Friday, January 1, 2010

Why do we eat what we eat?

As I've become more committed to purchasing and consuming local, organic food, I've found myself wondering what is the "right" food system - one that is environmentally sustainable and provides everyone with affordable access to nutritious food. In the search for easy answers, it is easy to assume that the food industry and the politics it influences are the villains in our current system because they control our choices to the extent that making healthy, responsible choices is unrealistic. This is the view hypothesized by Raj Patel in Stuffed and Starved. He presents the global food system as one in which consumers have very little choice and in which they would certainly make healthier and more responsible choices given the opportunity.

I really want to believe this last part, but I do sometimes have doubts…

One reason, and the theme of this post, is that I frequently find my food choices to be very different than those of people around me, despite the fact that we have access to the same food and the same information. I would really like to know why. For instance, why does anybody ever drink soda, when it is so obviously bad for you?

In an attempt to understand, and be more open minded about, the causes of these differences, I started thinking about what might be the factors that influence someone making food choices:

  • Taste pleasure derived from a particular food
  • Familiarity
  • Cooking skills
  • Time
  • Income
  • Food cost
  • Food nutritional value
  • Understanding of nutritional information
  • Available selection
  • Growing source and method
  • Understanding of environmental impact of the growing source and method
  • Subconscious influences, such as marketing
  • Personal politics
Over which of these factors does the individual have control? Are the factors over which we don't have control so overpowering that it is naive to think that people really have choices?

For instance, if heavy marketing of soda makes it seem familiar, this probably increases the likelihood a person will purchase it, despite the fact that he or she had no control over being exposed to that marketing.

Perhaps an effective way to design a better food system would be to identify the factors over which an individual does not have control and work to give the individual more choice in these factors. One example would be to assume that the choice of whether or not to purchase local food is dominated by it's affordability, which is out of an individual's control, so to work with local governments to make policy changes that make local food more affordable.

Postscript -
Sorry that post ended rather abruptly because I sort of forgot my original point. Was it this? ... I usually attribute people's food choices to personal taste, cost, convenience and vastly differing levels of concern about the environment and nutrition, but am I overlooking other differences, ones out of our control, that exist even for people living in the same town?

What did I conclude? Nothing, except that in keeping with my usual habits, I've made a list of topics to investigate.

Happy New Year!

'Tis the season for resolutions and new beginnings, so you'll be seeing more of Boulder Home Cook!

1 Responses (Leave a Comment):

jennysue said...

boulderhomecook, keep the posts comin. i think you raise an important issue here - socioeconomic status has everything to do with food choices, studies have shown. and i agree with the notion that good, healthy (maybe even fast, sure, but it can still be healthy) food should be made available - even by gov't subsidy - to every member of society. less diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease etc -- better health for the individuals and less expense for the medical system and the public.