Edible Taste

I’ve heard a lot about The Edible Schoolyard Project over the years. In fact, my dad worked at Chez Panisse in Berkley, CA for a brief period of time–Chez Panisse was founded by Alice Waters, who also founded the Edible Schoolyard Project. The concept is intriguing:

The mission of the Edible Schoolyard Project is to build and share an edible education curriculum for kindergarten through high school. Our vision is for gardens and kitchens to become interactive classrooms for academic subjects, and for every student to have a free, nutritious, organic lunch. If this program is integrated into schools, the curriculum could transform the health and values of every child in America.

As someone who was lucky enough to have benefited from such a food-friendly education (although not explicitly a part of the Project) I completely endorse this initiative. It’s an innovative approach to the growing blight of cafeteria lunch mandates, and will hopefully teach children the value of what it means to produce food.

So this cause appears worthy enough–seems that it was conceived in a well-meaning place with wholesome intentions that were thoroughly considered before implementation. However, like so many good causes, it looks as if it is turning to the more shallow venue of wealth and stardom in order to stay afloat. Alice Waters herself is somewhat of a celebrity, especially in the cooking world, so she has no problem making savvy connections when they are prudent. But the question arises of whether or not commercializing the Edible School Project is in fact doing it a disservice.

I came across this article in the New York Observer recently. Ostensibly, the article is covering the “Edible Schoolyard NYC’s inaugural spring benefit,” however, there is barely any mention of what Edible Schoolyard actually is. Instead, the main thrust of the story revolves around which celebrities were there, what their favorite foods are, and how much they were willing to pay for a plate at the benefit. Sure, it’s cool to learn that Jake Gyllenhaal (my longtime celebrity crush) isn’t a picky eater, but that doesn’t really help readers engage with the issues Edible Schoolyard is trying to mitigate.

Jake Gyllenhaal dines at the swanky Edible Schoolyard NYC benefit

Jake Gyllenhaal dines at the swanky Edible Schoolyard NYC benefit

This article immediately reminded me of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory about the links between taste and class. According to Bourdieu: “Taste is a practical mastery of distributions which makes it possible to sense or intuit what is likely (or unlikely) to befall — and therefore to befit — an individual occupying a given position in social space.” In other words, our social class/socioeconomic status determines our tastes and dictates the ways in which we interact with food and food-related spheres.

At first blush, The Edible Schoolyard Project seems noble and even humble in its pursuits. But teaching children about food production, the values of the outdoors, and what it means to have a healthy meal doesn’t really seem to mesh well with the notion of spending $48,000 on a meal, even if it is for charity. Many of the schools that have a problem maintaining a healthy nutritional balance can be found in socioeconomically depressed places, yet here are these celebrities talking about how they just love anything “fresh from the garden” and paying a pretty penny for that fulfillment. In this case the ‘taste of luxury’ is truly just the ability to pay more for what other people have in order to help them continue having it.

healthy_eating_comic400

I get that there’s an aspect of marketing that is unavoidable when it comes to initiatives such as The Edible School Project. It’s just unfortunate that reporters capitalize on the celebrity aspect, and completely ignore actual cause of the charity. I’m not trying to demonize the efforts of people who use their position to enhance the greater good, but rather am commenting on the social structures that force coverage of such events to focus on the flashy lifestyles, rather than the substance of the cause. Perhaps it should be seen as a positive thing that ‘taste’ in the Bourdieu sense of the word is being adapted by those in the upper classes to aid those who are less well off, but one has to wonder just how authentic that adaptation is, and whether it is truly beneficial to those it claims to be helping. Instead of eating multi-thousand dollar meals, the Project may in fact be better off advocating for food and nutritional awareness at a broader policy level, rather than relying on donations to be sustainable.

Something’s Fishy Here…

Not gonna to lie–I was definitely not expecting to find anything remotely related to new food activism amidst D.C.’s ruckus St. Patrick’s Day festivities, but there it was, literally staring me in the face:

IMG_0381

I spotted this car in the middle of Adams Morgan–a neighborhood in the District notorious for its bar scene and therefore a destination of choice to properly commemorate the Irish holiday. Needless to say, I was pretty surprised by its presence, and a little unsure of whether it was parked there to make a statement, or simply because its owner was joining in on the day’s celebrations. Either way, my first instinct was: “I can blog about that!” (I realize this is not a normal reaction)

This car represents some pretty interesting topics. Clearly it is a statement about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which are a very hot-button issue in food activism these days. While proponents of GMOs claim that they are the future in terms of combatting food insecurity, people remain skeptical not only of GMOs’ ability to generate higher crop yields and withstand adverse weather (as promised) but also their basic health and safety for consumers. According to the Non-GMO Project, “a growing body of evidence connects GMOs with health problems, environmental damage and violation of farmers’ and consumers’ rights.”

Interestingly, as of right now, the main battlefront seems to be playing out only over the issue of labeling. As the car I spotted proclaims, anti-GMO activists are mostly concerned about knowing whether or not their food has been modified, and less concerned about stopping the process of genetic modification altogether.

Beyond the message it sends, the car itself is a great example of public art which, according to Lucy R. Lippard, is an essential facet of activism (“Looking Around: Where We Are, Where We Could Be” 1995). A vehicle as eye-catching is this one will certainly stand out in the sea of neutral-shaded diplomatic sedans that is D.C. The clever morphing of an ear of corn into a fish visually depicts for the viewer what it is that so many people find unsettling about GM foods–namely, the unnatural merger of plants and animals that have no business mating with one another, let alone the physiological capability to do so. However, I find the choice of medium to display this protest at least slightly ironic. Some of the strongest adversaries of GMOs cite the environmental risks they pose. It doesn’t seem too petty to point out the irony in driving a fossil fuel-consuming vehicle to protest an environmental hazard, does it?

warming_bags

Despite the growing distrust in genetically modified foods, there are of course still pro-GMO fighters out there. As argued in an article by Cameron English on PolicyMic, genetically modifying plants and animals is nothing new–we have been cultivating crops for centuries and the intentional act of breeding is in fact manipulating the genetic process. English goes further to suggest that the fear of ‘foreign microbes’ which is the basis for demanding GMO labels is unfounded, seeing as how “all the plants we eat, genetically modified or not, are loaded with bacteria, viruses, and other living organisms — and their DNA.” This links up in a curious way with my previous post discussing interspecies ethnography. While it is true that bacteria and microorganisms exist harmoniously with flora, fauna and humans alike, proponents of GM foods claim that we are in fact taking a greater risk ingesting these unknown additives than the ones intentionally spliced there by geneticists. Paraphrasing agricultural scientist Steve Savage, English claims “the only difference between the foreign genetic materials found naturally in plants and the genes we intentionally add to them is that we know more about the latter.”

To me (and I’m sure many others) this defense seems more than a little absurd. We’ve heard this story before–just check out these advertisements to get a darkly humorous glimpse at what was believed to be beneficial to our health not so long ago. We’ve learned (or at least been shown) the lesson the hard way that sometimes developments that look great and fool-proof at first turn out to be disastrous in the long run.

Sure, questioning the validity of seemingly unnatural innovations might be viewed by some as an illogical barrier to the benefits of modernity; and undoubtedly some technological advances have vastly improved quality of life. But this does not place categorical immunity on any and all newly developed techniques. This is precisely the philosophy held by adherents of the Back to the Land movements studied by Dona Brown, who questioned the necessity for technology in order to fully embrace the challenges of modernity.

There may be a compelling argument to be made that we have been knowingly modifying foods since Gregor Mendel (or even earlier),  but we have to be willing to draw the line somewhere. As Lippard notes, “nature includes everything, even technology, created by humans, who are a part of nature,” but just because GMOs may be seen as ‘natural’ in this sense of the word, doesn’t mean we get a free pass to start injecting tomatoes with fish genes and expect there to be no significant consequences. Perhaps we should start taking a serious look at the bigger structures that are causing all this food insecurity in the first place…but that’s a topic for another day.

Anxious Appetites

We generally think of eating healthy as being, well, healthy! We applaud our comrades who are so brave and  focused to take on the task of paying attention to their diets for the betterment of their personal well being. We congratulate friends on their self-control when we notice they have been losing weight, and we may even feel a twinge of guilt for not committing to treat our own bodies with more respect.

thin

Click to enlarge all your secret eating anxieties

But sometimes a desire to be healthy can transform into an obsession with counting calories and politely refusing even the occasional offer of candy or chips. In recent years, medical specialists have noticed a rise in a new eating disorder known as Orthorexia Nervosa. Similar to the more well known struggle of Anorexia Nervosa, Orthexia stems from a desire to control one’s diet that is taken to the extreme, but is centered, ironically, around an obsession with eating healthy.

Like most eating disorders, the origins of Orthexia are foggy at best, but it seems likely that it is at least somehow connected to the rising condemnation of obesity in America, the unrealistic images of celebrities who claim to have the ‘new wonder diet’, or simply the trendiness of eating healthy in general.

If we think nailing down the causes is complicated, perhaps even more so is the task of offerring relief. Of course there is an element of counseling or therapy that is most likely required for severe cases, but health and food enthusiast Tori Gartner offers another interesting angle on how to combat Orthexia. She believes that fostering a deeper relationship with our food can in fact help us to better understand what it means to be healthy, while simultaneously helping us to appreciate eating in a healthy fashion.

So it seems that paying attention to our food can be more beneficial than simply offering spiritual insight. It can in fact help combat real medical and psychological issues. As Gartner observes,”When we are in tune with what pleases our palate, when we provide ourselves with the time to cook or chop or shop, when we respect food preparation as something that deserves some time (just like sleep) then perhaps it will be easier to establish and maintain a healthy relationship with food.”