Over the course of the semester, I have done a lot of thinking about how people decide what food to put into their bodies. Turns out, the answer, if it can even be boiled down to one answer (spoiler alert- it can’t), is quite complicated. Furthermore, choice actually has very little to do with why we eat what we do. There are so many outside factors including financial restraints, education and access limitations, familial influence, societal/ cultural influence, and even chemistry within the food itself. There is however, definitely choice involved also. I have come to understand that there is a sort of scale that determines how much of what you eat is determined by choice and that scale has a lot to do with socio-economic factors. That being said, people do have agency with regards to what they consume to some degree. If I were to attempt to boil it down the most important factor in a word, I would say health is what drives many of our (educated eaters’) food decisions (or at least what we try to make drive our food decisions).
My definition of health in this context, however, is multi-faceted. Additionally, I can’t speak for anyone else’s choices. I can, however, analyze my own choices as a somewhat informed/ conscious eater. I can also generalize based on trends I observed throughout the process of writing this blog. Health, to me, in terms of food can refer to nutrition, sustainability (health of the land and health of the workers), social health, and financial health (for the farmers and yourself- shouldn’t buy food you can’t afford).
As far as nutrition goes, I like the idea of eating a variety of simple, whole foods. I think Michael Pollan has it right in his philosophy, “don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Processed foods like Cliff bars for example, more closely resemble animal droppings than anything my great-grandmother would have eaten, and she would have most definitely been concerned by the radio-active color of Cheetos. In many ways Cliff bars are deemed much healthier than Cheetos, but they still come in a package, are processed, and are still pretty unrecognizable as whole foods. I’m trying to avoid both, but when I have no other choice, I’d definitely choose a Cliff bar over Cheetos.
This choice of mine is probably based on the idea that has been ingrained in me since I was really young, that Cheetos and other snack foods are bad for you. That is the way I was raised. When I was little, juice boxes and snacks like goldfish were only for emergencies. Seriously, we kept juice boxes in the trunk of the car incase the car ever broke down (before cell phones). It only happened once and that is my only memory of a juice box for years. I still don’t ever drink juice or even really snack- it’s just not how I grew up eating.
This aspect of how family impacts food choices has always been really interesting to me. As a veteran babysitter, I’ve witnessed a lot of parents have food rules (no gluten, please sprinkle fish flakes over food at every meal, child cannot leave table until all vegetables are gone, nothing but vegetables allowed after 7 p.m., etc.). This can be known as food policing. Thinking back to my own childhood, I realize that I was raised in more of a food-policing environment than food pushing (see here for a discussion of both). The idea of food-policing is a troubling one. After lots of discussion and reflection about eating disorders, I have observed that many people who struggle with disordered eating come from food-policing households. Food pushing households can be equally detrimental, though, as connecting food to comfort and love can tip the scale from nurturing to unhealthy pretty quickly.
Why is it so hard to strike a balance in parenting kids about food? Well, probably because food is such an impassioned thing! It is often connected to emotions in ways we can’t untangle. Parents want to provide the best food and nourishment for their kids to help them grow up healthy.
There is a lot of societal pressure for mothers to feed their kids the best of the best. They are judged by their peers if they feed their kids apples with too many pesticides or on the other side of the spectrum, if they are “that” parent that provides their own meal at birthday parties because they don’t want their child eating unhealthy pizza unlike the other heathens. This article has an interesting perspective on the intricacies of this debate. That brings me back to the image from my first post- a PostSecret post card from a parent admitting to feelings of guilt for purchasing fewer organic ingredients and therefore lying about it.
There are other societal factors at play besides mothers judging themselves and each other. Religion, gender, and culture also play a role. This video highlights the basics about religious involvement in food choices, but what it addresses in more depth is the idea of gender norms in food. The speaker strongly conveys the masculine pull to eat what will make you strong- often red meat. This article also details the man’s plight in food choices (unfortunately only the abstract is free, but it still gives a good summary).
I strongly disagree with the last statement, however. The author argues that “Women, on the other hand, appear to be less concerned with making gender-congruent choices.” This is based off the fact that women’s choices didn’t vary with the amount of time it took them to decide what they order. I want to argue that it is even more ingrained in women that they are supposed to eat a certain way. I think it has just become automatic for women to order what is appropriate on the menu. When they are on a date, I assure you it is rarely ever a burger. I don’t really have any scientific data to back this up, but I have had conversations with friends about this for years. In fact, I don’t know any woman who can honestly claim that she doesn’t look at the salad section of a menu first. It is not just that women are so incredibly lettuce loving as a gender, but rather that is what society dictates we should eat. All dieting commercials, all health food advertisements, yogurt advertisements, and chocolate advertisements (anything “sinfully” good) are directed towards women. Anything meat or pizza oriented is directed towards men.
Culture plays such a role in how we think about food and eating. In this blog I have brought in the Spanish perspective and although I am not a native Spaniard, I did live in a very small city in Spain for five months surrounded by Spaniards and very few tourists. I observed their eating habits to be entirely different than ours. There were large differences between what we ate but the major differences lay in how we ate. Nothing was labeled organic or local, no one talked about sustainability- food was just food. There was only one variety of carrots in the grocery store so if you wanted carrots you just bought those. No one in my small city even understood what vegetarianism was or why you would ever choose that lifestyle. There were a few girls on my program living in homestays who were vegetarians, and really struggled because their madres would serve them tuna not understanding that tuna is considered an animal and therefore not eaten by vegetarians. They just don’t really divide food in the same categories we do. There was less of a focus on the food in general. They return home from work or school for lunch every day with their families because meal time is about socializing and catching up rather than fueling your body. They meet up with friends for a snack in the mid-morning or after work. The Spanish are not people who would ever eat lunch or a snack at their desk. In fact, there are even very few restaurants that offer take out options. It is all about sitting down and eating together. When deciding what to do for dinner- what restaurant to go to- the question was always asking more about what atmosphere are you in the mood for than what do you want to eat.
Perhaps the Spanish have no version of this “new food activism” because they don’t need one. Outside of cities, everyone is a farmer. All the olives, olive oil, oranges, grapes, and wine come from local farms just because there are so many farms. They pride themselves on their jamón because their pigs are free to roam around and graze on acorns all day (which apparently makes for the tastiest meat and happy pigs). These aspects of what they eat are not really up to choice- that is just the way it works. Big Ag has not really left it’s mark on Spain yet, and the people are happy with that.
Big Ag in the U.S. however, is another story. This awesome 11 year old kid already knows all about Monsanto and what we need to do to escape it’s grasp. New food activism is a large movement here and growing because there is a clear need for it. People are investigating the origins of their food because it actually does make a big difference. I think we are at a point now where if price was no issue, everyone would buy organic when possible.
The unfortunate reality is that price is an issue. The famed Dr. Oz took a cost-benefit analysis position on the organic food phenomenon and found that the costs (of the actual ingredients plus time involved to prepare them plus time involved to purchase them more frequently) are not worth the nutritional gain. I’m sure this was comforting news to guilty middle to lower class mothers, however it is concerning to me. This proves once again that our food system is unjust. Dr. Oz even calls it “undemocratic”. This injustice affects what many put in their bodies. The injustice can stem from lack of education to lack of access to lack of funds and most often, a combination of all three, but the fact of the matter is that not everyone is able to be so “choosy” with their “chews”.
The state of the field, in my opinion, is improving. We have a class at Tufts called “New Food Activism”, news sources such as Time Magazine and The New York Times are bringing this dialogue to the mainstream media, 11 year olds are standing up against Monsanto, and there are policies trying to combat the injustice surrounding food and education in the U.S. It is important that this push continues. The more mainstream this becomes, the more choice can be a factor, and ultimately that is what I want. I want to see everyone have the freedom to choose their food and the education to really make that choice with all the facts in mind. While childhood/ familial food influences, religion, culture, and chemistry (the addictive nature of junk food) will most likely continue to influence what we eat and why, I hope that personal agency will have more to do with the story as time and this movement progress. The way things are headed, it seems as though, this increased choice will lead to increased health of the whole system: the individual, the mentality, the economy, the farmers, the land, the air, and the future.