Food: A World of Contradiction

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FOOD IS EVERYWHERE THESE DAYS, and not just physically. Talk of it runs the gamut from food trucks to food banks, the price of food to the massive amounts of it thrown into landfills. When James Beard noted years ago that, “food is our common ground, a universal experience,” I wonder if he knew just how true that would become, given all the issues around food these days, from its abundance to its scarcity, its price to its source.

In reality, food is an entire world, a universe even. A vast as the human experience, it also reveals the strengths and weaknesses of our values. We see it of such importance that we enforce access to it at the same time as we permit others to face starvation for lack of it. Even the United Nations Charter of Human Rights mentions food, while the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization was its very first department.

And like much else in the world, the subject of food is broken into silos that often exist separately and frequently contradict one another. There are organizations that monitor the quality of food who are nevertheless behind the times in labeling what is truly nutritious or harmful. Food banks that were to be temporary responses to times of recession became institutional even in the good economic times. Cities surrounded by quality foodstuffs, like London, Ontario, which suffers from a lack of locally grown products in the city, watch in frustration as most of the food grown in the area heads out on trucks to other parts of the province, nation, or even the world. Countries in which food production is a major advantage nevertheless watch as the price of products continues to escalate in alarming measures.

As long as its condition remains in such a state, the universe of food will remain as divided as the physical world itself. As each sector of food production, research, legislation, manufacturing, selling, consumption, and waste follow their own course, the domain of food, so essential to a better world, will remain divisive.

Yet, in recent years, we are hearing more about organizations and entire communities reaching out past such a divided model and seeking to link aspects of food life to real-life human conditions. Fair Trade products seek to unite quality items with those growing the ingredients. There are local food markets seeking to link their efforts with effective wages for those growing the products. Citizen movements are pressing governments to undertake comprehensive efforts to properly label and source products that end up in the food system. Activists seek to utilize available urban lands, including rooftops, to expand the local food system in ways that make availability more healthy and charitable. Some consumers groups seek to reward farmers for environmental services and not just food products themselves.

Yet in the midst of all this global movement for reform, two billion people reside on the edge of starvation, obesity is escalating a serious health risk, and chemicals in food supplies continue to be inserted despite concern over long-term health implications. Governments at all levels have chosen to largely avoid responsibility by leaving food issues to the challenging work of charities and non-profit institutions. We have a long way to go,

Citizens have spent the last few decades checking out of politics because of its lack of responsiveness to their values and challenges. But in the area of food, individuals, groups, and even some companies are seeing some concrete results in improving the food environment. Why? Because we all require food to live. We know it, and we increasingly, for the sake of our children and our own health, apply our energies and dollars to making the entire food cycle more efficient, more readily available, and more sensitive to the buying capacities of shoppers.

To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is a responsibility, not just for ourselves but for a fairer world. As author Katie McGarry put it: “Food shouldn’t be half-bad. It should be all good.” Good for everybody, including the planet.