Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Power of Food

I just saw Food, Inc. It was heartbreaking. But I recommend you all see it.

Food is important to me. I think it's by necessity. My last Chief used to brag about having to keep an emergency granola bar ready at hand for when I hadn't eaten in a while. I think he also had a pair of trash pickers so that he could give it to me without getting too close. Needless to say, I get grow-horns bitchy when I don't eat about every four hours. So food is important to me. And I'm enough of an elitist snob to like good food.

When I'm underway, I put those tendencies on hold and eat what's put in front of me. I really don't have much of a choice if I want to keep food in my gut on that regular four-hour schedule. The cooks onboard ships out to sea have a pretty captive audience. And usually, they do a good job. Though there is a reason that the abbreviation for High Endurance Cutters (WHECs) is also known as "We Hafta Eat Chicken."

But when I'm at home...or at least not underway, since I still really don't have a home yet, I make different choices about what I eat. I'm not a vegetarian, but I'm trying really, really hard to be a locavore. Or if not a locavore, an organicavore? Organic-ian? Anyway, I try to eat organic as much as possible. And I'm not perfect. I definitely eat conveniently sometimes. But, as much as I can, I try to eat locally and/or organically.

One of the most important points that Food, Inc makes is about the power of our dollars...using our purchasing power to influence what happens with our food system.

I make those choices with how I eat. For myself.

But right now, I have the influence over an approximately $9000 monthly food budget that feeds 18 people for three meals a day for about a week and a half a month. That's a lot of power.

So I have two questions: How can I use this opportunity to influence my food system? and Should I?

The "should I?" one will definitively impact the other one, so I'll start there. Good food is my own personal little crusade. It's important to me, but not necessarily important to the other 19 people on my crew. They know food is important to me: I've made food an important part of each shipboard function we've had; I've spent a lot of time recognizing their sacrifices with food while we've been in drydock, and finding a way to compensate them a little for what they've had to put up with; I brought fresh fruits from my own yard into the shipyard office for them to enjoy.

Prosteletysing about food to my crew feels a little bit like having the chaplain come over to my last ship uninvited. I know it's for their own good, but I don't know how much they really care. And it's their money. The enlisted guys don't get a subsistence allowance while they're assigned to a ship. That money goes to the galley instead to pay for their three free meals a day. Officers are different. We do get an allowance, but we have to pay for each meal. So in my mind, any categorical decisions I make about how the galley is run has to have buy-in from the crew because it's their money I'm messing with.

Coasties are odd birds when it comes to food. And cooks have one of the hardest job in the entire organization. Especially cooks on ships. Food is morale. Good food means good morale; bad food can destroy morale faster that a busted bust. And they're trying to please 18 different palates with the same meal. That's a tall order. And far be it for me to dictate what they should eat.

So with all those constraints, how can I use this power I have to influence my food system? Here are some ideas I've come up with so far:
--Fish calls as often as possible!! Yay!! I just learned from my cook a week or so ago that it's up to the CO to allow "game" food onboard, including the bounty from fish calls. I'm thinking about encouraging hunting trips when we get back to the Big Island too...this is the only way I can get local pork as far as I can tell :)
--Vegetarian meals one day a week. I figure this is more palatable to the crew than one vegetarian meal a day.
--Encourage my cook to purchase local stuff as much as possible. Hilo has an amazing Farmer's Market every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Unfortunately I don't think my cook can purchase much there, since he can only go to places that accept credit cards. But about half a dozen of my guys have mentioned the Farmer's Market as one of the many, many, many, many reasons they're looking forward to getting back home.
--Bring Food, Inc onboard and watch it on the messdeck.

And I think I'm going to start filling the suggestion boxes at my local commissaries with requests for labels about where produce is coming from, local milk and meat selections, and more organic staples.

Oh, and just for an update on the ship, we're getting hauled back out of the water this week. It's gonna be a while before we're fixed, but at least we'll get a ship back that doesn't have any shaft vibrations. 80 days more away from homeport than we're allowed for FY09. Almost three months. This is me, trying to think positive.


Dad said...

I have tried and tried and tried to enter comments on your blog without success. Please tell me how to do that.
You latest re: food is great. I have not seen Food, Inc. but will make every effort to do that.
For your crew what you have done sounds just great especially the Farmers' Market part. Maybe a regular survey of your crew about likes and dislikes of food would give them some sense of ownership. Just an idea.

Love your Blog, but want to comment.

Just a Girl said...


I'll send comments sepcor (that's CG-speak for seperate correspondence) re how to post comments.

I like the idea of regular comments from the crew. Most crews I've seen before haven't been the least bit shy about providing feedback to the cook on whether they like a meal or not. And some have passed around a request sheet before going shopping to get specific things that crewmembers want.

We've also got the luxury of an "open galley," which means that if someone doesn't like the meal that's being served, they're free to make something on their own (as long as they don't get in the cook's way). I have been known to make a PB&J sammie when it's the fourth night of chicken in a row.

The open galley can be a double-edged sword, though, making food available at all hours. The storage areas beneath the bench seats are known as "fat lockers" for a reason. They're packed chock full of snack foods. We do usually have some trail mixes and crackers, but there's also a lot of potato chips, candy, cookies and other assorted junk food.

Oh, and the other food-related restriction I advocate is not buying "energy drinks" like Monster or Red Bull, etc with galley money. It was especially important on my last ship where dehydration was a serious risk. But I think it's a good idea not to have that stuff onboard anywhere.

Azulao said...

Boy, do I get bitchy about food too! I'm right with you on high quality.

My experience with young guys, namely my students, is that they don't care as long as there's LOTS of it and it tastes good. (Just look at Michael Phelps, who of all people you'd think would care what he ate.) So you would probably get away with imposing some food standards as long as you don't mess with the frying pan.

I agree with Dad, do a survey.

Wireless.Phil said...

I don't know when you were in the grocery store last, but all food is now labeled, by law.

Check several stores, some try to label the food on the bar code sticker or the price sign, or the package has it, yet some stores are yet to label everything, either they forget or they don't know and you have to ask. I live in Ohio and even though its coming to the end of our growing season, we still get hard as rock green tomatoes that are gassed to turn them red from southern and western states that rot before the ripen and our green peppers and green onions, zucchini and yellow squash still come from Mexico. We grow those here, so I don't understand that. In addition, I refuse to buy any food labeled from China! Not even canned sliced mushrooms and I wrote and told the manufacture that.

Wireless.Phil said...

After watching this trailer, I do remember seeing this.

The 3 minute link to Youtube: Food Inc.