Our Western world has never been so well informed about food, nutrition and its impact on health as it is today. When it comes to making the “right” eating choices, however, all this knowledge bears little weight if one can judge—for instance—by the relentless worsening of the obesity and diabetes epidemic.
This is because dietary norms are deeply rooted in social values. And just as social values are difficult and slow to change, so are our eating habits.
“Food rules are never really about food, they express cultural values”, Charlotte Biltekoff, an associate professor of American Studies at UC Davis Food Science & Technology Program, said recently at an event in Berkeley. The small crowd in attendance had come to watch a documentary in the making about the story of the school lunch revolution at the local Unified School District (BUSD). I can only speculate that most people present were internally nodding in quiet assent, as BUSD is the first district in America who starting offering fresh, cooked-from-scratch, nutritious meals to its students (82.4% of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches) after a ten-year parent-led campaign.
“Dietary ideals express social ideals—what it means to be a good citizen and a good person”, she added. The war-time propaganda in America, for instance, graphically portrayed the unhealthy doughnut-eater as a traitor and a Hitler supporter.
She also emphasized that social crisis and dietary crisis are profoundly intertwined. Wheels started turning faster in my head. Growing up in France, I felt I had understood for a long time that eating is a cultural act indeed. But dietary crisis as a reflection of social crisis? It suddenly seemed obvious but I had never heard it articulated so clearly.
The rush to convenience as progress; the disintegration of families (physically or emotionally); the disappearance of the family meal; the loss of essential, personal skills like cooking for oneself and one’s loved ones; the relinquishing of personal responsibility in general, and with regard to health in particular; the obsession with consumption; the emphasis on quantity v. quality; the expectations of dirt-cheap prices; the destruction of rural communities; the crushing power of corporations over nations and individuals. Is it possible that all of these ailments need healing before we, as a society, are able to revert to healthy eating practices and the promotion of a healthy food chain? Or can we jump-start an effective social healing process by making healthy, conscious food choices first?
I like to think that the latter is valid. That by careful selecting what goes on our plate and in our bodies, day-in day-out, despite the pull of our entrenched habits, we are bound to reflect, and have an impact, on the ills described above through making changes in our own lives. True, it takes great discipline and a support network of people committed to the same vision. But what if?
What do you think?