Sunday, February 21, 2010

Food Freedom

Last week the City Council of Helsinki discussed over three hours over a weekly vegetarian school lunch. Next to the absurd health concerns ("our kids will starve!"), one of the key arguments against the plan was limiting freedom of choice. For many the idea that there would not be meat available every day felt like a bigger restriction than the current selection between 2-3 meals. They actually managed to make it seem like a school lunch cafeteria would work like an a la carte restaurant driven by the kids´ wishes. Luckily, the City Council was wise enough to pass the proposal.

The debate in the city council is another example of how our idea of food has drifted far from a connection to seasons and nature in total. Access to 2 eur/kg pork and tomatoes even in the midst of winter are presented nearly as human rights - despite their ethical or ecological problems. The need to get everything whenever we want dominates over quality concerns. We´re willing to feed and eat whatever the shop serves. The shop blames the consumer, the consumer and the farmer blame the shop.

Government´s role is completely forgotten as a body that has the authority to set standards and direct production with taxation and incentives. But even greater than this, governments could have a greater role in directing consumption by demanding that there would be more information on the produce sold. Sustainable and quality choices need to be made affordable and attractive. This can be addressed also as a democratic issue. If we are sold stuff that harms the planet and harms us with its additives, we should have the right to know this. There is a difference between ignorant and informed freedom.

During my 3-day visit to Zurich this week I discussed food policy with numerous people I met.
Many of the people I met were enthusiastic members of a food coop called Tor 14. They picked their vegetable bag and other groceries on Wednesdays and Saturdays from a cellar in central Zurich. Supermarkets were for them places to complement what they have at home, not all-you-could-eat selections for the meal you just there and then desire. Their cooking was driven by their pantry and the exciting vegetable selection of the week, not by the supermarket´s 20 000 items. In a way it´s the cooking style of my grandparents.

Going back to the vegetarian day debate, one could say that the system sounds too strict and limits your freedom. But the experience of the coop members told a different story. Through Tor14 they had learned to use numerous root vegetables found from their bags. Apparently phone calls are common after the Wednesday visit to the store:"Hey, do you have this green thing with yellow spots? What is it? Do you have ideas what to do with it?"

They had also understood how to plan meals for the week. Their organic and local ingredients had stories. They sometimes met the farmers. The people running the coop were eager and willing to share recipes. The montly membership gives security to the people running the coop and keeps the prices low.

Food coops should be encouraged by the government. They make one appreciate the ingredients, they reduce waste, they help people in getting to know diverse ingredients and they make cooking exciting. As non-profit collectives, they also lower the price of good products. I don´t know about you but I am tired of the soggy zucchini, bouncy Dutch bell pepper and the plastic-wrapped parsnip of my local Alepa.

Monday, February 08, 2010

No More Don´t Ask, Don´t Tell

My biggest awakening of this year has been on the political aspects of food. I blogged earlier about Pollan and Safran Foer as some of the people kicking the discussion food going. Having now finished Safran Foer´s Eating Animals, it is becoming more and more obvious that we need to treat food more as a political issue. We´ve kind of let ourselves be swept away by nutritionists and health advocates.

Never have we Finns spent such a small part of our income on the things we eat. What we eat is making the planet and ourselves sick. We push stuff down our throats without a faintest clue of what it contains. Food comes increasingly from the Alepa shelf, not from the field. We´re like that awful Clinton policy on gays in the military: we pretend that there are no problems by not asking any questions. When something goes wrong, we say it is an individual mistake.

EU governments and the EU itself spend an insane amount of money on subsidising and promoting food. Just last year the Finnish government spent 257 000 euros on promoting diverse eating of pork (result here). Let me say that again: 257 000 euros on diverse ways of cooking pork. Honestly.

We have elections in 2011. I want the next government to take food seriously. I want better consumer policy, better ingredients and food produced closer to where I live. I want agriculture policy that takes climate change seriously. As a consumer and citizen I want to know where my food comes from, how its been grown and how ethical it is. And yes, I am willing to pay a bit more for the things on my plate.

I want better and more sustainable food. I want exciting food policy. I want beets of different sizes, big and dirty parsnips, uneven carrots and local bread in my grocery store. I want less of those soggy mozzarella-tomato paninis and more root vegetable delis. I want more publicity to proud farmers like Janne Länsipuro who gets excited over a pumpkin and a burdock. I want to take my nephew to a farm for a weekend to see how flour is made and where herbs come from.

But we also need actions by local and national government. Schools and lunch cafeterias are great places to teach people what good food tastes like. These are also excellent places to create sustainable ways of cooking for instance by diversifying the vegetarian meals.

People need incentives to make right choices. Food if anything can be a political issue that is truly participatory. Good food is a fun issue.