By Carolyn Dimitri
We now have an entire day – Food Day – devoted to honoring food, much in the way that we have traditionally recognized our parents on Mothers Day and Fathers Day. And food is worthy of this type of recognition, because like our parents, food sustains our life.
To be blunt, like you, I love food. I find great pleasure in the act of eating, from the people I dine with, and the act of shopping for and preparing food. Yet, while all aspects of the meal preparation are pleasurable activities, to me, food is much more than the components of a meal and even more than the ritual of preparation. And it is in this sense that I love food.
Food touches every aspect of our world. In its simplest form, food starts as a product that is raised on a farm. Food production inevitably disrupts the ecosystem, and the choice of production technology determines the impact on soil, water, biodiversity, climate change, and all parts of the agro-ecosystem. As food moves through the system, making its slow march to your dinner plate, many hands touch the food. After food is purchased from the farmer, for the prices that ultimately determine farmer income, people repack, distribute and process your food. In many cases this intermediate stage – where food is handled – consists of some type of high-tech processing. Here, agricultural products are transformed into packaged food, which may or may not be something that we would consider “food,” such as a shelf stable product full of chemicals. But even our fresh apples must pass through this stage – either via a short chain such as direct sales to consumer or through a longer chain, such as that which brings apples to your local supermarket.
In our highly stylized model of the food system, food next travels to the firm that has direct contact with consumers. This includes retailers, farmers markets, restaurants, cafeterias, and so on. Of course, depending on where we live, some of us have access to more venues than others do. Some of us can easily buy an apple, while others cannot. That said, abstracting from the ease of our access to food, people are an essential part of how we get our food: cashiers, wait staff, chefs, food preparers, store managers, and so on. Many of these workers are paid very low wages, and nearly all work long hours.
Some consumers have gained from the modern food system. Most of us have ready access, in terms of both geography and income, to fresh healthy food that nourishes our bodies. If we so desire, we can buy raspberries in winter, and lettuce all year round. We can buy junk food. There is an extraordinary amount of freedom for some of us, in that we can pick local or organic, or imported, or artisan foods. In this regard, we are extraordinarily fortunate. However, not all of us have the knowledge, transportation, or income to make the same choices.
So, when I think of food, I think of the complexity of the food system and also of the people involved. The choices made at the farm level determine the degree to which food is produced in harmony with the ecosystem. This ultimately has an impact on future productivity of our land: are we trading off the future for the present? Our food is raised, handled, and brought to us by people who seek to make a living through their work, and depending on prices and wages, sometimes they are able to do so. Other times they are not.
So as Food Day approaches, I think about the health of the earth and our agro-ecosystem; the farmers who raise our food; the millions who work in the food sector, who make food easily available to most of us in the country; and those of us who can not, for one reason or another, buy food that is able nourish their bodies. I feel gratitude towards the soil, the water, the ecosystem, the farmer, and all the people hours that contribute to the food we eat. Yes, I love food and everything that contributes to food.
We all depend on the very same resources for our individual survival as well as for the survival of humanity. In this sense, no single human being is better or is worse than any other human being. Holding a common vision of a healthy earth, equitable wages to all the workers along the supply chain, and enhanced access to healthy food further unites those of us who seek to change the food system. We are all on an equal basis and we share the same goals. Yet we seek change through different avenues, such as those of policy, research, education, or advocacy work. I urge each and every person involved in the food movement to keep up the work: there is too much at stake for us to maintain the status quo.
Research Associate Professor
Dept of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health
New York University