Friday, July 22, 2011

Food (in)security

“Food security” is one of those buzzwords organizations throw around when they’re fishing for grant money. Now that I think about it, I might even go fishing, myself, because one of the most important ways that I flex my giant humanitarian love is by teaching people how to become more food secure.

“Food security” means different things, depending on your perspective. The average policy wonk thinks “food security,” and immediately starts thinking infrastructure, cash crops, and preventing terrorists from taking pictures of feedlot cows. Your locality might be concerned with its food deserts, and their costs to the state. And your own idea of food security might be to wonder what there is to eat within delivery range.

If you rely on industry to serve your food needs, you are less food secure than if you can feed yourself from alternate sources. This means finding your food in the places that aren’t represented on government food locator maps: farmer’s markets, your own garden, the woods. It means genuine freedom of choice among actual foods suitable for human consumption, not from a dozen varieties of the same ultraprocessed product. It means drawing on a personal encyclopedia of knowledge and experience in recognizing foods, wherever they are, and knowing their qualities: what they taste like, how satisfying they are, how to cook them. It means valuing the rituals of preparing and enjoying food with others, not just the numbers on the side of the package.

By contrast, the American standard is eating the meal that is served to you, in restaurants that rely on deliveries of frozen provisions. It’s supermarkets, the one place where even food desert denizens know they can go for real food, are mostly full of pre-packaged, highly processed food products. Even evidently natural foods have no seasonal availability, or provenance. Milk is pasteurized, meat is stripped of recognizable animal origins. Squeamishness, fear, and ignorance are encouraged: industrial food promises to be free of dirt, raw flesh, and microbes. This is the food of denial: denial of ordinary human desires, of our connections to the Earth through what we eat, of the importance of quality food to our well-being, of the differences between food produced in harmony with nature and food that strenuously opposes nature. This is how American food insecurity starts.

People who are insecure will cling to the mob. It makes a certain kind of sense: in our confusion, we think, “all those people can’t all be wrong.” But sometimes, they are. Sometimes the landscape is controlled by forces too large for the mind’s eye to encompass. Consider the food desert, and why it is a pernicious environment. When all you see are a certain, limited range of choices, wherever you go in your daily travels, day after day, it eventually limits what you think of as your choices. After all, this is your actual, imperfect, modern life, not a stock image of breezy, healthy living. This is where you live, and these are the only things you see to eat. If you live in a food desert, all you see are unhealthy choices, but they’re normalized. Eventually, you believe things that allow you to make the same, poor choices: that this is how other people in my situation eat, it’s all I can afford, all I can drive to, and that it’s not so bad. Defenders of bad food are technically correct when they claim that people are free to eat what they want, and that they should be allowed to choose good food or bad. The danger of the food desert is in growing to accept its offerings.

It takes conviction and sustained effort to break away and do things differently. You have to have confidence in what you’re doing and why, to buy vegetables you’ve never eaten before, to go out of your way to buy food, to be the only one who brings a boxed lunch to work every day instead of going out. And it has to be rewarding to live like that: not only do you have to like this new image of yourself, but you have think the extra effort is worth it.

Most importantly, you have to like the taste of your own cooking. The very last thing I would ever lie to you about is whether something tastes good to me. I care about gustatory pleasure, and do not waste my time eating things I don’t like. I don’t like beets or beef liver, so I don’t eat those things, and that’s okay. If you like them, you should totally eat them, because they’re really good for you, but it’s not worth it to choke down disgusting food.

If you want to learn to enjoy real food, I can help you with that. The first step to enjoying natural foods is to wean yourself from industrial food. The salt, sugar, and chemicals mask toxic elements, off flavors, and even rancid oils, in industrial foods, drugging you instead of supplying a genuine food experience. When you get away from the cycle of craving and release, and you can begin to appreciate the foods people have eaten and enjoyed for thousands of years. You’ll finally be able to clearly understand what your body knows about what you’ve eaten and what you need.

Real food is your birthright as a human being.

If we don’t take a revolutionary step in favor of embracing our animal selves, rather than denying ourselves and trying to fake ourselves out, we stand to join the stampeding mob into what amounts to the shittiest virtual reality that industry can manufacture. Too many of us have surrendered already, choosing “Farmville” over u-pick tomatoes, Wii Bowling over rental shoes, and “chocolate pudding” flavored soy protein isolate meal replacement bars over meat and pudding.

Don’t do it anymore. Don’t volunteer for “The Matrix.” I swear, the food is much, much better out here.