or once were vegetarian for religious purposes. Having been raised Seventh-Day Adventist, a Protestant Christian denomination whose adherents are well known for abstaining from meat, alcohol and cigarettes, it was once more common for me to meet lifelong vegetarians than to meet someone who regularly consumed meat. As I’m still well connected with this community, my survey skewed slightly toward former vegetarians who were raised with dietary restrictions and/or people who adhered to a vegetarian diet because of religious affiliation.

About 200 former vegetarians and vegans responded to my survey. Most respondents—around 77%—were female, while 18% and 4% identified as male and nonbinary, respectively (this is in keeping with considerable research finding that women are more likely to adhere to a vegetarian diet than men). Respondents’ ages ranged from 20 to 63 years, with the median age being 33. People reported having followed a vegetarian diet for an average of 9.2 years, though actual duration ranged widely, from 6 months to 39 years. Overwhelmingly (85%) respondents specified that they had followed a vegetarian diet, as opposed to being vegan, pescatarian, or fluctuating between the three. (For simplicity, I use the word vegetarian in the rest of this article to encompass all of these terms together.)

Age at conversion to vegetarian/vegan diet

Age at conversion to vegetarian/vegan diet.

Age at conversion back to meat-inclusive diet.

Age at conversion back to meat-inclusive diet.

The largest groups of respondents said they became vegetarian during their teens (45%) and twenties (25%). Respondents also reported transitioning back to eating meat during their twenties (56%) and thirties (22%), potentially suggesting that your parents were right—going vegan in your teens was just a phase. This tracks with ongoing research into the development of the adolescent brain. In a recent episode of the podcast The Gist, journalist Dina Temple-Raston explains that the insular cortex, the area of our brains responsible for causing us to feel empathy, is on hyper alert during adolescence. In her interview with host Mike Pesca, she surmises that “this may explain why you want to save the mountain gorillas when you’re 16, or why you become a vegan.” (Catch Temple-Raston’s Gist interview here.)

Indeed, the most salient reason people gave for rejecting meat in the first place was out of concern for “animal welfare” (20% of received responses). The other most common motivators cited were “health” (17%) and “environment” (16%). That last one especially resonates with me; the enormous environmental footprint of animal agriculture compared to crops is what finally convinced me to give up meat.

But then we get to the crux of my question: what was it that ultimately persuaded my respondents to resume eating animals? Here’s where the data started to get interesting.

The top three reasons respondents provided for why they returned to consuming animal products were “personal taste preferences” (21%), “health” (20%), and “convenience” (16%). Interestingly, health was a significant motivator for transition both toward and away from vegetarianism.

Motivations for converting to vegetarian/vegan diet.

Motivations for converting to vegetarian/vegan diet.

Motivations for converting back to meat-inclusive diet.

Motivations for converting back to meat-inclusive diet.

That health showed up as a primary motivator in both places was really curious to me. I wanted to dig in there, so I filtered out all the responses from individuals who said that health motivated them to both adopt a vegetarian diet and to abandon it. Samples of their comments are reproduced in the tables at right.

Pro-vegetarian/vegan health motivators.

*A common response I received was that a vegan/vegetarian diet was used to hide or aid an eating disorder. In the words of one respondent: “I said I loved animals too much to eat them but I was also really excited about the opportunity to be able to decline to eat in front of other people with a legit excuse.” Fortunately, this respondent later said that they got therapy and learned coping mechanisms as they gradually reintroduced meat to their diet. However, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that the sudden elimination of entire food groups or adoption of dogmatic dietary practices can be red flags for disordered eating. For a brief exploration of this darker side of vegetarianism, read this Psychology Today article by Hal Herzog, Ph.D.

Pro-meat health motivators.

Above: pro-vegetarian/vegan health motivators vs. pro-meat health motivators.

Other questions that yielded interesting results were about convenience and perceived social/cultural pressures to eat meat. Aside from health concerns, frequently given reasons for reverting to omnivore diets included living or traveling abroad (also “living in the South” and living among First Nations peoples in northern British Columbia); not having the time or patience to prepare vegetarian meals; lack of available options on college campuses or at restaurants; causing conflict with loved ones (family members, partners); not wanting to inconvenience hosts or seem rude/ungrateful; unwillingness to “be constantly reading labels, turning down meal invites from friends”; the financial cost of keeping a vegetarian diet; employment (“I now work in a job where we encourage row crop producers to integrate livestock to regenerate soil health…” “I work in a restaurant”); and peer pressure (“Many of my friends ate meat,” “It was culturally weird among my friends… to not eat meat,” “social pressure around parenting”).

Finally, I asked respondents about whether they felt any guilt around eating animal products since resuming the inclusion of meat in their diets. Responses were about evenly split (48% Yes; 52% No). As expected, the majority of people mentioned feeling guilt over concerns about animal cruelty and environmental impact. Other common reasons included embarrassment for not sticking with what they felt was a positive lifestyle choice, unawareness of the meat’s origins, and contradicting their cultural upbringing or religious beliefs about the uncleanliness of certain meats. When asked how they alleviated their guilt or dealt with cognitive dissonance around choices to eat meat, most respondents said that they try to minimize or moderate their meat intake; attempt to source meat locally/ethically; look for alternate ways to reduce their carbon footprint; acknowledge the animal’s life; rationalize that meat is a necessary inclusion for their personal health; try not to think about it; or simply accept their guilt.


Having grown up a mostly-vegetarian Seventh-Day Adventist, and having later developed a more personal, moralized dietary identity, has caused me to reflect on my own cognitive dissonance when I sneak a turkey sandwich. What does my dietary identity even mean? Upon reflection, it actually means quite little in my case; as I admitted earlier, my interpretation of a vegetarian diet is increasingly more relaxed than the term might imply to others. But the distinction between calling myself plant-based as opposed to strictly vegetarian is relatively small—a difference of one or two meals per month, at most. Somehow, to say my diet is “plant-based” makes me feel as though I can hold on to my social/environmental values while giving myself wiggle-room to accommodate the irresistible pull of sensory memory and cultural pressure—in case I get caught with said turkey sandwich.

We adhere to dietary labels and self-imposed restrictions in order to project something about our selves and our values to the world. And yet, some 84% of vegetarians and vegans eventually return to eating meat. If my survey shows me anything, it’s that people’s reasons are vast, varied… and not altogether unreasonable. Now that we’re already a month into our 2018 New Year’s resolutions, I say it’s time to adopt another goal: to start being a little more forgiving of other people’s dietary choices—and our own.

Kathleen Nay is a third-year AFE/UEP dual degree student and co-editor of The Friedman Sprout. For being a vegetarian, she spends an unreasonable amount of time thinking about meat.

Paradise Lost

by Laura Barley

Climate change is a globally felt human experience that recently hit home for California native Laura Barley. Here, she reflects on the wildfires in her home state and takes a look at some policy tools aimed at climate mitigation.

California is on fire. Needless to say, the past two months have been a terrifying series of events. The Thomas Fire has devoured almost 275,000 acres, granting it the all-too dynamic status of the largest wildfire in California’s recent history. It wraps up the most destructive wildfire season California has on record, capping off at over 500,000 acres burned—more than double the total acreage burned in 2016. To add insult to injury some of those acres, charred of all vegetation by the Thomas Fire, bore the burden of a flash flood that killed 21 people in Montecito.

Even though the Friedman School pulled me to Boston, California is and always will be my home. For the most part, I watched the coverage of the Thomas Fire from afar. Tucked away in the icy confines of my Somerville apartment and Jaharis 118, I checked my phone every few hours to see who of my friends had been evacuated, which of my sun-streaked memory lanes had been destroyed. I couldn’t believe what I saw—apocalyptic images of scrubby hillsides swallowed by flames, plumes of orange clouds encompassing the whole sky. Each picture I saw boomed the same message over and over: that nothing would ever be the same again.

Photo credit: CNN.com

Photo credit: CNN.com

The frequency of large-scale devastation speaks for itself: California’s climate is changing. It appears that the massive strain on the state’s agricultural and urban water resources, fueled by the longstanding lure of its eternal growing season and illustrious vision of paradise, have come to a reckoning. Years of prolonged drought followed by a sporadic year of intense rainfall have created ecosystems irresilient to the rapid shifts—groundwater and river basins have all but dried up, leaving forest and chaparral ecosystems as little more than tinderboxes. The euphoric agricultural and commercial boons of the twentieth century have lurched into a twenty-first century defined by scarcity, uncertainty, and dramatic change.

So, what’s really at stake here? Climates change, they have for eons. Species perish and adapt in the great equilibrium of life. And we—Californians, Americans, humans—will adapt too, hopefully in a timely manner. But much of the world finds itself in the middle of a cycle that feels beyond our control, where the climate interventions we make barely seem to break even. The tons of carbon dioxide emissions from a single large-scale wildfire, like the Thomas or Napa Fires, are estimated to equal the annual emissions of all motor vehicles in the state, and definitively offset much of the progress made by the state’s cap-and-trade program.

For the foreseeable future, California and much of the American West will continue to battle climate change on multiple fronts—greenhouse gas emissions, sea level rise, flash flood and wildfire mitigation, to name a few. Encouragingly, Governor Jerry Brown’s administration has made significant headway towards a baseline system of climate accountability across the state. In addition to the emissions cap-and-trade program, since 2009 the Safeguarding California plan has established a template for large-scale climate change adaptation strategies, and continues to convene action plans across multiple state and municipal departments. Additionally, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 has finally enacted groundwater monitoring protocol in a state that will continue to rely almost exclusively on subterranean water stores for agricultural production. These are positive signs of political responsiveness, and hopefully yield noticeable impacts in the years to come.

But at the heart of climate change, there exists a loss more worrisome than any policy analysis or statistics could project. For me, for now, the loss is purely psychological. The sense that all of us feel to some extent, which is felt especially strongly in California and the developed world at large, the sense that nothing bad can ever happen to us—that’s gone now.

Enduring the human experience of losing the places we’ve built from scratch, places with cultural and spiritual significance, places we call home—this is the global price many of us will have to pay in the coming decades. The stories of devastation and loss are the stories we should be paying attention to, the stories that make the numbers real. More importantly, they’re the stories that motivate us to action, out of fear and compassion that nothing so terrible should ever happen to us again. Because every time it happens, it shouldn’t.

Laura Barley is a second-year AFE Master’s student, who grew up in the Bay Area and lived in Southern California while attending UC Santa Barbara. She is a member of the Water Systems, Science, and Society research program aimed at mitigating water constraints to healthier diets. Most importantly, she strives to be a climate optimist.


“Most Importantly: They Need to Taste F%#@ing Good”

by Sam Jones

Okja is a Netflix original film that was released in June 2017 and directed by Bon Joon Ho. While some may characterize it as a dystopian sci-fi film, others recognize it as a commentary on our modern industrial food complex. Warning: spoiler alert.

Screen capture from Okja official trailer, available on Netflix.

Screen capture from Okja official trailer, available on Netflix.

The film begins in 2007 in New York City where Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has recently taken over her father’s controversial agro-chemical company and turned it into a multi-national corporation that produces “natural, eco-friendly, and non-GMO” pork. She begins by presenting a few basic statistics to investors and reporters: the world’s population will surpass 9 billion by 2050 yet there are still millions of people going hungry around the world today. Lucy Mirando’s solution to global hunger and the growing population is to produce more food in the form of “super-pigs.”

Okja is the star super-pig of this story, but she does not much resemble the pigs we are used to. She is abnormally gargantuan and something of a mix between a dog, an elephant, and a rabbit. Her odd appearance seems to instill the sense that there is something fundamentally unnatural about her, however cute she may be. Ten years after the film’s opening scene in New York, the film brings us to the mountains of South Korea. A girl named Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) has been raising Okja for those ten years as more of a pet and a friend than as the property of an agro-chemical company. After a brief glimpse into the day-to-day adventures of Okja and Mija, the viewer is reminded that Okja’s fate will not be as rosy as her upbringing. The arrival of “the face of the Mirando Corporation,” Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal)—a wheezing, flamboyant, animal-loving, washed-up celebrity—signals the beginning of the end for Okja. She has been chosen by the Mirando Corporation as the Number One Super Pig (enormous, beautiful, and healthy) which means she must be transported back to New York City for the Super Pig Project’s inaugural celebration. The film now follows Mija, tricked into letting Johnny Wilcox take her beloved friend away, as she ventures to the United States to liberate Okja and bring her home.

While the Mirando Corporation claims that Okja and several other super-piglets were discovered on a farm in Chile, the truth is not so noble. In reality, Okja and other super-pigs like her are the result of genetic modification and breeding experiments conducted in a New Jersey lab. Sending the best-looking super-piglets to be raised by small farmers around the world turns out to be just a clever marketing scheme and cover-up. The Mirando Corporation knows that genetically modifying animals is dangerous and controversial, which is why they are being marketed as farm-raised, all-natural, GMO-free pigs.

While the film does not explicitly spell it out, it creates astoundingly familiar parallels to the reality of our current meat industry. Chickens, for example, have been bred to grow faster and larger than is biologically natural. Whereas a chicken being raised for meat forty years ago would be 4 pounds at 10 weeks old, today’s chickens reach a 5-pound market weight in half that time. It is an efficient and cost-effective method for bringing cheap, uniform food to consumers’ plates. It is arguably, however, unnatural, inhumane, and lacking in transparency.

Just as the super-pigs in Okja are genetically engineered to be abnormally large, so are today’s meat chickens (commonly called broilers). And just as the Mirando Corporation falsely markets its super-pigs as non-GMO, eco-friendly, and all-natural, the chicken industry now has labels for cage-free, free-range, antibiotic-free, and all-natural that rarely meet those standards as consumers expect. For example, cage-free hens are now able to spread their wings and move around, but studies have shown that they are not necessarily any healthier. Cage-free hens are more exposed to disease and higher ammonia levels and exhibit more aggressive behavior toward other hens. Such conditions are also more hazardous and arduous for workers who have shown greater incidence of respiratory problems. Free-range is also a misleading label. Chickens certified as free-range merely need access to the outdoors, the quality, time exposure, and size of which is not defined. A free-range chicken could therefore still spend its entire life in a warehouse, with perhaps the occasional chance to step outside onto a 10 by 10 slab of fenced-in concrete. In our current food industry, as in Okja, labels and marketing can be misleading and undermine consumer choice to the extent that what you think you are buying may be far from the truth, if not the inverse.

While Okja may seem like a strange sci-fi adventure movie, the underlying premise of animals bred for captivity, slaughter, and mass consumption is an emotional commentary on the food system we have created. But more than that, Okja is at its heart a film about humaneness. It finally asks us the impertinent questions that other films and books have until now failed to convincingly answer: Why are we treating animals this way? How have we become so blind to the irony of simultaneously loving and eating animals? Are we already living in a dystopian reality?

Nearing the film’s conclusion, one line stood out as the most disheartening of all. When the truth comes out about the Super Pig Project, and Lucy Mirando is exposed to the world, her advisors wonder whether customers will knowingly buy the meat their company has spent a decade producing. To quell all concerns, Lucy’s sister Nancy (also played by Tilda Swinton) responds: “If it’s cheap, they’ll eat it.”

And that is the saddest truth about the industrial food complex. If food is cheap, people will continue to eat it. And this pattern should not be viewed as a fault of the frugal consumer. Our system has been designed to provide the illusion of choice while in reality providing only one choice: the cheap choice. Any number of documentaries can be made or investigative books written on the inside truth of slaughterhouses and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). But the cost of producing that meat has yet to appear on the price tag of the finished product. And until it does—until the suffering, wastefulness, pollution, and myriad other negative externalities are included in the cost of buying it—people will continue eating it. That is what the super-pigs in Okja and the animals currently raised in CAFOs around the world amount to: a slab of meat in a plastic package for you and me to snack on, whether to satisfy a craving or distract us from boredom.

While producing super pigs to solve world hunger was the initial premise of the Mirando Corporation’s intention, it is not addressed at any other point in the film. In reality, meat is likely not feeding the hungriest people. If the goal of producing more, cheaper, faster-growing meat was to end world hunger, the model would fail even if the super pigs weren’t genetically modified, raised in confinement, and slaughtered on an assembly line. Meat is in truth a mere indulgence that is neither nutritionally necessary nor environmentally or economically sustainable. But it is cheap, so we will keep eating it despite these external costs. And the slaughter will continue because at the end of the day, as Nancy Mirando tells us in the film, meat is a commodity produced by an industry run by “hardworking business people who do deals. And these are the deals [they] do.”

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with an interest in sustainable agricultural development. She considers herself a “situational vegetarian” and claims to have a larger dessert stomach than the average human being. She is looking forward to knitting, reading, watching movies, baking, and snowshoeing over winter break.


Bringing Everyone to the Table: Accommodating Special Diets During the Holidays

by Kathleen Nay

Thanksgiving is over and the leftovers are dwindling, but there is more holiday eating and meal prep on the horizon. As food and nutrition professionals, we understand that emotions can run high when it comes to sharing meals, traditions, and dietary restrictions with a crowd. So what can a holiday meal that balances a variety of special diets look like?

In my family, every shared meal requires some logistical acrobatics. We have vegetarians, vegans, people with nut allergies, and people with Celiac disease. Some of the dietary restrictions are self-imposed—my husband and I choose not to consume meat, and he prefers to extend that choice to eliminating all animal products, including eggs and dairy. (Me? Well… I enjoy cheese and sour cream, and the occasional fried egg.) But the dietary restrictions of others in our family are not by choice. My brother has a severe tree nut allergy; my mother in law has Celiac disease and must be careful to avoid even a crumb of gluten. Most in our extended families also abstain from alcohol. Needless to say, communal meals can be a challenge.

This year our guests included some friends from undergrad, one friend's dad and cousin, and my husband's parents. We tried to make our meal both vegan-friendly and gluten-free where possible. Photo: Kathleen Nay

This year our guests included some friends from undergrad, one friend’s dad and cousin, and my husband’s parents. We tried to make our meal both vegan-friendly and gluten-free where possible. Photo: Kathleen Nay

Last November, the New York Times published an article about the ways in which special diets can heighten tensions at the holidays. The article focuses its attention on teenagers and children who use dietary restrictions to exert their budding independence. While I think it misses its mark in this regard—there are plenty of adults, young and old, who have legitimate reasons for their specific dietary needs—this doesn’t change the fact that tensions often run hot around holiday food traditions, regardless of the reasoning.

Though the article itself was published over a year ago, the comments section is still active—and telling. There is much hand-wringing, with recent comments ranging from, “Why make Grandma cry? Eat it and say thank you!” to “Welcoming people into your home involves actually being welcoming. When I invite people over I always ask about food restrictions…” to “Sounds awfully complicated to be required to chart everyone’s restrictions.”

So how do you plan a holiday meal that is inclusive of every eater’s needs? In our household, we’ve figured out a few strategies that work for us and our loved ones.

Be up front about your needs, and ask guests if they have special diets.
When sending out invitations for the holiday gatherings, we tell guests up front that we’re a vegan/vegetarian household. Giving people forewarning about the foods you personally cannot eat gives them a chance to plan accordingly, and saves you both from embarrassment at the dinner table. Likewise, as you plan your meal, ask your guests for advice about any foods they avoid and alternatives they prefer. This will give them some assurance that there will be something they can eat.

Barring any severe allergies, invite guests to bring what they like (even if you might not eat it yourself).
Although we’re vegetarian, turkey has been served at our table! A benefit of hosting potluck-style meals is that everyone gets to bring at least one dish they know they’ll be able to eat. When we’ve hosted holiday meals in the past, we usually make most of the dishes, but include a list of suggested sides that people might bring to complement the meal. At Thanksgivings past, I’ve always told guests that they should feel free to bring a turkey if they’d like to have it (because I know that most people are thinking, what’s Thanksgiving without turkey?) One year, a friend felt up to the challenge of roasting his own bird, so he brought it to share with our other omnivore guests. (Our cat was also very happy to have real meat scraps thrown her way.) Not only does this make guests feel more welcome in our home, it also gives people the space to cook what they’d like.

Emma wonders hopefully whether anyone brought turkey this year. Sadly, no one did. Photo: Anna van Ornam

Emma wonders hopefully whether anyone brought turkey this year. Sadly, no one did. Photo: Anna van Ornam

Make sure to include at least a few dishes that everyone can eat (and be clear about which dishes have hidden ingredients someone may wish to avoid).
Remember that not everyone will necessarily eat everything—and that’s okay. At our recent holiday gathering, everything was vegetarian, but not everything was vegan or gluten free. There were “meatballs” made from quinoa and black beans—gluten-free, but not vegan. However, we also had Portobello mushroom patties on our table—both vegan and gluten-free! If there are dishes that are not made from scratch, be sure to read labels for hidden ingredients.

A sampling of what was on our table this year. Photo: Kathleen Nay

A sampling of what was on our Thanksgiving table this year. Photo: Kathleen Nay

If you can use a substitute, do.
Not every recipe lends itself to being easily converted to a nut, gluten, or dairy-free dish. But try to make simple swaps. Toss veggies in olive oil instead of butter to go dairy-free. Use vegetable stock instead of chicken or beef stock to make a dish vegetarian. Consider using a plant-based milk like nut, seed or soy instead of cow’s milk. Use gluten-free cornstarch to thicken the gravy. Try crushed ginger snaps to make a gluten-free crust for your pumpkin pie.

Leave the toppings on the side.
We have a recipe for lemon green beans that we absolutely love. The toasted pistachios sprinkled on top gives them just the right nutty flavor and crunch. But when my nut-allergic brother visits? Leaving the pistachios in a dish on the side is an easy fix.

Don’t question what is or isn’t on a guest or family member’s plate.
Whatever people chose to eat or not eat while at your house—just don’t worry about it, and don’t be offended! A friend of mine in recovery from anorexia recently reminded folks on her Facebook page to be sensitive to friends and family who suffer from eating disorders, which might not be outwardly obvious. She advised that comments about weight, talk about having to diet or exercise to work off your holiday meal(s), and general comments about not “needing” to have seconds or dessert can be triggering for folks with eating disorders. What a person decides to put on or leave off their plate is their choice. If a guest isn’t into a particular dish you’ve made, just remember that whatever their reason, it probably isn’t about you.

I'm thankful for friends who let us try out sometimes-unusual recipes on them! Photo: Kathleen Nay

I’m thankful for friends who let us try out sometimes-unusual recipes on them! Photo: Kathleen Nay

Finally, share your recipes!
We’ve hosted lots of friends and family at our place over the years. Most of our friends don’t typically eat strict vegan diets, but thankfully all of them have been willing to try our sometimes-weird recipes. (Not a holiday food, but jackfruit carnitas, anyone?) Sometimes they’ll even ask how we make a particular dish. I believe that good food is meant to be shared, and I’m always happy to do so if it means making future meals together a little more inclusive.

Kathleen Nay is a third-year AFE/UEP dual degree student who’s been vegetarian for nearly eight years (though she admits to the occasional sneaky turkey sandwich). Her cat Emma, seeing her humans eat only vegetables, thinks human food is utterly bland and will stick to her kibble, thank-you-very-much.


It’s Time We Rethink Food Rescue

by Eliot Martin

“Food rescue” seems to be a hot topic these days. Picking up wasted food from supermarkets and delivering it to low income communities has been extolled as a way to reduce waste and provide nourishment to those in need. This editorial explores why a more nuanced approach to food recovery is warranted to achieve the outcomes we want.

Palettes full of donated bakery items in the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) warehouse

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the aisles upon aisles of processed foods in a typical American supermarket. Go to one end of the store and you’ll likely find a bounty of produce, and on the other, a cornucopia of baked goods. The store is packed well beyond what can be sold in a timeframe that meets brand quality standards.

An abundant supply of whatever the consumer may want or need is now not only expected, but a marketing necessity in supermarkets. This culture of abundance is wasteful.

What happens to all the food that isn’t purchased within its shelf life? Who is paying for all the waste?

The simple answer to these questions is that, in many cases, the food is simply discarded. We all share the same burden of this waste, in the form of higher food costs passed onto consumers and in the form of greater ecological footprints tied to the food we consume—or in this case, the food we don’t consume. According to USDA estimates, 10% of the entire US food supply, or about $54 billion is wasted at the retail level alone.

In recent years, food justice and environmental advocates have shed new light on the waste accumulated by our industrialized food system, and have raised awareness about the potential nutritional value of the food being discarded. This has led to the proliferation of so-called “food rescue” efforts, to claim what would-be food waste as donations to address food security. We must stop to think, however, about whether these well-meaning initiatives to recover and redistribute discarded food really hit the mark.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to work with the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) Food Pantry Network in Des Moines, Iowa. The non-profit organization does tremendous work to ensure residents of the Des Moines area are food secure. They deliver thousands of pounds of produce and other food items, with nutrition conscious intentions, to hundreds of families every week—all with just a handful of employees. Part of the food distributed is picked up or dropped off from local supermarkets with which DMARC has partnered. However, to avoid deterring donations and help eliminate food waste, the organization has adopted a policy of accepting all food donations and distributes food free of cost to those who opt to receive it. Similar policies are espoused by organizations from Feeding America to community level activist groups.

At first glance, it may seem like a win-win. But with a closer look, the policy warrants a much more critical evaluation. Although hundreds of pounds of nutritious produce are picked up from retailers and delivered to pantries weekly, the vast majority of food items recovered and distributed are highly processed junk foods, and sugar and fat laden baked goods.

When considering the countless man-hours and hundreds of food miles that go into even small-scale food recovery, the policy begins to sound less efficient. Another question is raised: Where is all this processed food is going?

Research from Iowa State University suggests that the population served by DMARC food pantries has a much higher prevalence of diabetes and heart disease than the general population. Research across the U.S. suggests that for most demographics, obesity rates are at least as high among individuals of lower socioeconomic status. The nutritional challenges facing food pantry beneficiaries are less about having enough calories, but having the right nutrients. DMARC’s work making it easier for low income families to have access to unhealthful foods by refusing to turn down those donations, in effect, may contribute to a public health epidemic of chronic disease morbidity.

It has been argued by food rescue proponents that policies to accept and distribute all food waste promotes choice among low income consumers, that beneficiaries are able to have more of the food they want and need at a lower cost. Taking insight from the field of behavioral economics, we must consider that circumstance influences the food decisions we make. By the same principles that food companies use in marketing, merely making junk food more accessible is likely to cause greater consumption than would otherwise be desired. Furthermore, any food provided by food pantries is likely to empower consumer choice because it effectively increases disposable income.

Maybe the real question we should be asking is: what is the true cost of all those shelves full of impeccable looking food? Perhaps we can decide instead that the more just, economical, and sustainable option is to rethink the amount of waste created in the first place. Solutions to food waste must be economical and incorporate nutritional needs to be sustainable. We should first find ways to reduce the presence of saturated fat, sugar, and salt laden foods on grocery store shelves. Perhaps “junk” food and foods with low nutritional density should remain junk when pulled from shelves. Instead of dumping these surplus products on food pantries to serve to at-risk populations, resources could better be used elsewhere. Perhaps these efforts could go into developing markets for wasted produce or towards behavior change interventions that increase consumption of nutrient dense foods and reduce risk of further burdens on public health.

The Des Moines Area Religious Council’s (DMARC) Summer Free Produce Stand—Des Moines, Iowa


Eliot Martin is an MS candidate in the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition program at the Tufts University Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. He is passionate about exploring the intersection between behavioral decision making and its policy implications globally. Even outside of his work and studies, he finds that much of his life revolves around food and travel. Eliot can be contacted at eliot.martin@tufts.edu or on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/eliot-martin-food-behavior/