Food as a social and political statement in America

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NEW YORK – As Amazon closed out its purchase of Whole Foods earlier this month, an overlying contradiction arises in the Land of the Free between the increased accessibility to healthier food options for the middle class and subpar options in inner cities across the country.

This capitalist reality feeds into false assumptions that associate “fresh foods” with college degrees and processed foods with ignorance.

The food that we consume has, inadvertently and incorrectly so, become a reflection of who we are: our educational breadth, awareness of animal husbandry and exploitation, adherence to the interest of local farmers—more specifically, our united voice against mass-scale, industrial production of food.

This sweeping misnomer has little sympathy for circumstances confronting the less privileged who may not have access to healthy options.

Wendel Berry, a poet, a farmer, an environmentalist, and a prolific writer, argues that it is certainly important to eat responsibly with an eye to health and an informed awareness of how the world’s resources are being used.

Concern for treatment of animals in factory farms, which involves castration, separation of the young from the mother, transportation slaughter-house handling, is a central part of his argument to promote a more humane and civilized attitude towards life around us.

But Berry is also careful to point out that we cannot truly be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else. We must have the freedom to choose what kind of food to consume and what kind of political or cultural leverage we want to use.

These stark differences in food cultures between the metropolis and the suburbs of United States stood out in glaring proportion on my visit to the home of an artist friend from Venezuela in New York City.

By way of conversation, I made the bright-eyed faux-pas of asking where I could find the nearest Primo Hoagies. You know, the popular chain that sells sandwiches loaded with thinly-cut, industrial-quality pepperoni and sausages, layered densely with lettuce and mayo.

A blank silence fell across the room. The couple looked slightly constrained and politely pointed out to me in no uncertain terms that they do not eat “that stuff” and, therefore, would be unable to suggest any such place near them.

Over the course of a few days that I stayed with them, I realized how unsophisticated I must have sounded, emerging from the thickets of rural Delaware, with that question.

Their daily luncheon consisted of fresh vegetables, lots of spinach, baby arugula, sliced almonds, lined with tender cuts of organic avocado, drizzled with chimichurri sauce, which was nothing but a spicy blend of cilantro, jalapeno, some parsley and garlic.  Overall, a delicious fare, if you dipped some of the pita bread in olive oil and hummus.

A stroll down the neighborhood revealed home-grown, low-key, bustling restaurants advertising their specialty cucumber lemonade, beets and goat cheese sandwich, fillet of salmon with avocado, capers and spinach on a French baguette, and chick-pea burgers, doused in a yogurt-based sauce.

The watermelon gazpacho, in particular, with sweet basil and pistachio, had that ring of childhood memory when my mother would make some cold fruit soups to ward off the terrifying heat of the summer winds in Jamshedpur.

People who flocked to these restaurants were young hipsters, wizened artists, vibrant photographers, wealthy gallery owners, wearing clothes that had a distinctly ethnic touch with beaded thread-work, zari on harem pants and pleated skirts.

It gradually grew apparent to me how a country-wide divide over food has sort of acquired a political zest.

While we, who live in rural backwoods, are only too happy with our meat and potatoes, those in the cities turn up their noses at such forbidden food.

However, the attitudes towards what we eat can hardly be summed up as tidily.

All of us have been copiously fed with intensive studies that indicate eating processed meat and beef increases the risk of cancer and coronary heart disease, and that sodas, by far, contribute to unnecessary calories, leading to obesity and diabetes.

The American Cancer Society has repetitively suggested eating smaller portions and leaner cuts of meat and other alternatives, such as beans or fish. It is not a new observation.

Yet changes in diet are slow to come not only because old habits are a pain to kick, but also because serious socio-economic factors make healthy foods unaffordable.

In the last election cycle, the president-hopeful, Donald Trump, claimed with great panache, his unambiguous allegiance to the all-American fast food, as he sought to identify himself with the hard-working, blue-collar Americans.

Sen. Ted Cruz not to be out done, made a clarion call, declaring that if he were elected, his wife, Heidi Cruz, would bring back French fries to the school cafeteria—a definite dig at Michele Obama’s campaign for a healthier lifestyle that began with the initiation of a vegetable garden in the White House.

In other words, our food preferences indicate our type—whether we are liberals or a conservatives, elitists or populists.  If we are more inclined towards vegan or vegetarian meals, we are assumed to be educated liberals. The vice-versa applies, as well.

Liberals are also assumed to be more forthcoming to buy their groceries from stores known for organic produce, such as Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.

Another factor defining political hues is the openness or reluctance to embrace immigrant food restaurant chains.

Undoubtedly, Asian, Indian, Latin American and African restaurants abound in great diversity on the east and west coast that are magnets for tourists and locals alike who revel in exotic cuisines.

Mall food courts, which are catered to serve a vast variety of people, are also a space for shared social unity. It is not unusual to come across food stalls selling shawarma in Boston food courts or Sri Lankan coconut rice in San Francisco.

Grimace as much as we may at the mall, it is still a remarkable phenomenon to be faced with food from at least eight different parts of the world—all tucked within a few thousand, polished square feet.

Now I must hasten to add that there is, indeed, no visible lack of Chinese and Mexican restaurants in rural areas. However, the locally favored joints are unquestionably, Charley’s, Cracker Barrel, Hometown Buffet, and Wendy’s to name just a few.

For who can deny the indisputable lure of the cheesesteak or the burger loaded with slices of tomatoes, bacon and fries after a hard day’s work in the fields or at the factory?

So, before we rush to the quick conclusion that vegetarian food implies social and animal rights activism and non-vegetarian purports an indifference to social issues, it is imperative to point out that food preferences are guided by their availability and affordability.

The overriding deciding factors are volume and price and not just quality and health.

In hilly and mountainous regions, where vegetables are hard to grow, meat products are sometimes the only source of food. Many of the world’s poor live in marginal lands that cannot support plant-based agriculture. Certain Native American tribes in the southwest or northern United States, such as the Navajo and the Inuits, would certainly starve without their animals.

Additionally, the cost of an Angus burger is no more than $10, if that, in villages, as opposed to, perhaps, a lettuce, bean and avocado salad, marked at $15.

An average-sized, American family would balk at spending that amount on a single meal which would not necessarily be satisfying.

Also, the increased intake of quinoa, couscous and other paleo grains has caused a distinctive food shortage in Latin American countries from where they are imported.  These grains were the staple of the poorest sections of the population, who are now being deprived of their main food source.

Fair Trade, such as Ten Thousand Villages, advocated widely by liberals to promote small-scale industries in poorer nations, is currently mired in controversy as food is being transferred from these impoverished nations to feed the rich in the western world.

The highly esteemed anthropologist, Margaret Mead, writes, “We cannot live with hunger and malnutrition in one part of the world while people in another part are not only well-nourished but over-nourished. “

So before we get on with our moral high-mindedness coupled with our ignorance, we need to be aware that the developed countries, with all their advanced education and learning, are abetting the depletion of food resources in other parts of the world with their fetish for new foods and cooking techniques.

For now, the world pivots around starvation, hunger and malnutrition on a frightening scale in less developed countries, while there are staggering food surpluses in the more industrialized parts of the world.

In the face of this painful social reality of hunger and starvation, the age-old divisions between conservatives and liberals inevitably seem inconsequential.

And certainly, we do not need to go international to note the disparate conditions under which people live. In far-flung areas such as, Ohio or South Dakota, where jobs are few with closure of factories and production mills, food provided by MacDonald’s or Burger King for a few dollars are a life line to struggling families.

(Poppy Mookerjee is a journalist and a writer for more than a decade with American and Indian publications)