I love food; all kinds: meat, dairy, fruits, vegetables, ALL OF IT! And yet, while food has been a lifelong love affair, it is only in the past few years that I began considering the political, social and environmental consequences of what I fiendishly devour. Eating is one of the most intimate ways we interact with our Earth. And we do it typically three times daily, meaning we are constantly making decisions that influence how, where, and under what conditions our food is grown, and how the animals we eat are treated.
Think about buying a banana from a local grocery store in winter. Obviously, that banana didn’t grow here. Probably, it came from South America. Think about how much you paid for that banana. Then consider that banana was shipped thousands of miles, either by sea or by air. Consider that someone was paid to pick that banana. How much do you think they were paid? What kind of life do you think they live? I am sometimes discomforted by how little I know of the people behind the food I buy. Globalization has made it much harder to know who exactly is picking your berries (yes, bananas are scientifically classified as berries…Weird, right?!?). It has also led to an unsustainable food system fueled mostly by petroleum, a finite resource polluting our atmosphere and leaking into our oceans, lakes, and rivers.
A couple of weeks ago I went to the grocery co-op in Champaign. What a wonderful shopping experience!! I love how much of the food is sourced regionally and locally. They even had Ropp cheese, which is produced on a farm right outside Normal. The experience at the Champaign grocery co-op inspired me to purchase ownership shares in Green Top Grocery, the local co-op starting up in Normal. The co-op model not only sources more food locally, but it creates a sense of community. Since it is owned by members of the community, decisions made regarding the co-op are much more democratic. There is also a primary focus on education, worker’s rights, and local food security because co-ops are built upon the values of openness and social responsibility. In short, it is the kind of grocery store I would feel good about buying my food from.
Critics of the present food system have written entire books on the concept of “food justice.” Robert Gottlieb, Director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute, and Anupama Joshi, Co-Director of the National Farm to School Network, recently published a book literally titled “Food Justice,” that attempts to catalogue the hazards, abuses, and inequities inherent in the current industrial and increasingly globalized food system. They define the food justice movement as an attempt to equitably distribute “the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown, produced, transported, distributed, accessed and eaten.” The book charts the rise of the movement, whose inception they trace to the release of Edward R. Morrow’s documentary, “Harvest of Shame,” in 1960.
Food is at the intersection of our personal health and wellbeing, and the health of our planet. We tend to eat more fatty, sweet, and salty foods when we experience negative emotions and more nutritious foods when we experience positive ones. In addition, the volume of food we eat is affected by our emotions as well. The Mayo Clinic discusses this “mood food” phenomenon on their website:
“Although some people actually eat less in the face of strong emotions, if you’re in emotional distress you may turn to impulsive or binge eating — you may rapidly eat whatever’s convenient, without even enjoying it.
In fact, your emotions may become so tied to your eating habits that you automatically reach for a treat whenever you’re angry or stressed without stopping to think about what you’re doing.”
I’ve been there on more nights than I care to mention. In undergrad, I would sometimes drive my car to Steak n’ Shake to inhale a double-cheeseburger and fries on nights before a mid-term or final, washed down with the supplementary chocolate shake, of course. So how does my emotional eating affect the planet? It takes far more energy to raise a pound of meat than a pound of vegetables, meaning that carnivores like me put more stress on the planet’s natural resources.
While this kind of eating is disturbing and widespread, and certainly contributes to the country’s obesity epidemic, perhaps more disturbing is the number of low-income communities of color that lack access to healthy, affordable food. The effect of this disparity is clear. As reported in a recent study by PolicyLink, a national research institute, and The Food Trust, a nonprofit organization advancing access to nutritious food, “adult obesity rates are 51 percent higher for African-Americans than whites, and 21 percent higher for Latinos.” The report continues stating, “improving access to healthy food is a critical component of an agenda to build an equitable and sustainable food system. It is time for a nationwide focus to ensure that healthy food choices are available to all.” Co-ops, by bringing communities together around food security, could play a crucial role in solving this social problem.
University Housing and Dining Services brought chef, author and activist in the food justice movement, Bryant Terry, to campus Monday to speak in the Brown Ballroom of the Bone Student Center. Mr. Terry is the author of “The Inspired Vegan,” which explores interconnections between food, storytelling, music and art, while also sharing recipes, cooking techniques, and strategies for making nutritionally balanced meals. Terry says that one’s values should drive his or her diet.
“I ask myself, ‘what kind of world do I want to see? How do I want animals, and the environment to be treated?’ My answers determine what I pass up,” he said.