This post relates to the third week’s discussion (a little late) in Hungry for Change: Food, Ethics and Sustainability, a six-week discussion course made possible by the Northwest Earth Institute. This week, we read articles by Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Francis Lam, Tom Philpott, Mary Vance, Alan Greene and one from The Organic Center.
Each week, we begin with an “opener,” offered by one person who shares a thought, a memory, an object—anything relating to our work in this course. It gets us thinking and talking. Beth, as an opener for Week 3, brought a bag full of packaged foods from her home cupboards, most of which were labeled “organic.” What we passed around surprised us all. One by one, we read the labels, revealing marketing claims, additives, chemicals and trans fats lurking in the fine print. The exercise left us all feeling a bit humbled, wondering what’s in the shadows of our cabinets and cupboards at home.
Our readings had primed us for talking about how our food choices impact our health and how packaging and marketing affects our decisions. Already an arguably conscious group regarding food choices, one by one we realized our weak points—what could stand closer scrutiny. We talked about our go-to comfort foods, the foods we eat without much thought at all and foods we’ve long ago given up. We talked about how we make food choices in the first place.
It’s easy, in this world of food awareness, to feel a bit smug in our choices. After all, we’re gardening organically, shopping at farmers markets, joining CSAs and striving to fill the cupboard with unpackaged, real, whole foods. With a few exceptions that we’re prepared to chock up as minor, we’re doing the right things.
Are we able to talk about our choices to friends and family who simply aren’t thinking about these things yet? Do we feel the strength and depth of our convictions in our guts, or are we going along rather mindlessly with the prescribed positions of the food movement?
I realized that I’m heavy on convictions and somewhat light on facts.
When the going gets tough, I look for the bottom line. Discerning and understanding the differences between the many options for fats and oils, for example, can get murky. I look for the bottom line and choose a couple that I know I can trust, like olive oil and coconut oil. I allow myself the luxury of tuning out the buzz, knowing that I’m making comfortably healthy choices. The learning effectively stops there.
But that’s not enough.
Questions came up in this discussion—simple questions, that I’d like to be able to answer in a simple way—and I had no concise answers. Strong convictions, but no simple answers. Why are trans fats bad? What’s wrong with high-fructose corn syrup? Monosodium glutamate? I wasn’t alone in my shaky answers. We tossed out partial answers, our words trailing off in question mark uncertainty. We weren’t sure.
That discussion showed me that I have work to do. That work, that calling, relates to my purpose in keeping this blog. The simple act of sharing my convictions with others relies on my ability to communicate why. I owe it to myself to deepen my understanding of my own convictions.
This course is a step in the right direction, as is reading books and tapping into the infinitely rich streams of information, which can be overwhelming at times. The challenge is to then distill that information and to own the pieces of it that are meaningful to me. I need to also turn the questions around: Why do I choose foods without trans fats? High-fructose corn syrup? GMOs? By making it personal, by understanding what I know to be right and not right for me, my convictions will stand on more solid ground.
More importantly, I’d like to focus on what I do eat and why. To broaden and deepen my understanding and knowledge of the foods that support my health and to truly know them. One by one, I’d like to expand that circle of healthy foods, inviting each into my life in order to fully know each one.
There’s an intuitive aspect to food choices that feels just as important as understanding facts. I want to feel a food’s effect on me as much as I want to know the facts about that food. The practice of checking in with my body after I eat a food, to understand how my body has received it, teaches me just as much as reading a book about that food. It’s just different information—more personal. I had this experience last night, after making and eating a delicious, healthy dinner of buckwheat crepes. Healthy or not (by the book, that is), I won’t be eating them again soon. Had I been able to know intuitively whether that would be a healthy choice, before cooking them, I might not have suffered a bellyache.
By paying attention to the shadowy places of my food understanding, listening to both facts and intuition, perhaps I’ll be better poised to stand on my convictions securely. Knowing my healthy appetite for all the gifts it gives me, and understanding that the answers will naturally shift over time.
To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work. ~ Mary Oliver