Fortuitously, the post I was going to write last week is even more relevant this week, considering that yesterday (and in some parts of the world, still today) was World Food Day. This year, the emphasis is on family and subsistence farming, and how they help to combat, among other things, hunger.
The trouble with talking about hunger, though, is that many of us in the developed world see it as a problem for others. When food shortages happen in other places, it can be devastating, but here, most of us are in the position where we don’t have to worry too deeply. Potatoes are too expensive? We can buy pasta instead. We have alternatives. In fact, most of us don’t know what it is like to go hungry, so much that there is a shame associated with not having enough to eat, especially if it is the case that you cannot feed your children.
We imagine in developed nations, with all our plenty, that this would not happen to us, but food insecurity is not simply something we can assume happens to other people in other countries. A recent article reported that the number of people seeking food assistance is so high in some areas, that Foodbank is having to turn thousands away. Static living expenses such as rent or fuel must often come first, with the food budget the only area where people are able to cut back. The trouble obviously comes when there just is not enough money to buy even the basics.
I recently read a post on a blog I follow, where Beth (the blogger) had taken up the SNAP challenge. This was a challenge to encourage people to try to only spend around $4.50 per person on food per day—roughly what a person on ‘foodstamps’ would receive. Not only was it interesting to see how Beth managed, and what she cooked while completing this challenge, it was also interesting to read what her reflections were on the experience, once she had finished. She noted that this could be something which could happen to anyone, and that prior knowledge had a huge impact on how well she could eat on such a small amount:
I’ve been doing this budget cooking thing for a while. I know basic cooking skills. I know what tastes good and what doesn’t. Even with all this knowledge, I still felt a little anxious not knowing if my recipes would turn out and be edible for a whole week. Imagine if I was very new to cooking.
I love food, and I love to cook. For my family, that has been our saviour. I’ve enough experience with cooking and with different types of food that I can usually throw together something edible, if not downright tasty. I also love to garden, and growing our own food is a source of real satisfaction for me. But this is the product of years of practice and patience and experience. I was brought up in a household where food was cooked from scratch. We lived on a farm, so meals had to be planned in advance, or around what we already had. While the food I cook is quite different from that with which I grew up, the behaviour that was modelled to me—basic ingredients, little waste, using what was on hand—resonated through my attitudes to cooking even when I’d long left home.
Consider, then, not having those skills which Beth mentions, or not having the background of knowing what foods are a healthier, more filling choice. Granted, there is an argument that people have been told over and over which foods are better for us, and that government campaigns have been at us for years to eat more fruit and vegetables, or fewer fatty foods. But I think that misses the impact that both advertising, and the home environment, have on our approaches to food. Food is not simply fuel for our bodies, it is a means of communication; it is infused with memories; it is a platform for celebration and can be a source of love and a source of guilt. One of the reasons, I believe, that having to approach others for food assistance is so fraught with shame is that it takes away choice. We are, in such a situation, simply dependent on accepting what we are given—and such acceptance often comes with great gratitude, but at some cost of self-worth, for not being able to have such a choice as others do. We cannot choose what we would like to eat, and that impacts on our relationship with food. It might sound trivial, but when food is such a central part of our culture, it’s not at all trivial. It’s huge.
I would like to see more programmes such as the Ministry Of Food, spearheaded by English chef Jamie Oliver, where one-on-one engagement in the community is bringing people together to learn how to cook food, to understand the value of good nutrition and to help stave off hunger in underprivileged areas. Not only does this have the immediate effect of improving people’s diet and health, it also has far reaching consequences, as new and healthier associations with food are made, which will have a positive impact on future generations.
On this World Food Day, where family farms are being highlighted as the custodians of both food and the land, and where their importance is emphasised in the struggle to stem hunger around the world, it is worth thinking about our own relationships with food, and perhaps extend that to how each of us chooses to support farmers and ‘real food’. By growing our own food, by purchasing raw ingredients, by learning how to cook them, we are able to maintain our food independence. We may not always be able to guarantee our own food security, but by having and sharing the skills to best use the food we have, and by choosing what we grow, or what we buy and from whom we buy it, we demonstrate that we are all stakeholders in a future where everyone has enough, regardless of where we live.