Nutrition and Social Welfare: What Would Frances Stern Do?
"There is meager knowledge of the comparative nutritive value of various kinds of food," lamented Frances Stern in an August 23, 1914 column in the Boston Globe. The column went on to explain the importance of protein in the diet, and to compare the nutritional value of various foods, along with their cost. Stern particularly emphasized the importance of education in nutrition as a way of helping poor women make the most of their food budgets. A social worker, nutritionist, educator, and pioneering dietician, Stern was a leading exponent of the idea that adequate nutrition was crucial to social welfare.
It's remarkable to look at the politics of nutrition today, almost a century later, and realize that while so much has changed, the "nutrition gap" between socio-economic classes is as bad as it ever was.
Frances Stern, whose Boston Food Clinic was renamed the Frances Stern Nutrition Center and is now a part of Tufts-New England Medical Center, was really the first person to recognize the intersection of health, social welfare, nutrition, ethnicity, and economic status. Today we understand those connections, but thanks to a number of agricultural, economic, and social changes over the past 94 years, we don't seem to have made much progress. In fact, things may have gotten worse.
Since 1914, America gave birth to "fast food," a cheap alternative to restaurant dining. Fast food is unhealthy in and of itself, but its impact on nutrition in America has been much more insidious. The demand for cheap chicken and beef created by fast food chains changed the American meat industry forever, which changed the corn industry. And thanks to government subsidies on corn, we have an overabundance of corn by-products like high fructose corn syrup that are cheaper than sugar. And there are plenty of arguments to be made that fast food and cheap prepared foods combined with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle have contributed to the rise in obesity, especially among the poor. (For full disclosure, my understanding of this issue has been shaped largely by the documentary Food, Inc. and I am happy and interested to hear other perspectives.)
In recent years, there have been movements towards organic food and locally farmed food, not to mention the rising popularity of vegetarianism and veganism. But these movements are highly problematic if you consider economic status and availability. Organic and local foods, not to mention soy products and other meat alternatives, are expensive and cost-prohibitive for the majority of the population.
But even if these foods were affordable, nutrition and cooking education would still be a barrier for many. If you grew up eating Kraft mac and cheese and Burger King, would you know what to do with the endives and arugula from your farm share? As Frances Stern understood, a huge part of nutrition is about knowing how to cook with healthy ingredients. But since the turn of the century, the U.S. food market has been flooded with prepared foods that are often loaded with sodium and saturated fats. It's never been easier to get by without cooking. Of course, the prepared foods issue is not black and white; there have been social benefits from it as well. Just look at the contributions made by another Jewess, the late Sylvia Schur.
Sylvia Schur was a food-science pioneer, one of the first to use technology to create things like Metrecal (the precursor to Slim Fast), recipes for Campbells, and other "convenience foods." Her story reminds us that quick-prep and no-prep meals were a big part of women's lib -- liberation from the kitchen, that is. Easy to make dishes like mac and cheese and eat-on-the-go foods like protein shakes made it easier for women to enter the workforce and still feed themselves and their families. After all, Metrecal was developed not as a diet aid, but as a nutritional supplement for working women who were likely to skip lunch. Schur's story reminds us of the potential of food science to make nutritious foods more affordable, available, and convenient. But that potential, sadly, has not been realized.
In 1895, Frances Stern organized the Louisa May Alcott Club to teach nutrition and homemaking to young girls. She took a course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Ellen Richards, who went on to found the American Home Economics Association. When I was in high school, we did not have home economics or cooking classes. I am not sure when Home Economics stopped being widely taught in public schools, but I am inclined to think that abandoning it was a mistake. Perhaps it's time for a new spin on Home Ec, one that teaches both male and female students how to shop for and cook nutritious meals on a budget. But unfortunately this problem is so huge that a simple solution like reinstating Home Ec would not be nearly enough.
Today I keep asking myself: WWFSD?
What would Frances Stern do?