Between & Beyond: Food (Part 2)

Last week I began talking about food, and we’ll pick up where I left off. I established the nature of our personal choices when it comes to food, and how they’re largely tied to our habitual relationship to the pleasure of taste. Another aspect of our relationship to food has a basis in disassociation and that nagging sense of distance that I have referenced a few times now in this column. We are distanced from the source of our food: from the violence of slaughterhouses, from the far-reaching environmental impact of mass-produced agriculture. Our food comes in colorful boxes lined on shelves and our primary engagement with it is the consumer interface that we are so familiar with; the one that seems almost inescapable in our culture. But what if we could add a little bit more consciousness to our choices? In the end, when we eat we are looking for satisfaction. That satisfaction arrives mainly in the vehicle of taste and its pleasure, but what if we were to broaden our definition of satisfaction a bit? This is not at all to say that taste must be sacrificed, but that habits are broken more easily when we see what we are gaining rather than what we are losing,

So from here, let’s think about eating and the kind of satisfaction that could arrive when you eat for yourself and others. If you could imagine a food pyramid with only three levels, the bottom and broadest base being the least you could do, on that level we could place: “whole foods.” As in, no matter what you eat, including meat, it would be best if you could buy it fresh. In other words: less boxes, less cans, less ingredients. The more your food has been processed, the less control you have over what you are taking into your body. When you pay attention to the ingredients on labels, you start to find things that seem absurdly unnecessary and that you would never expect. Corn, soy, dairy, and all kinds of laboratory strangeness get shuffled in with simple items to make them last longer, make them taste a certain way, and to keep you buying. Before you buy something in a package, ask yourself if you could make it yourself. With the internet, there’s nothing keeping you from a recipe and plenty of instructional guides exist. Less processing equals more nutrition and less chemical intake. You’d also be surprised how much more you appreciate a meal that you created, step by step, and ushered into existence. And this is what I mean by extending our definition of satisfaction. On the social level, whole foods will just make you a healthier, happier person. You might wind up less cranky. You might reduce the overall cost of health care. The far-reaching ramifications are a bit limited, but that will change as we move up the pyramid.

On the second level of the pyramid we find “organic foods.” Organic foods come with a lot of baggage these days: Who is certifying them? Are they a facade brand of some larger corporation? Is that corporation practicing harmful large-scale farming? With enough effort and research, you can start feeling better about those questions and choose your brands wisely, but in the end, organic foods are even healthier than whole foods because they are produced without the chemicals associated with factory farming. Not only do organic vegetables grow without pesticides, organic meat and dairy products are produced without hormones, steroids, or antibiotics. We don’t need to be biologists to understand that these materials are finding their ways into our bodies. Of course, organic food is more expensive by and large and that is an unfortunate aspect. But a lot of health food stores have a bulk section where you could get dried kidney beans at only $2/pound. The social benefits of course have to do with the environmental pollution and destruction that pesticides cause: the less we consume, the less is produced.

Finally, the best thing you could do for yourself and for others is eat “local food.” With local food, the personal and the social benefits unify. Not only does the nutrient-rich fresh vegetables offer you a vitality that is next to indescribable, you are bridging the gap of supermarket distance. You and your food share the same air and water, the same days and an unspoken psychological benefit lies hidden here as well. With many CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs popping up in the U.S., you could go meet your food and often pick it yourself. You don’t have to always trade labor for the food. You can pay the farm just like a grocery bill, and in doing so, you are also supporting a local economy and building a local community. The social and the individual meet at the same level and suddenly a long missing crucial symbiosis is regained.

Eating this way is not easy. It’s time consuming and expensive. But when our personal resources are geared toward our (yours and mine together) survival rather than just our pleasure, good things, the best things, follow.