There’s been a lot of discussion around the World’s Fair lately about food (Food Miles, Chinese Agriculture, Science and the Farm Bill, Subsidies and the Small Farm). Up until about a month ago, I was employed by the food industry, and that position opened my eyes to a number of patterns in human food consumption around Boston. I became very attentive (in and outside of work) to the way people approached their food choices, what they chose, how they asked for it, how they consumed it, and how they exited the experience. I couldn’t resist sharing with you folks some of the ideas that I’ve been developing ever since I started thinking about food all the time.
Choosing food products to put in your body is a difficult decision for many people. You might think that people would have strong intuitions about how to do this thing that we are all biologically required to participate in, but any such intuitions are clouded by the crazy world of food on Spaceship Earth. Many people live a lifestyle in which a huge number of potential foods are available for relatively little cost. (At the same time, a huge number of people have social and economic constraints that limit these choices. That’s an environmental justice issue that deserves more discussion here, but one I’ll hold off on in this post.) For me, this number of options, combined with the factors influencing an individual’s choices, creates many levels of complication to eating. Most of us are not experts on human nutrition, and the information in the public sphere is constantly changing. We work hard, we lead busy lives, and slick advertising often promotes sugary, processed foods. How are we supposed to know what to feed ourselves?
Everyone likes lists, so let’s start a list of all the factors that might go into making food choices every day. Imagine that you are a human that is feeling very hungry (This is a situation that most, if not all, World’s Fair readers should be able to relate to). What influences your decision whether to eat, what to eat, where to eat, how to eat, etc.?
How much money do you have, and what percentage of it are you willing to spend on food? Food that is organic or local tends to be a bit more expensive. Foraged food is cheapest but requires a big time commitment.
What foods do you enjoy eating? Taste is influenced by production, season, family, friends, presentation, branding, timing, mood, etc. This last point is studied well by advertisers working in the food industry, who devote their careers to directing large-scale taste shifts towards their product.
The purpose of eating is to nourish the body, and most people would rather benefit their body than harm it. But what does that mean for daily eating? We’re all familiar with nutrition fact labels, and we know that vegetables and fruits deliver vitamins and minerals, while animal-based products are often loaded with fats and cholesterols best taken in moderation. How does this flood of facts affect our ability to feed ourselves?
How long do you want to spend on the preparation and consumption of your meal? This is both an in-the-moment question and a longer-term lifestyle question. Are your meals the anchor points of your day, or is eating a distraction from what you want to be doing?
Where did this food come from? Who made it? How was it produced? These questions have been getting a lot of airplay recently, with the excitement over local foods and sustainable agriculture movements.
My goal with this list is to open up a discussion about food philosophies held by you – the World’s Fair reader. I want to know how you think food should be approached, what role it should take in your life, and how you try to make your food dreams a reality. I’ll start off the discussion with a summary of my personal food philosophy as it stands now, and maybe at the very least someone will tell me that I am wrong. I think that food is very important, and I worry that people forget about it in favor of making money and advancing their careers. I think that it is good to have a personal connection with what you eat, whether it’s by preparing your meals yourself, eating vegetables from your garden, or supporting a local dairy farmer. I think that researching and practicing organic and sustainable farming techniques is an important social issue, and that the consumer has a responsibility to support farmers who use such techniques. I think a lot of other things, but that’s a good start.
Comments encouraged here, though the second half of this post continues tomorrow. In the meantime, we also recommend Marion Nestle’s What to Eat (and here) as a superb work on the same topic. Also check out Talk of the Nation Science Friday, from August 10th, where Nestle, Michael Pollan, and Sandor Ellix Katz discussed food choices and the new farm bill with host Ira Flatow.