Discourse / Editorials / October 23, 2013

Rethinking our Food

In the U.S. we’re encouraged to see food as a tedious necessity best delivered cheaply and quickly. We budget minimally. We favor convenience, which usually means industrial refining (white flour), manufacturing (macaroni), pre-processing (boxed or frozen macaroni dinners) and amending for a long shelf life (hydrogenated fats, preservatives). We like things refined to our tastes, too. Why else would commercial scrambled eggs have corn syrup solids in the ingredients list?

Reinforcing this downplay of food is our own coerced guilt for harboring an appetite. If enjoying a meal requires apologies the holiday season’s feasting demands atonement. Many of us start the new year with pledges of penance in the form of commitments to determined semi-starvation often for months on end.

We probably all know the statistic that 80 percent of fourth grade girls have dieted. Thinness is deemed honorable, a sign of self-restraint; it’s evidence of taking care of oneself, the opposite of letting oneself go. (Just don’t be too thin: women’s bodies, especially, are subject to constant judgement.) To be seen as enjoying food, to take up space beyond the cultural aesthetic, is highly stigmatized.

Downplayed or not, food is essential. What does it mean to the single mother who is working three part-time jobs to get by (or two and attending college classes), and for whom speed isn’t a luxury and economy isn’t optional? What does it mean to someone who is not in their own culture to be able to find and afford the comforting foods that mean home?

Our food is commonly a guilty pleasure, and more often a bother offset only by being cheap and quick.  Food is also a political, social and cultural statement and is sometimes fraught with potential dangers with very real social consequences.

A separate reality is that food is a significant basis for human health. Will the cheapest, quickest and most palate-pleasing foods promote health? The real cost of inexpensive, quick foods is hidden in government subsidies. The corn used for high fructose corn syrup is one of the most heavily subsidized crops grown in the U.S.; soy and canola are near the top of the list, and, with corn, usually make up the top three.  Processed foods, also in part because of their long shelf lives due to trans fats and preservative chemicals, are often cheaper than whole foods (kale, pastured ground bison meat), real foods (kale-and-fruit smoothies) and are certainly cheaper than most organic foods.

Much of our food supply is now made up of GMOs, genetically modified organisms. Most corn and soy are GMO, but so are things like sugar, tomatoes, zucchini and canola oil.  Almost all animal (cattle, chicken) feed is GMO.

The health effects of GMOs are not known since they were never required to be tested before their release into the food supply. Do these practices promote health — these subsidies, refinements, additives, amendments, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and now GMOs?

Nutritionally speaking, saturated fat is brain food, and is especially necessary for children.  What does it mean for poverty-class and working-poor-class children now that the government guidelines mandate low-fat and non-fat milk for school breakfast and lunch programs?

Is it healthy to view food in terms of guilt, apologies and atonements?  This guilt leads to self-hatred, fears of our physical, natural bodies and even perceptions of dysfunction. This process of creating body-guilt and a related standard of physical objectification also leads to judgment being imposed upon others as we internalize these standards.

These standards have been normalized to the point where anyone who mentions nutrition, food, health, even farmers’ markets now has to utter the obligatory phrase, “the obesity epidemic.”  A question some of us have asked for a long time is whether it’s healthful to real people to label and shame them by the use of this disparaging phrase.  Do we have a good enough grasp, culturally, even scientifically, to at least accurately label and diagnose the people we are condemning?  Do we understand the health ramifications for low-income children now fed reduced-fat milk?  Actually we don’t.  (But some of us have serious concerns.)

Within the arena of health there are several common frames with very different viewpoints. One commonality among most activist perspectives is that industrial animal agriculture is the stuff of nightmares: torture, bodies drugged to counter feedlot-induced disease and telling contradictions like the illegality of testing for Mad Cow disease (yes, it’s against the law to privately test meat for BSE).

Food is also of ecological concern, and this is reflected in the two activist perspectives. If vegans say we can’t have 7-plus billion people consuming the standard U.S. meat-and-animal based diet on this finite planet, the ethical omnivores counter that even permaculture requires animal inputs — and we know hunter-gatherers were stronger and healthier than the farmers replacing them.

Thus the same set of facts can be used to urge others to refrain from eating any animal products, or at least adapt to a vegetarian lifestyle (where milk and eggs are in the meal plan), to find sources for humanely-raised and appropriately pastured animal meats or even to limit meat to what you can hunt in the wild. The third view, of course, is the mainstream medical one which has given us low-fat and high-carbohydrate eating without much criticism of the state of the food supply, or on the pharmaceutical industry that has flourished from the combination, the focus in on the individual and her or his weight.


Choosing what to eat among the healthiest options (or those believed to be) is a luxury reserved for the economically comfortable, or those who put other needs aside to be able to afford healthy foods and who have the facilities to cook for themselves.

How do we address food needs for our entire community at Knox? And how do we help create new and better options for the rest of the surrounding community, the people of Galesburg and beyond? Whatever we can gain for ourselves can be shared with the entire community, to the greater benefit of all.

diana Mackin

Tags:  cheap commercial danger essential food Galesburg guilty Knox College lifestyle normalized preservative processing quick social consequence supply vegan vegetarian

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