Has Abundance Destroyed Our Appreciation for Food?

CC BY 2.0. Hamza Butt

Many of us are fortunate to have well-stocked kitchens, and yet food and eating has never been so stressful since the days when we didn't have enough.

Once upon a time, humans spent their days hunting and gathering food and securing shelter for themselves. They did this for millennia until, suddenly, within the last century, both were much easier to find. Food became abundant for those of us fortunate enough to live in the affluent and productive West. Tragically, this has not been the case for everyone in the world, but, for the majority of people living in North America and Europe, it has become easier and cheaper to fill our refrigerators and pantries than ever before.

You’d think we’d be happy about this. Eliminating such a huge historic stress should be cause for celebration, freeing up countless hours each day to pursue other interests. But it seems to have done the opposite. Now that people have the time and energy for scrutinizing the nitty-gritty details of nutrition, it has, somewhat counterintuitively, created a bizarre new culture of paranoia and stress surrounding food that, I suspect, did not exist when people were just thankful to have something on their plates.

How is it that abundance – the ultimate dream – has resulted in a society that cannot appreciate food anymore? It’s deeply troublesome. The world I inhabit rarely celebrates its glorious abundance, but is more often paralyzed by contradictions, societal expectations, ever-changing headlines, social media, and guilt. Food is full of paradoxes: sometimes it’s worthless and precious, at other times toxic and life-saving. It has acquired disturbing moral implications.

Paleo photo shoot

Thoroughly Reviewed -- It's supposed to look like this, otherwise you should feel guilty./CC BY 2.0

Over the past decade, I have tried to remain objective and informed, pursuing what I think is the best nutrition for myself and my family’s wellbeing, but I’m sick to death of it. Especially when I’ve traveled to places where food is still viewed as a daily gift, where its value would never be contested, and where waste is unheard of, I am disheartened and bewildered by the way in which many of my dear fellow North Americans treat food.

I am exhausted:

• By the ongoing, ever-changing public debates over what is healthy and what is not
• By the difficulty of finding foods that meet idealistic health, ethical, and environmental criteria
• By the many dietary restrictions/whims of my friends and family that make gatherings so hard to organize and so... not fun
• By the sheer amount of work it takes to prepare food from scratch for a growing family every day, i.e. planning ahead to soak those beautiful organic heirloom local CSA-sourced beans to be folded in a homemade corn tortilla for a plant-based, wheat-free, zero-waste dinner
• By the excess plastic packaging in everything
• By driving 30 km to pick up my weekly CSA share
• By looking at my friends’ Instagram posts about foods and wondering if I should do the same – and simultaneously thinking, Why the heck do you think I care about what you ate?
• By trying to figure out which milk to drink, and feeling silly for wanting milk in my coffee
• By feeling guilty for not being vegan
• By certain foods being labeled as “bad” and others as “good” (I’m thinking of my sister’s incredible wood-fired pizza and bagels that, according to my naturopath, should be a big NO but are a great source of joy for me. How to enjoy without guilt tainting its flavor?)
• By food being taken out of the context of social wellbeing and emotional happiness, or being considered only within that context
• By the way in which food has become a status symbol, reflecting on my priorities, my ability as a mother and wife, how effectively I juggle work-life balance, my income level, how my husband and I divide labor
• By the fact that a homemade cake is a stick of dynamite at a women’s book club meeting
• By the lack of appreciation I witness in others – not eating everything on their plate, allowing kids to be picky and throw away food, rejecting food that’s been prepared generously but does not meet dietary preferences, etc.

I sound like a miserable old curmudgeon; but I wish we could go back – or move forward – to a time when food is simply food, free from paralyzing moral associations and such. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be listening to new scientific research or questioning old, outdated ways of preparing meals and nourishing our bodies, but I do think things have gone too far.

The issues mentioned in my list above are all very real, serious, and worthy of consideration, and I do not wish to take anything away from them; but the cumulative effect of this knowledge, the weight of it all piled on top of me while standing in the supermarket, at the farmers’ market, in my kitchen, is overwhelming. It simply takes too much mental energy to navigate such a labyrinth of issues.

I don’t have a solution, but I have reached a point where I refuse to beat myself up anymore over always trying to make the perfect choice.