Ditching the Drive-Thru: How to Pass Up Processed Foods, Buy Farm Fresh, and Transform Your Family’s Eating Habits on a Modern Mom’s Schedule
By J. Natalie Winch
We learn more every day about the meaning of a healthy diet. The growing trend away from packaged foods to natural food choices is proving essential for our health.
As part of Ms. Winch’s virtual book tour, we are happy to share her interview with you here. The tour, hosted by iRead Book Tours, runs from November 9th through December 11. Please be sure to read our review of this excellent book here.
What led you to this path and then the book?
The path feels more like ‘How did we end up here?’ I look in the mirror in the morning and see this 51 year-old woman staring back at me: the wrinkles and gray hair came on so gradually, I hardly noticed. Our food habits evolved in a similar way: it was a realization that we had gotten to a point where we ate rather differently than most of the people we knew. Something would come up, like the GMO debate, and we would do some research and make a decision. We did start in a slightly different place than many people because Greg’s family always got their meat directly from a friend who was a farmer.
And the book? It was something Greg and I would talk about driving to and from farms, when the fact that most people don’t deal directly with farmers was right in front of us. It had many incarnations in those early days – a cookbook for grass-fed meat; an expose about contemporary industrial food; a food-based, social commentary. We even discussed approaching it as a satire, but that’s dangerous because people don’t always realize the satire. When I taught British literature, there was always some student who thought Jonathan Swift really meant for the Irish to sell their babies for food.
At some point, when I was teaching the Politics of Food Unit in 2010, I had the desire to collect all of my material and write something accessible for the general public, for people who weren’t “foodies,” who mistook choosing a fast food salad for healthy. And besides, I graduated from Colorado State’s MFA program back in 1997, so the desire to publish a book has been hanging around for a long time.
My advisor, Dr. John Clark Pratt, once told me that the best writing comes from a deep and passionate understanding of the material. He is right about that, but there is something else as well – a deep and passionate understanding of your audience. There are thousands of moms, just like me, thinking about the same stuff that I was thinking about. So I wrote a book that I would want to read – not a “hey, I’m this awesome food person, so eat like me” but rather an encouraging “it’s a bumpy road and sometimes I get a flat tire, too” kind of book.
On your website you mention a English class unit on the Politics of Food. That sound like a very interesting subject. Will you tell us a little more about it?
My students all just laughed at you and thought, “You’re in for it now! She’ll never shut up!” The course is called Contemporary Studies, and it is a humanities class that has a History component and an English component, over two periods each day, taught by a History teacher and an English teacher. For many years, I have taught the class with Mary Jane Chambers, who is an extraordinary teacher and one of those colleagues who pushes me to be a better person. She was teaching Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation in history, and I was doing a unit on poverty that touched on food insecurity, but mostly focused on Sherman Alexie’s Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
One summer, when Greg and I were picking up a meat order, I also picked up a copy of Joel Salatin’s Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal. Yeah. I judged a book by its cover – and title. I started reading it on the way home and knew that I wanted to teach it alongside Mary Jane’s teaching of FFN. It kind of grew from there. I searched the internet and landed on the website of Dr. Tracey Ore of St. Cloud State University and got a lot of inspiration from her Politics of Food unit.
Every year, the unit is different. The students choose research topics about food, so I generally shape the year based on the topics they choose. We have covered things from why free and reduced school lunch is attached to the Farm Bill to sustainable agriculture to USDA policy to local economy to commodity chains to self-sufficiency to urban farming.
What sort of improvements have you seen in your family’s health through the change in diet (not specific to a person)?
We get fewer colds. We don’t get flu shots, and only one of us got the flu, one time in the past 8 years – since I really started to notice and keep track. Even that year that H1N1 was spreading like wildfire, none of us got sick. Oddly, last year, with the book at the publisher, we had a “man down” but it lasted two days, not the week or more that I had students and colleagues out.
What is the worst thing you learned while researching the book?
For a food to be considered “healthy,” it just has to be low in sodium—as if sodium is a problem worse than refined sugar. The American perception of healthy food is rather disturbing and very much influenced by advertising campaigns. Basic fact: an advertiser pays to have information disseminated. Who pays to make himself look bad? We have this child-like faith that there is some overarching force that keeps bad information and misinformation out of the system. I wish there was.
Was there a defining moment when you made the commitment to traditional food instead of processed or fast food?
No. No defining moment. This is always a work in progress. People need to understand that I wanted to write a book as a kind of cheerleader because I need a cheerleader. I am not a paragon of traditional eating. I say it right in the book – I eat junk. I just keep it infrequent. I love chips. Love. And we have made homemade chips. And I love them. But I also love those chemically flavored ones that rhyme with Pablito’s and if someone hands me a bag of them, I am going to take a handful, or three. And my body might revolt later, but I’m a slow study.
What brought you to write a book on the subject?
The actual act of writing probably only occurred because I broke my ankle. I was running in a straight line and fell down and broke my ankle. I don’t want to give the impression that I am one of those “must exercise” kinds of people. I’m not. But I have this love-hate thing with running, so I pick it up every so often to torture myself. I don’t “train” per se. Just run. And I am a klutz. So that summer, running + klutz = broken ankle.
Did I mention we live in an old house that doesn’t have air-conditioning? And the boot was hot? And I was whiny and miserable? And on the second afternoon, when my husband was taking the kids out to our inflatable-ring pool that I couldn’t get into, he said, “Why don’t you write that book you always talked about?” So he collected my notebooks for me and left me to my own devices. It was a great diversion.
Your schedule sounds pretty hectic. How do you fit in writing? Are you strict about a writing schedule?
My schedule is just like most people’s. Everyone is crazy and hectic. Many weeks, one of the dogs will wake me up really early on Saturday or Sunday or both, and I’ll be all grumpy taking them out. But then I come in and drink some coffee and get on the computer and start writing. I like the early morning when things are still and I can hear everyone snoring. It’s my favorite white noise and lulls me into that place where the thoughts come together. The only things I am really strict about are behavioral expectations in my classroom and my children’s social media usage. Writing happens whenever.
Is another book in the works? Ideas for more?
I don’t have anything else in the works just now. I’ve tossed around the idea of a cookbook, but nothing that is coherent. That’s what is nice about the blog. There is no worry about sustained argument developing.
How involved are you in social media for your book?
In that regard, it’s low-tech Natalie in a high-tech world. I understand the importance of social media in contemporary culture. It has re-shaped how people socialize. Prior to the book, social media was strictly a way to keep in touch with friends who are scattered all over the place–from as far away as Italy and Korea to Ashland, Wisconsin and Homer, Alaska. Now I am learning about the public impact and realizing how little I know. So in answer to the question, not very. But learning.
How long did it take you to write this one?
As I said, I broke my ankle one summer. At some point in my life, I guess I turned into a Type-A personality. One day of sitting around not being able to really do anything was driving me crazy and I was making my family miserable because I was so miserable. When I started writing, I really threw myself into it. Then I had the Odysseus parallel idea, got all excited, changed the structure, and just tapped it all out. It took about two weeks to write 110 pages of main text and about 15 pages of appendices.
Then came revisions and discussions with my friend and colleague, Sherrie Erickson. She is a sharp editor in her own right and gave me a lot of great feedback. She didn’t know a lot about the subject and was able to ask for clarifications and made many great suggestions. She is also the person who inspired the 30-Month Plan. We wrote our first plans together. That took about two months.
I didn’t know that that was the easy part. Finding a publisher? I had many, many rejections. I was actually looking into self-publishing. I had been researching that for a couple of months. One morning I was trying to create links on my school webpage to articles on the Acres USA website, and I couldn’t get it to work (low-tech Natalie being low-tech), so I smacked my mouse on the desk in frustration (because one should always beat up the hardware when the internet isn’t working) and ended up with a side menu extended and “Submission Queries” highlighted. It had been over two years since I started submitting. I figured, what’s another 6 to 8 weeks to hear from them.
When I got the email from Amanda Irle saying she was putting the book forward to be considered for publication, I thought, “Wow! Someone else thinks it good.” And figured I would be self-publishing in the summer. A couple months later I got an email from Fred Walters. Expecting it to be a rejection, I read it like a rejection – all sarcastic. Then one of my children said, “Mommy, I think they want to publish your book.” So I reread it.
The revision and editing process with Amanda took about three months. So start to finish, something like 5 years, with short spurts of intensive writing/revising/editing.
If we were to only make one change in our diet, which would you put first and why?
The first change that most people need to make is in their attitude toward food. So the first change in diet should be just seeing what you eat and why you eat it. Americans eat with little appreciation for what is going into their mouths and where it originated – what was the other end of that fairly long commodity chain?
Besides that, I can’t make a recommendation that is a one-size-fits-all starting point. Everyone is different; our families are different; our schedules are different. People are smart and don’t need to be told what to do. That is what corporations do: tell people that they need this or that, and they create advertisements to convince people that they need things they really don’t need. What I am saying is that people are smart enough to make these kinds of decisions for themselves once they stop being deceived.
What did you and/or your family find the hardest to change?
None of the changes we made have ever been hard and fast. That’s just it – rigidity doesn’t work for most people because when you “break the rule” you need to punish yourself. Believe me, I learned how to use a “guilt shovel.” It isn’t necessarily productive. Yes, there are things we try to avoid, but when you are at someone else’s house for dinner, you should eat what they serve. And we do.
So while we don’t eat tons of refined sugar, we still use sugar. My children eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The jelly is homemade, but it does contain sugar.
Most of the steps we have made were so small they didn’t necessarily feel like a “change.” Being gradual is the key. No one goes from an idea of aerobic exercise as getting up to look for the remote to running a marathon overnight. This is the same.
What is your favorite healthy dish to fix?
In our estimation, any dish made from whole foods, and pastured meat, and sustainably raised fruits and vegetables is healthy. It’s about re-thinking. A burger from a fast food place may not be healthy, but the burger I make from pastured ground beef, topped with raw-milk cheddar, lettuce from my CSA, and a homegrown tomato is healthy.
We aren’t fat-o-phobes because the fats we use are full of good things like CLAs. Because the food we make does not use pre-packaged spice mixes, we don’t worry about hidden sodium or refined sugar. Not that I would call my brownies a health food, but they probably aren’t as unhealthy as a pre-fab mix.
I love simple foods, like meatloaf and baked potatoes and green beans or broccoli. Or soup. My grandmother was the queen of soup, and I try to honor her with every pot off my stove.
What author or book was the most influential to you?
In regards to food, probably Joel Salatin’s, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal; Michael Pollan’s, Omnivore’s Dilemma; and Wendell Berry’s, What Are People For? It would be hard to say that any of these three were more influential than another. Salatin gives the information from the food producer’s perspective, Pollan from the consumer’s. And Berry? He’s one of the finest essay writers in America today, dealing with the complexities of what it means to live a fulfilled life.
As an English teacher, who is your favorite author (not necessarily healthy related)?
Again, I can’t pick just one: Charles Dickens for his characters and plots, George Orwell for his social commentary, and the poets Anna Ahkmatova and Stanley Kunitz.
George Orwell’s 1984. And Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
What are you reading now?
Student essays. It is college application time!
Will you be publishing a separate cookbook perhaps?
I have thought about it, but since most of my recipes go up on my blog it seems kind of redundant.
Did you ever consider becoming a vegetarian?
I was a vegetarian for a short stint, but it was more of a financial thing – meat was expensive, and I was a poor graduate student. Nowadays? No way. That would be life without bacon, or meatloaf, or my husband’s homemade bratwursts.
There is a great deal of emphasis placed upon plant-based diets and the big support for this is the huge ecological carbon footprint meat production has. I won’t deny that CAFOs are a mess, but in a smaller economy and on the ecology of a small polyculture farm, the footprint is very different. When I purchase my meat from a farmer, I am only two steps up the food chain (beef eats grass, I eat beef), and one step up the commodity chain (farmer raises beef, I buy from farmer).
I don’t think a plant-based diet has a lower carbon footprint if someone is eating plants grown in Australia and flown into the US. And it may not be any healthier if the food is highly processed and full of refined sugar. Sugar is a plant.
In rethinking how and what we eat, the most important thing is making informed decisions. Don’t take my word for any of this. People should look into issues for themselves and not rely on some 140-character bit of information.
After an exhausting day at work, hitting the drive-thru or nuking a pre-fab meal is all too often the go-to decision for feeding a family. Cooking a meal from scratch using fresh ingredients can seem beyond the average person’s time, energy, or financial means. But with mounting evidence pointing to processed food and our industrial food system as the culprits behind many of our nation’s health problems—including obesity, diabetes, and cancer—it’s now more important than ever to be fully informed about what goes on your family’s dinner plates.
If you’re ready to take control of your food choices but don’t know the difference between grass-fed versus grain-fed, pastured versus free-range, or organic versus sustainable, read this book to discover:
• How to create your own thirty-month plan to convert your family from junk food to real food, without a revolt!
• Recipes and advice on planning and prepping meals so you can make homecooked a habit for your family
• Instructions for getting the most out of produce using techniques such as lacto-fermentation, dehydrating, and canning
• introduction to the world of farm-direct sales, including tips on locating local farms, seeing through marketing buzzwords, and shopping with CSAs Ditching the Drive-Thru exposes the insidious hold the commercial food industry has taken over the fast-paced lives of the average American and the danger these processed foods and diet plans pose to our health, environment, and emotional wellbeing.
Learn how to break free from the grind and return to a simpler relationship with food from farmers, not factories, and home-cooked meals that are created in your kitchen, not on a conveyor belt.
J. Natalie Winch lives in southern New Jersey, not far from where she grew up, with her husband, two children, and dogs. When she isn’t mothering, teaching, grading, or making lesson plans, Natalie runs the Hebrew School at her synagogue, coaches soccer, teaches lacto-fermentation classes, writes the occasional entry for her blog Food Empowerment (tradsnotfads.com), and fights the dust bunnies that threaten to take over her family room.
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