Over the course of the past year, a group of dedicated Tucsonans has been hard at work in the kitchen—cooking, sampling, adjusting, and then cooking some more. This cooking has not been for fun, sustenance, or the next potluck dinner. It’s had a larger purpose: to bring the USDA’s MyPlate to life.
MyPlate is a nutritional guide in graphical form, released by the USDA in 2011 to replace the Food Pyramid. Instead of food blocks stacked into triangular form, MyPlate takes a different approach, giving a bird’s eye view of a colorful plate with appropriately sized sections for each food category. The graphic is accompanied by entreaties such as, “Make half your plate fruits and veggies,” and, “Make at least half your grains whole.” It’s a clever and intuitive tool. But how well does it work in practice?
A group of us at the Pima County Food Alliance (PCFA) decided to find out. Given our mission to support the local food system and create positive change in the area of food education and policy, we decided to add a twist: Everything we cooked had to be in season and have a distinctly native flavor.
We took a year to complete the Native MyPlate Project, cooking one plate for each of the four seasons. The dishes are made primarily with ingredients that are either native to Baja Arizona or considered to be “heritage,” meaning they came over during the time of Father Kino and found their way into our traditional foodways. During the summer we featured yellow Tohono O’odham watermelon and quesadillas made with whole wheat and mesquite flour tortillas, grilled zucchini, and queso menonita—cheese from the Mennonite colonies in Northern Chihuahua, Mexico.
At the very least, we expect the food will make mouths water, but we also hope to inspire. What can you harvest out of your desert garden to throw into a balanced meal tonight? Can you cook a meal for your classroom made entirely with native foods? What does your Native MyPlate look like? Take a step towards self-sufficiency and reconnect with the past, giving a friendly “Hello!” to all of our ancestors who pulled food from this land in a more gentle way.
At the same time, the Native MyPlate project says something about the food system today. The first clue can be found in the fact that a food component is missing in a few of our plates: dairy. This is not an oversight on our part, but rather, a question for the USDA, one that we share with many: If protein is already on the plate, why must there also be dairy?
According to the USDA, it’s to provide a source of calcium. However, calcium can be obtained from many other sources. Kale and beans, for example, provide calcium without the elevated levels of saturated fat that accompany many dairy products. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, high dairy intake has also been linked to increased rates of prostate and possibly ovarian cancers.
On its website, the USDA specifies that low-fat options are best and excludes dairy products that don’t retain their calcium, such as butter. This is a long way from the USDA’s “Basic 7” guide from 1943, which included butter as a food group. But it still begs the question: Who does the USDA serve, U.S. consumers or agricultural interests?
Suspicions about the USDA’s loyalties have been voiced, perhaps most fiercely, in the context of school food. During the Great Depression, when the USDA’s involvement with school meals began, the farm agenda was clear. Its role at the time was to support farmers by dealing with surpluses threatening to depress food prices. At times, much to the chagrin of a starving American public, this sometimes involved destroying food. Why not feed it to the needy, specifically starving school children? When, in 1935, the government butchered, liquefied, and dumped into rivers millions of immature hogs, the public relations disaster that ensued left them little choice. Shortly thereafter, the USDA began buying and distributing surpluses to school cafeterias and in 1946 the National School Lunch Act was signed into law.
Despite the inauspicious beginning, the USDA’s National School Lunch Program has become a significant force in the battle against childhood hunger. In 2011, the program helped feed 31 million children at little or no cost to them. For many, it’s the only reliable source of food they receive all day.
And yet, childhood food insecurity remains a serious problem in this country. In Arizona, our community suffers from the highest rate in the country: 29 percent of our children did not know where their next meal would come from at some point during 2010. Equally problematic and paradoxical, the national childhood obesity rate has tripled over the last 30 years.
These devastating statistics highlight the USDA’s divided loyalties: With the one hand, the agency has helped feed a generation of kids chips and soda by supporting the overproduction of cheap corn, while with the other, the USDA is providing hungry children with ever healthier options, like the whole grains and lean meats now offered to schools and promoted through MyPlate. Notwithstanding the USDA’s efforts, there is an even greater challenge that needs to be acknowledged: the economic hardship that trickles down to our children each day. Sadly, our families and school cafeterias remain desperately poor. That makes cooking from scratch increasingly rare, and healthy, delicious and culturally appropriate foods hard to find.
We see our Native MyPlate dishes as a call to action to fix this broken system from within, an attempt to use the system’s own tools to highlight the difference between the delicious and the deficient. No matter your age or political stripe, once you’ve tasted this food, you will want more, and you will demand it for yourself and those you care about.
At the same time, these dishes represent a way to bypass the system, for they depend primarily on ingredients outside the conventional food industry. If you’ve ever wondered what it would look like to live more off the land, our land, this is it. There is a bounty awaiting you in the desert, hoping to find its way onto your plate.
In either case, the Native MyPlate is an entrée to change. Delicious, healthy change.
For more information on recipes, visit PimaFoodAlliance.org. ✜
Nick Henry is the Farm-to-Child Program Coordinator at the Community Food Bank and is a founding member of the Pima County Food Alliance.