Deciding what to eat has gotten much more complicated over the last century. Our food choices have expanded widely. Modern transport and the global economy stock our stores with foods from all over the world. We may enjoy having access to fresh produce in winter and seafood in landlocked countries. We may also worry about how fresh the food is, how safely it was grown and processed, and how much fuel was burned to bring it to us. Modern science and the fast-food industry have also introduced many additives into what looks like basic and familiar food; we’re still learning how these affect our health.
Even as our choices expand, our sources of guidance are changing. In many countries the local food cultures which used to model how to choose, prepare and eat food are fading out, especially among young people. In their place we have a fast-food culture driven by advertising and convenience.
The Cost of Convenience
When people speak of ‘fast food’ they usually mean the huge restaurant chains like McDonalds which sell standardized, highly processed food. They’re relatively inexpensive and save us the toruble of cooking. They also rely heavily on white bread, fatty meat, and artificial flavorings which are not particularly healthy.
But the fast-food model extends beyond these restaurants. Our agricultural system is based on raising food quickly and cheaply with minimal manpower and shipping it over long distances. In the US, food items travel an average of 1500 miles before being eaten. This consumes huge amounts of fossil fuel. It also reduces nutrition. Eggs laid by pastured hens are not nutritionally identical to eggs laid by hens raised in confinement and fed on corn and antibiotics.
Some marketers who advertise healthy, fresh and sustainably raised food charge very high prices for it, and their advertising can be misleading. In his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” Michael Pollan describes visiting an American health-food store which sold organic free-range chicken. When he visited the farm he found that large numbers of chickens were kept in close quarters indoors. There was a door open to a small outside yard, making the chickens technically free-range, but the door was not opened until the birds had gotten accustomed to staying inside and stopped exploring the boundaries; the owners feared that if the hens actually went outdoors they might become sick.
Back to the Basics
It’s possible to step outside the fast-food system without spending huge amounts of money, if we’re willing to spend time and attention. We can learn to cook from scratch, using as many whole and basic ingredients as possible. I find the Mennonite cookbooks “More with Less” and “Extending the Table” particularly helpful in this process. We can buy more from local farmers, visit those farms and learn how our food is grown. We can grow more of what we eat. Barbara Kingsolver describes the challenges and satisfactions of this process in her book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” Such engaged eating takes time and energy, but it can improve our health, increase our satisfaction in eating, and help us shift from being nervous and bewildered consumers to being competent partners in feeding ourselves.