Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Omnivore's Dilemma

Author: Michael Pollan

Rating: ** (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience: Adults, Young Adults

Well, I finally had to do it. I had to find out (5 years late) what all the buzz was about organic, sustainable, blah, blah, blah.

Actually, I read Fast Food Nation (Eric Schlosser) some years ago and found it both convicting and a little alarmist. I also watched the features King Corn and SuperSize Me. So I am aware of some of the arguments against America's eating habits. I also work in health care, so I know the obesity and diabetes statistics.

What I appreciated about Michael Pollan's books (see also Food Rules for a Cliff's Notes version of Omnivore) is his thoroughness and practicality. He admits his own gradual journey toward healthier eating and doesn't judge people for coming to different conclusions. He doesn't expect people to become radical vegans, for instance, but encourages us to begin to educate ourselves about our food habits. He offers simple steps and options for people who want to make more informed eating choices.

The Omnivore's Dilemma divides food production into 4 groups: regular industrial farm production; organic industrial farming; local, sustainable farming; and self-production. Each of these options is explored in historic and current context and the reader can come to their own conclusion about how to implement each of these food production types into their family diet.

Most of us would agree "factory food" (as i like to call it) is our least desirable option. It's not going to go away any time soon, and probably has its place in some of our grocery shopping. A book like Omnivore's Dilemma will help you choose how much of your diet to devote to factory foods.

Pollan also tells the truth about "organic" foods. Many of these terms are defined by committees and government (lobbyists) so Pollan explains the gray areas. Terms like "free range" and "sustainably harvested" actually have no formal restriction or regulation, so companies may use them truthfully...or not! So Pollan tells the truth about both the factory option and the organic option. In all situations, caveat emptor!

Pollan is a big proponent of local, sustainable foods. This means getting to know your local producers and supporting them. "Sustainable" implies the local producer will put at least as much into the soil as they take out because they have a vested interest in maintaining their land. Conversely, corporate farming relies heavily on added fertilizers and pesticides to reap as much out of the soil as possible. For an interesting example of how local, sustainable farming (how farming was done pre-1920s, approximately) can work, take a look at

The final option is to try your hand at becoming your own hunter/gatherer! Families can decide how much of this to implement in their food choices. Most of us could plant a few rows in a garden (if you live in the suburbs, take a look at the size of your lot!), and some of us could even go fishing, or shoot a deer. Pollan validates these lifestyle choices.

It comes down to how convicted you are about food production policies in America and what you're willing to do about it for your family. Let me give you sort of a blunt, personal example: I am not a hippie living on a commune (and it's okay if you are) and I have serious concerns about the hygiene of some of our foods in the grocery store. For me, it's a little bit about the humane treatment of animals and it's a lot about the hygiene. Feedlots just aren't good for animals, or humans.

How will that change my behavior? Pollan suggests 3 guidelines in Food Rules: Eat Real Food; Mostly Plants; Not Too Much. Sounds manageable, doesn't it? In practice, I'm going to think a lot more about the 5-ingredient rule (eat foods with about 5 ingredients-foods your grandmother could recognize). We've already increased our fruits and vegetables. Next I'm going to order my own side of beef cut to specifics. Then I'm going to think about eggs and chickens. We're even considering joining a CSA: community sponsored agriculture group. For about $100 Rocky Ridge Ranch will provide families with 4-5 meats, eggs and produce each week. Not everyone can do that, but we might. (

If this interests you, there are plenty of options to begin your education process. (Two other books I am curious about but haven't read yet are Pollan's In Defense of Food and local pastor Craig Goodwin's Year of Plenty.) Then you can make your own informed choices about your family's food.

Leave a comment about your ideas!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Inkheart Series (3 books)

Titles: Inkheart; Inkspell; Inkdeath

Author: Cornelia Funke

Rating: Not Recommended
(0 stars out of 3 possible, "D/F")

Audience: Middle-school

The idea in Inkheart of becoming part of a story, or bringing a story to life would appeal to many readers. For that reason, this series is not without creativity, story and craft. I concede the premise is brilliant: a story out of control where characters come to life while readers (or even the author himself) can also enter in and attempt to intervene with the growing plot.

Unfortunately, I found it too sinister, threatening and dark to recommend as a whole. The pace and plot of the second book, Inkspell, was laborious: a 600 page book with only 250 pages of plot. I was left with no desire to plod through the third.

Combine this with coarse language (frequent "d***"s culminating in several "b******"s and finally a "son of a b****") and too much violence (stabbings, revenge, death threats) and the series really missed the mark for my family.

Positive arguments could be made for the strong female lead (Meggie) or for the message against wishing for selfish desires to come true. To be sure, there are sacrifices to be made and evil to conquer. Most interesting is the warning to be careful of what you read and what you write! But these themes are sadly eclipsed by plot and language failures.

Many kids could be drawn into a story with medieval touches, fairies, firestarters, princes and carnival performers, but the Inkheart series will disappoint more thoughtful readers.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Drive Thru History DVD Series

Titles: 9 including Rome if You Want to; Greece and the Word; Turkish Delight; East Meets West; Columbus/Pilgrims/Boston; New York/New Jersey/Washington; Patriots/Penn/Freedom; Soldiers/Jamestown/Virginia; Discovering America's Founders

Producer: Focus on the Family; Coldwater Media; Dave Stotts

Rating: *** (3 stars out of 3 possible, "A")
Highly Recommended

Audience: 4th graders and up

My 9 year old states these dvds "present history in a fun and humorous way that is also kid-friendly and educational."

Indeed, this series is a creative, fast-paced and informative introduction to Western Civilization and American history. If you get the Pantheon and Parthenon confused, or don't know the difference between the Circus Maximus and the Coliseum, or have trouble remembering that Octavian defeated Mark Antony and went on to become Caesar Augustus (yes, that Caesar Augustus), you'll also enjoy watching these with your kids.

For homeschoolers there are discussion guides and even a mini-curriculum based on US history (the 9-unit Foundations of Character).

I've not seen history for kids done in such an engaging way with excellent production standards. Dave Stott is the live-action, on-site host and the monologue is complemented with maps, slides and stills. The series will appeal to both boys and girls but be cautious with your younger viewers as there are some graphic descriptions of historical events.