Despite well-meant efforts, the food system is a long way from being fixed. Why is this so? In an insightful article at Grist.com, Tom Philpott concludes that it may be impossible to fix the food system without fixing the economic system first. The food system mirrors the distortions of the economic context and the existence of economic inequalities creates barriers to fixing the flaws of the food system. He describes the economic system as having three layers: a large low-income/poor class, a small class getting squeezed in the middle and a tiny group of the super rich. It is the latter which controls the economic system and their goal is to increase their wealth; environmental, nutritional or health outcomes are not a part of their calculus. As long as the masses are fed and working, that’s all the system needs. So cheap food, high in calories and low in nutrients is readily available and the food system provides unhealthy choices , which in their turn lead to poor health outcomes in terms of rising diabetes and obesity rates.
The discussion which followed the article was also enlightening. People pointed out the lack of access to fresh produce, lack of time, lack of money, lack of energy to cook one’s own dinner and the consequent capitulation to the allure of fast food outlets and convenience stores. To that, it may be argued that we succumb to that choice because it is available. Go to a poor area in a large city in any less developed nation. The people who work two or more jobs there, sometimes in horrible conditions, still come home and cook their food. Lack of transportation is certainly an issue as is lack of funds but there is something beyond all of this. As a society, we do not value nurturing. To make dinner at home everyday, we need to work less hours, have access to ingredients that are nutritious and above all, cherish this effort. All this involves a cost which we are not willing to pay and a state of mind that we cannot get to or at least have a struggle understanding.
Speaking to the issue of the economic system: the food system is a part of this larger system. If the big agri-businesses are the most active stakeholders in the economic system, we would logically expect them to resist efforts to reform the food system. So, is there nothing to be done? Not quite. One thing that gets the message across is money: withhold your purchases of empty calorie products or those produced by unsustainable methods and sooner or later the corporations will modify their behavior as well. Highlighting bad practices in the public domain is another tool as businesses try their best to avoid bad publicity.
Beyond these issues, there is an intangible variable as well. What we eat is not merely a commodity, it is a part of who we are. Immigrants in a foreign land will rush around trying to find familiar ingredients, cold days will bring up childhood memories of soup, the smell of coffee will lure us out in the fading hours of the afternoon. We are sentimental about what we eat, we do not like changing our habits and we resent being told we need to change.
So, yes, from all perspectives, this is likely to be a long and weary struggle but it is one that cannot be let go so let us gather up our strength to get on with it. The struggle to change the food system has to be waged at the personal level (of the consumer or producer), in the business arena ( to ensure nutritional standards are maintained and sustainable methods of production are followed) and in the domain of civil society ( reform efforts need to be backed by the necessary legislation).