Perdurance

June 28, 2015

Is there anything less enduring than a meal? Whether cobbled together from leftovers and scraps in the refrigerator or the result of detailed planning and careful preparation, that last meal you ate, well, it’s gone. And really, folks, is there anything less memorable? I mean sure there are going to be a few exceptions in your life. The octopus in its own ink I ate in Bilbao has stuck with me, but mainly, if I’m honest about it, the visual effect of that inky black plate being set before me, that’s what I remember. And there were plenty of reinforcing threads around that particular meal, too: joking with Peter Sandøe, thinking about the octopus itself, not to mention just trying to stay awake until 11:00pm to start dinner. But I mention such peripherals only to underline the sensation of memory. Most meals won’t surrender themselves to that kind of recall.

There are also those dishes from one’s childhood or from some especially precious habitus. We remember them fondly. Except that I’m going to say, in fact we don’t. What we remember is something else—a generalized feeling of well-being, perhaps, but probably a generalized feeling of well-being that we recall from some previous episode of thinking about those times, those people. We may associate a smell, a taste or the picture of some especially scarlet tomato sauce with those memories, but I’m going to insist that we’re not really remembering any particular tomato sauce at all. It’s something with a real referent, to be sure, but what we’re remembering is a collage, an assemblage of emotion colored images that we have, in fact, projected and constituted in a performance of nostalgia.

Not that there’s something wrong with that. These kind of false memories can play a role in “essentializing” ideas of Motherhood and femininity, to be sure. When that happens, stereotyped roles can get constructed that can, in turn, be deployed in oppressing real people—strangers and family members alike—who inhabit our orbits of daily practice. Not a good thing. But surely everyone lives in a memory palace that is largely tissued of bricolage and partial lapses, bearing little actual verisimilitude to our respective pasts. The fault lies not in the way we re-member the past, but in the way we (sometimes) project those constructed memorials on the present. And that’s not what I sat down to write about today.

No, I was stirred by the ephemerality itself, and then I got carried away trying to evoke it. Of course there’s another sense in which our past meals are anything but transient. Those fats, carbs and proteins become a part of us in a very literal sense. And if they happen to be carrying a few toxins along as hitchhikers, well, those pesky little badboys become a part of us, too. We are what we ate, and we may yet pay for it. Yet I’ll insist it’s that the temporary and evanescent dimension of eating that we should lift up in food ethics. We should remember how far we are from the eternal verities that are more typically celebrated by the moral sages of yore.

George Steiner says that most people who write have a hankering for immortality lurking somewhere hidden in their subconscious, and I can’t say he’s wrong. He wrote that a few years before blogging became commonplace, and he even anticipated the way that the Internet might undo the potential for anyone to hanker for immortality without simultaneously feeling a keen sense of embarrassment. Yet if food is the quintessence of transience, what can we say of food writing? And if food writing lives only for the Wednesday “Food” section, what can we say of a food blog?

And yet, and yet, there are so, so many of them! What are we trying to memorialize?

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University.

Letter from Rome

June 21, 2015

In case you missed it, the major food ethics newsflash for last week came out of Rome. Pope Francis issued an encyclical entitled Laudato Si’. At first I thought it was from a crowd chant heard when the Allman Brothers Band played stadium gigs in Italy: Alberino fustigazione, laudato, si! [Tr: Whipping post, louder, yes!], but it turns out that the Allman Brothers never played any stadium gigs in Italy, so I had to go back to square one on the Pope’s encyclical. I must confess that I still haven’t read it, but I did find a link to an English translation, which I am offering right here.

Eventually the hysterical reaction from the right wing press told me that the Pope had done one of two things. He had either suggested that it was time to start looking after Sister Earth, or he had made disparaging remarks about NASCAR. The fact that he decided to name himself after Saint Francis of Assisi is a pretty good hint that it is probably the former, so that’s what I’m going with this Sunday.

Of course both of my regular readers know that I am being coy. While not stooping to the point of having done actual research on Pope Francis’s encyclical, I have been following the buzz on the International Society for Environmental Ethics List Serve. If you are one of the Thornapple Blog readers who does not know what a “list serve” is (and believe me, you would not be the only one), I’m just going to suggest that you Google it. I’ve already fulfilled my quota of tangential misdirection for the week, and it is really time to get on with the main point.

Folks on the ISEE list are generally favorable. They approve of the fact that the Pope has said that humanity has a responsibility to halt the harm that it has been doing to the global ecosystem by releasing a toxic cocktail of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, and even to undertake measures that would repair some of the damage. The amount of kneejerk outrage spewing from the climate sceptics on this is really kind of depressing, but frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. I’m not going to be lured into that quagmire.

I will point out that not everyone on the ISEE list is wholly positive about the Pope. There are a few who are kind of grudging about their approval of the Laudato Si’ encyclical mainly because, well, after all, he is the Pope, and they are just kind of down on things religious, being (as many are) formally trained philosophers and all. There are some who object to his association of “the Earth” with a gendered term (e.g. ‘sister’), seeing it is more than a bit passé and even sexist coming from a man in his position. And there were longer rants about his refusal to endorse the idea that human population growth was a driving source of the problem. I point out these objections in the spirit of reportage. I have no more intention of engaging these points than those of the nutcases.

Readers of the Thornapple Blog may be asking themselves, “But what does this have to do with food ethics?” But here I will note that based on what I have read (and again I’ll confess in all seriousness to have read only some excerpts), this is clearly what the Pope gets right. There have already been serious consequences from greenhouse gas pollution for world agriculture. They range from loss of farmland due to sea level rise to flooding and drought associated with the increased volatility brought on by change in some of the basic atmospheric processes that make up the global climate system. As the Pope notes, the people being affected by this are not people who have gotten fat eating steak and driving SUVs (to mention two things that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions), nor are they people who can afford to undertake the measures that would offset the devastating impact on their local farming environment.

The Pope is pretty clear that we should think of ethics as involving duties to Nature herself (apologies to my feminist readers for following the Pope’s language use here), but he is also clear that duties to Nature align nicely with more traditional Christian social teachings about duties to the poor.

Now if I could just figure out what ‘encyclical’ means.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

 

Book Tour

June 14, 2015

I spent most of last week on a mini book tour to promote my new book From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone. It was fun and pretty well received at all four of the West Coast locations. In Berkeley, CA a skeptical gentleman asked me to talk a bit about the case for eating organic food. My answer omitted something that was extremely important for several other people in the audience: You should look for foods that have not been sprayed with chemicals because of the risk they pose for agricultural workers. Less concerned about their own health and safety, at least two people in a rather small audience took me to task for not making this seemingly obvious ethical point.

I must say that my first reaction was to push back. Agricultural pesticides are regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, or as we farm insiders like to call it FIFRA. (Try saying “fifra” out loud. It’s fun!) It may seem like this list of poisons—to which we could add herbicides—are going to be inherently dangerous. Linguistically they all seem to be in the same family with homicide.

I periodically find myself applying something called Naftin™ to the fungus on my feet, so I guess I should confess that I’m not totally down on fungicides, at least. But maybe that has relatively little to do with food ethics.

The thought that was actually running through my head was an unverified story I heard a few years back: that some larger organic growers were bringing back the short hoe, known among migrant workers as el cortito. Here’s a quote from a PBS webpage for The Fight in the Fields:

In the late 1960s and 1970s, el cortito was the most potent symbol of all that was wrong with farmwork in California: The tool was unnecessary, and farmers in most other states had long switched to longer hoes. Growers argued that without the control the short hoe offered, thinning and weeding would be mishandled, crop losses would mount, and some farmers would go bankrupt. As he prepared to take on California farmers, Jourdane quizzed many physicians—including Cesar Chavez’s back specialist—who said that without a doubt, the hoe was responsible for the debilitating back pain experienced by many of their farmworker patients.

Let me repeat the word “unverified”. The quote above explains why a grower might want to do this, but I have no hard evidence that it’s being done. Carefully regulated use of the more benign pesticides can save some of the “stoop labor” involved in farming, and I rather think that there are a at least a few cases where concern for the interests of farmworkers would run counter to the intuitions of my critics.

Then I reminded myself that the larger history of pesticide regulation has involved both manufacturers and industrial farmers relying on the difficulty of proving that exposure to agricultural chemicals harms farmworkers to resist “careful regulation.” And I remembered Angus Wright’s classic book The Death of Ramon Gonzalez. Wright recounts an episode of pesticide abuse accompanied by utter disregard for the health and safety of farmworkers. So I decided to bite my tongue and simply agree with the sentiments being expressed by the audience.

I’m glad I did.  The book tour comes to mid-Michigan on June 22. Look for me at Schuler Books in Okemos at the Meridian Mall around 7:00 pm.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Elegant Economies

June 7, 2015

The 19th century author Elizabeth Gaskel advises that “almost everyone has his own individual small economies—careful habits of saving fractions of pennies in some one particular direction—any disturbance of which him more than spending schillings or pounds on some more real extravagance.” She goes on to illustrate the point with examples, one of which falls squarely in the domain of food ethics.

Small pieces of butter grieve others. They cannot attend to conversation, because of the annoyance occasioned by the habit which some people have of invariably taking more butter than they want. Have you not seen the anxious look (almost mesmeric) which such persons fix on the article? They would feel it a relief if they might bury it out of their sight, by popping it into their own mouths, and swallowing down; and they are really made happy if the person on whose plate it lies unused, suddenly breaks off a piece of toast (which he does not want at all) and eats up his butter. They think that this is not waste.

I may be repeating myself to note how my mother used a similar ethic of limiting waste to encourage me in the practice of eating everything on my plate. I confess to losing track of what I have and have not already said in the Thornapple blog, but I take comfort from the vanishingly small probability that anyone who against all odds finds themselves perusing the words formed by the electrons bouncing about on their screen this week would have read the blog some time ago. In any case, cleaning your plate was a fairly widespread application of the “waste not, want not” adage at one time. Maybe it still is. These days, of course, there’s often so much on the plate that popping that extra bit of buttered toast into one’s mouth in order to effect an elegant economy may be one of the things that’s contributing to our tendencies toward diabetes and heart disease.

Which is not to say that there’s nothing worth talking about from an ethics perspective when it comes to food waste. Here is a link to the Food Ethics Council on food waste. They begin with a quote to the effect that food currently wasted in the USA and UK could “lift 233 million people out of hunger.” But amazingly, they are almost as twisted and noncommittal as we are here at the Thornapple blog. They note (correctly, I think) that simply economizing on waste won’t actually feed the hungry. Attempts to economize on food waste must be accompanied by other efforts deliberately designed to address food security among impoverished and marginalized peoples.

I wonder if they had been reading Cranford?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Asparagus

May 31, 2015

In the spirit of our penchant for obvious and not-so-timely reminders, we note that May is asparagus month. Fresh, asparagus is a favorite for most true foodies, and by “fresh” I mean picked this morning or at least yesterday. That makes asparagus an inherently local food as well. We’ve been in asparagus season here in Michigan for the last three or four weeks, and with a bit of luck we will have two or three weeks more. So reminding people that this is the time of the year to be on the lookout for asparagus may not be entirely futile.

The first pick-up for Thornapple CSA will be on Wednesday of this week, but I must advise expectant members against looking for asparagus in the first weekly share. You don’t just plant asparagus in January or February with the idea that you will be eating it in May. Asparagus needs a good 3-4 years to be in harvestable condition, and some say you should really not expect much for seven years. 35 years ago when I came to Texas A&M as a newly minted faculty member, lots of us thought of the place as a temporary stop on the way to a position at a more attractive place. My colleague Dick Becka used to say, “Living in College Station is not so bad; it’s the thought of dying here.” Some of the newcomers came around to the idea that A&M was actually a pretty good place to work, while others resigned themselves to the limited mobility of the increasingly tight job market for university faculty. We would recognize this transition in an individual’s attitude by noting whether or not they were planting asparagus in their backyard garden. Anyone who puts out asparagus expects to be around for a while.

As a result, asparagus DOES NOT appear on the list of vegetables that you can expect to get from your participation in the Thornapple CSA. We did put out some asparagus at Appleschram a couple of years back as an experiment, but it hasn’t really taken. One problem is that it’s hard to keep people out of it while it get’s established. Casual visitors easily convince themselves that they have stumbled on an unknown treasure trove. They yield to the temptation to help themselves to a few stalks, thinking that it couldn’t possibly hurt anything.

This is an instance of a collective action dilemma—a problem theorized in the 1960s by Mancur Olson. I met Mancur Olson once in the hall at 1616 “P” Street in Washington, DC. It probably would have been less than a year before he died, but I suppose that this is too much a tangent even for the Thornapple blog. A more accessible version of the problem was formulated by Garrison Keillor for one of his A Prairie Home Companion monologues. It’s called “The Living Flag”, and it was popular enough that it was one of the stories celebrated in the 25th anniversary collection. But that’s all I’m going to say here. If you want to hear how Keillor explains collective action dilemmas, you can go to this link.

The long and short of it is that we are at least a year or two behind in getting asparagus established for distribution in Thornapple shares. This will not, however, deter our farmers Paul and Chelsea from providing a sumptuous helping of salad greens, and maybe some kale and radishes. Yum. In the meantime, look for asparagus on the menu at any appropriately hip or “local” eatery, or find some at the produce section in your local market. It may not have been picked yesterday, but it will still be pretty damn good.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

The Real Thing

May 24, 2015

Blogging again this week from Schiphol. It seems I’ve missed two of the great denouements of the decade. One would be David Letterman and the other would be Don Draper. Of Dave I could say that his decision to drop watermelons from great heights back in the 1980s was my inspiration to get into food ethics. It wouldn’t be strictly true, but I could say it. Of Don Draper I could say that although I didn’t catch the last episode of Mad Men, I did hear that it ended with the famous “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” Coca-Cola commercial. Now that does seem like a tie in to food ethics.

If school were in session (and I weren’t in Amsterdam) I’d poll my MSU undergraduates to see how many of them have seen this iconic bit of advertising. Coca-Cola will gladly play the thing again for you at the website attached to this link. For the link challenged, I’ll say that it starts out with a girl singing, “I’d like to buy the world a home, and furnish it with love. Grow apple trees and honey bees and snow-white turtle dove.” It goes on with some ideas about teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony before getting to the point, to wit: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company.”

We could say something about the racial make-up of this assembly of young people that Coca-Cola put “on a hilltop in in Italy”. They’re not ALL white but they are assuredly disproportionately white. But perhaps that would be an ungracious way to remember the 1970s.

After some nice counterpoint repetitions of this, this mostly-white crowd of twenty-somethings breaks into the more familiar “It’s the real thing.” Coke jingle. At least it was more familiar back in 1971. The way I remember it going was “It’s the real thing. In the back of your mind, what you’re hoping to find is the real thing.” Although it would not be true to say that Dave dropping watermelons inspired me to do food ethics, it might indeed be true to say that listening to those Coke jingles sparked my interest in ontology. Both readers remember ontology, don’t you? That riff we did last year about whether small farms are real farms?

Although it might well be true that my entire generation was inspired into their respective career choices by 1960s food and drink advertising, the advice that what I was hoping to find was the real thing (so go study philosophy, you idiot) would have had a totally subliminal effect. I didn’t actually realize how strongly I had been affected until I started watching Mad Men.

But when I went back and played the famous hilltop commercial (the link is still there above, if you’re curious), there was none of this “what you’re hoping to find” stuff, at all. Rather it goes like this: “It’s the real thing. What the world wants today … is the real thing.” Not just what I’m hoping to find, mind you. It’s what the entire world wants today!

So hopefully I’ve inspired you, now, too, if only subliminally. Go out and have a Coke if you must, but for that weekly ontology fix, keep on coming right on back to the Thornapple blog. We will probe the textures and folds of reality and all its simulacra. We’ll do it weekly and we’ll fill the back of your mind with all the tasty bits that will satisfy your longings for thingness. Count on it! And hey, can somebody fll me in on the Letterman show?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Badges Redux

May 17, 2015

It’s 5:37 as I write this. Getting late in the day for a blog this Sunday in May. And I’m tired. … Tired of playing the game… Ain’t it a shame? I’m soo tired….Dammit I’m exhausted!

Those are about the only lyrics I feel good about quoting from Madeline Kahn’s send-up of Marlene Dietrich. I’ve come off another semester of teaching kids who haven’t seen Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles and who would have absolutely no idea who Dietrich was in the first place. The only good thing here is that they can indeed find both of them on U-tube if they are inspired to figure out what the old geezer in the front of the room might be gassing about today.

And I’ve just come from a weekend at the “Food Justice Workshop”—a student organized activity at MSU that deserves high praise. But for some reason—no good reason mind you (other than, as I’ve already noted “I’m pooped already!”)—hanging out with all these young and idealistic kids (I know, I know…people in their mid-twenties don’t like to be called kids, but give me a break) makes me, well, you know, tired. Like explaining to the astonished student who took the bus in from Boulder, Colorado that I had seen the Airplane there back in ’69. She probably thought I meant that a saw an airplane there back in 1869.

I’ve got some colleagues (not quite as young as these kids in their twenties) who are working on a project to create a list of tasks that will promote food justice. (I know, I know. Don’t make fun of this stuff. Just cut me some slack this week. I’m tired!). The idea is that you sign up on a website, and then when you’ve checked in enough to report on your activity, you’ll earn a “badge”, just like you do when you eat at three vegetarian restaurants on Yelp!

Actually, there are already some real badges for more significant activities that are already given out by the Boy Scouts of America. Great stuff. I’m not knocking it. I’m just in that state of mind where the whole world is my voodoo doll. I’m just going with Blazing Saddles again, this time when Mel Brooks was lampooning not Marlene Dietrich but Alfonso Bedoya from Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Earning badges for food justice?

We don’t need no stinking badges!

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Vocabulary Builder

May 10, 2015

I spent a good hour and a half this morning struggling over a blog for the Oxford University Press website, and now I’m pooped. I don’t even know whether they will take it, so I feel like I’m letting both of my regular readers for the Thornapple blog down. I’m sworn off of my usual insouciance for the Oxford effort, and that (I think) is what made it so exhausting. Of course I can use words like “insouciance” in the Oxford blog, even if I’d be well advised to avoid them here. Oxford is the oldest university in the English speaking world, and their press is the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary—definitive source for English usage. They will be happy when people use the English language to its fullest potential, if anyone will.

However, I’ve been warned that unsuspecting lawyers, city councilmen and the occasional sociology professor find their way over to the Thornapple Blog only to be put off by a word like “ontology” or “catachresis”. There for a while I took to provide links to Dictionary.com. But today I’m persevering.

A pretense of unlettered naiveté to the contrary, I’m sure that both of my regular readers know full well that insouciance is a style of cooking that was originally perfected in Provence during the last three decades of the 18th century. This was a century after the suicide of François Vatel over the late arrival of the fish at his banquet for Louis XIV at Chantilly, but the French were still searching for a mode of preparation that would make the timing of distant ingredients a bit less crucial. It would be another century before the opening of Japan, but recent contacts with the East had made chefs in Nime and Aix-en-Provence aware of the gustatory and preservative properties of the fermented paste from boiled soybeans.

It was not until the 19th century that American naval hero Matthew Perry visited Provence and the Langdoc-Roussillon. Having only recently completed his inaugural voyage to Japan, he was well situated to appreciate the fine flavors of this new mode of food preparation. Perry later made a number of contributions to the English language as a result of his travels. One of them was the word “denim”, which he began to use in reference to any sturdy, cotton twill fabric that reminded him of the textiles he had seen in southern France. He would call them “de Nimes,” (e.g. “of Nimes”). And whenever he would encounter a food that had been allowed to marinate in an inky-brown sauce before being served he would refer to it as “insouciance” (e.g. in soy sauce). Perry’s neologisms (another one the lawyers out there may need to look up) caught on, and there you have it.

Of course you may not care for soy sauce. If that’s the case, you can always maintain that posture of erudition and sophistication that you associate with the Thornapple blog when you are among gourmands and epicures by insisting that your fish or fowl be served “sans souci” (e.g. without sauce). Just take it from me and your dining can be carefree and without worry.

You may be wondering what the connection to food ethics is today, so I’ll fill you in. While doing my “research” for today’s blog I looked up the map for Provence on Google. Then a stray click on my mouse took me directly to the website for Hormel meats “Pepperoni Minis”. They come in something called a “pillow pack”. That’s about all I have to say about it. I’m sure the robots know what they are doing.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Passionate Knishes

May 3, 2015

Taking a break from all that “serious” food blogging for a shout out to Lucinda Williams for giving us this:

Is it too much to ask?
I want a warm bed that won’t hurt my back.
Food to fill me up,
Warm clothes, and all that stuff.

“Shouldn’t I have all this?” she goes on to ask (three times, mind you) before adding “AND passionate knishes (who oh oh oh) passionate knishes from you.” Or something like that.

Neal Young also asked “Are you passionate?” and I must say that I’m asked that frequently. Usually when I’m headed into a meeting with a bunch of people I hardly know. We are all there (it’s presumed) because we are passionate. Passionate about helping people, passionate about food deserts, passionate about little babies and puppy dogs, passionate about the pink boll worm, passionate about gluten-free, passionate about ending the tyranny of logocentrism and the heartbreak of psoriasis.

Come right in won’t you please. Fill out a name tag (labeled “Call me…”). I’m always tempted to write “irresponsible,” “unreliable” and to throw in “undependable,” too. But then you get the little index card and the instructions, “Tell us about your passion.”

Well my passion is sarcasm.

THE THORNAPPLE BLOG: Proudly injecting irony, sarcasm and obfuscation into food ethics since 2009.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Nutritional Density

April 26, 2015

This week’s blog has nothing to do the ratio of calories to vitamins, minerals and the other weenie bits in our food that make it healthy (or not, as the case may be). Today I’m wrapping up an unusually long trajectory of musings on the connection between explaining the uptick in obesity and taking some ethical responsibility for doing something about it. We set this up with some desultory blogs on the broader moral significance of eating—hospitality, marking time, comfort food—that sort of thing. But then we dug in on dieting and weakness of the will. That was probably obvious to everyone except the philosophers. The trajectory really took off on March 29 when I brought up the idea that a fat person has only himself (or herself) to blame. Moral responsibility for obesity resides in the bad decisions that are made by individuals.

We’ve spent the entire month of April defending some alternatives to this. The most popular substitutes blame the food industry. Not only have these evil geniuses figured out how to use our propensity for eating more and more to get us to buy their stuff, they’ve crammed their stuff with increasingly less and less healthy ingredients. (Maybe the blog does have something to do with nutrient density, after all!) Along the way we made note of a third hypothesis: the medical model. We’ve gotten fat because of the interaction between these new concoctions of the food industry and our basic biology. We didn’t emphasize how the medical model warps the ethics, however. If it’s our basic biology that’s to blame, the moral responsibility for doing something about obesity resides with doctors. Let them figure it out.

Last week we noted that the food industry can’t really be blamed for what they have done because they are, after all, acting just like the profit-seeking, soulless corporations-existing-in-the-social-milieu-of-ruthless-capital-accumulation that they are. Again, we didn’t really emphasize how this left-leaning diagnosis warps the ethics of diet, but wasn’t it obvious? If we can’t blame the food industry for doing what any red-blooded American self-interested maximizer would do in a heartbeat, we have to blame the government. The problem has to be addressed through changes in public policy. Maybe deep changes in the structure of our social institutions. Moral responsibility becomes social and the primary agent to effect change is going to be whatever political regime happens to be running the show at the moment.

There are some other candidates we haven’t considered. To wit: let’s blame technology. It’s all those afternoons spent staring at screens and playing with robots instead of going outside to walk the dog, play a game of catch or plant pansies in the flower garden. If we would just jiggle our bods around some, we might not get so fat in the first place. And here again, the moral of the story changes: It’s not our social milieu that’s the problem, it’s our technological milieu. So instead of blaming the food industry, we blame Apple, Microsoft and Sony. I hope you are getting the picture that I could go on like this indefinitely, but when next week rolls around, it will be May already and I really need to think about something else for my own sanity, if not yours.

But I want to close with this thought: It seems pretty obvious that all these possible explanations are partial and mutually compatible. It’s not either or. It’s individual decision making and the actions of the food industry and some facts about our biology and our public policy and declining physical activity together that are causing the dangerous increase in obesity and the rise in heart disease, diabetes and other bad nasties. So why is it that when we shift the conversation toward ethics, toward who or what should be taking some responsibility for this situation, we suddenly become blame shifters? We assume that if individuals are even partly to blame, the food industry (or the video game industry) is totally off the hook? We think that if there is some kind of policy change needed, it’s a purely governmental responsibility and no one else in the whole mess has any reason to do anything at all?

Now that’s what I call nutritional density.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University