What we talk about when we talk about eating

It’s a pretty safe bet that if you’re reading this, you have eaten something in the past 24 hours.

For those of us fortunate enough to be climbing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pretty rapidly, or nicely perched at the top, it may seem counterproductive to go back to that most basic need–food–and think about where it’s coming from and what it means.

But food touches on a host of issues that aren’t always basic at all. We decide what to eat based on factors as variable as convenience, price, taste, cultural background, familiarity, economic status, perceived healthiness, emotional attachment, energy level, and availability.

I eat yogurt for breakfast every single day unless I’m traveling. Yogurt happens on auto-pilot, right after brushing my teeth, washing my face, doing morning stretches. But yogurt isn’t just yogurt. Sometimes I buy Greek yogurt, which is more expensive and sort of problematic because its manufacture creates a lot of excess whey. Other times I buy regular yogurt, and at all times it is “plain” flavored. Sometimes I buy organic, sometimes I don’t. I try to buy the largest container I can find, both because it is cheaper and means I’m purchasing less packaging per serving of yogurt. But then sometimes I am traveling, and I break down and buy those single-serve yogurts.

More importantly than my specific buying habits is the general framework I use to think about this food. Obviously, I think about price and environmental consequences. I also think about my typical physical activity; when I worked on a horse farm, my auto pilot breakfast was a bowl of oats with cinnamon and raisins (yes, dry oats), followed up by eggs just a couple hours later. Now, I might go on a run or do yoga, and I try to walk every day if nothing else, but I’m not lifting hay bales–so I prefer the digestive benefits of yogurt over the energy benefits of oats.

Beyond this, it occurs to me that my habitual yogurt is also something of a cliche, especially after that bit about running and yoga. Yeah, I’m a twenty-something white middle class female who eats yogurt every morning. Not super proud of fitting so perfectly into that mold. But I can start busting out of that ¬†stereotype when I say that while, yes, breakfast might be yogurt, lunch and dinner might just as easily be rabbit–that I slaughtered myself.

Growing up eating meat, I had never personally been involved with the meat-making process, and at some point I started itching to “take responsibility.” Or at least see what the fuss is about. Raising (and slaughtering and butchering) my own meat rabbits and chickens last year was a humbling and empowering experience. And I’m confident in the product–I know that the animals had a good upbringing and were healthy up until the moment of slaughter; I know I made every effort to be as humane as possible.

But my grandmother, despite living on farms for a good part of her life (including a beef farm!), couldn’t stomach the thought of eating rabbit. She still pretends to faint when the subject comes up–and forget trying to butcher the meat in her kitchen. At some point, she’s developed a strong aversion to rabbit, specifically, because she’ll happily eat chicken, turkey, beef, pork–and my grandfather used to bring home wild rabbits he had hunted in the woods.

Beyond the personal level, eating habits–because everybody has them and acts on them daily–can create huge ripple effects. Problems such as obesity and heart disease create not only individual health problems, but larger economic issues and social concerns. When fewer and fewer people are actually growing food, biosecurity becomes an issue. Food deserts sound kind of fun (like somewhere to go after visiting the Grand Canyon and working up an appetite?) but are a major social justice issue.

The personal is political, and in this case something many of us take as a personal thing (what we eat) has really broad implications–political and otherwise. As I think about sustainability, eating/food is a great lens. It is universal. It is emotional. It is unavoidable. And it’s powerful–what we eat affects our health, our energy, and our ability to think beyond Maslow’s basic needs.

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