Food Is No Longer Just Food

Sometimes I think that food, if anything, should be able to be clearly categorized into black or white: either food is food, or it is not. However, like most of the issues that we address here at the Leadership Institute, food is on a grey scale. Nothing is ever black or white. As anyone living in today’s world knows, the high prevalence of processed foods, preservatives, flavor enhancers, and vitamin and mineral enrichment, together with the push to forever reduce costs, have resulted in high-calorie, low-nutrient food-like products such as the notorious “pink slime” and (if anyone follows Netflix’s prison series ‘Orange is the New Black’) cut-and-pour “beef wellington.” Quantity is prioritized over quality.

Two similar trays of food, one healthy, one not.

(Photo from Jamie Oliver’s Toolkit One: Get the Facts)

Today’s processed foods are largely nutrient-deficient and calorie-abundant foods. There is such a focus on high taste, long shelf-life, low-cost, and speedy convenience (not only at the industrial level, but also the personal), that I believe the true purpose of food, to nourish our bodies, is forgotten. Why buy enough fruit for only two snack servings of fruit salad when you can buy one large family-size pizza that feeds four for less?

The cost of this not only takes a toll in the form of mal-nutrition and low energy-levels, but low-quality foods are a main predecessor of chronic public health diseases such as cardiac diseases, diabetes, and behavioral disorders (clear behavior changes and concentration improvements have been documented as a result of removing sodas and sugary drinks from school cafeterias and also from removing highly processed foods from the menus). Obesity alone has an annual medical cost of about $150 billion. These diseases have a disproportionate prevalence and burden on the low socioeconomic groups.

The growing income gap between upper and lower socioeconomic tiers oftentimes correlates to a growing gap in food security and accessibility, as well as to nutritional knowledge and education. For instance, more than a third of Sonoma County’s emergency food recipients claim having to choose between paying for food and paying for other basic necessities such as medical care, utilities, or their rent/mortgage. Not having access to a vehicle or the means to pay for a vehicle also limits mobility and thus not only employment options and access to social services, but also access to grocery stores, farmers markets, food banks, and other food resources.

In addition, this study on the price differences between healthy and unhealthy foods proves that a healthy diet, one abundant with whole fruits, vegetables, and fish costs significantly more, $550 per year on average, than a a diet full of processed foods, meats and grains, and this cost difference does not even include the short or long-term healthcare costs.

These issues are only part of a larger iceberg and illustrate the complexity of our food choices. Food, and the ultimate question "what should we eat," involves a complex set of decisions and requires much more information, sometimes leaving a feeling of hopelessness or aggravation. Entering a grocery store can feel like a political arena where what you ultimately decide to purchase becomes a type of vote:

  • Pro- vs Anti-GMOsOrganic vs non-organic
  • Local vs. Exotic
  • Organic vs. Conventional
  • Seasonal vs. Generic
  • Animal vs. Plant-based
  • Family Farmer vs. Industrial Agriculture
  • Local Business vs. (Inter)National Corporation
  • Farmers Market vs. Grocery Chain
  • Paper, Plastic, or Cloth Bag
  • Is it more sustainable to purchase conventional tofu, grown abroad, shipped and industrially processed than to buy local, organic beef or chicken?

The list could go on and on.

Ultimately, each of these “votes” impacts different aspects of the food system, such as the growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption, or disposal of food and food-related items. Not only are there many more socioeconomic considerations and aspects of inequality to consider (such as food industry transparency, fair trade, subsidies, product labeling and organic certification costs, to name a few), but there are also dire environmental and ecosystem constraints involved (I haven’t even touched on agricultural or transport GHG emissions, deforestation, food waste, monocropping and biodiversity, or packaging waste). Trying to choose what to eat based on anything but a moment’s cravings, though these can be difficult to decipher as well, is not easy within today’s food system.

My advice?

Pick the aspect(s) you find most important or interesting and learn more, be that your own personal health, supporting local farmers, or reducing your carbon footprint (though all of these can be achieved simultaneously), and enjoy your meal guilt-free. Should you still feel like you have room for improvement, don’t worry. You’ll have another chance in a few hours.

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Kristina Jacobsson is one of the Instructors of the Sustainability Ambassadors of Sonoma County program at the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy. Her degree in Global Studies from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, gives Kristina insight into the social, environmental and political issues surrounding her work in the food industry. She currently works in catering, as a Personal Chef, and as a “regular” Chef at the True North Health Center in Santa Rosa where she specializes in raw, whole, plant-based foods.

This blog and webinar were produced as informational material for the Leadership for a Sustainable Future course.  It has been provided to the public to promote community wide education on issues of sustainability. You can support the education efforts of the Leadership Institute, 501 (c)3 non-profit, by donating here.