Access to Good Food

Mar 8th, 2017 | By | Category: Commentary

By Janna Graham/Pocatello Co-op Outreach Coordinator 

Janna Graham

Janna Graham

In normal usage, we use “good” to describe food with a pleasing taste.  Although personal preferences vary, fat, salt, and sugar taste good to most of us, to the point where it seems little else matters about the food products we consume.  Junk food and drinks are comfortingly abundant and cheap; they require little forethought or preparation, and they fill us up quickly.

Why shouldn’t food taste good?  Second to staving off hunger, pleasure is the main reason we eat.  Of course, there are other criteria we could use to determine if a food is “good.”  Most of us can agree that, ideally, food should also be nutritious and promote our well-being.  It should be produced responsibly and sustainably, with no damage to environmental or human health.  It should be cost effective.  Even if we insist on the primacy of taste, or debate the meaning of “responsible” and “cost effective,” these additional criteria don’t seem terribly controversial.  But in practice, we reject these criteria again and again in favor of chemically-enhanced flavorings and quick satiation, brought to us through a dizzying chain of substances and practices that can harm our health and the health of the planet.   These days, unhealthy food is not a particular luxury; in fact, people with few resources are more likely to have access to junk food than nutritious food.  It’s cheap, and it’s everywhere.  We can couch this skewed approach in terms of a basic sense of social justice – we don’t want anyone to go hungry (as if feeling full were the only goal).  But feeling full and being nourished are two different things.  Ensuring access to calories of inferior nutritional value, created with serious harm to our soil, air, water, livestock, farmers, ranchers, and factory workers, creates as many social justice issues as it solves. 

Our modern culture’s emphasis on acquisition and instant gratification provides a natural backdrop for the constant stream of industrial food products lining our supermarket shelves.  Before the ubiquity of the internet, before everyone carried a smartphone, before we had 24-hour pharmacies and online shopping, people generally had to wait for things.  We survived, but now that everything seems to be at our fingertips, there’s little tolerance for delayed gratification.  Chain groceries and “convenience” stores are open early in the morning and late at night, seven days a week, to accommodate us.  It’s a smart business move, because now that we have access to everything all the time, we’re busier than we’ve ever been.  In fact, the appearance of busy-ness has become a status symbol.  We now demand the trappings of a jam-packed schedule and the support to maintain our frenetic pace.  Quick, reliable, delicious, and cheap, industrial food products fit the bill.  We don’t want to be held back by spending too much time on food preparation, and we certainly don’t want to give up the fat, salt, and sugar that keeps us going.

We do have access to truly good food, food that meets all of the criteria outlined above, although that access may not be as readily apparent.  That’s because really good food requires planning and effort.  To get food that is produced responsibly and provides quality nutrition, we might have to forego chain stores to shop at farmers markets, small food co-ops, and natural grocery stores, or buy directly from local farmers and ranchers.  In addition, we might decide to avoid factory-prepared and pre-packaged foods in favor of cooking from scratch.  We could maintain a garden, preserve excess produce, volunteer at a local farm, or glean fruit from neighborhood trees.  We could learn about how our food is produced, why it costs what it does, and when to expect abundance and scarcity.  These activities are more difficult and time-consuming than simply grabbing a bag or a box from a supermarket shelf.

Really good food also requires embracing (or at least tolerating) unpredictability.  The uniform products we’re used to seeing on supermarket shelves belie the seasonality and tremendous variety of fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, and meats that we can find if we’re willing to look.  The farmers market can present some wonderful surprises, and it can be a delightful challenge adapting to more natural food cycles.  Of course, adapting rather than resisting is going against the cultural grain; rather than succumbing to the cult of constant availability, we have to consider whether it might be worth it to go our own way.

The time, effort, and adaptability involved in seeking out really good food can seem daunting.  How is any of this possible?  The obvious answer is that we can always find the time for what we truly want.  Social media is an excellent example.  The time we spend on social media each day was, until fairly recently, time we would have spent doing something else.  Over time, we’ve also figured out how to fit in an average of five hours of television viewing each day.  The time involved in these activities is taken for granted (for better or worse), but the point is that we reorganized our lives to accommodate these activities because we value them.  It makes perfect sense that we should start reorganizing our lives to accommodate food that truly nourishes us.  This is the kind of access that we need.

Janna Graham is the Pocatello Co-Op Outreach Coordinator.

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