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Dispatch from the food fight front lines

For a statement of nonviolent belligerence, you can't beat the one Woody Guthrie scrawled across his guitar: "This machine kills fascists.''

Maybe I was reaching, but that's what I thought about last weekend as I planted my spring vegetable garden.

Such a peaceful activity, yet I felt like a warrior. When my garden was in, I didn't just have rows in the dirt; I had lines in the sand.

My enemies? Ones we all share: The corporations that have stripped nutrition from our food and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has stood by and allowed it to happen.

No, this is not as evil as fascism, but it is insidious and deadly, according to Michael Pollan's recent book, In Defense of Food. And if you think this is a rant from the fringe, you may want to consider the book's rank on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list: No. 1.

There is little room in our diet for real food — which Pollan defines as anything your great-grandmother would recognize as such — because so much of it is taken up by nutritionally empty food products.

These are usually built around refined sugars and flours, which offer our bodies nothing except calories and now make up more than half the calories consumed by the average American, Pollan writes.

Most of us know this diet promotes heart disease and diabetes, but Pollan found the most vivid illustration of its barrenness in an Oakland, Calif., health clinic: children overweight from consuming too many calories and suffering from diseases such as rickets from ingesting too few vitamins.

You can fight back with supplements, but they can't replace the vast variety of nutrients in real food, Pollan writes. Nor can products advertised as promoting health. Many have one beneficial ingredient, such as omega-3 fatty acids, dropped in a stew of high-fructose corn syrup, refined grains and partially hydrogenated fats.

Even supermarket vegetables have been drained of nutrients because they are grown with chemical fertilizers rather than in fertile, mineral-rich soil.

Local produce is better, Pollan writes. Best of all is growing your own.

Yes, this is partly symbolic, and right now I am thinking about the pizza (white flour in the crust, added sugars in the sauce) I plan to have for lunch.

The two small plots in the back yard can't come close to supplying our family's needs. With my limited skills, I will probably harvest only about half of what I planted.

But for most of the spring, nearly every evening meal will be supplemented by food from our garden, starting, in a few weeks, with herbs and lettuce sprouts.

Later will come squash, onions and more tomatoes than we can eat. Also, though I objected because it takes up too much space, we will have corn. I gave in to please one of my sons, who argued that corn is fun to grow and eat, and fun is what planting a garden is all about.

No it isn't, I wanted to tell him, not at all. This, my boy, is war.

• • •

Some of you may have noticed the grammatical error — a double negative — in the first sentence of Sunday's column about sprinter John Capel and wondered if it was intentional. It was not, and I apologize to Capel and readers for the mistake.

Dispatch from the food fight front lines 02/26/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2008 7:40pm]
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