As we read for last week’s seminar, there are myriad ways to think of food history. Whether analyzing old recipes, investigating labor practices in the food production sector, thinking about how what have been considered foodstuffs have changed over time, or examining nutritional values of staple foods among cultures, the driving force behind the work should always be the same. It is the question, “Why is this important and why should readers care?” that guides us. I know why I care about food. What we eat is among the most personal of choices one makes in life. We owe it to ourselves to dedicate a bit of mindfulness to these substances that demand our time while we procure them, that drive a large segment of our economy, and at the simplest but most personal level the substances that nourish our bodies.
Last week I submitted my resignation to a national grocery store chain that deals in specialty and discount goods. I had been working there for a very long time. The store sold honey from Turkey and India, broccoli from Guatemala, frozen pasta from France, and countless products from Vietnam and the Philippians. I often found myself frustrated trying to understand how it made sense that the canned lentil soup I was stocking on the shelves came from Germany. Over the years, and especially since taking a course in the American food system, I have become critical when it comes to the ethics of food distribution.
The simplest explanation I have is capitalism. If the German soup and the Indian honey are cheaper to get to the store shelves than the soup from Missouri and the honey from Arizona, then you go international. Moreover, you proclaim it. “Our buyers comb the world looking for the best deals,” the company exclaims. But, the lowest price is usually not aligned with the most ethical food purchase.
I am no nativist. Protecting American jobs is not even on my radar. Filipinos, Indians, Vietnamese, and Chinese people are entitled to jobs and a comfortable living as much as I am. But, can’t we make an effort to reduce the miles our food travels for the sake of getting fresher foods, supporting regional farming, rekindling traditional food ways, and making meal times into social affairs based around food preparation and enjoyment?
Nearly all commercially prepared foods are made with the cheapest ingredients available by low-wage workers in far away places. We all know this already. Burgers and tacos wrapped in paper from the drive through, pizza brought to your door in a flat box, a striped bucket of chicken – these popular foods are the antithesis of populist sentiment of protecting traditionalism and nationhood. Populism is having an identity crisis, and all of those people are eating every day. Americans want to protect domestic agricultural and ranching jobs while saving money on their food purchases. They want access to fresh produce but they do not want to pay its true price or to cook it. Perhaps an astute marketing campaign can take advantage of these inconsistencies to draw otherwise seemingly aloof consumers toward the local foods movement.
My challenge this semester will be to find a way to confine my concern of the ethics of food distribution to New Mexico. Perhaps instead of focusing on food miles I could investigate food availability in rural areas, on Native American lands, or in economically challenged regions, often all converging in the same places. Perhaps this becomes a study of New Mexico’s food distribution as studied through availability, class, and income distribution geographically. That could lead to good electronic visualizations – such as mapping food production versus disease rates or numbers of grocery stores or farmers markets around the state. The follow-up question then, is whether we will learn anything new by this or simply reaffirm our suspicions that the poor bear the burden of our social contract by supplying the foods that keep wealthier people healthier – in other parts of town.
The other side of food distribution in New Mexico would be a study of food exports. Most people do not know that southern New Mexico produces most of the mozzarella consumed in the U.S. Perhaps this is an opportunity to challenge my audience’s understandings of food distribution by mapping out the “mozzarella trail.” A title like, “Hey Wisconsin, Thanks for Buying Our Cheese,” should raise some eyebrows.