On Food and Class

September 5, 2012 § 4 Comments

When I moved away to college, the first major area of ethical overhaul I focused on was food ethics.  My family had gone through a financial crisis that left us destitute with no income from when I was 13 to 17, and I spent those years drastically underfed.  I was trying to figure out what to do with financial resources that were mine alone for the first time and trying to figure out how and what to feed myself.  It was my first experience of becoming educated in a system.  Learning about our food production and values, the context in which I had been taught that I was not making an ethical decision while contributing to extreme suffering and harm, showed me what I did not want to participate in.  My parents had not known how to feed themselves.  They cooked rarely, ate infrequently, and though they loved food and ate well as children on their parents’ land complete with gardens and canned goods, hunted and foraged food, I believe they saw food self-sufficiency as a sign of poverty and ready-made foods as a taste of freedom and higher class.  How they never noticed what their bodies felt mystifies me now.

Context is everything when it comes to food.  I will never forget the taste of spicy chicken sandwiches when I was only eating once a day, the crisp and oily outside and slight sting of the spice, or cold coke and French fries with dozens of packets of ketchup.  I will never be able to think of a box of brownie mix that takes only water without a fleeting sense of wonder, having found one in the back of our cupboard and not having money for oil and eggs.  Mac and cheese with tuna and generic doctor pepper were a steal, the generic brands costing only cents were the makers helping us out.  Franchise tacos left you feeling surprisingly good after and full longer than most things.

I wouldn’t touch that food with a ten foot pole now.  When I taste coke, it seems like a froth of sugared chemicals and literally hurts my tongue.  But I am not starving slightly each moment now.  There were glimpses of the food love I have now in childhood.  Tomatoes my grandmother and father grew, the red and yellow German “Candy” Stripe that I would walk outside with a salt shaker, pull off the vine, and eat until my stomach was full or bring in and cut up alongside cottage cheese.  Blueberries that grew on bushes on our property, and the magical tart and sweet, vibrant taste of pies that brought up the feel of bright sunlight and rainwater, that technically failed since they were runny, but made my chest ache, feeling how they rare they were and watching them disappear as they were eaten.  The clear, clean taste that seemed to cut straight at hunger and solve it for a time of white fish caught only hours before and cooked in a microwave under cellophane with bits of butter and lemon and seasoned salt or fried and eaten on cheap wheat bread with piles of ketchup.  The almost freakish, wild taste of morels the first time I went and found and ate them, bringing them to my mouth over and over and still not getting past the shock of the taste.

But always, always, these could not usurp hunger.  Access to food that was not nourishing or food that was but still would not be provided consistently never really solved my hunger.  Hunger is more than appetite in the moment.  I did not even recognize on a fully conscious level that I was hungry.  That was just how life was.  How it felt to me.  My bodily feelings of hunger weren’t distinct.  I dreamed about food every night, and I thought it was strange.  When I came to college, I gained ten pounds.  I thought I was getting “fat,” gaining the freshman ten or whatever, but couldn’t figure out where it was going on my body, since I seemed to look the same and my clothes still fit.  I decided it was because I was walking more and gaining muscle in my legs.  I did notice I was sleeping better and was more able to feel happy.  I thought it strange when I exercised I could do three times the repetitions I was used to, which I didn’t realize was increased energy and muscle mass distributed all over from simply being fed.  I hadn’t been at my natural body weight.

I keep sorting through the class conflict in my head.  I’m working on the part of me right now that sees things I’m longing to do like making my own pasta or grinding my own grain as a bourgeoisie activity.  What a shock it would be to my great-grandparents that producing one’s own food would feel to me like a sign of high class.  It’s complicated.  When I ask myself:  How much should I ethically spend on food?  The answer is more than many people have and more than I will have at times of financial insecurity.  Then I’m perplexed, asking myself:  Is my class status allowing me to be ethical?  How can this be?

I suppose it’s being mixed class that has me feeling that if my food ethics and food security are dependent upon my maintaining a certain class status and our society continuing to provide the same degree of opportunity to people of my demographic then I do not feel secure.  That’s the privilege that I want, food security.  I know in my bones what perhaps many of us don’t know – that class can shift.  It is not a sign of personal character whether we are allowed access to adequate, ethically produced food.  It is a sign of our society being well, ethical and just.  I’m trying to sort out how to invest in greater food self-sufficiency, find places where I can live and work that help me feel more food secure.  But I know it will be a niche, a privilege, if I do find it.  And I don’t want the broader culture, the common experience to remain unchanged.


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§ 4 Responses to On Food and Class

  • Rairun says:

    Good post. Not really addressing the points you made, just bouncing off ideas:

    I think one of the main problems when it comes to food is how people talk about different things as if they were the same. For example, I have seen people claiming organic foods were more healthy and THUS more ethical – but it’s perfectly possible for something to be healthy for the individual AND damaging to others.

    I’ve also seen people claiming locally sourced food was the most ethical choice in terms of environmental impact. I admit I’m not well-read in the subject, but I can’t help but wonder what would happen if all 7 billion of us sourced our food from relatively unproductive farmland near us. I don’t even know if that’s possible.

    My point is that I suspect a lot of food marketed as “ethical” is only ethical because it comes from a small-scale operation. Yes, maybe a small farm nearby, using no pesticides or chemical fertilizers, could provide me good food without poisoning the land. But if everyone did that, the need for land might destroy whatever wild ecosystems we have left. So it would be kind of cruel to establish myself as ethical in opposition to the unethical, when in fact I can only be ethical BECAUSE others are “unethical”. This is particularly perverse because the “unethical” are invariably the poor.

  • Hi, Rairun. If you check out more on the subject, I think you might change your mind about global industrial and local sustainable food systems. More or less, the things you fear about everyone switching to local food are the reasons people switch to local food from the current system. If you are interested in checking out some info, here is an online version of a documentary I love very much called “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.” There’s lot of other good stuff out there, as well, if you are wanting to check any out.

  • Rairun says:

    Hey, thanks for the tips. I’ll watch it soon.

    When I was growing up, most of the food I ate probably came from within the state or from neighbouring states (but probably from large, traditional farms). We were a middle-class family who could afford to eat whatever we wanted. Since I moved to the UK, my eating habits have changed. I still don’t have fast-food. I only eat supermarket ready-meals when I have no time. But still, I can only afford the cheapest fruits and vegetables, and most of those aren’t local. I’ve recently (2 weeks ago) got a decently paying job, but for the past two years, I’ve lived well below the British poverty line. Even with so little money, I’ve lived comfortably, but that’s only because I don’t drink, don’t smoke, and I’m extremely price-conscious. I miss making fresh orange juice or lemonade, but you wouldn’t believe the price of lemons here – so I just buy juice cartons. So that’s the reason why I never truly looked into this. I couldn’t afford it.

    And this is coming from me, someone who found himself with very little money but who was never by any means “working class”. I had a privileged upbringing, and I am educated, etc. For people who grew up in poverty, ethical food has “NOT FOR ME” stamped all over it. You are right, maybe my suspicions on the overall sustainability of locally sourced food ARE unfounded (I really need to do my research), but it’s still something most people can’t access. But I gather we pretty much agree on this?

  • Yes, we do agree. In general, my understanding is that Americans pay more for housing and less for food than a vast majority of nations. It’s not us as a people, it’s us as a society. Scary how those things seem separate to me… It blows my mind how food is priced. When you live in a culture where a pint of blueberries shipped in from Argentina costs half of what a pint of blueberries grown by a farmer in the next town costs, that’s how you know it’s a system. “Externalized cost” was probably the most distressing, revealing phrase I ever learned, indicating that basically you are not paying the actual cost of something. Usually the people who grow it and harvest it aren’t paid, the oil is subsidized, the degradation to the environment is not factored in at all, not to mention the suffering of animals in the case of animal-based products, and the buying power of large corporations is so extreme you pay only a fraction of what you “should” be. It makes in extremely difficult for small producers who actually pay for everything to compete. I’m going to do some more posting on food in the near future. I hope you do check out the documentary! I love it a lot.

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