Monday, February 20, 2012

Small-Town Food Survival

Family obligations have brought me to a place which wouldn't normally be high on my list of locations to visit (no offense to any locals who may be reading this): Bradenton, Florida, a small town near Sarasota. Aside from the slow pace being a bit of a shock to this native New Yorker, a big challenge I have whenever I visit here is finding something acceptable to eat. If I were confined to a motel I'd have a REALLY big problem: the restaurants in the neighborhood I'm staying in consist of IHOP, Dairy Queen, a few BBQ spots, Red Lobster, Pizza Huts, a host of donut stands, and some dubious "family-style buffets" where the most vegetarian thing offered is some foul-smelling canned string beans. An iceburg lettuce salad would probably be as good as it gets. Luckily for me, I'm staying with family and can cook, but even a trip to the grocery store is not exactly a thrill.

Here's what there's A LOT of in grocery store down here in Bradenton:
Stuff in cans
Stuff with high-fructose corn syryp
Stuff which has meat which you'd never imagine would have meat (gelatin in the yogurt? lard in the pancake mix??)
Junk food (puddings, chips, cookies, cheez whiz, etc)
"Instant" microwavable "food" (I use that term loosely here) with a list of chemical additives as long as your arm

Essentially, eating processed food of any sort is completely out of the question.

Here's what I have NOT been able to find, even at the Sweet Bay grocery store which, to its credit, has a "health food" section:
Bread without a bunch of chemicals and/or milk in it
A non-dairy butter substitute which actually does not have milk in it, or worse, more gelatin!
Peanut butter which contains only peanuts
Jam without sugar
Veggie burgers which don't contain eggs
Vegetable boullion without meat, MSG, or chemicals
A good selection of fresh organic veggies (there were kiwis, carrots, celery, and cucumbers in the "organic" section, which mostly consisted of prepackaged foods such as the aforementioned non-vegan burgers)

Here's what I HAVE managed to find and eat:
Non-organic fresh veggies and fruit, some of which are actually quite good, as one might expect in a warm climate, although some of it, such as the strawberries I just ate, has absolutely no flavor
Vegan hot dogs
Tofu cream cheese
(Dry beans and rice are also available, although plain brown rice is hard to find, but since I don't have a pressure cooker where I'm staying I'm going for quicker options)
Organic tortilla chips

Having a limited diet for a few days isn't the end of the world for me, especially since I have the resources and the time to cook. But I feel really terrible for the people who live down here, many of whom are extremely obese (it's also virtually impossible to walk anywhere due to a lack of ample sidewalks and crosswalks), and many of whom are elderly and just don't have the energy to stand there reading all the ingredients labels on everything. Years ago there was a health food store in this area, but sadly it closed, no doubt unable to compete with the big grocery chains in a challenging economy. It's no wonder so many people in the US have health issues if this is the fare on the average small-town grocery shelves.

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