So those of you who follow this blog know that Tiffany and I provide
a lot of recipes, some light humor, and some mommy stuff. In the last year, we both got too busy to blog. But then I started having health issues, and ended up going on a gluten-free diet. So I’m now blogging again, partially to keep track of recipes I create or try that fit into my new lifestyle. Cool, right? Right.
In my non-cooking time, I’m a mom, a college teacher, and a PhD student. So I spend a lot of my time thinking about stuff, particularly social stuff, because I’m getting my degree in Human Development, a subset of Sociology. I blog about it over on MsMichelann.com, and I do my best to keep my politics and my diet separate. Today, not so much.
As I’ve transitioned to this new lifestyle, I’ve been exposed to a lot of rhetoric from what I see as two extreme ideologies in the sort of clean eating/locavore oeuvre, of which this little blog is a very minor part. I tag some of my posts “paleo”, because it’s a big thing right now and some of my friends eat paleo. My doctor has not recommended this diet for me (though he does for some patients), but I do eat a diet that consists mainly of vegetables/fruit, meat, and fats, in around that order. This is not really a choice for me; I get pretty sick if I veer too far away from it. I do, however, eat gluten free carbs and low glycemic sugars in moderation. All of this is to say that I am extremely busy and therefor pragmatic about my diet. I don’t really buy into the ideology that has emerged from the original research on paleo-like diets, but I think the original research is compelling and helps informs my decisions. In a nutshell, what I’m doing works for me, and I choose to fiddle with that rather than immersing myself in the paleo or Whole 30 or Ancestral or whatever culture.
I have several friends who are vegan. This is awesome. There are lots of great reasons to be vegan. You’re not killing animals. You’re not supporting a really corrupt mass-production industry that spawns environmental and health problems. You don’t have to pay a premium (as I do) for well-sourced fish and meats. If your body likes to eat only plants, awesome! If your body really prefers meat and veggies, awesome! If your body likes everything and functions best with carbs AND plants AND animal protein, AWESOME!
So why am I talking about this? Well, my research is about observing how people police each others behavior in online forums (in a different area; body acceptance activism). So I can’t help but notice the kind of policing that is emerging in food culture. I hear and read rhetoric from both paleo and vegan advocates that seems mightily judgy of those that don’t conform. From a personal standpoint, this is just mildly annoying. I can read a paleo or vegan cookbook and learn some great new techniques and flavor combos without getting my panties in a twist. But here’s the thing that’s starting to chafe.
A brief vignette: My little family and I often go to Whole Foods for lunch. My daughter is 5 and eats nothing but pizza, strawberries, and goldfish; they have good pizza. I can get some gluten free BBQ and fruit, which is as close as I can come to fast food given my dietary restrictions. We grocery shop. Win! But today there was some kind of educational event, which we happened on the beginning of. A largish man was telling the story of how he used to be a much larger man, and how (essentially) meat was the Devil and plant based diets were Jesus. He did a lot of conflating the mass produced processed foods he used to eat with his previous meat consumption, life of crime, and weight. He did some delightful retro-active self-fat-shaming by having the thin woman he was presenting with wear one of his old, extra large shirts, and using a measuring tape to demonstrate his previous and current girth. As a mother, research, and activist, I found the whole thing infuriating. So I did some thinking about why I was so pissed off.
His rhetoric was by no means exclusive to vegans. I’ve heard similar language from other groups: Demonize one food, deify another; trash previous version of self and by association anyone that still eats the demonized food. Still, there seems to be an emerging culture war between the extreme proponents of the vegan and paleo lifestyles. The problem with this is that it means that any relevant dialogue about food sourcing, big agriculture, genetically modified crops, etc is happening amongst a small subset people who are RICHER THAN MOST OF THE THE REST OF THE WORLD POPULATION COMBINED.
I can afford a local CSA subscription. I can drive around town to get the best beef, eggs, and fish. I can choose locally sourced, ethically produced food because I am INCREDIBLY PRIVILEGED. So are most of the rest of the people touting these diets. In order to have access to the kind of food that supports a vegan or paleo lifestyle in the U.S., you must have time, money, and transportation. I do. Millions don’t.
I used to use Whole Foods as a corporate case study in my leadership and ethics classes because they’re a corporate icon in Austin and they are complex; in some ways they are an excellent corporate citizen, and in other ways not so much. But then I taught a class of students from less privileged backgrounds, and one of them commented that he a) didn’t understand what the fuss was about with organic, unprocessed food, b) didn’t live anywhere near a Whole Foods, and c) couldn’t afford organic food even if he wanted it.
Seriously, what was I thinking?
The mythos of American bootstrappy individualism is great when it gives people hope and gumption and social mobility. It’s not so great when it blames individuals for contextual problems. When school lunches are made of crappy non-foods, that’s contextual. When ethically and healthily produced food (meat or veg) is available only to the rich (and by that I mean us, not just the millionaires and billionaires), and deficient food is further supported by subsidies that encourage dangerous mass-production techniques, that’s contextual. We have a very large contextual problem with food in the U.S.
So what if, instead of trumpeting the advantages of our particular diet, proselytizing its benefits, and slamming it’s detractors, we did something else? What if we used all that energy and our collective privilege to pressure our precious Whole Foods, Trader Joes’, etc. to start providing affordable food to people who don’t live in affluent sections of our cities? What if we used our collective, hyper-privileged brains to recognize that most people who don’t eat clean, or paleo, or vegan, or local, or whatever, have bigger problems than which local farm to buy from? What if we started trying to change or dismantle the corrupt system that churns out horrible, harmful food to the rest of our country and the world? What if we stopped snarking to and about each other about the little shit? Because really, for most people getting enough of ANY non-processed food or perhaps enough food at all, is way more important than whether or not we buy into each others food religion de jour.
As people with access to healthy food, transportation, and money, WE have the power to pressure corporations and government to change their practices and to pave the way for small growers and cottage producers. WE can demand higher standards for the production of ALL food, not just the stuff only we can afford. Our collective voices, time, money, and privilege are needed to deal with the real problems our society faces in getting and producing non-harmful food. No kid deserves to be raised on food that significantly shortens her lifespan. And no parent wants to feed their kid bad food. Let’s get on that.