Every body – no matter what shape or size, nor where in the world – requires food to survive. Award-winning journalist and educator, Simran Sethi, is familiar with leveraging the universality of consumption to explore the many collective stories that transcend cultural barriers. Best known for her book Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love her work in broadcast journalism, and her podcast, The Slow Melt, Simran has made foods with aesthetic value a platform to begin meaningful conversations on larger issues of social justice and sustainability. Simran draws on her wealth of knowledge on food and sustainability to deliver common acts that U.S. consumers are guilty of committing. Read on for more of the 5 worst habits in food and sustainability that Simran believes merit attention.
1. Food waste
40% of food in the United States is discarded or lost along the farm to fork supply chain. This exists alongside the fact that 1/7 Americans are food insecure. Simran explains that these statistics point to a disconnect between the amount of food that is taken for granted despite the outstanding hunger that persists within the same geographic location. Overly-strict regulations on expiration dates are one example of a persistent reason that food is wasted before it even hits the table.
2. Plastic waste
Overuse of plastic bottles is a distinct yet equally pressing form waste. Simran exclaims her personal aversion to see bottled water sipped casually in progressive and popular television programs, stating, “It breaks my heart that bottled water is so normalized and accepted.” She describes that despite decreased earnings in soft drinks, Coca-Cola’s sales for bottled water products have increased in recent years, leading to an upsurge in plastic that arrives to our landfills. Recycling plastic water bottles does not go far enough because plastic self-cycles, reproducing itself in lower grades of plastic each time it is recycled and remade. Thus, plastic is never removed from the food chain. Instead, it eventually becomes at carcinogenic product that humans and other animals ingest.
Related to waste is overconsumption. Overconsumption has hit the U.S. population hard, leading nearly 75% of adult men and 60% of women to be either overweight or obese. Yet this problem has had the most devastating impact on children. Today nearly 30% of U.S. children under 20 are overweight or obese, whereas this level in the same aged population was only 19% in 1980. Despite skyrocketing trends in weight and subsequent chronic disease, people across the country and planet alike remain starved for micronutrients. This phenomenon, known as hidden hunger, has led chronic disease and malnutrition to coexist. Simran explains that the rapid increase in overconsumption experienced over the last generation extends beyond human health. The U.S. is also notorious for its overconsumption of greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change. Although the U.S. makes up only 1/20th of the world’s population, we are the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses globally. Moreover, the U.S. is spreading this trend through globalization, leaving individuals in developing countries hungry to emulate our bad consumption habits in food and fuels alike as they gain affluence.
The pervasive wastefulness and overconsumption in the U.S. point to a disconnect between consumers from the context and consequences of what we eat. This disconnect extends to the people, places, and livestock who are impacted by the foods we eat. Simran explains that concentration animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are popping up at an alarming rate throughout the U.S. CAFOs are notoriously overpopulated with animals, leading to a gross overproduction of animal waste. Within the confines of this space, the waste is re-liquified, becoming toxic to people, soil, and water supplies that it touches. Additionally, consumers are frequently disconnected from the deplorable social circumstances surrounding individuals who bring us our food. High levels of occupational injuries are alarmingly common among slaughterhouse workers. Undocumented laborers are continuously abused and under-protected. Women in this trade are especially subject to violence and sexual assault. Simran states that these injustices occur as consumers turn a blind eye to the stories surround the who pick the strawberries, tomatoes, and other products that we taste on a daily basis.
5. Drive to the bottom
The last pressing problem is the desire to spend less on food. Simran’s book Bread, Wine, Chocolate, is built around the message to save biodiversity by savoring foods that we love. In this vein, she encourages consumers to celebrate their favorite products by paying a fair wage, which often means paying slightly more. Yet this call to action is often countered by an argument against affordability. Compared to other developed nations, the U.S. pays a lower percentage of income on food, and this percentage has not increased since the Great Depression despite skyrocketing increases in price paid for technology. Simran states, “Here people are dropping $1000 on a cellphone, but they still want their chicken to be $2.99 a pound.” Yet this preference for cheap food inevitably leads someone or something to be short-changed along the supply chain of production. That person or place is often those who are most vulnerable, including the growers, the animals, and the land. Simran believes that a revolution in consumer attitude must occur to allow us to properly honor our foods. She says, “We now believe that food should be available to us in about 5 minutes through microwaving and should cost 5 bucks, and my belief is that we need to be reconditioned to celebrate the labor that goes into our food, the incredible amount of biodiversity that is available to us to take care of our land, to take care of the stewards of our land, and we should really consider the role that food plays in our life and put it at a place somewhere around the top.”
HOW TO BREAK BAD HABITS…
We as consumers undoubtedly have work to do to improve our habits for the health of the planet and our people. Nonetheless, rethinking our food habits can be a starting point for social and environmental change. Simran asks us to reevaluate our food habits by doing the following:
1. Pay attention to the ethical practices of products that we invest in.
2. Provide support to the companies that are leading the way in their ethical practices with food, farming, support of farmers, and ingredient selection.
3. Be grateful for the foods that we do have, and savor them to celebrate diversity of this planet and its people.
Simran declares her hope for the future of food, stating, “I’m heartened, I should just say, that food is being used as a bigger, delicious lens through which we can explore our collective stories and see how the connect and see how they diverge. The fundamental story is we all eat to grow, or hope to eat, and that is a powerful, powerful thing. So I think it’s a great entry point for people to have deeper, more meaningful conversations that take us beyond making a better cake or a fluffier omelet.” Redesigning our bad habits in food are the small pieces that become part of the larger puzzle of global change.