In my last post, I left you with some of the things I have been struggling with during this challenge. Beyond the expected (but still significant) issues of cravings and impatience, what struck me most is that this challenge has had overwhelming political implications. I’ve struggled with these, because I feel like I’m straddling the line between two political camps, and each can be quite hostile toward (and dismissive of) the other. Yet here I am, participating in a challenge that is partially by choice, and partially not by choice, trying to make sense of the conflict. At the heart of my own struggle with this “in between” space is the uncertainty of how this challenge will affect my eating habits in the long term, and a desire not to let anyone down or come under even more intense scrutiny for those choices. So in this post, I’d like to seriously share with you some of my experiences in making sense of food politics and my place in them.
(I’m the rope in this scenario)
A sketch of both sides of the issue.
I want to quickly sketch some of the contours of this conflict that I have gathered by doing my own research, reading blogs and articles on the subject, and talking with many people. This is, by no means, a full and comprehensive discussion of both sides of the conflict. But for the purposes of this post, it is worthwhile to make sure that we are all on the same, only-partially-complete page.
The “Real Food” Proponents are hyper-critical of the industrialized food system. Their main critique is that industrialized “food products,” in the process of being ‘made’, lose many nutrients that later need to be added back in and/or become laced with chemical food additives or processes that change the structure of the food away from its ‘natural’ state. Though the critique is focused on food and the industrialized system from which it comes, most of their critique settles on the American food system, which is often regarded as corrupted by the influence of large food business and ineffective regulations and officials.
Many in this camp focus their critique on the very real and problematic environmental and public health consequences of breeding agricultural monocultures, widespread use of pesticides, keeping meat/dairy animals confined in close quarters and subjecting them to prophylactic antibiotics, and letting animal and agricultural waste run into water/soil supplies. A compelling number of people in this camp are anti-GMO, either because they disagree with the corporate practices of Monsanto or because they believe that GMOs have detrimental health effects (even though there is not enough science to verify these negative health effects, they believe science will eventually catch up and GMOs will be banned). There is a significant (and rather unfortunate) overlap between the “real foodies” and anti-vaxers, who do not vaccinate themselves or their children because they believe vaccinations damage our natural immunity and cause negative health effects.
Most of these people advocate for widespread changes in the food system, but are skeptical that it will ever happen. Instead, they focus their efforts on reforming how individual people eat – advocating all natural, organic, and minimally processed food. They thoroughly believe that processed food, especially cheap “junk” food, is either nutritionally vacuous or altogether corrupted and should be avoided at all costs. Their message is not framed as a suggestion, it is often framed as a moral discussion about what we “should” be eating and how we “should” be feeding our children. There is very little discussion of the various kinds of resources required to make their lifestyle work in the long term.
The “Real Food” Opponents are critical of the “real food” advocates’ misappropriation of scientific evidence and narrow mindedness surrounding “acceptable” food. They take issue with the narrow attack on any and all “processed” food, stating that processed food can be made nutritionally and responsibly. They also advocate a more even-handed approach to food – that all food is eaten in the context of daily, weekly, and monthly food habits. They would concede that only eating Doritos for a month will probably affect a person’s health negatively, but would argue that so too would eating only organic apples for a month. These opponents take issue with lumping all food into two or three categories then systematically vilifying an entire category – nothing is that simple.
I think many people on this side of the issue would share similar concern over pesticides, farming and animal practices, and building large monocultures that can be completely decimated by evolving pests. However, they are quick to point out that while these things could be reformed, the incredible efficiency of this system has completely eliminated the prospect of massive food shortages and famines. Today, global hunger and food scarcity are not caused by a short food supply (which was the case in the past), they are caused by economic inequality and unfair trade/ownership practices. But the food system itself can surely feed everyone, a fact that has only become realized with the advent of industrialized food. The opponents are also critical of dismissing GMOs out of hand, stating that there is a reason science has not verified any detrimental health effects of GMOs, and that genetically modifying an organism in a laboratory essentially mirrors the same process that decades of cross-pollinating and hybridizing would achieve “naturally,” just in a faster and more efficient fashion. They argue that waging an ill-informed and one-sided war on all GMOs is creating an unnecessary fear among people. Because of the unfortunate association with anti-vaxers, many opponents unfairly dismiss the “real foodies” as, at best, uninformed or unrealistic about science, and, at worst, science-deniers that are too stubborn to let go of their narrow views.
The opponents of the “real foodies” also take issue with framing food choices as a kind of moral critique – who are they to tell anyone what they “should” be eating? The very use of the word “real” implies that everyone else is eating “fake” food or “crap” food. They also point out that the individuals who advocate for “real food” the loudest are usually the same people who are privileged with a number of resources.
Food Choices: Everyone Has an Opinion
When I first started the challenge this month, I thought my biggest struggle would be having to make all my own food all the time. But I quickly learned that, while that is a struggle, the biggest challenge overall has been listening to everyone’s opinion of this month’s challenge. Some have been very critical of the challenge’s premise that these food choices are inherently “better” or “healthier” while others accept that as gospel (and stick to it!). Some assumed that all “real” food is healthy food and applauded the challenge, while others thought that “real” food is less healthy because it is so calorie dense, while still others were skeptical of any singular association between “real” food and health. Everyone seemed a bit curious about what I was eating, and everyone expressed some kind of concern that I would judge what they were eating.
I think this last point speaks to a very real truth about our collective relationship with food and why everyone I speak to seems to have an opinion on the challenge this month. For most of us, food is personal. We have particular tastes, habits, and preferences. We also have unique constraints that are outside our control: available income, access to stores that carry food, free time, allergies, and health problems. Most of us give some thought to our food and our health/life goals – whether that’s to feel healthy, lose weight, eat the “right” food in a particular social context, learn to cook, avoid cooking as much as possible, etc. When we listen to someone talk about food, we translate what they’re saying into our own personal food language – their relationship with food is translated by our relationship with food. I think this is one reason why talking about the challenge has elicited so many thoughts and reactions about food choices in general. Even though our experience with food is personal, talking about food is social – and we all bring our own cards to the table.
Food isn’t just social, it’s political.
I would feel fraudulent if I didn’t tell you, with absolute certainty, that not everyone can eat this way. As much as the ‘real foodies’ advocate changing your individual food choices, I am here to tell you that the substantial amount of resources required to eat this way is, without a doubt, exclusionary. More than anything, this food is expensive. I’ve already spent two times the amount of money on food for this challenge than I would in an entire month before this challenge, and I’m only 2/3 of the way through the month. Though the good-humored “real foodies” put out a lot of “budget-friendly” meal plans and ideas for stretching your dollars, it just doesn’t work if you make very little income (as grad students typically do) and live in a large southern California city (like San Diego). EVERYTHING is more expensive than the real foodies account for in their Midwestern budget meal plans. The only way I’ve managed to keep up with this level of spending is to deny almost everything else that costs money.
But let’s talk other resources required for this lifestyle. The next biggest resource suck is time. Everything about this lifestyle requires so much time. It takes longer to walk through a farmers market getting what you need than running in and out of the grocery store. It takes longer to chop and dice fresh produce than heat a package of frozen veggies. Whole grain rice takes longer to cook than minute rice, and basically everything takes longer than putting a pre-made entree in the microwave. But the important thing to remember here is that just because it takes longer doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. There’s a lot of emphasis on ‘home cooking’ in this lifestyle because its assumed to be healthier, but there is very little emphasis on the fact that the only people who could reasonably achieve this are blessed with time – either because they don’t work (like many of the suburban moms who double as real food blog writers), have a high-income regular-hour job (unlike anyone who is working two jobs struggling to make ends meet), or because they do not have other significant time constraints (like me – a single, childless person with a relatively introverted social life).
And what of the question of access? A significant proportion of the population lives in a food desert – a neighborhood where there are not stores that carry fresh produce. Most of the stores in these neighborhoods only carry processed foods (that, again, can vary in nutritional quality). It should go as little surprise that most of these neighborhoods are low income and nonwhite. So, from the benefit of economic and race privilege, I get to take for granted that the only thing standing between me and an organic, locally farmed apple is a quick walk to my car (another resource!) and a drive to a farmers market – in San Diego there is always at least one farmers market operating within a 40 mile radius.
Forging a Treaty in the Food Wars
As I enter into the final days of this challenge, I propose a treaty between the two camps – I no longer want to straddle between the two sides. Instead, I offer to you my own way of dealing with this conflict, a personal way that makes the most sense to me. You can disagree or agree with it as much as you like.
- Real foodies, please stop telling people how to eat. Stick with your own food choices and be done with it. You don’t need to proselytize your habits – you’re not saving anyone.
- Opponents of real foodies, please stop dismissing real foodies as science deniers and fear mongers. There are many reasons to ‘eat organic’ that have nothing to do with the science behind food.
- Everyone, realize that food is personal, social and political. Your food does not exist in a vacuum, and neither do your food habits.
- Dispense with the phrase “real” food and other words that imply a moral critique, like: better, healthier, junk, crap, etc. All words have power, all words convey a meaning. Be careful with that meaning. For me, I am going to favor the terms “Whole, minimally processed” to describe what I’m eating this month.
- I am going to avoid artificial foods, not because they have been definitively proven to be bad for health, but because what I can get as an artificial food I can probably get as a non-artificial food. And since I’m not an artificial person, I think I want food that isn’t artificial either.
- I think we don’t know definitively whether GMOs are harmful or not. I’m not convinced we should dismiss them out of hand as dangerous, and I’m not convinced that more longitudinal studies will reveal that GMO’s don’t have any negative health effects. The only thing I do know is that I don’t know. And because I’m just not sure (also because I’m not a huge fan of Monsanto’s legal and labor practices), I’ll err on the side of caution. To that end, it would be nice to have a label on foods with GMOs. However, I don’t think that label should be a warning label akin to what is put on cigarettes and alcohol.
- Check your privilege. Always. Forever.
Thanks for reading! I’ll continue to send you updates about this months “Whole, Minimally-Processed Food” challenge!