Jessica Danser Schwarz, a native New Yorker, is a choreographer, dance teacher, and dancer, on the faculty of the Ailey School as well as multiple other dance institutions. She is the Artistic Director of Jessica Danser/dansfolk,Mrs. Danser Schwarz is deeply interested in food justice, social justice, sustainability, socialism, atheism, veganism, nutrition, and radical politics, whether through research, writing, volunteer work, home experiments, or relentless facebook ranting.
I have had a devout Mormon tell me my lifestyle was so strict it exhausted her. When the topic of my eating habits come up, as they do somewhat frequently given the social nature of food consumption, the fact that I teach dance and thus am constantly discussing the body, not to mention my semi-obsession with food, the reaction I get from most tends to border on flabbergastion and the assumption I must either be some kind of devotee or simply insane. To me, my food rules seem pretty simple: I don’t eat animals (haven’t for over ten years, never cheated, never wanted to,) I don’t eat foods which come from animals such as eggs and dairy (for the past year, with a few exceptions such as my homemade yogurt and a relatively few moments of weakness where I ate something like a cannoli), I don’t eat foods from cans (got this one from the Rastas), and whenever humanly possible I don’t eat foods which are refined (ie white bread, white rice), processed, or full of additives (which involves less reading labels and more simply choosing foods which are obviously foods.) Oh, and I avoid chain eating, which my mother hilariously interpreted as akin to chain smoking: “You mean when you eat and then immediately eat again??” That too, but, what I actually mean is that I try to avoid eating at chain restaurants such as Applebee’s (generally there is little in such establishments which meets the aforementioned standards anyway.)
I do these things for reasons of ethics as well as health, and also because I am really appalled that we as a nation have allowed something as important as food to become so utterly commercialized that something as simple as choosing to eat a natural, plant-based diet comprised of ingredients I can actually name often renders me an anomaly, even in a city where food options are plentiful and health awareness is superior to many other parts of the country. (I literally starve in Florida: there is gelatin, lard, high fructose corn syrup or MSG in pretty much any food which is not a raw piece of fruit.) So my stance is also political: my freedom to rise above the market and the pitiful standards of the FDA in order to own my health and morals is far more exciting to me than my freedom to the 5 seconds of pleasure I might glean from eating a Twinkie.
I know for some the joy of Twinkies reigns supreme, and for this I fault our ridiculous culture more than I fault the individuals. While I know that the converts to my diet may be few, I would like to at least dispel a few myths I hear consistently about healthy, natural, ethical eating and offer a few solutions.
Myth#1: Eating properly is too expensive.
It is definitely possible to be an extremely extravagant healthy eater, but it is also possible to do it cheaply (I do.) Whole Paycheck is NOT the only store on earth where you can get natural foods. Things such as brown rice, dry beans, whole wheat flour, whole oats, lentils, peas, natural peanut butter, whole grain pasta, olive oil– to name a few– can usually be gleaned right at your local supermarket, as well as fresh or dried fruits and veggies. I don’t deny the superiority of organic, but I do get that everyone can’t afford it or even find it all the time. This does not mean we should just throw up our hands and order takeout. The above-mentioned foods are pretty cheap and quite nutritious.
Processed foods are more expensive than whole foods, generally– compare a $1 can of beans vs a $1 bag of dry beans which yields 6 times the amount of food in the can, or a box of pre-seasoned “Spanish rice” at $3 for one meal’s worth vs a $3 box of plain brown rice which yields double or triple. And yes, admittedly, processed foods containing natural ingredients (say, a health food store pre-spiced Spanish rice which has organic ingredients and no MSG or modified food starch vs its generic counterpart) are more expensive than processed foods containing chemicals, but considering that processed food is not a necessity, I don’t buy this as a good excuse to continue eating Rice a Roni when one could just, um, eat rice.
An even more economical way to shop once you are in the habit of cooking from pure ingredients is to find a store which has bulk bins, as many health food stores do. Because you are not paying for packaging or advertising, this is an incredibly inexpensive way to purchase grains, nuts, dried fruits, legumes, and seeds, even organic ones. If a food coop is available (there are several in Brooklyn and one on the Lower East Side) this is the ultimate in frugality, because at a co-op you are also not paying for the store’s advertising and labor, and if you have a few hours a week to volunteer you can really get a bargain, even on some prepackaged organic items.
http://www.lesfoodcoop.org/ for more info on co-ops and to peruse products and prices.
At the risk of sounding preachy, I also want to mention these points:
1, The only way to drive the price down on healthier and organic foods is for more people to buy them.
2, The long-term costs of an unhealthy diet (e.g. getting sick, fat, or both) far outreach the immediate costs of a healthy one.
3, New Yorkers (as well as probably most of the nation) waste an unbelievable amount of money on things like coffee, which could be made at home cheaply, water, which is available for free, sports drinks, which are mostly sugar, and things like “energy bars” which could be cheaply (and more healthfully) replaced with actual food.
Myth # 2: Eating well is too time consuming.
Ok, I admit it: I do spend a lot of time dealing with food. Because I was raised eating whole foods made from scratch, I’m not sure how much LESS time the average person who eats premade and fast foods spends, but I do know that I have an extremely active schedule and still do manage to make time to shop and cook sufficiently to feed me and my husband 3 meals most days. I find cooking pleasurable, so for me it isn’t a terrible burden, but here are a few time-saving tips I have come upon.
Buying dry goods in bulk saves a lot of time on shopping– I generally do a big shopping for my grains and beans once a month and the rest of the time shop weekly for perishable goods such as produce and milk for my yogurt. In terms of cooking, two gadgets which have proved an absolute lifesaver are the pressure cooker and the crockpot. The pressure cooker cooks dry beans (soaked overnight) in about a quarter of the time of cooking them in a regular pot, and the crockpot can have a bunch of foods thrown into it and left to cook while one is out. I generally cook a few quarts of beans at a time and then freeze them in smaller portions, and then defrost as necessary throughout the month.
I usually designate one day a week to be my big cooking day, where I make a large portion of a meal such as rice and beans, and simultaneously a large stew, a salad, and whatever else needs making that week such as yogurt or salad dressing. These foods usually last most of the week for lunches, which I pack daily for both of us, and the rest of our diet is mostly composed of sandwiches, oatmeal or homemade granola, trail mix, smoothies, and fruit or raw veggies, all of which can be prepared quickly. I save more elaborate cooking for vacations or lighter work weeks. This policy of packing lunches and, if needed, also dinners, certainly saves an enormous amount of money as well if you consider the alternative of spending an average of $10 daily, if not more, on buying food out.
My preachy note on this one is that if your schedule is permanently so overwhelming that you don’t have time to feed yourself without relying on grabbing a bagel or a burger daily, then perhaps you need to examine places where you can get a little more “you” time, and recognize that taking control of your eating is as beneficial as any leisure activity.
Myth #3: Healthy eating is no fun.
If one is completely accustomed to the taste of over-salted, over-sweetened, and artificially flavored foods, it may take some adjustments to becomes used to the taste of natural, whole foods, but I assure you, it is absolutely not necessary for healthy eating to be bland and boring. I make all sorts of sauces, curries, marinades, and dressings, and have had many a diehard junk-foodist sheepishly admit that my food is fairly tasty. The wonderful thing about learning to cook from scratch is that YOU have the power to flavor food to your liking! And you will be amazed at the number of unique and delectable flavors which exist in nature and can be discerned by tastebuds not completely numbed by an overload of sweet and salt.
If the prospect of food preparation which goes beyond the microwave leaves you baffled, a simple Google search can now produce zillions of recipes. I usually scroll through until I find the simplest version of whatever I’m making. If you’re a beginner, look up recipes for several foods you enjoy, purchase whatever seasonings those dishes call for, and start from there. There is no reason to spend a ton of money on every exotic spice known to man just to make basic foods at home– my recommendation would be to keep garlic powder, onion powder, curry if you like it, a vegetable broth base and maybe some Italian or Mexican seasoning on hand and expand from there.
Additionally, I include in my list of unhealthy foods the huge variety of “diet” foods out there, most of which have reduced their calories and fat by replacing actual food with chemicals, resulting in them leaving you feeling like you just ate diet food, ie still hungry, and/or having other negative effects on your health. Due to my active lifestyle I have never had a weight problem, but I have had to focus on my weight periodically due to the aesthetic demands of being a dancer, and I can honestly say that my current diet of whole, natural foods is the only one on which I have consistently been able to maintain my desired weight without ever feeling hungry, counting a calorie, or craving “bad” foods. If I want sweets, I go for some dark chocolate with no additives, a vegan pastry from the health food store, a homemade rice pudding, some maple granola… The possibilities are not as small as one might imagine, but additionally, my diet is so fulfilling that I rarely crave sweets, and when I do, I truly have lost my taste for the Snicker’s bar or the Chips Ahoy– their flavor pales in comparison to the richness of a piece of organic chocolate from a fair trade cocoa farm in the tropics.
I truly believe that eating natural foods and embracing our own abilities to select and prepare them is an empowering choice which will improve one’s health, enhance one’s daily pleasures, help to refocus one’s time, and help one attain optimum weight without a constant state of denial. Far from exhausting, I find my relationship with food both physically and mentally nourishing, and I hope that some of the ideas in this essay may help others to experience some of the same joys.