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Activist determined to spread the good word

There's no doubt processed food dominates our food culture, but the determination of the next generation to wrest back control of their diets give reason for hope, Larissa Nicholson reports.

MADELINE BETLEHEM, Narrabundah, 32, on a raw food diet

Madeline Betlehem is part of a growing backlash against quick and easy eating. She says we could all do with eating less highly processed, fatty foods, and while she knows it is radical, she thinks raw could be the way to go. ''It's about not relying on what corporations are giving you,'' she says.

Joe Brock, ethical vegan.
Joe Brock, ethical vegan. Photo: Stuart Walmsley

Vegan activist

Slow food

Betlehem starts each day with a big dose of leafy greens. Since she embraced a raw food diet, Betlehem has eschewed traditional breakfast options for a huge smoothie made of 60 per cent fruit and 40 per cent parsley, spinach or other dark green vegies. Sometimes she will throw in some chia seeds or a natural supplement, but mostly it is just pure, raw fruit and vegetables. Betlehem says while some of her colleagues were bemused when she started bringing her green smoothies into work, the health benefits of ''going raw'' have made the unusual diet worthwhile. As a sufferer of Crohn's disease, a chronic autoimmune disorder that affects the digestive system, Betlehem was using medication to control her symptoms when a friend suggested she give raw food a go.

Betlehem says while she was a little sceptical at first, some online research revealed other Crohn's sufferers had found relief through raw food (although the US National Library of Medicine advises that no specific diet has been shown to make Crohn's symptoms better or worse). But the raw food community has grown a lot since 2005, and back then there was much less information on what to eat available for those starting out.

Connor Lynch, of Rivett, on a slow-food mission.
Connor Lynch, of Rivett, on a slow-food mission. Photo: Graham Tidy

Betlehem says raw is generally defined as not heated above 40 -45 degrees, and with a lack of advice about how to stay healthy eating raw food, her first foray into the diet did not go well.

''I started out with plain fruit and vege, but I'd binge on processed foods, breads croissants, sugary things,'' she says.

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The trick was to find a way to feel full on raw food, and in the end Betlehem has settled on a diet of 80 per cent raw food, 20 per cent cooked.

''It really is trial and error, it took years to get down pat,'' Betlehem says.

After her breakfast smoothie, Betlehem, a project engineer, generally has a big salad for lunch, including tomatoes, capsicum, cucumber, mint, celery and legumes. She sometimes includes some cooked rice in her salads, and she eats similarly for dinner. Betlehem also makes raw soups using blended avocado and spices. She makes sure she has lots of fruit and nuts on hand for snacks, so she can avoid unhealthy binges.

Betlehem says her conversion to raw food has been responsible for a real improvement to her health. She no longer takes medication for her condition, and says she is able to think more clearly and has more energy.

''I think people who saw me five years ago would say I look dramatically different,'' she says.

Raw food advocates argue that food loses nutrients when it is heated. Betlehem says that the extra dose of goodness that raw, natural food gives her has enabled her body to better combat the disease.

''If I didn't have the diet I would be quite sick,'' she says.

Betlehem says her doctors ''give me the eyebrow'' when she tells them about her raw food diet, but note that she is doing well. Although she does think it is possible to remain healthy on a completely raw diet, Betlehem is not too strict on herself and she does eat small amounts of meat or dairy, or a piece of cake on a special occasion. She is practical about the limitations of the diet.

''Cooked foods are really quite nice,'' she says.

''Raw foods are nice too, but they don't have the same immediate feel-good factor.''

When she eats out Betlehem tries to find the closest thing to a raw meal on the menu, often a salad, and asks the chef to modify it as required. She thinks most people could benefit from increasing the amount of raw food they eat.

''There are so many toxins already, and life is so stressful, we should do our bodies as many favours as possible.''

JOE BROCK, Red Hill, 27, ethical vegan

Joe Brock was working in the delicatessen of a large supermarket, selling count less boxes of disembodied chicken parts, when he really started to think seriously about becoming a vegan.

Brock had already begun considering animal rights as part of overarching commitment to nonviolence. The industrial nature of the way the meat arrived - bags of just breasts, or thighs, or necks - added to an existing unease with the way farm animals were treated.

''It was a gradual shift. The more I thought that something had to die to bring me that food, the more I didn't want to do that,'' he said.

Brock gave up meat, and not long after he cut out all animal products, including dairy and eggs, to become a vegan.

Brock has recently completed a PhD in biomedicine and is a manager at the ANU's food co-op. He is also more committed than ever to veganism, and has discovered plenty of like-minded people in Canberra - ''an eclectic, wonderful bunch''.

Brock falls very much in the activist camp of vegans. He has been involved in protests against the opening of duck shooting season in Victoria, waking up before the crack of dawn to trudge through the wetlands hoping to put an end to the practice. But he said it is not all about banners and megaphones.

''It's hard, and there's a place for that, but there's a gentler, non-confrontational activism too. Sharing food with people, talking to them,'' he says. Brock says while he has plenty of friends who eat meat, as a committed animal activist he feels obliged to spread ''the good word'', and he is unwilling to compromiseon an ethical issue. He is scathing towards the concept of a meat-free Monday - the idea of simply reducing meat consumption, rather than avoiding it altogether, holds no sway with him.

''I never encourage people to cut down on meat or animal consumption. It's a binary issue for me. It's a fundamental issue of rights,'' he says.

''It's like I wouldn't say, 'You're a bit sexist, don't be sexist one day a week.' ''

His strongly held views have posed some challenges along the way, and Brock says people who have grown up in farming families were most likely to find his outspokenness confronting. On one occasion a colleague from a dairy farming background asked him why he didn't have milk in his coffee.

''When I told him it was because it's a reproductive excretion meant for infant cows, and that I'm fundamentally opposed to the commodification of non-humans, he got quite upset and went away,'' he says.

But Brock says there have been plenty of people who have embraced his sense of commitment, including his Mum, once she was sure he was getting all the nutrients as he needed. He says that being friendly and judging actions, not people, can help smooth over tensions, and that if anything he feels stronger and healthier than when he was a carnivore. Casual meals with friends and family now take a bit of extra planning, and Brock says he usually takes his own food as he never expects people to prepare vegan food especially for him. ''I miss the ability to connect with people over food without any restrictions,'' he says. ''It's a bit of a hassle.'' But where others may see deprivation, he insists that learning to live without animal products has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. ''[Before going vegan] I never really appreciated food for what it was. Food is a really joyous event for me now.''

CONNOR LYNCH, Chapman, 21, a member of Slow Food

When Connor Lynch got involved in Canberra's slow food group at the tender age of 19, he realised his youth positioned him very much in the minority.

''It was quite uncommon, I was definitely the youngest by about 10 years,'' he says.

But Lynch didn't let that hold him back. He had recently completed a school-based apprenticeship in cookery, and had been talking with friends about different, more community minded ways of producing and eating food. Working in a cafe that sold a range of organic and locally sourced products also made him conscious of the environmental impacts of moving food long distances.

It is a common misunderstanding, but slow food is not, in fact, just time-consuming cookery. ''People think we sit around at home with slowcookers or something,'' Lynch laughs.

Rather, as he explains it, slow food positions itself as the opposite of fast food. Advocates try to source locally and ethically grown, seasonal produce, and to cook and eat it with others in a friendly and festive way.

''We know every step of the process. It's about food that's wholesome and healthy for the environment and for us,'' he says. Anyone can embrace slow food principles in their own lives, but organised groups of like-minded people, known as conviviums, also hold meetings to organise outings, socialise, and, of course, eat.

Lynch says that since he became involved in the movement his life has changed. He makes an effort to support local producers and has included a greater range of foods in his diet.

''I had no idea that with a drive out to EPIC market I could get almost everything I needed,'' he says.

Lynch says avoiding prepackaged and fast food most of the time has given him more energy, and that most people, when they understand what slow food means, react positively towards his choices. His parents think it is a good idea, and have started integrating slow food principles in their own lives.

''When we cook together at home we make an effort to do it convivially,'' Lynch says. He is a cook by trade, and hopes to one day open an organic or environmentally friendly cafe with some friends who also work in hospitality. He says slow food has had benefits for his general well-being.

''[When I started attending the convivium] I had just moved out of home and there was a sense of community and family,'' he says. ''It was nourishing for the soul.''

Larissa Nicholson is a staff feature writer.

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