What is Food To Us?

Regarding whether New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg is in the right or the wrong in his bid to legislate about what size of soft drinks can be sold in the city, the discussion seems kind  of misguided in my opinion. It seems, in fact, misguided on both sides of the argument.

Those who are up in arms for this “infringement of freedom” have some nerve: after all, why complain when sugar is added to an already long list of controlled substances? In America, people cannot ingest marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or a host of other chemicals legally. If a society has agreed to consider some substances controlled, then why not include sugars to that list of controlled substances? Sugar, after all, has, as Mark Bittman points out, a long-term cost to society. The long-term cost is paid not only by taxpayers, but by the individuals who “choose” to drink colas. What the “freedom fighters” usually don’t grasp all that well is how the norms and standards are set artificially by large companies.

An example is the way water is more expensive than cola in certain places I’ve been in the States — one example that stands out was at a baseball stadium I visited in Seattle (where, by the way, people were not allowed to bring water bottles, not even empty ones: our bags were searched at the door). There is an economic incentive to drink cola in such a place, even though it’s much less healthy than water.

But those on the other side of the debate, who think that this measure is apt to improve the situation, are dreaming. They miss the point that sugar isn’t the only evil in the American diet: in fact, it is the corporate power to influence that the American diet that is the problem. Bloomberg can make super-sized colas illegal in NYC, but he can’t stop people buying two colas at once, can he? Once people acquire a craving for unhealthy, addictive substances, it’s hard to wean them off them…

People have argued we need better education in order to overcome the problems that persist in the American diet. There is probably some truth in that, too: communities with more open and direct sex education have fewer problems with teen pregnancy and STDs than those who don’t offer this kind of education. But at the same time, I sincerely doubt that classroom discussions of healthy eating are going to compete with all the junk food and snacks that are out there in the environment where kids grow up… even in their own homes.

A comment by a fellow brewer comes to mind, about how, when he taught some people how to make beer, they were surprised that it wasn’t an instant process — they expected to start in the morning, and have beer a few hours later. When he told them that, no, it took weeks before the beer would be fermented and ready to drink, they were both surprised and disappointed. But that’s what we’re like about food, too: we want instant this, instant that: nothing that takes much time, or energy, or effort.

In other words, we’ve been alienated from food itself, that relationship sundered and replaced by a pseudo-relationship mediated by companies. We have learned to crave the crispy, the sweet, the salty that is on offer by those companies, and plenty of people, I think, would actually crave things much healthier for them if they experienced those flavors earlier in life. What we need to experience when we’re young is truly good food — and making truly good food. Making sauerkraut. Curing meat and smoking it. Growing vegetables with our friends, collectively, and tending to them, and then picking them and preparing meals with them. We need to taste what properly homemade food tastes like, so that the bland, disappointing qualities of junk food and of mediocre restaurant food (let alone fast food) cannot beguile us.

Making laws is probably an okay intermediary step, and one I don’t have a serious problem with. But if you want people to embrace what is good for them, food education will need to begin… and it will need to be something far different from what I was taught in my compulsory Home Economics course. (Which mostly involved inedible, 20-minute long, nasty food projects.)

The same, by the way, is true of all other education as we practice it. We need to think more about forming kids’ relationships with science and literature and fitness, rather than about “teaching” these things to them as “subjects.” Physical education was, in my experience, a complete waste as it involved learning the rules to games in which I wasn’t interested, and then hanging around while the kids who were interested in those games played them and ostracized the kids who didn’t. Science education wasn’t about getting excited about science, it was about learning specific bits of math so I could pass a test. (My best teacher taught those rules in funny, interesting ways, but at the end of the day, he was still teaching rules, instead of helping us cultivate a relationship with science.) Literature classes were about studying how to write, spell, and read, but weren’t about out own relationship to the literature that moved us. We weren’t told, “Well, if you liked that Ray Bradbury story, why not go find a novel by him, or more stories, or by the way you might like Ursula K. Le Guin as well…” Instead, it was, “Next, let’s read some prairie literature,” or “Next, let’s write poems!”

What we really need to do is make people fall in love with good, wholesome, fulfilling food — and with health, and with literature, and with science — in ways that compete effectively with the pseudo-relationships with corporations have gotten so good at promoting to us. What we need is to help young people fall in love with things that are good for them, and schools as they function today are about the least likely way to achieve that.

That’s where we need to start thinking creatively, if you ask me.

(By the way, I came to the NYT article via this Tweet… thanks, Hae-hee.)

gordsellar: Your host on this site. I'm an SF writer, homebrewer, and expat teaching at a university in South Korea. My policies for commenters on this site can be read here.
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