“On Culture and Food” in this week’s issue of the Manila Mail (July 16-22, 2014)

Pilipinasblitz Forever
A column by Bles Carmona
July 16-22, 2014

There is such a huge divide between American consumerist culture and the culture of most of our food producers in Central and South America and Asia. My medical school block mates and I once had the honor of staying with host families for a week in a small rice farming town north of Manila. My classmates and I learned firsthand about the town mates’ attitudes about farming, the land, and their health. If we were to sum up what those Filipino health workers, farmers, and housewives have said, it is this: everything is one, everything is connected.
This is the one of the subtexts of Kelsey Timmerman’s book, “Where Am I Eating?” There is a big difference between how an American looks at his food and how a producer from another country values his produce. A Filipino folk singing group, Asin (which means “salt” in Tagalog) sang a song titled, “Kapaligiran” (“Environment”) in the 1970s, long before it was fashionable to be concerned with the environment. Their song goes (translated): “Haven’t you been noticing our environment?/ The air and the rivers are polluted./ There’s nothing wrong with progress/ and indeed we have gone far/ but look at the color of the sea:/ it was once blue, and now it’s black.” In the case of man and nature, it appears that American culture sees itself apart from the environment, such that it becomes “man versus nature,” a working-against instead of a working-with, man conquering nature instead of nurturing it, “man together with nature.” In Timmerman’s book, for instance, the Arhuaco Indians indigenous to the Sierra Nevada in Northern Colombia, believe themselves to be living in the very heart of the world. There is a spiritual element here that is missing in how American culture treats its surroundings. This, in turn, becomes problematic when we consider the relationship that culture has with food.
Therefore, we will examine what conditions or factors cause Americans to become less appreciative of food, and we will posit that it has a lot to do with what American cultures do value in contrast to what producers of our food like coffee, chocolate, and bananas value instead. There are also consequences to Americans being disconnected with food and their roots. Consumers’ choices also impact that of the producers in the farm.
There are several factors that cause Americans to become less appreciative of their food. It is because of a basic perceived separation between the individual and the environment, a basic perceived separation between what is inside each individual and what can be found outside of the individual. Instead of believing everything in nature and the ecosystem as connected, Americans possess entirely different values. For instance, in the book, “Where Am I Eating?,” author Kelsey Timmerman quotes an Arhuaco Indian talking to a Dutch researcher as saying, “The civilized whites sit all day but what do they do? They do not meditate. They only think about money, cheating others, and food.”
Let us deconstruct this. The Arhuaco Indian calls the Americans “civilized,” but truly – are they? Obviously, meditation is important to the Arhuaco in how they evaluate a fellow human being, but the Indian here notes that Americans do not meditate. Finally, are Americans truly civilized when all they do, according to the Arhuaco Indian’s perception here, is to be concerned about money, cheating others, and food? This quote is just one among the many that Timmerman cites from Peter Elsass’ Strategies for Survival: The Psychology of Cultural Resilience in Ethnic Minorities (New York: New York University Press, 1992). Suffice it to say that American values are clashing with the values of the many cultures around the world that produce our food.
We become less appreciative of our food because fast food is cheaper than vegetables. If we trace what has happened, it appears that throughout the years the world has become connected economically, importing and exporting goods and produce among each other, but at the same time we as American consumers have shown a gradual disconnect with the producers of our food. We end up losing awareness of questions like who harvests our produce or where our food comes from. In Timmerman’s book, he says, “The world is dominated by American agribusiness, which provides American eaters with potato chips that cost four times less per calorie than carrots (p. 263).” The mentality may be: If it is that easy to buy anything we want like potato chips at a lower price, then why do we have to care about where those “expensive” fruits and vegetables come from? The problem is that we Americans have taken our food for granted.
We become less appreciative of our food also because we lack the direct awareness of where our food comes from. We naively assume, like Timmerman, that the USA is quite independent and can feed its citizens with food farmed and raised in US soil and waters. The entire book is an argument for the thesis that we Americans actually get a lot of our food from many different countries – coffee from Colombia, cocoa/chocolate from West Africa, bananas from Costa Rica, lobster from Nicaragua, and apple juice from China/Michigan, among many others. Until we become aware of this fact – that we actually depend on other countries for the food on our tables – we will continue in our lack of appreciation for our food. According to a 2011 report by George S. Serletis (p. 7), “The amount of food we import to the United States has doubled in the past 10 years.” Various reports that Timmerman cites continue thus: “Eighty-six percent of seafood, 50 percent of fresh fruit, and 20 percent of the vegetables we Americans eat come from another country. In total, we import 319 different types of fruit products from 121 different countries.” These are staggering statistics of how outsourced our food items are. Furthermore, I think it is showing an underbelly of vulnerability for us should the nations we depend on for our food suddenly took it upon themselves to starve us because we are treating them so unfairly.
But because we have coffee bean suppliers like the Arhuaco Indians, for instance, they would rather pray for us. “They are nearly independent of the outside world, yet see outside of themselves. They see what we share, the impact that each of us has, and they pray for all of us. What if each of us believed that our lives impacted everyone everywhere (pp. 262-263)?” Like Timmerman asks: What if all of us realized that you and I, all of us, are interconnected with one another and the world’s ecosystem/environment around us? Again, this is our appeal to unite body and mind, the physical and the spiritual, so that a holistic valuing of ourselves and our entire earth can empower us to make wise choices for ourselves and the next generation to whom we will leave this world. Is our legacy going to be one of alienation and destruction or of interconnection and creation?
Some consequences of Americans’ lack of appreciation for their food is wastefulness, for instance up to 25% of entire banana harvests do not make the grade on 40 appearance standards so these will just be discarded. Another consequence is the Americans’ indifference to the plight of the farmers or workers who produce their food. But I guess the great kicker is obesity, since Americans are so out of touch with their own bodies, separating mind and body, that they have forgotten to self-regulate once they feel full. This is dualistic culture at work. However, we need to balance this with holistic culture. It’s not a question of one culture being better than the other but of achieving a kind of balance.
Aren’t we all one? Yes, we are, and we are so thankful. So very thankful.
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