Organic Vegetables and Fruits Can’t Save the World

Fresh spinach isn't a panacea.

Vince Fumo has a big problem. As you know, he’s waiting out a 61-month sentence in a Kentucky prison. But besides the usual complaints about prison—overcrowding, understaffing—Vince’s big problem these days, according to fiance Carolyn Zinni, is junk food. Pretzels. Dole fruit cups. White bread. I mean, for God’s sake. How’s a man supposed to stay regular?

That’s why she’s launching “Real Food for Felons,” an online petition to get more produce into federal prisons. One hundred signatures is all it will take, she thinks, to send CSA shares to the slammer:

“Because My Loved one is away in a Federal Prison Camp and has NOT had a piece of fruit or fresh vegetable in almost 4 YEARS !!”

It’s worth pointing out that he’s not in a “prison camp.” He’s just in prison. The word “camp” makes me think Carolyn’s not entirely clear on that point. S’mores and swimming lessons are also not part of the curriculum.

I don’t want to single out Carolyn, here. She’s a well-intentioned lady making sure her bubby gets his greens in. And it’s really not a bad point: As we all know in this farmstand-coveting era, nutrition is very important.

But the flare that went off when I read about Carolyn’s new mission is the same one that went off when I read about the Marc Vetri Foundation’s new Eatiquette program in our March 2012 issue. Philadelphia public schools have had their share of strife over the years, so it seemed a little odd to me that local activists would zero in on cafeteria table arrangements and hot-lunch-line fare. But hey, obesity isn’t the least of America’s problems, so maybe making sure kids have adequate nutrition is a perfectly noble cause.

In the wake of Carolyn’s hand-wringing, though, it seems worth stating the obvious: Kale is not a cultural elixir. It’s not going to make prison more pleasant. And it certainly won’t fix a bedraggled school system. Wholesome food is nice. It can make us feel happy on the inside, and vibrant on the outside. I like my chia seeds as much as the next girl. But it’s just a pretzel, not a human rights violation. When we are trying to rub spinach puree into national wounds—for instance, our out-of-date prison system and highly inequitable schools—like some kind of balm, we may be putting too high a premium on our vitamins and minerals.

Not everyone supplements their beta-carotenes and anti-oxidants. That’s not to say we all shouldn’t try to prioritize nutrition as much as we can, but the perceived quality of life improvement that comes with locally sourced corn vs. a can of Del Monte kernels is vastly exaggerated. That icky feeling you get when opening a Yoplait instead of a 0% Fage, or dressing a romaine salad instead of an arugula one? Yeah, that’s mostly in your head. Barring an allergy, your system is not so delicate and particular that an excess of starch will leave you completely anemic and unbalanced.

Nutritional headcases abound, of course. It’s a lifestyle that’s created a multibillion-dollar industry, and if you have the time and means to care about it that much, then fine. Happy juicing. But believe it or not, families all over this city are bonding over meals made with food from faraway lands like Florida and Michigan. Vegetables take up less than a third of their plates, and everyone is functioning just fine. Thinking that airtight nutrition is a prerequisite to happiness is a figment of our anxiety-prone imaginations, and to suggest that everyone else have the same thought process is just a classist projection.

Vince would probably do well with some spinach, that’s for sure. But even if his Kentucky prison were to set up a vegan smorgasbord in the mess hall tomorrow, I have a feeling the rest of us would be more satisfied with it than our still-imprisoned ex-senator.