Over the weekend, Salon published a provocative piece, “Stop telling me I’m poisoning my kids”: Food crusaders, sancti-mommies and the rise of entitled eaters.” In it, writer Jenny Splitter explains that her child has severe peanut and tree-nut allergies and so when she learned of a purported link between food allergies and GMOs, she became “an all-organic, clean-eating sugar-free mom. . . . [spending] way too many hours hunting down obscure ingredients like coconut sugar and verifying whether my honey was indeed ‘real.'” But eventually she concluded, “My kids weren’t any healthier. I was just making everyone miserable spending time and money chasing what I thought was healthier food.”
Now Splitter has done a complete 180, not only reverting to conventional foods but becoming a pro-GMO activist who lobbies Congress on behalf of that cause. And apparently she has nothing but disdain for the moms she left behind, the ones still pathetically searching Whole Foods for the coconut sugar. Whether it’s moms who prefer to feed their children organic food, are worried about excessive sugar in their kids’ diets or who avoid GMO foods, Splitter calls all of these women “dietary sanctimommies” who are driving a new “epidemic of entitled eaters.” She further accuses them of being anti-science, fear-mongering, and far too trusting of “anecdotal evidence and sentimental narratives without ever examining them with any degree of skepticism or critical thinking.”
Harsh words. And yet, as someone who’s variously been called “a sanctimonious food fanatic,” a “food Nazi,” an “angry mommy” and a few less family-friendly epithets over the years, you might be surprised to hear that I agree with some of Splitter’s views. Here’s where she and I find common ground:
I’m not yet convinced there are proven negative health consequences from eating GMO foods or, at the very least, I believe the science surrounding the issue is complex and unresolved. And I’m humble enough to know that my law degree doesn’t qualify me to make that determination while far more highly trained minds continue to debate the issue. (By the same token, I’m curious to know if Splitter has adequate scientific training to be so very sure of the opposite conclusion? In her bio she calls herself a writer, storyteller and “science advocate.”) So while I do strongly support GMO labeling and also believe there are other, quite legitimate reasons to worry about GMOs (well articulated by Maywa Montenegro in this recent piece), I share Splitter’s skepticism – but not her obvious hostility – toward moms who claim to have cured their children of serious health problems (like autism or allergies) by switching to non-GMO food. I’m not rejecting these anecdotal stories out of hand, but I don’t believe we can draw firm conclusions from them.
Second, I agree with Splitter that the whole “clean eating” movement has led many people to lose sight of the big picture when it comes to the healthfulness of their own or their children’s diets. As she puts it pithily, “A non-GMO, organic, gluten-free cupcake sweetened with honey is still a god-damned cupcake, and a lot less healthful to a growing body than some conventional chicken and green beans.” Amen.
Finally, like Splitter, I’ve encountered many moms over the years who are so passionate about their child feeding practices (whether it’s anti-GMO, Paleo, vegan or some other approach) that they use highly inflammatory rhetoric to describe moms who deviate from that path. It’s just never appropriate, in my view, to tell another mom she’s “poisoning” her children by feeding them [fill in the blank: dairy, sugar, meat, GMOs, fast food, etc.], or to throw around words like “toxic” when describing the foods another mom chooses for her kids. Splitter herself was told by an anti-GMO activist that she’s “poisoning” her kids, and she has every right to take issue with that vitrolic language.
But here’s where Splitter and I part ways.
Splitter’s ultimate premise is that we Americans have “one of the safest food systems in the world,” so while “kids in other countries are dying from unsafe drinking water or contaminated food,” it’s “entitled” and “sanctimonious” for an American mom to “insist” on her own “entitled dietary choices,” whether they’re “anti-GMO, organic, sugar-free or all of the above.”
Peering through Splitter’s incredibly narrow lens on our food system, yes, we are indeed fortunate to have (maybe) safe water coming out of our taps, and a rate of food-borne illness that’s far lower than that of many countries (though we still have some serious food safety problems of our own). But aren’t we allowed – indeed, obligated – to undertake a broader assessment of our food system? And what do we find when we pull off Splitter’s blinders?
I’ll tell you what I see from my perch as a children’s food advocate. Childhood obesity has tripled since the 1980s. Children as young as age three are developing what used to be called “adult onset” diabetes. An astonishing one in ten American children suffer from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a painful condition we didn’t even have a name for a few decades ago. Perhaps Splitter would disagree, but these deeply troubling developments don’t strike me as the product of a perfectly functioning food system. So, in light of the demonstrably poor health outcomes associated with the standard American diet, why is a mother considered “entitled” when she more carefully considers the food her children consume?
Similarly, precisely because the science is not determinative, why is it “arrogant” for a mother to choose to avoid GMO foods pending a conclusive determination of their safety? Or, even if we concede for the sake of argument that GMO foods are 100% safe, why is it “sanctimonious” to take into account the well-being of farm workers (or our environment, or our water supply, or our Monarch butterflies) exposed to the toxic pesticides sprayed on GMO crops? And if we accept Splitter’s contention that organic food is no better than conventionally grown food (which I do not), why is it “entitled” to also consider broader reasons for choosing organic food, such as water conservation, our soil quality, worker safety or the use of antibiotics in animals?
And even if none of those reasons are valid justifications for particular food choices, aren’t we all allowed to make them anyway? As a skeptical blogger writing about gluten-free diets once said:
If you stop eating gluten, and physical symptoms improve, have you proven some significant scientific correlation? Of course not. But let’s be realistic. . . . At some point it becomes obnoxious to demand to see the scientific evidence behind every lifestyle choice an individual makes. None of us live in some sort of perfect evidence-based world. Sometimes we all wing it.
Oddly enough, the blogger espousing that “live and let live” philosophy was none other than Jenny Splitter.
But now Splitter apparently sees herself as foot solider in the food “mommy wars,” and she disappointingly engages in the same ugly name-calling she once condemned. How is throwing around incendiary and patronizing terms like “sanctimommy” and “professional alarmist” any better than accusing another mom of “poisoning” her kids?
As a soldier on the other side of the battle line, I propose a cease-fire. I’ll feed my kids how I see fit, and you do the same. I won’t negatively judge your use of conventionally grown foods, and maybe you could resist making unfounded assumptions about me and my supposed gullibility when you see me toss an organic product into my shopping cart. And if our disagreements over food spill into the political sphere, as they necessarily will from time to time, let’s fight those battles on the merits and not resort to ad hominem – or should I say, ad Mom-inem – attacks. Deal?
[Hat tip to Casey Hinds of US Healthy Kids for alerting me to the Splitter piece.]
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