The Impact of Food Choices

by Kristy Athens

We all know the drill when it comes to talking about food: Everybody eats, so it’s a universal issue. But this is where the “universal-ness” of food ends. People have varying levels of interest in the matter, from eating only because it’s a physical necessity, to caring so much that they struggle to travel or visit friends and relatives because they can’t confirm the origins of the food served to them. This latter group is being considered by some psychologists to have a new eating disorder called “orthorexia.”

People also have a hard time agreeing on what food is “good” and what is “bad.” A Twinkie might pretty unambiguously lack nutritional value, but what about a hyper-processed box of organic mac-n-cheese? What about non-organic fresh tomatoes chopped onto rice and beans? Is GMO salmon a “good” food to a person who otherwise can’t afford wild-caught salmon? Or does a person who can’t afford salmon not deserve to have salmon at all?

These are the questions I wrestled with while I wrote my master’s thesis in Marylhurst University’s first cohort of the food systems & society program. My research turned up a huge disconnect between what people think organic means and what it actually means. And that discrepancy has costs—in particular to the food-insecure, who learn from public discourse that non-organic food is “inferior,” even “poison,” but can’t afford alternatives, and to farm workers, who are possibly more invisible (but just as present) in organic agriculture than they are in conventional agriculture because consumers like to imagine organic food is grown by photogenic young, white couples with small children.

One of the main strategies embraced by people who want to have an impact on the food system is to “vote with their dollars.” Research shows that this approach is, also, not as clear-cut as it might seem. The most obvious problem with fork-voting, as it is also called, should be obvious—if you don’t have a dollar, you don’t have a vote.

The impact of our food choices extends beyond our own bodies, but not necessarily in the ways we imagine. I also encourage people to consider these questions in my Conversation Project, sponsored by Oregon Humanities, called “Good Food, Bad Food: Agriculture, Ethics and Personal Choice.” I have conversations scheduled in February 2016 in Cottage Grove, Corvallis, and Sherwood, and look forward to exploring this topic at TEDxMarylhurstU.

Kristy Athens is the author of Get Your Pitchfork On!: The Real Dirt on Country Living (Process Media, 2012). She has an M.S. in Food Systems & Society from Marylhurst University.

image: Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr