What drives our food culture? For many Americans, it's convenience and speed of delivery. But how is that different from the rest of the world?
Illustrations by Robert Roth
What drives our food culture? For many Americans, it's convenience and speed of delivery. But how isthat different from the rest of the world?
The butcher shop was named Al's Meat Market, but my family just called it Al's after its Italian owner. My mother and I would drive to Al's just north of Chicago at least once a week. As I examined long rolls of bologna, liverwurst and salami beneath a glass counter, Al would offer me a slice of whatever I wanted, handing it to me on a square sheet of wax paper.
Customers would ask Al what was good that week. He explained the differences between prime and choice beef, choice beef from select beef, pork steak from bottom round steak, rump roast from cube steak. Brown butcherpaper drawings of cattle hung from the walls with lines sectioning off the different cuts.
When I was a boy, supermarkets were making inroads on neighborhood stores like Al's. They were cheaper, yes, but as far as Al was concerned, the salespeople didn't know their product. It was all precut. Al apprenticed for years before he became a butcher. Sirloin steak, short ribs, bottom round—sometimes called goose round. He learned to cut it all and bought it from trustworthy sources.
He did not live to see the continued rise of discount stores that further stretched the distance between consumers and the food they eat. Nowadays, I press my thumbs into a price reduced, plastic-wrapped package of hamburger to see if it looks fresh. I know which store has the best sales, but I don't really know much about the food I eat.
I'm not alone in this. Our distance from food and the land it comes from stands in contrast to other parts of the world where food belongs to a culture of self-production and social gathering, part of an intimate process for maintaining bonds with family and the earth.
Asma Lateef, director of Bread for the World Institute told me, "and we've lost the sense that food is part of a broader culture. Food is part of a convenience lifestyle. Everything has to be convenient and fast. The culture of eating together and telling stories has disappeared here."
Equally important, our ignorance about food limits our ability to participate knowledgeably in agricultural policy or choose the most nutritious items for the grocery cart.
"Consumers don't know where food comes from," said D. Scott Brown, assistant professor of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "Not being able to debate food policy with educated consumers makes it difficult to have an open exchange about it. Should we have more or less meat in our diet? What is inhumane animal treatment? If we don't know or understand, how can we have a debate about it?"
Nearly 80 cents of each dollar Americans spend for food goes to pay for marketing services—processing, packaging, transportation, storage and advertising, said Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, a Boston-based nonprofit that educates Americans on food and nutrition. All of these costs are associated with getting food into the most convenient form and packaging, sending it to the most convenient location at the most convenient time, and then convincing us to buy it. As consumers, we pay far more for the convenience of our food than for the food itself, she said.
"Since the 1950s we've moved away from the traditional diet of whole grains, fruit and vegetables," Baer-Sinnott said. "Status, the perception that it's easier, women moving into the workplace, that all played a part."
I don't know if the drawings of rural Italian landscapes on Al's walls influenced me, but when I was a boy I wanted to be a farmer. By the time I was a teenager, I had long since abandoned that goal, but farms continue to attract me. When my brother told me that the husband of a colleague was a farmer, I asked to meet him.
Bob Brackman farms about an hour outside Chicago in Bartlett, Ill. I parked behind a red pickup near a shed and watched Brackman drive a combine toward me across his 60-acre cornfield. Husks bounced in a front tray of the combine before being sucked inside it. Seconds later, corn spewed into a trailer behind the combine, rising and falling in a dissembling mountain of knotty yellow kernels.
Every other year, Brackman grows soybeans. The crop rotation keeps the rich, dark soil fertile. He showed me how his field rose and fell in small waves. No reason. Just part of the natural undulation of the land. In some areas the soil gave way to clay and gravel, and the corn there was smaller than the rest of the crop.
Brackman's father put him on a tractor when he was 13, and 43 years later he was still glad to be sitting atop one kind of farm contraption or another. His father taught him to be patient, to work hard when crops are ready for harvest and to be persistent when droughts suck the land dry and rains turn the fields into swamps.
But in many cases, Brackman said, science has trumped the vagaries of Mother Nature by transforming farming into the art of the possible. Most people don't know it, he continued, but the corn they eat is most likely a hybrid developed in laboratories to resist insects, drought, wind, flooding and other environmental pressures. Farmers used to spray against rootworm. These days, however, farmers can plant rootworm-resistant corn, cutting costs and other problems associated with pesticides. These traits are naturally present in other vegetable species. Scientists simply crossbred these qualities into the seeds.
The technology does not stop with the development of hybrids. Brackman said new combines will appear to have more computer parts than the space shuttle and may cost as much as $700,000. Push a button and the blades will adjust to different settings accommodating different crops. Global positioning systems will map out farm fields, and the farmer won't evenhave to steer.
"Cheap supply and new technology increases our distance from the food supply," Brackmansaid. "It's a never-ending issue."
My thoughts of becoming a farmer somehow morphed into a desire to be a reporter. And it was in that capacity that I flew across the globe and about as far from Brackman's farm as can be imagined, to the African nation of Chad.
There, the notion of cheap supply took on a whole new meaning. I hired a driver to take me from the capital to the town of Abeche. A flock of gray African quail crossed the cattle trail that served as a road. The driver accelerated. The quail scurried and squawked, and I heard one of them thump beneath our Land Rover. The driver removed a knife from the dashboard and ran back a few yards watching the side of the trail. He paused at a clump of weeds, knife raised, and made a slashing motion. He looked up smiling, carrying the dead pheasant by its feet. Lunch.
I was also introduced to the zeer pot, an ingenious device that helps keep food fresh without electricity, a handy tool in areas where power outages are frequent and the poor lack basic amenities like refrigeration. Also known as the pot-in-pot refrigerator, the zeer works like this: A large porous pot holds a smaller container insulated by wet sand. As water evaporates from the sand, it draws heat from the inner pot where food is stored. Periodic additions of water keep the sand wet and the process of evaporation continuous so that the food remains cool and fresh.
Refrigeration remains a problem in many parts of Africa. Aisha White, employment program coordinator for the Nashville International Center for Empowerment, explained to me that in her native Nigeria, families buy food daily to get around the problem. Meat is either boiled or fried to preserve it.
A typical diet in White's family consisted of beef, rice and casaba, a kind of melon. They ate corn and tomatoes often, purchased not from supermarkets but in community bazaars similar to our farmer's markets. A typical dinner required at least two hours of preparation.
"Everything is so quick here in America," said White, who moved to the United States in 2000 to attend college. "Here you have to intentionally plan to eat as a family. In Nigeria, a meal may take an hour. We sat, lingered, ate and drank tea afterward."
Subsistence agriculture, where small farmers grow their own food to feed their families, remains common in developing countries. The typical subsistence farm includes a variety of crops and animals the family needs to feed and clothe themselves during the year. Planting decisions are made with an eye toward family needs for the coming year rather than market prices.
Roughly 65 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's population relies on subsistence farming. For instance, 86 percent of Ugandans earn a living through subsistence farming; 85 percent of Angolans also rely on subsistence farming. Most of the economies of Lesotho, Malawi, Zambia and Rwanda are also based on subsistence farming.
In contrast, the United States employs commercial farming on a massive scale. In the 1930s, crop yields in the United States were comparable to those of India, England and Argentina. Since the 1950s, the use of pesticides and fertilizers as well as a host of governmental policies have vaulted the U.S. into the biggest farming economy in the world. Today, fewer American farmers feed more people than ever before in the history of food production. In contrast to Africa, and as Illinois farmer Bob Brackman reminded me, virtually none of these farmers feeds his or her own family with homegrown crops.
"It's hard for Americans to understand, because U.S. farmers are very different from African farmers," said Pedro Sanchez, of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. "African farmers can't buy on credit because there's no credit system. In the U.S., farmers are heavily subsidized. The U.S. as a country is so varied that it is difficult to conceive of food shortages. If it's dry in Texas, it's fine in Nebraska. In the U.S., hunger is an economic issue; in Africa it's a shortage issue."
Although Redda Mehari, program director of the Ethiopia Community Development Council in Arlington, Va., has lived in the U.S. since the 1970s, he continues to be surprised at how crops produced through large agriculture morph into packaged and easily accessible food.
"American food buyers don't have to farm," he said. "You just grab it from the store and run without labor, without physically sweating. For me, even now years later, I am still amazed. In Ethiopia, you eat to live. Americans live to eat. Back home, what we ate was not a topic of discussion. It's just another meal.
"What we made came from the farm straight to you," he continued. "We cooked it and maybe spiced it a little but there were no additives. In the market, a cow would be milked in front of you, butchered in front of you."
Injera, a yeast-risen spongy flatbread, remains a staple food in Ethiopia. "Preparing injera is a half-day to day-long activity," Mehari said. "Nobody buys loaves of bread."
Americans have begun inching toward eating fewer processed foods. Community gardens are now trendy in cities across the nation. Backyard gardens are seeing a comeback as well. "Gardens are a teacher," said Jill Litt, associate professor at the Colorado School of Public Health. "Gardens reconnect us to where food comes from. People do it to get their hands dirty. We've taken the tactile experience out of our environment. Convenience has replaced feeling. We garden because it feels great. It's very natural."
I realize my small vegetable garden won't soon replace regular trips to the supermarket. But if I know nothing else about my dinner, I'll know the tomatoes and green peppers. My garden is admittedly a small reconnection to the land and to food, a start. But as I slice a homegrown tomato, I flash back once again to Al advising my mother—not only on what to buy for dinner and how best to prepare it, but also on the journey that white-wrapped package of protein took before it landed in her hands.