“Today, we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of gigantism. It is therefore necessary to insist on the virtues of smallness – where this applies. (If there were a prevailing idolatry of smallness, irrespective of subject or purpose, one would have to try and exercise influence in the opposite direction.)” —Small is Beautiful
We know there are many things wrong—nutritionally, environmentally, morally—with the way we eat. But if we can’t trust Doctor Oz’s nutritional advice, if there’s talk about nuts being as effective as cashews, if media constantly reports new food friends and foes based on “a recent study,” if it’s impossible to vet each grocery store purchase for minimal environmental impacts, if a consensus on food rules for the Western palate escapes us… then how and why would we ever begin making efforts to change our food habits? The usual proposals for solving our nutritional, environmental, and ethical problems revolve around identifying narrow labels. When we discuss food in the context of health we discuss the “right” nutrients in a diet. When we discuss food and animal welfare, we’re advised to choose free-range, and when it’s about environmental agriculture, efforts focus on boycotting a particular corporation until they change a particular practice or supplier. Even for those that certainly feel obliged and motivated to improve their eating choices, applying “dos” or “don’ts” to every ingredient adds up to far too many food rules to follow. Moreover, the piecemeal quality of these rules means we miss out on the big picture of food. The 1973 book on economics, globalization and philosophy, Small is Beautiful says, “Today, we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of gigantism. It is therefore necessary to insist on the virtues of smallness – where this applies. (If there were a prevailing idolatry of smallness, irrespective of subject or purpose, one would have to try and exercise influence in the opposite direction.)” Food production and eating habits in America today are largely derived from large, centralized forces. Decentralizating food by viewing it as a tool for humans relate to each other, rather than letting large, face-less systems use it as a tool to reach us, can alleviate some of the issues.
Allowing a few groups to dictate nutritional choices has contributed to detrimental nation-wide eating habits in the past. Over the past two centuries of nutritional science, the search for the “right” nutrients for the human body has constantly uncovered new, unexpected information on nutrition, as science does. In the 1970’s, new research on saturated fats and oversimplified public communication lead to a popular belief that dietary fat was the enemy, resulting in poor nutritional choices. Michael Pollan, a journalist best-known for The Omnivore’s Dilemma, expounds how singling out fats as the enemy made room for the rise of carbohydrate-heavy products.
“When you demonize one nutrient, you tend to give a free pass to its doppelganger nutrient. So we essentially gave a free pass to sugar and refined carbohydrates of all kind. Nabisco came up with a very successful brand called Snackwells. These were cookies, crisps that had no fat at all. They were very popular. The psychology around Snackwells was you could eat as much of them as you’d like. If one was so good for you, then a whole box would be better. And indeed there’s evidence that during this campaign we binged on the “good” nutrients.
Pollan continues that since the time no-fat campaign, “the average American woman has put on 19 pounds, and the average American man has put on 17 pounds,” and many food experts agree that the effect of the no-fat campaign contributed to this trend. Both the research at the time and manufacturer’s whims contributed to the propagation to this harmful misunderstanding of a nutritional find. Moreover, the USDA bolstered the popularity of this misleading diet advice with a pro-carbohydrate food guide pyramid released in the early 1990’s. Only in 2005 did the USDA switch its guide to the more balanced MyPyramid. Centralized ideas about nutrition had also played a hand in health problems decades prior to the no-fat campaign. In his 1957 article “Nutrition” in the peer-reviewed Annual Review of Chemistry, nutritionist Dr. Mark Hegsted wrote “For practically all of the first half of this century…problems of deficiency disease and undernutrition have been emphasized. Public nutrition programs have been dedicated largely toward increased consumption of milk, meat, eggs… and practically everything in the usual diet.” It had dawned upon post-war era nutritionists that less might be more, especially after finding that European populations that’d been generally restricted from meats during the war had lower incidences of the non-infective diseases that afflict Americans, like heart disease and diabetes. Only after the war did it start to become clear to nutritionists that over-nutrition and the mainstream belief in it was an “important causative factor in atherosclerosis, diabetes, and other diseases” that afflicted the upper-class. Today, both public and scientists possess a more sophisticated understanding of the individual components of healthy diet. However, the general rhetoric surrounding nutrition remains, as we continue attached to the idea of dietary villains and heroes. Pollan believes this attitude is enabled by a public view of nutritionists as “priesthood.” They’re the class of people that can actually view nutrients under a microscope, and thus are the ultimate source of nutritional knowledge. As a result, the public misses the complexities of nutrition. This is not to say that the work of nutritionists should be ignored; it’s certainly no mistake to keep abreast of new research. Nonetheless, badly communicated research from this group and astute manufacturers remain part of the reason that important complexities are misunderstood and ignored.
Stepping slightly back from the mainstream viewpoint on nutrition to direct some attention to decentralized sources of food knowledge may help improve our health problems. The issue with nutritional science isn’t the frequency of discoveries in the field; it’s that nutritional science is, for the moment, young enough to purport misleading rules to the public. Ergo, understanding the limits to our current knowledge allows room to discuss other effective methods for choosing eating habits. During a conference an RSA conference (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), Pollan likened our level of knowledge on nutrition to the level of understanding on surgery in the year 1650. It’s “very promising, very interesting to watch, but not yet perhaps ready to put you on the table or completely guide your eating life,” he said. “We’ve only been at it about 200 years. We are constantly surprised to find another layer of complexity.” Moreover, he suggested that, for the moment, in lieu of hanging to every word of a new science that has yet to have a breakthrough, the next best thing is taking cues from the traditional and the cultural. This advice is predicated on the idea that “there is no one ideal human diet.” A 2014 National Geographic article highlighting the human ability to “combine many different foods to create many healthy diets,” features the vast variety of diets that communities have survived on without adverse side effects– some groups got 99% of their calories from meat, some groups evolved lactose tolerance while other groups did not, and some get by on protein from insects.” In contrast, the Western diet is the only one that “reliably makes people sick” Pollan says. In light of the success of virtually every human diet, heeding older tradition and viewing food as a cultural act can uncover tried and tested guidelines for today’s consumers. “We have a lot of temptations and food culture is one way to govern those temptations. When we’re alone we tend to eat thoughtlessly and eat too much,” he says. “We’re taught to eat until we’re stuffed, and the food is advertised on that basis. But if you look around the world you find rules, the Japanese have a rule, ‘eat until you’re four-fifths full.’ The prophet Mohammad even spoke on this question and he said basically, a full belly is one that is one third food, one third liquid, and one third air. The Chinese say eat until you’re 75% full.” Indeed, sharing acts of eating with fellow humans and looking to advice disconnected from today’s mainstream food systems places people in a prime position to avoid nutritional pitfalls.
Large-scale food production in America also propagates serious medical and environmental ills. The latest Farm Bill committed $956 billion to agricultural subsidies and food stamps. from 2014 to 2023. Between 1995 and 2002, only 9% of farms collected subsidies. At the same time, while fruits and vegetables comprise 50% of a health diet, according to the USDA, only 2% of U.S. farms actually grow fruits and vegetables. What emerges is a picture of massive centralization of funds to just a few farms, and subsidization of a few key commodities that usually end up being highly-processed in factories before reaching consumers– fast food plants like soy, corn, and potatoes. It’s these highly-processed foods that are staples of the unhealthy Western diet. Moreover, the chemicals involved in food production contribute to some of the modern world’s uniquely serious illnesses. In Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, Dr. Sandra Steingraber makes a nuanced and convincing case that America’s agricultural soils affect cancer incidences and disrupt hormone function more than food manufacturers and rule-making bodies care to acknowledge. The public remains largely unaware of it. Here’s an idea of the curious extent of pesticide usage: 98% of Illinois’ agricultural land receives “54 million pounds of synthetic pesticides.” DDT, banned from production in the U.S. in the 1970’s, still lingers today in U.S. soils, waterways (that’s why you shouldn’t fish in Palos Verdes), and kitchens (to be exact, on 42% of kitchen floors tested for a US survey of pesticide residues), after indiscriminate usage on farmlands for a good portion of the 20th century. DDT was banned from usage in the US when their likelihood to cause cancer was still in doubt. But today, atrazine, a probable hormone disruptor, is a widely used weedkiller. The EPA has pardoned this pesticide despite its link to several types of cancers, interference with female puberty, and “mixtures of atrazine with other farm chemicals” that may yield even worse effects. Evidence that “proves” that these chemicals cause cancer facilitate acquiring bans on them, but establishing such direct proof is very difficult and takes time. The nature of this science is complex, but the current evidence gives reason for far more precautions surrounding these chemicals. Even in Rachel Carson’s day, individual scientists and government bodies saw evidence of the links between cancer and pesticides. Perhaps most disturbingly, Living Downstream lays out how silence from those that see the trends renders the public unaware of and uninterested in the contents of our soils. Nutrients factor more into our healthy eating considerations than do agricultural practices. But 98% of Illinois’ farming land is covered in these chemicals. That Illinois land “grows more soybeans and corn than any other state but Iowa,” so the “corn syrup, corn gluten, cornstarch, dextrose, soy oil, and soy protein” found in so many of our products could very well be from that land. And the Farm Bill funds these highly-processed foods while also subsidizing the addition of possible carcinogens to our soil. This centralized food production system touches millions of people, contributing to chronic disease of many in one fell swoop.
A decentralized, multi-faceted cultural approach to food-growing can catalyze sweeping changes in communities. This stands in contrast with mainstream advice that offers piecemeal advice, where a few aspects of nutrition or environmental health at a time are thrust into public attention. The case of Todmorden, a small English town, exemplifies cultural integration of food-growing. In the late 2000’s, a volunteer group offered a three-prong approach to enhance the Todmorden lifestyle at a public meeting: via food they’d influence community lifestyle, education, and business. With community approval and a budget, the group called Incredible Edible began to create opportunities for residents, schools, and businesses to involve themselves in local and community growing. Empty city lots, cemeteries, and patches growing less palatable plants around buildings have since turned into orchards and herb gardens. Vegetable exhibitions and tours came into the community fabric. The group went on to infiltrate a high school curriculum, which would in turn breed continued interest in agriculture. Lastly, their push to popularize purchasing at local farms lead to, by Incredible Edible’s estimate, 49 percent of all food traders in that town say[ing] that their bottom line had increased due to the group’s inclusive approach. 30 other English towns have borrowed this three-prong model, adapting it to each community’s needs. In a 2012 TED talk, Pam Warhurst, the movement’s founder, credits the holistic approach as the reason for the movement’s success. “None of this is rocket science. It certainly is not clever, and it’s not original. But it is joined up, and it is inclusive,” she says. Including urban gardening into a culture is fundamental in helping people understand food differently and build healthier, environmentally-sound eating habits. Furthermore, an understanding of and interest in soil health, irrigation, plant variety, and agricultural waste would theoretically also help consumers think more about how these issues play out in mainstream agricultural practices.
The concept of decentralizing food does not mean large forces should be ignored. Strengthening eating as a cultural act is about ensuring that different aspects of food remain connected to human faces and a human process, rather than relying purely on systemic and institutional processes. However, whether it’s about decentralizing how we eat or where and how our food is grown, larger forces must redirect resources to quicken the pace of transition. City ordinances, tax breaks, and public networks that directly deal with community-level growing and nutritional programs are already beginning to respond to their constituents’ needs. Ron Finely, a South Los Angeles grower who champions urban gardening in public spaces in efforts to change the culture of food in his neighborhood, was served with citations and warrants multiple times for growing food on sidewalk strips usually covered in grass. After years of community action, Assembly Bill 551, the “Parkway Ordinance,” made it possible for California cities to authorize certain edible plants in these spaces. Now citizens must push for the necessary city amendments to properly legalize the practice. Other recent California legislation facilitating a decentralized food culture includes AB 1616, legitimizing the sale of certain homemade foods, and “Truck Gardening Ordinance,” that allows Angelinos to cultivate food in residential areas without fear of being shut down. The movement will still require increased bolstering from business, school systems, healthcare, and other institutions for success. But changing the culture around food would allow this mission to permeate into these societal spaces. It’s still about connecting the values to individuals. Finley infused value-loaded language to convey human connection to food as he concluded his TED2013 talk:
What I’m talking about is putting people to work, and getting kids off the street, and letting them know the joy, the pride and the honor in growing your own food, opening farmer’s markets.So what I want to do here, we gotta make this sexy. So I want us all to become ecolutionary renegades, gangstas, gangsta gardeners. We gotta flip the script on what a gangsta is. If you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangsta. Get gangsta with your shovel, okay? And let that be your weapon of choice.”