A photography blog recently published several pictures of families with “a week’s worth of food” for that family. My first reaction to the pictures was to look critically at the families that are standing next to almost nothing but prepackaged, industrially produced, heavily processed foods. And, of course, I know that that’s my family, too. As much as we eat a lot of fresh food–fruit and vegetables and herbs, locally sourced meat and eggs raised by friends and family, we also buy a lot of packaged food. Every week we buy milk (whole milk for our son, 2% for us), yogurt, crackers or graham crackers, beer or wine, cheese, bread; and we often buy condiments, juices, canned fish, flour, chips, and other packaged goods. I tried to identify one of the pictures that best represents my family’s ‘week of food’, but none seemed really close. Maybe the “Italy” picture, but with more meat and less soda.
As I reflected further on the pictures, though, I thought that, while the ubiquity of processed foods is interesting and worth thinking about, perhaps the more interesting thing is just how wildly different these diets are, and what deeply different habits, lives, and worlds they represent. For instance, compare the picture of “Mali” to the picture of the “United States”. In the “Mali” picture, there are almost no process foods, and nearly all of those foods take time to cook and eat. In the “United States” picture (as in Great Britain, Germany, and, to a lesser extent, some other countries), the majority of the food is ready-to-eat, requiring no preparation. These differences are not merely representative of eating habits but of the whole organization of our lives. In the United States, we so often and so clearly value speed and convenience, so that we have more time for other stuff. But what is that other stuff? Work? School? Recreation? Getting our kids from place to place? But for what? It is a commonplace of American culture that efficiency and productivity are goods in themselves, that other things being equal we should try to maximize time and energy. But, several decisions later, we’re frantically eating what amounts to burger-fied dog food in our car on our way to…whatever. I fail to see the possibility of the good life in that. Which makes me wonder to what extent a picture of our food is a picture of our soul. In Wendell Berry’s poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”, he encourages his reader to “every day do something /that won’t compute” and to “be like the fox /who makes more tracks than necessary /some in the wrong direction.” I’m going to grow potatoes this year, even though they’re cheap as can be and an environmentally low-impact crop. I’m going to grow them even thought it’s harder than buying them and doesn’t save me a whole lot of money. I’m going to grow potatoes this year because…just because.