With Thanksgiving fast approaching, we are all probably giving more thought to food than normal…at least that’s the theory. I would assume most people give food plenty of thought year-round. Probably even every day. Food is a big damn deal. Personally, I don’t relegate my concern for meals to one day a year, I think about it all the time. Not just the actual eating of the food, which I enjoy immensely, but the other aspects of the food as well. The eating part is well understood to be a pretty important component of the dining experience, but there is so much more.
Of course there is the actual consumption itself, the taste, the smell, the feeling of moving from hungry to satisfied-but that’s just a small part of the eating experience. There is of course, the anticipation for a meal, thinking about what you are going to have, and where. Is this a meal that just came to mind moments ago because you’re hungry or one you have been thinking about for weeks and you can’t get it out of your head? Then there’s the company you might be enjoying (or not enjoying) when you are dining. And don’t forget location and atmosphere. Are you in your dining room eating lasagna with family or in your Dodge Caravan crying into your Chalupa wrapper by yourself? These things matter, some more than others, here’s lookin’ at you, Sad Chalupa Diner.
This past Sunday, I had a free afternoon and dedicated the whole damn thing to food. I love cooking, I enjoy the entire process. I get the same satisfaction out of cooking as I do assembling furniture or putting together a puzzle or doing the crossword. I very much enjoy being engaged in the process of piecing something together. Cooking, to me, is simply the process of assembly and if the proper pieces are placed together in proper order, it can lead to wonderful results. I had all of life’s maintenance complete and my ingredients ready by 2pm and was able to spend the rest of they day assembling my meal. I spent the next 7 hours making bread and beef bourguignon and sat down by myself at 9pm to enjoy the fruits of my labor. It was one of my favorite dining experiences. It’s rare that I can dedicate such time to one meal, but it’s what I wanted and needed and I am awfully glad I did. I find little more satisfying than immersing myself in a task and seeing it through to completion. In this instance the actual consumption of the food was only a minor facet of the entire experience. I ate for 20 minutes, but spent 7 hours preparing the meal. It is in these sorts of ways that food shapes our lives more than just by what we put into our body.
Though we certainly give more though than ever to what we put into our bodies. We are pretty obsessed about food. Food culture is non-stop. We went from cookbooks and Julia Child and Zagat’s to Pinterest, food-bloggers, Instagrammers, and well over 100 food-related shows ready to stream around the clock. Then there’s the flip side to our Chalupa days. On average Americans spend over $60 billion annually on dieting and weight loss. There is a never ending stream of information relating to food and our health and how food impacts us. We think about how food makes us feel, about how food makes us look about how food will effect our children and their health and growth. Food has become a national obsession in terms of how it affects our lives and how it shapes our bodies. What if we become obsessed with how place shapes our bodies? How place shapes us as a people? What if we spent more time thinking about how our food choices shape our places and how in turn that shapes us? Food impacts our lives in so many other ways than just the caloric intake.
Our personal health certainly is paramount, but we should also give thought to how food shapes our communities. Fast food doesn’t just wreck our asses, it wrecks our cities. The more we invite national food chains into our towns to set up shop, the further we are removed from our food sources. This is true both literally and figuratively. The more garbage we build on the periphery of our cities, the further people in town are separated from the growers. There used to be a time when urban and rural landscapes were adjacent. When town was the hub of the regional market. When growers in a region would all bring their goods to the centralized marketplace. This model was as sustainable as one could imagine. When we introduced sprawl style development into the landscape, everything blurred. This was not a dense urban land-use and it was not a rural agricultural land-use. It was something quite different, something in the middle of the two-the worst of both worlds. I am always amazed when I watch the Tour De France, how the riders will at one moment be riding through beautiful farms and pastoral country landscapes and the next moment, riding through the center of town. I always want to rewind to see where I missed the part where they spent 30 minutes cycling past Arby’s and Wendy’s and Burger King and Taco Bell and Rax. Alas, it just isn’t there. I despise the fact that when I want to go for a country bike ride, I have to spend the first 20 minutes traversing the ugliest landscapes conceivable to get to something recognizable as countryside. In pre-sprawl America and currently in other parts of the world, people in town are not separated by miles of sprawl. People living in town can literally take a short stroll to the farms that surround the town, that support the town, that provide the town with its food. This notion of walking from urban to rural in America is foreign to us and that is a tragedy. The impact is that most children have no idea where their food comes from and don’t have any connection to the growers and an agrarian lifestyle.
Not only does sprawl physically remove us from our food source, but it also interrupts it. The space between city and country is built for outside companies. Locals have their businesses in town, where space is more affordable and scale is sensible for a local business owner. Sprawl is built with the national chain in mind. Highly capitalized, extremely large spaces, car dependent. This entire landscape is designed in order to facilitate the enrichment of the sprawl barons. These spaces become a vehicle to introduce outside growers into our food system. National chains aren’t getting their ingredients locally. This is what has lead to the rise of the mega-farm and the most harmful practices in the food industry. Large national chains require incredible amounts of ingredients and simultaneously want to maximize their profits. This all leads to decisions being made around, not the health of the end user, but the health of the share holder. The results have been devastating to say the least.
Nearly every food problem we are facing all traces back to the advent of the sprawl economy. In handing over the responsibility of feeding the masses to outside interests, we put the health of people at odds with the shareholders and we are losing this battle. This has lead to the horrendous treatment of animals, the abuse of growth hormones, the destruction of habitats, the rise in obesity and a host of other problems. Problems just didn’t exist when local farmers had easy access to local markets. When we entrusted the care of our ingredients to people from our community, we were all much better off. We have enough of a track record to know that national chains are driven by one motivation, maximizing the bottom line. That is fine for them, that is how they are structured, but this is directly at odds with what is best for us as a people. Communities have a different responsibility from corporations. They have a responsibility to see to the well-being of their members. The best interest of a community therefore is in resisting sprawl food.
We understand how the things we put in our bodies affect the way we feel and look. We need to take the next logical step and start thinking about how in designing our cities we are also affecting our bodies. That in building sprawl, we are hurting local farmers and growers, distancing ourselves from our food source and placing much of the responsibility of feeding ourselves into the hands of those that are not concerned at all with our health… and in fact, have a mission that is often times in conflict with the health of its consumers. Food plays a huge role in our lives and in shaping our bodies and our economy and our landscape. Should we really intrust this responsibility to people that don’t care about our communities? Indulge yourself on that thought.