Healthy eating, in a place like this

A few months ago, after more than 20 years away from my hometown, St. Louis, Missouri, I moved back from Cambridge, Massachusetts. The move brought many changes. Transitioning from very blue state to a red one, I have noticed many social, political and cultural differences. The Boston area is a great place to live, if you can pay the rent and cope with severe winters. I miss many things there–among them, adult education programs, world-class museums, diverse neighborhoods and restaurants where healthy eating was fairly easy–as well as the extensive network of buses and trains that made it mostly easy to go places without a car.

Not everything I enjoyed in Boston is available here, but St. Louis has changed a lot–in ways that are specific to this area and others that reflect larger shifts in American society. For one thing, it is easier to eat well here than it used to be.

Restaurants then and now

From my childhood and young adult years, I remember steakhouses, pizzerias and load-your-tray cafeterias. The main dining room was usually full of cigarette smoke, and the waitress would look at you funny if you asked about lower-fat salad dressings. In the St. Louis of my youth, ethnic dining consisted largely of Americanized Italian cuisine (pasta with heavy meat sauce and iceberg lettuce salads loaded with provolone and creamy dressing) and old-style Chinese restaurants (where MSG was king). Though many of these places are long gone, some continue to prosper today. The smoke is gone now, and even in places that have done business here for generations, salads usually come with dressings other than French, Thousand Island, bleu cheese and Italian.

There is a much more diverse and expanding array of alternatives today. The change makes it easier for people to find restaurants that feature different ethnic cuisines and healthier choices than were available a generation ago. In addition to many choices among Mexican, Thai, Indian, Greek, Italian, Mediterranean and Vietnamese restaurants, there are now establishments featuring Ethiopian, Himalayan, Russian, Polish, Somalian, Bosnian, Persian, Korean and African food, among other cuisines. Adventurous cooks can shop at Asian, Mediterranean and worldwide groceries.

photo: lunch at lulus vegan eatery: veggie burger and buffalo cauliflower bites

Lunch at Lulu’s Local Eatery: veggie burger with buffalo cauliflower bites on the side

Vegetarian restaurants were rare and vegan bistros were unimaginable then in St. Louis. That has changed. My favorite vegan restaurants here include Pura Vegan Cafe and Lulu’s Local Eatery; both are friendly, vibrant places, with interesting menus, doing good business. Vegetarian and vegan-friendly places include Seedz Cafe (juices, smoothies and mostly vegan, light fare), Small Batch (featuring an extensive whiskey menu and inventive vegetarian food) and The Treehouse (American and Asian favorites remade with meatless recipes, on the Sound Grand restaurant row).

More significant for carnivores, most “mainstream” restaurants are offering much better meatless options for diners than before. Beyond the occasional veggie burger, there are good entrees that meat eaters might enjoy. To note just a few: the sweet potato enchiladas at Frazer’s, the “match meat” options at The Royale and the vegetarian menu at Cafe Natasha. The veggie torta at Gringo’s is one of the best sandwiches in town. And there are chains like Jason’s Deli, and coffeehouses like Kayak, that include vegetarian options among their good and healthy choices.

One favorite eatery, Big Sky Cafe, long has placed “locally sourced and naturally raised” meat and eggs at the heart of its menu, along with items that meet the needs of a wide range of customers. Other restaurants featuring locally sourced ingredients range from Death in the Afternoon, Foundation Grounds coffee house and Onesto Pizza & Trattoria. Bolyard’s Meat and Provisions stands out for its “pasture raised promise” that all its meats come from small farms whose practices include non-confinement, rotational grazing and diets free of grain, antibiotics and hormones.

Grocery chains and product lines

Photo: gluten free section in mainstream grocery store

The change in grocery stores is at least as great, with innovations from the coasts moving inland in the last decade. St. Louis has Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s outlets now, as well as the not-quite-national Lucky’s Market. The big supermarket chains, Schnuck’s, Shop ‘n Save, and Dierberg’s, have rows of “natural” foods brands, a range of gluten-free products and organic sections in their produce departments. There are frozen Indian and East Asian meals and plenty of options from product lines such as Amy’s, Bob’s Red Mill and Field Roast.

The shift to whole foods by millions of consumers and the demand for better options among processed foods have had a nation-wide impact. The resulting changes are happening in most of the U.S., if not exactly everywhere. Just as second-hand smoke ordinances removed the clouds of grey smoke from dining rooms, consumers in cities like St. Louis can choose from an expanding variety of ethnic and meatless processed foods, products with shorter lists of ingredients (and fewer chemical additives) and reductions in trans fats and added sugars.

I’ve noted before the New York Times article from November, The Seismic Shift in How People Eat, which outlined the way consumer behavior is forcing traditional food companies to create new product lines, alter the contents of “iconic” brands and offer more natural and healthier ingredients. From the coasts to the heartland–from New England to the deep south to Rocky Mountain country–an empowered generation of food consumers has emerged and has demanded changes. While the transition to a better food culture is coming too slowly for some, for those in the processed food and grocery industries, it’s increasingly hard to keep up.

Healthy eating and a newer food culture

Long stereotyped as a project of foodies from Portland, Brooklyn and other coastal enclaves, the food movement is having an impact almost everywhere. That includes St. Louis.

In addition to Soulard’s Market and other farmers’ markets, there are more than a dozen community supported agriculture (CSA) organizations in the St. Louis area. Most distribute to select pick-up locations throughout the region; and some of them deliver to homes. Another aspect of the changed restaurant scene is the food truck and catering scene. Guerilla Street Food sends its trucks with Filipino cuisine to select locations in the area and has added a bricks-and-mortar location in the Tower Grove East neighborhood. There are many others.

Food lovers are served by several freely distributed publications, including Sauce and Feast magazines.The public libraries in both the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County have dozens of books (print and e-book formats) on nutrition and health, vegetarian cooking, sustainable agriculture and related subjects. Likewise, bookstores have expanding sections of cookbooks and every aspect of health and well-being. Thousands of people in the area have joined Meetup groups focused on urban farming and sustainable agriculture, slow food, vegetarian or vegan eating, animal rights, and other projects that relate in some way to the food system.

The food movement and social change

I’ve commented here before that the dominant food culture in the U.S. has featured relentlessly marketed processed foods, calorie-dense and nutrient-poor, loaded with added salt, sugar and fat (and equally well-marketed products to alleviate painful symptoms that result from that way of eating). It has become increasingly obvious that the way we eat is shaped by powerful corporations and directly linked to the ways that millions of us get sick and die.

As Michael Pollan wrote in The Food Movement, Rising (a 2010 essay), the food movement (really, movements) challenges this model through a range of initiatives: calls for candid disclosures in processed foods, such as the campaign for require labeling of products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs); buying and consuming locally grown foods, through, e.g., farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) organizations; animal protection measures, ranging from vegan activism to buying meat from humanely raised animals to opposing indiscriminate use of antibiotics on food animals; and addressing the devastating environmental impact of large-scale, confinement animal agriculture, including the advancement of climate change.

Each of these projects (and others) address fundamental questions of political and economic power. Pollan writes:

Though seldom articulated as such, the attempt to redefine, or escape, the traditional role of consumer has become an important aspiration of the food movement. In various ways it seeks to put the relationship between consumers and producers on a new, more neighborly footing, enriching the kinds of information exchanged in the transaction, and encouraging us to regard our food dollars as “votes” for a different kind of agriculture and, by implication, economy. The modern marketplace would have us decide what to buy strictly on the basis of price and self-interest; the food movement implicitly proposes that we enlarge our understanding of both those terms, suggesting that not just “good value” but ethical and political values should inform our buying decisions, and that we’ll get more satisfaction from our eating when they do.

The way we eat is related to, and has an impact on, almost everything else we are and do. The issues are multiplying, and the stakes are very large.

St. Louis is a rather conservative city that for generations has been heavily influenced by the corporations headquartered here, including Monsanto. If the food movement can bring about major changes in a place like this, it can happen anywhere.

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