In Defense of Food--and Community
My interest in cooking (and eating) led me to read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, yet I was struck by how some of the societal factors that require food to be defended also contribute to the declining social capital we address here at SCI.
Pollan's basic plot, picking up where he left off in The Omnivore's Dilemma, argues that many of the poor health outcomes we see in the U.S. today result from the Western diet with its reliance on processed food, meat and dairy produced in disconcerting ways, and a limited range of grains. He suggests the link between the "food industrial complex" and nutritionists' quest for a single food factor, be it fat or carbs, that explains health also drives a frequent rollout of new fad diets and food products that at best haven't made us any better off.
The link to issues of social capital and community comes from the cultural milieu that has made us a fast food nation requiring a defense of our food. Across the globe, sharing meals plays a vital role in strengthening bonds among family friends. And in many cultures, the process of acquiring our food from local shops strengthens local ties--residents of a small New Hampshire town realized this recently when they worked to save a local bakery. Understanding at some level that food is a great icebreaker, we often suggest meeting for lunch or coffee if we want to develop a new business or social relationship. Yet the evidence says we are sharing meals with family and friends much less today than in times past--Pollan cites a rather shocking stat that 20% of eating among 18 to 50 year olds takes place in the car.
I would argue that some of the steps urged by Pollan for promoting health and sustainability would also contribute positively to social capital. In our fast-paced culture where our food is take-out and our ideas Tweeted, slowing down a bit and enjoying more meals with family and friends might help to reverse the trends that have us increasingly socially isolated. Living in New England, I enjoy fresh produce from California in the winter so it's hard for me to suggest we should all become strict locavores and get all of our food locally; but shifting the balance somewhat and getting more food from local producers can help forge local ties, not to mention cut down on fuel consumption. The lively exchange among shoppers and growers at the farmer's market I'll visit tomorrow is not something that one sees at a typical grocery store. There is something about shopping from the people that have nurtured the food that invites conversation, and there is always a friendly buzz as people peruse the fresh lettuce and basil.
Ultimately, the link between the "Defense of Food" and social capital issues seems to come down to time. Good, healthy food and relationships both take time. One way to address both issues is to invest some time shopping for some good local food, preparing it thoughtfully and sharing it over a leisurely meal. I'm looking forward to doing my part on this over the weekend!
Be on the lookout for more reflections on the food/social capital link. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject! Meanwhile, two web resources for eating locally in the Boston area are the Mass. Farmer's Market site and Fresh New England.