On several occasions, I have participated in Blog Action Day, an annual event wherein bloggers from around the world post simultaneously about a chosen topic of global importance. This year, food is the topic of concern, and thousands of bloggers from more than 80 countries are posting about the subject food on this day, the 16th of October, 2011. The following is my own rumination about food, from the personal to the global and back again. You can read more entries at the Blog Action Day website and blog.
Throughout my adult life, I have generally tended to view food as being medicinal in nature, and this tendency has only grown as I have entered middle age. While food represents many things to many people---including culture, pleasure, sustenance, survival, identity, a sense of belonging---my connection with food remains solidly in the categories of health and well-being, with a generous helping of pleasure.
Being from a family with a Jewish heritage reaching as far back as the genealogy can see, one would think that Jewish cultural foods would figure strongly in my predilections and preferences. While my mother did indeed make matzo ball soup and other Jewish foods when I was a child, that Jewish identity never really took hold, especially since we were raised, ironically, with all of the Christian holidays, albeit celebrated in a thoroughly assimilationist and secular manner. So, with no real cultural identity per se, I was unleashed into the world to find my own gastronomic way, and, for the majority of my adult life, that road has been paved with health food.
The term “health food” is somewhat of a misnomer, since many foods can be readily associated with health, even as more and more foods have had the health literally stripped out of them in the processing plant. Still, health food conjures images of bins of granola, honey, fresh fruits and vegetables, tofu, and any number of items that can be easily lumped into that broad category. “Whole foods” is, in my view, a much more apt definition of the way in which I like to eat, but a very large health food corporation (which shall not remain altogether nameless in this case) has now trademarked that name for its own. Thus, telling someone that you eat a “whole foods” diet will only bring sneers and a chuckle, and perhaps a sense from the listener that you spend so much money on groceries that you probably have to give up other things like cars, gasoline, and a telephone. (They don’t call the aforementioned store “Whole Paycheck” for nothing.) Still, “whole foods” explains one’s dietary preferences much more aptly than “health food”, but we’ll leave the name issue for someone else to tease out.
For my wife and me, food is where the rubber meets the road in terms of our health, and we have generally opted in our two decades together to spend more on good healthy food rather than put our money elsewhere. While other families eschew organic produce due to its relatively high cost, we would much rather cancel our cable or cut back on other expenses rather than buy the mainstream non-organic alternative. We recognize that organic can be more costly, and we understand which foods are most important to purchase organically and which are safe to buy that are conventionally grown. We also recognize that many people simply cannot afford organic food, and as a health coach and nurse, I would far prefer that a client purchase non-organic produce, wash it well and enjoy it, rather than processed foods with little redeeming qualities. And in areas that are known as “food deserts”, many people simply have no access to fresh produce or even a supermarket, relying on fast food and highly processed foods from convenience stores.
Amazingly, the organic movement has grown (Wal-Mart is now one of the largest vendors of organic produce in the United States), and as demand has risen, prices have come within reach of more and more Americans. And as more Americans wake up to the fact that genetically modified foods grown with petroleum-based fertilizers on corporate farms are not in their best interest---or the country’s best interest, for that matter---demand will only continue to rise.
In a world where food insecurity is increasing, famine is spreading across portions of Africa, and topsoil erosion and access to water are increasingly problematic, the issue of food is central to our very survival. With free trade agreements decimating certain farmers’ ability to sell their crops at a profit, family farms being foreclosed in record numbers, and corporate agribusiness growing at an alarming rate, we are at a moment in history when the security, quantity and quality of our food supply is in jeopardy. It’s all well and good to espouse the benefits of a healthy diet, proper hydration and plenty of aerobic exercise, but there is no getting around the fact that millions of people around the world---many of whom live in your home town---go hungry every day, or simply don’t have the security of knowing where their next meal is coming from.
Food is a loaded issue, and it carries a great deal of baggage for all of us. My memories of my mother’s matzo ball soup may linger in my cellular memory until the day that I die, and meanwhile I have the economic privilege of buying just about anything I want at the grocery store (within reason), never personally knowing the stresses and concerns of those who cannot even afford to adequately feed their children each morning. I can rail against Monsanto for genetically modifying corn and depleting the topsoil through poor farming practices in favor of profits and high yields, yet I also need to remember that some unknown neighbor of mine just down the street doesn’t have enough cash flow to stock the fridge as his children clamor for the sugary and marginally nutritious cereals they see happy people eating on television.
Yes, food consumes us just as we consume it, and it is the future of food itself that should truly consume us day and night. “Give us this day our daily bread” should be our rallying cry, and if our collective moral compass was not somehow askew in this world out of balance, we would have already figured out how to feed every person on the planet.
In the optimism that I have cultivated---or discovered---in this second half of my life, I know in my heart that change is indeed coming. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement is only one example of how the world is changing as people individually and collectively wake up to the many stark realities that we face on a global scale.
In my small world, it can feel like a crisis if I can’t find the item I’m seeking when I walk the aisles of the health food store or I forget something important during a shopping trip. But my personal crises hold no water in the larger scheme of things. Proportionality is the operative word of the day, and the proportion of hungry people in this world must be contended with, lowered, and eventually brought under control. As we mine the human genome and monitor the universe for signs of intelligent life, we continue to demonstrate that we have the collective intelligence and technology to solve the food crisis for ourselves.
What we need now is a collective will to feed the world, and to transform this crisis into an opportunity. We can indeed feed the world, and if we decide to do so, there is no force on earth that can stop us from moving unequivocally towards that goal. Be it “whole foods”, “health food”, or just simply “food”, the name is not as important as the intention. We know how to grow healthy foods, we know how to produce foods that are less processed, more nutritious, and more affordable, and we know that we have the ability to do so if we truly desire to. So we say again, “give us this day our daily bread”, and when we say “us”, we realize that we truly understand the meaning of that word.