Food and Moral Weight

Michelle, aka the Fat Nutritionist, is an awesome lady. I think you already know that because I am always talking about how awesome she is, but just in case you don’t, she is awesome, and you should be reading her. I’m not just fond of her because she’s a fellow fatty, or because she has the audacity to suggest that size is complicated and talks about food without scaremongering. Both of these things are great!

But the thing I really like about Michelle is that she talks about the structural systems behind the food we eat, and she specifically addresses and refutes the commonly held idea that individual eaters should be held morally culpable for the system they are trapped in. She does not, in other words, think it’s very productive to judge people who don’t have a lot of choice when it comes to what they get their stomachs around. In fact, she thinks, as I do, that it’s actually pretty counterproductive to be berating people for not eating “right” when “right” may not be an option for them.

This is something which really frustrated me about the foodie  movement during my brief time there. Initially, I was excited to find people who were talking about the broken food system, the serious flaws in the way we produce and handle food. I was excited to see people talking about the need to raise animals humanely, the impact of industrial agriculture on the environment, the harm done by food subsidies which make it cheaper to buy some things rather than others.

But I quickly became disillusioned. Because it seemed to me that the movement was turning into another coopting of important values in the name of consumption. Foodies had their lists of good[1. Keywords: Organic, local, sustainable, beyond organic, fair trade, fresh, natural, hormone free, farmers’ market…] and bad[2. Keywords: Packaged, artificial…] foods. Rather than being about “hey, this system is broken and we need to talk about it,” it felt to me like the movement was turning into yet another opportunity for people with money to flaunt their superiority.

Make macaroni and cheese out of a package? You don’t belong in the foodie movement. Buy conventional produce? Check your foodie card at the door. In a way, the foodie movement started to feel like a way to justify conspicuous consumption, just like what happened to the “green” movement. It wasn’t about caring about the food system, it was about needing to find a socially acceptable way to display wealth; because many of the people in the movement were uneasy about their class status, couldn’t flaunt it with large houses and flashy cars. It’s class signaling.

Now. I am generalising. We all know this. There are people in the foodie movement who genuinely do care about the food system and who are working to reform it. Absolutely. Some of these people are very  high profile. But there are other people who seem to be primarily interested in lecturing other people in how to eat, and specifically in shaming  people for eating the way they do, and unfortunately these people are often taken to be the voices of the food movement, which means that the food movement is a real turnoff for some folks.

There are these patterns that come up again and again. These patterns rooted in the idea that people are ignorant or don’t understand and if they are just told often enough, they will know. Fat people don’t know they’re gross. People with disabilities don’t know that that they are sexually unappealing. Poor folks don’t know that they just need to work a little harder. And all people eat “bad” foods out of ignorance, so they just need to be informed and then they will stop.

This illustrates a fundamental disconnect and lack of understanding, not on the part of people who eat “bad” foods, but on the part of the people doing the lecturing.

Here’s the thing: We accept that the food system is broken, right? We all agree that it needs to be reformed, and that one of the many problems with the food system is lack of access to “good” foods? Well, “lack of access” means exactly what it sounds like. Some people cannot access these foods.

Some folks might dearly wish that they could buy organic produce. But they can’t afford it, or the corner store doesn’t stock it. Some people would love to make mac and cheese from scratch, but they don’t have the time, or the ability to stand at the stove to do it.

Michelle recently said:

I’m getting real annoyed with those who conflate the moral value of food production methods with the moral value of food itself. Choosing to eat the food that’s available to us cannot make us morally bad. The blame lies squarely on the exploitive food producers.

For a lot of people, I’d go a step further. Choosing to eat what is available is a false choice; it’s not that people are making an active choice to eat something, it’s that they are forced to eat what is there. Does this make them bad people? Absolutely not. It makes them victims of the food system. Do you know what would be helpful for these folks? Actual reforms to the food system pushed through by people with the privilege and clout to make reform happen. Not moral shaming for the contents of their cupboards.

I think that a lot of foodie folks are already doing something important and I think they recognise that: They are buying foods which come from outside the broken system. That generates a market for these foods. The conscious rejection of the existing system paves the way to potentially reforming it. Especially when these same folks are also pushing for reform. And I think that foodies should continue to do this, because they have the ability to make things happen.

But while they are pushing to reform the food system, while they are recognizing that there are problems and we need change, they need to stop with the moral superiority and the shaming of people who have more limited options.

2 Replies to “Food and Moral Weight”

  1. Thank you so, so much. Not just for calling me awesome, but for further articulating things I am just beginning to grapple with. It’s been really, really frustrating, as you know.

  2. You are so right that of course it’s mostly middle to upper class people (and non-disabled people) who can afford local/organic/etc. food. I would’ve loved to eat organic, but there’s no way I could afford it (besides, I rely on the institution ktichen for most of my food anyway). By the way, what do you think of the whfoods.com site? I like to read it, although of course it does hammer on organic.

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