Ecopinion: The Real Food Challenge – changing the culture of food in the US.


by Cynthia Yang I grew up in Beijing, China. My early memories of food culture consist of home-prepared meals, occasional sweet treats, farmer's markets with vendors selling seasonal vegetables and fruits, and patches of rice fields in my dad’s hometown village in southern China.

The second time I visited those rice fields, my dad recalled his childhood and told me about how tough it was to grow rice. Sprout the grains to a few inches tall on relatively dry field. Collect all the shoots. Replant them in a flooded field, spending hours standing in the water under the scorching sun, bending down to plant the sprouts one by one, and fending off leeches at the same time. Finally, flood the field periodically by carrying water from nearby pond.

Then he talked with admiration about how farmers in the U.S. plant crops in an industrialized, large-scale agriculture system- of the usage of tractors and other large-scale production methods, of the higher productivity and lower physical intensity of farming, and of how this practice allowed a handful of farmers to support for the entire country.

Coming to the U.S. for college, food was the number-one culture shock I got. I was amazed by the abundant availability of clean, uniformly beautiful produce in grocery stores, shocked by how much meat people consume and confused by why most desserts taste like a lump of greasy sugar dough. I also was very upset by the fact that no matter how the food is prepared, they mostly lack the deep, rich flavor of food and often carry irritating tastes of artificial chemicals. Additionally, no matter how I tried to make the best "food" choice in the dining halls, I kept gaining weight.

Something was not right, and with some research I started to learn about the other side of this seemingly highly-developed food system in the U.S. Monoculture drains the soil and sacrifices flavor and nutrition in favor of yield; frequently-used pesticides and herbicides cause pollution and disturb ecosystems; conventional farmers, despite their high-yield farming technologies, struggle economically and are often trapped by the oppression of large corporations like Monsanto and Tyson; animals are crammed in miserably small spaces (as they were in China), with the workers that process them working in no better conditions; and all sorts of chemicals are added to processed food in an attempt to mask the lack of nutrition and flavor.

But food matters. I’m not only talking about how what you put in your body is important for your health; I’m talking about how the well-being of a society is based on its food culture. Not only is food essential for survival, but it also mediates our relationship with nature and other individuals in the society.

There are better ways to make use of the technology we have in hand and to work in connection with nature and community. Food-cultural movements are arising in response to the mainstream food culture, from the sustainable agriculture movement to vegetarianism and veganism to fair-trade and local food. Right on our campus, there is Real Food at NU (NURF), a Real Food Challenge campaign which encompasses the aforementioned aspects of food culture movements. The campaign aims to bring more “real food” – sustainable, fair-trade, local and humane– to dining halls on campus, providing students with healthier and tastier food choices while also initiating a shift of the national food system to a more just and sustainable one.

I got involved with Real Food at NU last spring upon hearing about the idea in a workshop. Living on campus at that time, my dissatisfaction with dining hall food was culminating. With each meal, I felt increasingly confined by the dining system, knowing there was food of higher quality and moral standards out there that I could get. With NURF came the hope of better food in dining halls, and a feasible way to make large-scale real changes that I had long wished for. I was thrilled by the fact that we, as students, have the opportunity to show our attitude on the current food system, and the power to contribute to a brighter future by pushing the dining halls to make better food decisions.

Still, something larger looms in the back of my mind. I know across the Pacific Ocean, there's still the vast land I called home, where people are starting to engage in larger industrial agricultural practices. Grocery stores and supermarkets are popping up in different parts of cities. Those who can afford it eat more and more meat. Consumption of processed food is steadily increasing. Those signs of “development” I witnessed as I grew up now make me apprehensive: are we following a track to an industrial food system similar to the U.S.? Is this also occurring in other parts of the world? Is there a way toward a better food system on a global scale, advocating and implementing more holistic approaches to engage technology with nature and society?

I believe if Europe and the U.S. lead the process of moving to a more holistic food system, other countries will follow. The precedent of a functional food system in more developed countries will direct the trend of food systems in developing regions. While industrialized agriculture is expanding in China, organic farming is also appearing as people learn about similar movements in Europe and the U.S. The knowledge and technology developed in such a food system will also make it more accessible for people in less-developed regions. Most importantly, the precedent will plant seeds in people’s minds, and direct their attention to improving their respective food cultures.

Maybe it is still too early and too ambitious to talk about changing food systems on a global scale, but I can see a promising future in the various food culture movements in the U.S. and I am more than excited to contribute to this shift with NURF. Even if these are just baby steps in achieving a REAL global food system, we are making positive changes – that otherwise would not have happened – toward the final goal.

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