Conscious Consumer: Why is food important?

By Mary Cappelletti

In the past, I have mentioned my passion for personal choices and sustainability. In particular, I am very interested in the things that we as humans consume on a daily basis, like food. Food is fascinating to me for many reasons. For one thing, it is very closely tied to culture and often defines what most people know about foreign places and people. Your average person may not know anything about Thai culture, but they’ve tasted the delicious, savory pad thai and pad see ew that comes from the far off country. This can of course be problematic at times, but food does allow us a glimpse into exotic places and unfamiliar cultures. It is also directly tied to our wellness as it dictates the health of our gut microbiome and overall body. Not eating the right foods can result in fatigue, disease, obesity, mental disorders, and so on. So, it’s not only necessary for our survival, but it can also determine our quality of life and define the cultures we exist within. And now, we are discovering that it heavily influences the health of the planet. Needless to say, food is valuable, fascinating, delicious, and of monumental importance.

This past December I completed a research project on food culture and food choices in the city of Arusha, Tanzania. I interviewed 100 locals from a town just outside the city limits. Each day I would take an hour long commute of dala dala (a “bus” that was actually a van with the occupancy of a bus) and piki piki (motorcycle taxi) to the town where I would then enter the homes of various community members to hear a bit about why they ate the food they ate. I asked them about health concerns, the environment, money, transportation, and so on. I learned that the majority of the residents made their food choices largely based on monetary concerns. However, eating cheaply looks different there than it does here in America. A low-income Tanzanian living in the town of Bangata eats meat about once a week and buys their food from relatives or neighbors. Meaning that they buy primarily fresh produce and a few animal products, as well as rice and other basics, from local sources. This does not ensure that they prepare healthy, nutritious meals, however the average Tanzanian has a very direct relationship with the foods they consume. 

I don’t bring this up in an attempt to persuade my readers to adopt a Tanzanian diet, but I do ask them to reconsider their own. We have so many options at our fingertips and very few constraints in comparison to many around the world. Within a five mile radius from each of our homes there is likely a Safeway/Fred Meijer/Trader Joe’s, a local market, a gas station, a dozen restaurants, and maybe even a bulk store, like Costco. Within each of these stores there are veggies, fruits, meats, frozen foods, premade foods, fresh deli foods, organic foods, local foods, etc. We are surrounded by a multitude of food choices. Many of which have traveled across the country, or even world. They’re also likely covered in plastic and possibly pesticides. It’s also probable that they are a part of some larger political scandal that we’re all unaware of (watch the Netflix docuseries Rotten). This means that very few of us Americans have any sort of direct relationship with the food we consume. We often don’t know where it was produced, how it was produced, who produced it, and the impacts it had. 

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I consume a plant based diet. I do this for a variety of reasons, one of which is environmental. According to Drawdown by Paul Hawken, “The most conservative estimates suggest that raising livestock accounts for nearly 15 percent of global greenhouse gases emitted each year; the most comprehensive assessments of direct and indirect emissions say more than 50 percent.” He then goes on to say, “If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.” This is due to the methane cows directly produce, the carbon dioxide that is produced through the land use and related energy consumption to grow feed for the livestock, and the nitrous oxide that is released from manure and fertilizer. This doesn’t even dive into the amount of water and feed that goes into raising the cattle, rather than feeding hungry people or solving droughts around the world. So, why does food matter? That is just one reason why. 

Eating a plant based diet is one of the best things an individual can do for the environment. This is primarily due to lessening the demand and consumption of harmful products such as beef. However, I’m aware that regardless of how convincing I am in this post, all of my pleading and begging will likely not convert many, if any, to a vegan diet right away. Of course, I would love for each and every environmentalist and climate change fighter to abandon all animal products, but using my realistic outlook, I’m instead going to use this opportunity to implore that we simply take whatever steps we can towards becoming conscious consumers. If that means adopting a plant based diet for some people, that’s awesome. If it means buying local at farmers markets for others, that’s also awesome. We don’t live in Tanzania. We live in a country where we have pretty much everything we could want at our fingertips at all times. This means we have to force ourselves to be aware of the choices we make. Being a conscious consumer can expand past food, and it must if we are to build a sustainable future. But, for now we can begin to focus on the relationships we have with the food we consume. Read the label on the products you buy. Take note of whether the products you consume are organic, local, vegan, and how many ingredients they have. Go to the farmers market. Buy in-season produce. Find alternatives to animal products. Eat food that doesn’t cause harm to the world around us. Cattle production is not the only part of the food industry that has negative impacts on the climate and the natural environment, so try to educate yourself on the other things you consume. Food is incredibly influential in many ways as its production can lead to numerous negative impacts, including clear cutting, dead zones in the ocean, soil erosion, degradation, pesticide contamination, and so much more.

Ultimately, I want to urge you all to educate yourselves so that you can become conscious consumers. Be aware of how your food was produced and the impacts it has. I understand that food is part of culture and that is so important. My hope is that food culture is not too damaged by climate motivated lifestyle changes. However, culture can change and perhaps it must. As we know, many large cultural changes have occurred in the past when pieces of it have been deemed unethical. It’s time that we stop finding excuses and to the best of our abilities we make the necessary changes to become conscious consumers of sustainable, ethical products. Because, food matters not only for our health and our cultures, but also for the other people, beings, plants, and ecosystems in this world. 

P.S. There are so many things that need to be discussed on the topic of food. I’ve barely scratched the surface, and I’ve left important pieces out. I want to say that I fully understand that things like soybeans can also be detrimental to the environment, however fun fact – soybeans are sometimes fed to cattle! Ultimately, I urge everyone to educate themselves on food and start discourse with people in their lives. One source, is the book I cited above Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken. There is so much to learn and so many changes to make. Why not start today?!