Our Estranged Relationship with Food

Man looking in Refrigerator
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Americans feel less assured about the quality of their food than they used to. In a recent survey by Consumer Reports magazine, over 90 percent of respondents said they wanted to know more about what they were eating and would welcome detailed information about food production, including country of origin and genetic modifications.

At the same time, the vast majority of consumers buys food from places that offer convenience and low prices. Those are not organic grocery stores or local farmers markets. One study in fall 2013 on changing consumer trends listed Walmart and Target as the new top destinations for food shoppers. Despite the hype in recent years over locally grown fare, farmers markets only came in seventh.

“It’s not the places selling organic quinoa and Swiss chard that are getting the grocery business, it’s big box stores, convenience stores, and even pharmacies,” writes Anna Brones, a food writer and founder of Foodie Underground.

And it’s not just people on a limited budget who frequent these places. As it turns out, even wealthy people buy their groceries increasingly from non-grocers.

What this means is that not only traditional retail categories are more and more blurring, but that food itself is no longer considered and treated as something different from all the other commodities we avail ourselves of.

We don’t think much about where our food comes from and how it gets to our tables, or what has to happen so that our supermarkets’ produce and meat sections can be filled, says Harvey Blatt, a professor of geology and author of America’s Environmental Report Card. In most people’s minds, edibles just miraculously appear on shelves. But the fact that our food consumption has become so far removed from agriculture has serious consequences, he warns.

For decades, the American food industry has fought tooth and nail to keep the mechanics of modern food production hidden from the public. Meanwhile, consumers have developed a blissful ignorance of what exactly goes into their meals, whether it’s packaged items from the supermarket or burgers from the fast food chain, writes Rachel Kalisher, a Florida-based food columnist.

Although there are many reports and documentaries shedding light on the darker side of mass food production, it doesn’t seem to dissuade enough people from buying these products. Consequently, the respective industries are not motivated to offer better solutions to feeding a growing world population, Kalisher explains.

Still, she says, not all has to be lost. Consumers have more control than they think. Mindless eating habits and ignorance about food quality is not something we should be willing to live with indefinitely.

Healthy eating is not just a matter of money, although rising food prices are becoming an ever-greater concern. Equally or perhaps more important is education. Here, the damage of much neglect has to be undone.

Children and adolescents in America today are perfectly clueless about food, laments Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef and self-appointed crusader for health education in schools. There are virtually no classes in nutrition taught anywhere in the country, and less than 25 percent of high school students receive even a minimum of information about consumer science (formerly known as home economics).

Learning the basics of how food is produced and which foods provide essential nutrients young bodies need to grow and function properly should be the first goal for schools and parents to aim for, according to Jamie Oliver’s Food Foundation, which organizes initiatives and programs that teach children the importance of healthy eating early in life.

Reconnecting with our most fundamental needs such as food may be hard, considering how much we have become estranged. However, by supporting and guiding the next generation we may have a chance to start over.

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Timi Gustafson
Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND, is a clinical dietitian and author of the book, The Healthy Diner: How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun, which is available on her blog, Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.. Follow Timi on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.