Tuesday, May 13, 2014

An American Diet

Belgian "fast food" : the rotisserie chicken truck
that makes regular appearances at all of the
local markets
I love food and one of the things I love about Belgium is the variety of interesting foods that are available to me. Belgians love their food; eating is an experience and this is reflected in the quality of the food around us. The importance of food is taught to children from birth and this is reflected in everything from school lunches to leisurely family meals. The local grocery stores and community markets are overflowing with food from all over the world. And as an American military family living in Belgium we have even more options when it comes to buying food since we also have access to the military commissary. Perhaps it is because I most recently lived in a country with limited food options (under no conceivable imagination were we food deprived, rather variety and our choices were simply limited) so some days when I think about it my choices simply overwhelm me. I know I am lucky in this respect.

When we first arrived here I was excited at the prospect of being able to shop at the commissary again. After all, the products were the familiar ones from home and familiarity breeds comfort. Or so I thought. But after shopping in European grocery stores and open air markets for a few years, even those offering less than stellar varieties of items, I found myself being underwhelmed by what I found. Produce, much of it having been imported to the United States before making its way to Belgium, looked old, lackluster, and unappetizing. And the "American" food that I thought I had been longing for? They weren't there. Instead the commissary shelves were filled with brightly colored American branded convenience foods that did little to whet my appetite. If I wanted anything from Old El Paso, Nabisco or any flavor so sports drink imaginable I would have been in luck. But I didn't. I was disappointed to say the least but quickly realized that the familiar products I had been longing for were actually the ones that I bought off of the shelves at Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and the like and not your mainstream American grocery store. But then I took a step back and really started to explore the local stores (or "shopping on the economy" in military speak) and loved what I found.

Yes, with my rudimentary knowledge of French shopping in the local Carrefour or the village markets takes longer and has resulted, on more than one occasion, with my coming home with the wrong item, but what I do bring home just tastes so much better. Items that are supposed to be fresh are just that. Meats aren't pre-frozen, thawed and shrink wrapped in plastic, vegetables were harvested from the fields that morning. And when it comes to canned or boxed items the grocery store is filled with international foods and speciality items that one can only find in places like Whole Foods or Trader Joe's in the United States. With the assistance of Google Translate I realize that the canned items are free of so many of the preservatives and added sugars that are pervasive in many American brands. Here, these items are common place and because they aren't considered to be gourmet, they are relatively inexpensive. In a single aisle in my local Carrefour I can find imported items from Greece, Turkey, Poland and Africa plus Germany, Italy, Great Britain and France. And if I can't find it in the store I am sure to be able to locate it in one of the stalls at the outdoor market. When I think about it, I don't think I've ever not been able to find what I was looking for. Shopping, and eating, here is a true foodie's dream. And shopping at the commissary? Frankly I am a bit embarrassed by how poorly Americans seem to eat (since the food on the shelf is obviously being purchased I can only assume that it is being eaten) and no longer shop there on a regular basis. And the small section of "American" food at Carrefour? I avoid that too......

So all of this makes me wonder: do Americans really eat that poorly? I think many do but I'm not really sure why. Real foods often cost more that processed, prepackaged ones so economics does play a role in diets. In many inner city urban environments, fresh fruits and vegetables are harder to find making canned items that have long shelf lives more attractive. But what about the more affluent suburbs where grocery stores and fresh produce are readily available? Are Americans so busy that they can't take the time to cook a balanced and healthy dinner? Are consuming the food colorings, artificial flavors and preservatives that accompany so many pre-packaged foods worth the convenience of just opening a can and heating it in the microwave? Is there simply not a demand for high quality "real" foods? I find that a bit hard to believe but I'm not sure what else can explain it. In Europe, these real foods seem to be more the norm. Europe is after all, the birthplace of the Slow Food Movement. That isn't to say that Europeans don't eat processed foods; they do. They also eat their share of convenience foods but many times this convenience food is real food that is ready to eat. A stroll through the Sunday market in Mons reveals just this. Complete, ready cooked meats, pastas, and other dinners sit alongside their fresh and raw counterparts giving patrons the choice of how they want to buy their food. And if the packed market is any indication (it is always crowded whenever we visit), Belgians demand this quality. And I find myself demanding this quality as well.

Seasonal produce being sold at an open air market
All is not lost, or at least that is what I need to believe. People around the globe, the United States included, do care about food and the meals their families eat. It really is all a mindset and a reflection of what we are used to as a society. Change, whether positive or negative, doesn't happen over night so changing the way we eat and think about food is an ongoing work in progress. But where do we stand today? I think a recent article in the United Kingdom's Daily Mail says it best. The article made me pause and think and I hope it will do the same for you.

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