I’m on a long road trip across the country from Seattle right now, and it’s making me think a lot about food, particularly with Food Day 2012 coming up so soon. Also because of my snacks. Food thoughts are inevitable on this sort of significant sedan-sojourning schlep, particularly if you care about what you eat or have dietary restrictions.
I’m gluten-intolerant and I work in public health, so I try to eat sustainable and healthy food as much as possible, but I have to be prepared. To avoid the not-terribly-strong pull of fast food, my car is full of apples, gluten-free crackers, smoked fish, carrots, nuts, and the like, all positioned so I can reach them easily without taking my eyes off the road, even in parts of North Dakota where the road doesn’t seem to bend for hours. I munch on apples and silently curse Prairie Public Radio for having their pledge drive while I have little to do but listen and drive and snack and think.
I think as I pass numerous fast food restaurants on this trip. They offer the illusion of choice: Cheeseburgers or fried chicken! Homey biscuits or jaunty wraps! Chicken tenders or tendonitis from gripping the wheel too hard! I realize I might need a nap.
I pull off at a rest stop to doze and stretch my legs and reorganize my snacks. That’s where I notice it: the magazine distribution box in the picture to the right. The bottom sign says: Do it Yourself: FIX – Diabetes – Asthma – Obesity. A sign inside the box says SOLD OUT.
It strikes me as poignant on so many levels. First, that it’s what so many of us are trying to do: to fix our health and diet problems ourselves. Which is great, in that we should absolutely take some ownership of our health and make changes and good dietary choices to the extent that we are able (financially, logistically, etc).
The fact that the (probably weird and problematic but I’ll never know) magazine that was for sale in this rest stop box was sold out also struck me as symbolic of what’s going on across the whole country. It feels like we’re trying so hard to do this uphill task that we’re running out of resources sometimes. We’re devouring all our options as fast as I’m going through my snacks, and we’re still feeling stuck and frustrated.
But SOLD OUT also struck me as a reminder that we’re not quite so in control of what we eat as we think we are, even if we make changes. We’ve sold out a lot of that responsibility to the companies that produce and sell and shape much of what we eat. We’ve sold out the ability to change what’s in our foods, quietly substituting cheaper and less healthy ingredients into products we thought were familiar. We’ve sold the ability to change the ways animals or vegetables or grains are produced. To include ingredients that control our cravings, satiety, and weight regulation. To produce sleek and expensive advertising that frankly works on us. To respond to our efforts at education or activism with well-funded new marketing or legal campaigns. So we’re not fully in control of –– or even aware of –– what we eat or how our choices are being shaped.
We live in a country where we think it’s all about choice. We can choose between all those fast food restaurants on the road. We’re pretty sure we’re so strong that we can simply choose to eat healthy food. I can choose to forego the delicious gluten-free cookies I find at a small food co-op in Montana. (I may, um, not have chosen to forego the cookies.)
But our choices are limited when we cede control of our food systems and, by extension, our health. To continue losing the language of choice is just going to leave individuals feeling guilty when our best efforts to get healthy don’t succeed, when they can’t afford healthy food, or when food access is limited. It’s also going to let some companies off the hook too easily.
This is why Food Day 2012 is about more than individual changes; it’s about policy change, sustainability, environment, poverty, and other systemic issues. Individual behavior changes are empowering and great, and Food Day projects that focus on individual behaviors are certainly worthwhile. But we can’t stop there. Changing diet isn’t just about individual resolutions. It’s about realizing and changing the barriers that prevent us from changing individual behaviors. It means not just trying to create alternatives to fast food and processed food and unhealthy products, but also holding accountable companies that sell these products and calling out manipulative marketing for what it is.
I’ve driven to Michigan by this point. My snack stash is dwindling. But I’ve had a lot of time to think, and not just about the signs for World’s Largest Buffalo or World’s Largest Sculpture. I’ve realized that one of the most important opportunities of Food Day is to do something together. Whether it’s pushing for policy change or educating people about the way ingredients and marketing can short-circuit our own attempts to eat healthier, this work is –– like a road trip, I’m realizing –– easier done when the work is shared.
Deborah (Debs) Gardner, MFA MPH is a writer focusing on health, food, and sustainability. She was the 2011 Food Day West Coast Coordinator. She can be reached via her website at www.deborahgardner.org