Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Welcome to Food Hell - Population 250

While living in a major metropolitan area can offer many perks from the variety of restaurants to the array of places to shop, one negative remains - life moves along at a pace where "hustle and bustle" is an understatement.

To step back and get away from it all, my husband and I try to find out of the way locations that offer serenity, beauty and total relaxation without telephones, cell phones, television or even a major newspaper when we have some time off. This past weekend provided one such opportunity and we headed out to the backwaters of western Virginia, deep into the Shennandoah Valley - more than 250-miles from home.

The town name doesn't matter, suffice it to say it was in the middle of nowhere and could have been named "Paradise," with everything about this town idyllic - incredible mountain views, a running creek right outside our Bed & Breakfast, hiking trails, fishing, a clear night sky with more stars than you can imagine not obscured by the city lights and air that is fresh and touched with dew in the morning.

Just a breath-taking location among many throughout the United States that millions get to call home each day.

The only downside - lack of access to good food - why I called it "Food Hell" on our first day there and am more convinced than ever that this is contributing to our alarming rates of overweight and obesity in the United States.

We arrived very late on Friday evening and when we awoke the next morning, we found breakfast awaiting us. It was simple fare - white bread french toast with fake maple syrup, banana nut muffins made from a mix and chunks of canned pineapple. In addition there was some instant oatmeal we could make along with some cold cereals and skim milk.

I looked at my husband and said "what am I supposed to eat?" as I scanned the selections hoping I missed something offering some nutrition - maybe some yogurt or even some nuts.

There was nothing.

I actually felt like a bit of a food snob and almost considered just eating what was available since it was only a few days anyway.

But, good habits are hard to break...so I walked across the street to the small general store in hopes of finding something more suitable.

It was there I started to realize just how slim the pickings were - the general store was no bigger than a DC-Metro area 7-11 and had about the same type of selections available - frozen foods, packaged cakes, candies and other junk food along with soda and beer. This was the town's grocery store. While a bit disappointed, I persevered and plucked a yogurt from the refrigerator (a brand that I'd never buy at home since it was loaded with high-fructose corn syrup) and a package of cheddar cheese (processed cheese food) to hold me over until I could get to the next town to pick up some groceries for the rest of our stay.

Little did I know that my 17-mile drive to the next town later that morning was in vain.

When I arrived I found one small grocery store. It couldn't be called a supermarket since it too was just a hair bigger than a 7-11. As I meandered through the aisles, I was struck by the fact that there were no healthy selections to be found - the produce was limited and mostly grown in hothouses, there were no organic selections and not one 100% whole grain bread was to be found among the soft squishy loaves of white bread that littered the bread aisle shelves. What I did find in abundance - processed foods - everything from hamburger helper to macaroni and cheese - neatly lined up in boxes on the shelves throughout the store.

With lunch fast approaching, I did my best to put together an adequate lunch in the hope that perhaps the next town might provide something better. So a quick dash through the produce section and I had a plump pink tomato and some romaine lettuce, at the deli I picked up some roast beef and sliced cheddar and in the bread aisle finally settled on a soft rye bread, the closest thing I could find to a whole grain bread.

We'd make do until I could find something more nutritious.

After lunch I dropped off my husband and father-inlaw to fly fish until dusk and took the time to drive to another town with my son - this one some 25-miles away. My mission - some healthy foods for the rest of the weekend and some dinner for all of us that evening.

I should have called it Mission Impossible - again, the town grocery was a sorry excuse for a market and had virtually nothing worth eating. The options to eat out were worse with restaurants that included Dairy Queen, Pizza Hut, Hardees and a family restaurant that served only deep fried fare. The next and last town I drove to was no better and I finally made some choices from the limited ones available and headed back.

I was starting to regret my decision not to pack a cooler when we left for the weekend. Over the years I've learned that a grocery store is often far away from the remote locations we travel to and instread of trying to find one, I'll pack a cooler with basics to have on hand. This trip was different - it was our first major weekend away with our son and the car was jam-packed with necessary items for him - a cooler was just too much to add to the already bursting at the seams load in the car. Now, I questioned my decision to pack the stroller instead of the cooler.

One of my major pieces of advice is to "shop the outside aisles in the grocery store" for those seeking a healthier selection of foods. In three different stores I found my own advice to be crazy-making...even I was finding that making good selections was difficult and I do this everyday!

Case in point - where is the plain yogurt? Silly question when the only items in the dairy case that are called yogurt are high-fructose corn syrup sweetened or brightly colored take-offs of cold cereal (Trix). What about some cheese? With not one block of cheese available bearing the "real seal," the only selections were processed cheese food. Surely there must be some whole grain cereals or breads? Nope - just instant hot cereals and lots of boxes of brightly colored cold cereals along with breads I wouldn't feed to the birds. The meat case had no organic selections and the cuts that were available were all fatty and from feedlot cattle; there was no fresh fish; no organic or free-range poultry or eggs - basically nothing I would recommend one eat on a daily basis.

This was literally Food Hell.

For those who live in these isolated areas that are truly a paradise, their hell is lack of access to nutritious food. And it's taking its toll on their health and well-being. In the small town where we stayed, I met just two people who would be classified as "normal weight" - everyone else was either overweight or morbidly obese and their children were already on the road to adult obesity.

I spent some time chatting with one of the normal weight women and learned that she ate only organic foods and grew much of her own produce. Our conversation started the second morning we were there as she set out our breakfast - this morning was biscuits with sausage gravy, orange juice and muffins from a mix. I asked her if perhaps there was anything else available that I could make, like some fresh eggs? Within a few minutes she returned with a plate of eggs, fresh cut canteloupe and goat milk yogurt for me.

In our conversation over breakfast she told me how years ago she realized, as an grossly overweight woman, that something in her diet was wrong - each time she dieted she lost weight only to gain it back later. So she decided to do something radical almost 15-years ago - she got a goat for milk to make cheese and yogurt, a couple of chickens for eggs, started a vegetable garden and learned how to can and preserve foods. She stopped eating any food that was in a box, bag or jar that had a shelf life longer than she expected to live.

Within a year she was normal weight and has since maintained her weight by eating only whole foods, mostly from her own hand in her garden and from her land. Once a month she travels some 72-miles each way to an organic supermarket with a cooler and stocks up on the things she can't grow herself and keeps a full freezer of meats, fish and poultry. She does this because she values her health and has recognized how poor the packaged, processed foods that are readily available are for her weight and health.

As only one of two normal weight individuals I met in this tiny town, her story is telling about the importance of nutrient-dense foods as the mainstay of ones diet. She called herself the town "food nut" as others have labeled her - but as she said, her weight is normal and her health at 54 is stellar...that speaks volumes when she looks around at her neighbors who eat a highly processed food diet and are overweight with numerous health conditions. They might enjoy their food but they haven't made the connection that it's robbing them of their vitality and taking years off their life.

While we stayed just one weekend and loved how this sleepy town offered peace and quiet and relaxation we could never find in the hustle-and-bustle of our hometown, I have a new appreciation for the abundance available here - a choice of organic markets to shop, roadside farm stands and local farmers markets, and even the large supermarkets catching on to the growing number of consumers demanding organic and/or whole foods for their families. Yes, in the future I'll still seek refuge from the hustle-and-bustle, but I'll also remember to pack the cooler just in case I find myself deep within Food Hell again!


  1. Regina,

    I've been there, too, and quite recently! Though your situation sounds far, far worse.

    It is a real bummer to see what's being sold in some parts of the country -- it's outright scandalous!

    Posted a comment on Low Carb Newsline site, too.


  2. Regina, I've been reading your blog for some time now and find yours is my favorite of all the low carb ones. I appreciate all the information you report and your conclusions about what's nutritious and what isn't. But I thought this personal story was your best yet, probably because I feel the same way most of the time.

    I have to add that I worked at a Red Cross shelter for the Katrina evacuees yesterday and one of my assignments was to serve sugary drinks and junk food to the residents. Did I feel like I was poisoning them? Oh, yeah. The only thing there in all that donated and prepared "food" that I might have eaten was a green apple. It's a shame that this is the best we can do for these people, especially at a time when they need the most nutritious fuel they can get to counter all the stress they're going through. However, most people don't know how to eat properly for themselves, much less how to provide nutrition for others.

    Hang in there, the world needs you.

  3. Finally trying to catch up on some of my reading, and wanted to post some comments, but of course blogger's commenting was down for the last 24 hours! It's a bit ironic that people eat like this in a region that has so many farms, some raising the very organic produce and grass-fed/free-range cows/chickens that we enjoy here in the DC Metro area! But I guess when you think about it, it's not all THAT surprising. These areas are rural, and they are probably poor. Much of these things are priced above their level, and so it's not going to appear in the groceries that service them. The general mentality, though, does seem to be about economizing. As long as the food tastes good (which often can just be a manipulation of chemicals, sugar, salt, etc.), "quality" seems to be a hazy issue for many people. It's definitely getting better, but Regina, I fear that we are very spoiled by both our availability, but also our knowledge of these things and our income levels. Poorer people have bigger fish to fry, although some of those bigger fish could be a lot smaller with better nutrition. I know there have been movements in the DC Metro area to get farmers markets in Anecostia, because inner-city poor have just as much difficulty finding real produce, even if they can afford to purchase it. Anyway, it is a very big topic that has a lot of facets to it!