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Food, Manners, and Culture

July 12, 2010 | Tags: Featured , Food | Post comment

Food, Manners, and Culture

What do the Gross Domestic Product, U.S. farm policy, and the national focus on obesity all have in common?  They all emphasize quantity over quality.

The GDP is a measure of a country’s economic output, of the quantity of goods and services produced in a year.  While it is not a measure of national well-being or quality of life, until recently, it has been regarded by many as a reflection of a standard of living.  To quote Jon Gertner, whose terrific article on GDP appeared in the New York Times Magazine in May, “The conventional feeling about G.D.P. is that the more it grows, the better a country and its citizens are doing.”  Central to Gertner’s commentary are High-GDP Man and Low-GDP Man and---you guessed it---High GDP Man is all about quantity but seems much the worse for it and Low-GDP Man seems to have a considerably higher quality of life.  It bears mentioning that High-GDP Man eats a modern diet and relies on medication and medical procedures while Low-GDP Man, who grows his own vegetables, does not.

As Lynne Truss writes in her hilariously insightful book on manners, Talk to the Hand, “…people are persuaded to believe that more choice equals more happiness” and “This attitude is not only paltry and degenerate, but it breeds misery and monsters.”  She makes the point that modern manners tie status to the quantity of stuff we have rather than to the quality of our behaviors.  Look where that’s gotten us.

Since the 1970s farm policy has subsidized overproduction of storage crops (corn, wheat, and soy in particular), yielding a vast quantity of low-quality, long-shelf-life foods---what we at The Full Yield call health-depleting foods---and giving Americans access to a much greater quantity of calories every day.  According to the USDA, in 2007 the average American was eating 600 more calories a day than in 1970.   Pair that with the fact that, according to the CDC, only 11% of Americans meet the USDA’s guidelines for minimal servings of fruits and vegetables and that more than 50% of Americans suffer from one or more preventable chronic diseases attributed to lifestyle, and you can see that farm policy places more value on quantity than quality.  Some of us would argue that it also places more value on profits than on public health----which is mighty shortsighted, given that the state of our health is undercutting profits both for individuals and for corporations.

The focus on obesity similarly reflects 21st century America’s greater comfort with quantity than with quality.  How much do we weigh?  How many calories are in that? How many am I “allowed” to have?  Quoting from my February blog, “It’s Your Right”:

Our country’s persistent and pervasive focus on obesity, rather than on food quality and preventable chronic disease, allows us to blame the individual, the eater, rather than to address the root cause and to then put our energy and resources toward the systemic solutions required. Any widespread problem is first and foremost a cultural problem: when two thirds of a population is suffering from the same problem (overweight and obesity), this signifies not mass individual failure but rather the failure of our culture and our systems to meet the real needs of our population.

Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food, noted that for most of human history, we navigated the question of what to eat without the help of experts because instead we had “Culture, which, at least when it comes to food, is just a fancy word for your mother.”  Culture is also another word for—and a manifestation of---manners, which themselves are simply the rituals created by a group to reinforce the group’s values.  This is why I like Pollan’s and Truss’s books so much: how we’re eating and how we’re treating each other is related--- it’s all about our culture, and if we want to live with greater attention to quality and with an intention for a higher quality of food, of manners, of health, of life, then we have to change our culture. 

At The Full Yield, we believe the fastest way to better health and a healthier culture is by eating a high-quality diet.  By eating well, we become more conscious of our choices and of our connections---to the earth, from which all real food comes, and to each other.   And because food is primary in every human and planetary system, when you improve food quality, you will ultimately wind up improving the quality of everything else. 

Using quantity as a gauge is by definition one-dimensional.  The gauge we need to guide us now has to be the quality of public and planetary health; if those two things are not protected and supported, then at the end of the day or the decade or the century, you don’t have anything worth having.