Junk food nation

The notion of a culture of food is one that we tend to associate with nation and ethnicity—the Japanese, of course, have a strong food culture, as do many other countries—Ethiopia, France, Italy, India, etc.—each with large regional variation but an over-riding identity that incorporates the nation’s values and history.

Canada and the US on the other hand, new nations both, don’t really define themselves in any broader way  through their food. Yes, there’s Texas BBQ and the Pacific Northwest ocean/temperate rainforest cuisine, etc. but it’s all about the particular food produced in a region not an “American” or “Canadian” food culture. Perhaps that’s why it’s been so (relatively) easy for fast food and industrial food to infiltrate our consciousness and become our way of life. Fast! Salty! Easy to eat in the car! That’s our kind of chow. We are a McDonald’s Nation.

A Texas family from Hungry Planet by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio

(Of course, anyone who’s seen the brilliant photo-based book Hungry Planet chronicling a week’s worth of food in different families around the world knows that fast food culture has also invaded  the rest of the planet—though arguably not to the same extent.)

So I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the backlash toward those meddlers who’d like to see a healthier approach to food (for people and the planet) and less corporate control of our lives is based around asserting the inalienable right to this fast food culture. The message is that to limit (by public policy, taxes, etc.) a person’s access to this junk is to take away their true identity.

This came home for me when I read this week that Arizona and Florida—freaked out by San Francisco’s Happy Meal ban—made pre-emptive moves to ban any future ban on restaurants enticing children with toys/games, etc.

“Government needs to stay out of the way of free enterprise,” Arizona lawmaker Jim Weiers told the East Vally Tribune last month. “Every business has the right to do something as long as it [is] not actually hurting anyone else.”—The Globe and Mail

Of course, that’s exactly what proponents of ending these kiddie bribes argue—this food is hurting us. Think obesity, diabetes, diet-related cancers, etc.

But I wonder if in addition to fighting these skirmishes around corporate control of what we eat, we also need to challenge our limited and limiting definition of food culture. So it’s not just about nation/ethnicity and it’s not only about what we eat, but about how we want to live. After all, food is an essential lynchpin connecting so many different aspects of our lives.

If we want more just, sustainable, diverse and healthy communities, we need to think about how what we eat and how we eat it is connected to all of these things.

It’s amazing to me that freedom-loving Americans and Canadians have ended up becoming slaves to a corporate agenda on food. Rather than basing our identity on some company’s version of who we are, we need to build another kind of food culture, one that asserts our values beyond a love of greasy goodness.

I’m not talking simply about voting with your fork, but forging a much more inclusive and holistic approach that guides and informs how and what we eat, how we grow it and who gets a say in all of this.



[Thanks to Jeannie Marshall, a fellow food traveller, who challenged me to think about food culture and its potential as a way of looking at what’s happening to our food system. I look forward to her upcoming book on food culture and kids.]


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