Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Politics of Food

As tonight is the first night of Passover and Easter Sunday approaches, the scent of life and liberation is in the air for at least two of the world's major religions. It's probably not an accident that food is so central to both of these observances, both figuratively (from the symbolic foods on the seder plate (egg, maror, haroses, etc., to the symbolic eggs on Easter morning) and literally (in the way that food brings us together with families and friends and nourishes the body and the spirit).

For several years now I've found myself frustrated at the impossibility of eating healthily and ethically at the same time, particularly when I'm eating away from home. This frustration is, of course, a luxury, as it means that I am not worrying about just eating - I have more than enough to eat, and I never experience the kind of hunger that comes from never having quite enough, or worse, from starvation. So to some extent, there is a bit of navel-gazing that goes on in these kinds of musings about what I want to put into my body.

But at the same time, food is political on a number of other levels. What I put into my body does in fact affect people in other countries. I am sipping a Diet Coke as I write this. On my campus, all of the pop and juice options available are Coke products. (I could drink coffee, tea, or water, but everything else is manufactured by Coke.) Coke's ravaging of India in pursuit of cheap water is well-known.

I could drink milk, if I liked it. But non-organic and non-kosher milk has the Bovine Growth Hormone in it. While I don't think about it much anymore, I wrote an article several years ago about the possible effects of rBGH on humans, so I know that it stimulates cell growth, and there have been no long-term studies on the impact of ingesting the hormone through milk products. One doctor speculated that it would put children and older people at greater risk of cancer - cancer is, after all, characterized by cell growth - but he was quickly silenced by the AMA and the dairy industry. I do consume dairy products that are not organic - it's difficult and expensive to buy organic or kosher foods on a regular basis. But I think of not doing so as a risk.

I could eat fruits and vegetables here in the campus dining room or at a restaurant. The produce, however, is not washed - I assume it may sometimes be "rinsed," but as the fruit is clearly wax-covered, sometimes sticky, and generally still has labels affixed to it, I don't really consider this a thorough washing. There is no place in the dining room for me to wash my own food. And this isn't organic produce, either, so I am guaranteed to ingest pesticides - a good, "healthy" dose of 'em.

I can drink coffee. This isn't particularly good for my body, but I can buy the fairly-traded blend that is available on the counter along with the unfairly-traded blends, and at least we've switched from Starbucks to Caribou, which I hear has marginally less evil business practices when it comes to stealing customers from mom-and-pop shops. (I don't know if this is actually true, but it's what I've heard.)

And then there's the whole issue of buying local foods and buying foods in season - you know, promoting sustainable agriculture. Among other things, that means not buying grapes from Chile and not buying plums and peaches in December.

If I want to eat healthily at local sandwich shops, I can get a bagel and a grilled chicken breast salad with lots of veggies for a reasonable price, but the shop that sells it gives gobs of money to a particular Republican politician who I think is almost worse than George W. Well, not worse, but more dangerous because he's a heck of a lot smarter. There are other shops to go to for healthy fare, but this is the cheapest.

I can eat on campus and save money, but the options tend to be high in fat and low in taste.

And, of course, eating meat - especially eating fast food burgers at McDonald's - has a huge impact on the rest of the world, as rainforests are being decimated to graze cattle for the burger giants.

The simplest solution, obviously, is to buy organic and make my own food, but that's where I run into the time problem - I never have any - which is why, most of the time, we eat Amy's frozen foods. Yeah, it's frozen, but it's organic, tasty, and healthy. And if, like me, you occasionally count your Weight Watcher points, you can eat better with Amy's tasty and filling foods than with WW foods (which are not very tasty and not very filling). It is hard on the pocketbook, however, to eat prepared foods on such a regular basis.

All of this illustrates that the issue of what we put into our mouths is political - we are constantly faced with choices about how the food we eat will affect our own bodies and how our consumption affects the bodies of laborers thousands of miles away (when I ate Driscoll strawberries in the 1990s, for example, I was subsidizing an employer that did not allow its pickers to take bathroom breaks (which was not healthy for them or for me, because they end up "going" in the fields) and that sprays pesticides while they are working in the fields).

Food politics, then, is surely one of the most important issues for us to be thinking about. Yet, it is simultaneously perceived as one of the least important, not least because eating is something we are fortunate enough to do frequently, without thinking beyond whether or not our taste buds are satisfied. All too often, I make the choice that benefits my taste buds rather than my body or the bodies of the people who supply my food.

1 comment:

Razib Ahmed said...

You have addressed a serious problem. This problem is now spreading in the poor countries too and has become a part of a town life everywhere in the world. The most tragic thing is that the farmers who produce crops do not get fair price.