ColumnThe moral obligation to eat better.
When we talk about food, the topic of economics inevitably follows suite. The whole eating-well-is-a-luxury conversation. It is a comment I have heard many times, especially in response to writing about healthy eating. “Not everyone can eat like that” is a common outcry in response to stories of whole grains and organic fruits and vegetables. It’s true; an industrialized and global agriculture system has externalized many costs, like health. And ultimately, it made unhealthy, non-local, processed food the cheapest. This means that there are many people in an economic situation that doesn’t allow them a choice; irresponsibly priced food, as Michael Pollan once put it, is their only option.
But many of us do have a choice.
We’ll buy premium gas, but we’ll buy the cheapest carrots. We’ll invest in a $100 -a-month fitness studio, but we’ll down a chemically enhanced sports drink afterwards. We’ll cut out carbs and starches in an attempt to eat better, but we’ll continue to eat eggs from god-knows-where.
Although the individual effects of these choices may be minimal, at least in the short term, because food is linked to so many things, the ultimate cost is much much greater. Buying factory raised chicken isn’t just about the health of that one chicken, it’s about the health of the land that the factory is on, the people that work there, and the wages that the fast food worker was paid to serve it to you.
We want to create a better world to live in, and if we have the luxury to choose what you eat, shouldn’t you have a moral obligation to do so?
I was thinking about this recently as I read through a friend’s musings on the same topic. Emily runs a site devoted to locavorism, regularly visits local producers at markets and is committed to buying natural foods that are grown with care. And she too deals with the problems of readers complaining about the problem of locally grown food being simply too high. As she puts it:
“We all make choices on where and how to spend our money and I think that food is one thing that is worth paying for. I don’t own a lot of shoes, or much clothing- I don’t spend a ton of money on things that make me look better, but good food makes me feel great in an invaluable way that I love to share with the people I care about.”
I’ll second that point. Feel free to check out my bank statement before commenting on my eating habits. It is because I personally put a value on eating well. It’s a choice that I have intentionally made.
She goes on to point out:
“Local farmers aren’t getting rich off of the “locavore” movement. Despite comparatively elevated prices at the market, these farmers live simple lives and constantly feel economic pressure. Farmers are already hard pressed to tend their land with small teams of workers, to transport their goods to the city, and to pay rent for a place in the open-air markets.”
Emily’s right, and she touches on a point that we should all spend some time thinking about.
We live in a world of speed; fast and cheap have become the norm. And just like buying a cheap t-shirt in the name of fast fashion on one side of the world can have the ultimate effect of hundreds of deaths at a textile factory on the other side, cheap food comes at an extreme cost.
Be serious with yourself: it’s not the broccoli that is $1 more expensive that is going to break the bank. Ultimately that dollar that you save by buying the cheaper version of produce may put an extra dollar in your pocket, but it doesn’t have the same benefit for a lot of other things: the farmer, the environment, the community.
What we eat isn’t just a matter of choice, it’s a matter of morals.
We make plenty of decisions in our everyday choices based on morals. How we treat other people, how we react to situations.
When you’re broke, why don’t you rob a bank? Because your morals tell you otherwise. Yet when you’re hungry, you stop at the grocery store and pick up the first thing that will satiate that hunger, no matter where it comes from or who made it. If we expect change in the food system, we have to demand it, and that means making a choice every time we eat.
This may be preaching to the choir, but the choir has room to change too.
If you’re going to remember to take your reusable bag to the grocery store, then remember not to fill it with processed foods.
If you’re shopping for fruit in the organic section, then don’t choose fruit that comes from a continent away.
If you’re going to lament the suicides of farmers linked to the global control of seeds by Monsanto, then don’t buy from global companies that block GMO labeling efforts. Ever.
We can all make an improvement in what and how we eat. Even if you can only make a small step, it’s still a step, and it’s the power of choice. The power to choose a different path forward, one that supports local food systems, food equity and a world where we can eat whole foods that are good for us.
And if you expect real change, that choice isn’t an option.
This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.
Image: DC Central Kitchen