Seth Godin wanted to know:
What’s the deal with brown rice? How do people become so attached to the social implications of food that they are willing to starve or suffer from malnutrition rather than take a step backward? The price of rice has soared, yet it seems like people are still demanding white rice, instead of the more nutritious (and almost certainly cheaper) brown rice. How high does the price have to go before people make a different choice?
This is what I emailed him, which seemed to do the trick for him:
I can’t speak specifically to the brown rice vs. white rice, but I can speak to the larger issue. You seem to be saying that people should make food choices in a rational, best-option sort of way, according to best price, availability, nutritional value, etc — but that’s not how cultures view food at all. Along with sex, food is one of the most meaning-laden parts of any culture. Every culture makes a selection from the potentially edible “stuff” in its environment as to what is and what is not “food”, and those foods are further categorized according to factors ranging from class and status to regional and ethnic identity.
Consider this, for example: I live in Las Vegas. We have a lot of hungry people in Las Vegas. A few years ago, there was a locust swarm for several weeks in the summer. Now, locusts are nutritious and, according to many cultures, delicious — they’re a special treat in the Bible, if you recall. Imagine the uproar, though, if Mayor Goodman or then-Governor Guinn arranged a press conference and stepped up to the mike saying “Our hunger problems are solved! Teams of food procurement specialists are right now gathering locusts for distribution to our soup kitchens, food pantries, and Meals on Wheels centers. For the next few weeks, our poor eat like Biblical kings!”
Yeah, right. Locusts aren’t food in our culture — like dogs, horses, and parrots (and, I can’t help but mentioning, people).
Then there’s the question of status and meaning — what does the food you eat say about who you are? In a film I use in my classes, _People Like Us_, there’s a scene in a food pantry where the manager asks a shopper if she’d like to try some of the organic sourdough that the food pantry gets by the case and can’t get rid of. The look on her face is priceless — he might have asked her if she’d like to sell her womb to raise money to provide hearing aids to the rich. Remember, everything at the food pantry is *free* — but the organic sourdough is “fancy” food, too crusty, too non-pre-sliced, too hoity-toity for this woman to take home to her hungry family.
I don’t know where the breaking point is. At some point in the starvation chain, of course, people will eat whatever’s put in front of them. Bugs, live rodents, even, yes, human flesh. But war, famine, environmental disaster, and other cataclysmic events have rarely been enough to cause anything more than a short, non-systemic turn to substitutes, even when a long-term switch might be better in dozens of ways. After all, we humans eat so that we can make meaning, not the other way around.
I’m not entirely happy with that last line; what I mean is that humans are meaning-making creatures, and eating sustains us so we can do more meaning-making. In any case, Godin quoted the last paragraph in his post and added:
To which I add: If people near starvation are willing to make choices based on self-esteem, I wonder what that says about those customers you think are focused only on the lowest price?
I’m not sure I agree with that, actually — it’s not just self-esteem at play, here. There are things that we simply don’t consider as food, no matter how high or low our self-esteem is. The meaning that we make of and with food is far more complex than simply an individual’s self-esteem!