A Personal Essay
By Michelle Nirdé '09
During winter term of 2009, I was a student in Professor Amy Singers Sociology of Food class. In the class, we learned how to view and discuss food beyond anecdotal stories. I developed an understanding of how to look at the function of food as a cultural entity from production to consumption. For a mini-field trip our class went to the grocery store, where the marketing and presentation made the function of food in our culture obvious. A lot of what we talked about in class, such as environmental impact, convenience, and ideas of perfectionism in our food, was so easy to pick up on during our visit to the store that it was hard to imagine another single location that could say as much about our lifestyle.
While shopping for orange juice in the grocery store, I noticed an ad on the carton proclaiming the companies support for rainforests in South America and how I, as a consumer, helped support this cause simply by selecting the product. Intrigued, I looked more closely at the carton until I saw that the concentrate for this juice was from South America. So really the proclamation on the front side was a marketing strategy to get consumers to continue spending their money. Then the company could continue farming citrus in South America and harming the rainforests. As if we can not grow oranges in the United States?
Being aware of where your food comes from only scratches the surface of what there is to discuss concerning food. While the position of food in our individual lives may be different than that of our neighbor, a lot of the food in the United States is regarded in the same way because of the large market that exists for food. The position of food internationally has a different value than for those of us in the United States. Here it seems that the traditions once associated with food have become secondary to the marketing and technology that now is associated with production and consumption. Most food is prepared so that it can be marketed not necessarily as food, but as a commodity. While recent alternate and local options have grown in popularity, the commodity idea behind the California Happy Cows, for example, continue to have a presence.
But environmental impact and marketing influences aside, studying food in an academic setting allows for food to be evaluated from a sociological and cultural perspective. I learned how what we choose to eat may be predetermined for us, as well as how susceptible we are to the carefree approach to food taken in the easy-access aisles of a grocery store. I also learned that we are no longer phased by the sight of a tomato in January. With the idea of seasonality lost, much of the joy that we would get from cutting into a tomato in August after waiting all winter and spring is gone. To re-establish the value of food means that we must be aware of the lines from food producer to consumer.
Now, when I see that carton of orange juice, I know how to evaluate what got it to my store and what made the marketers put the ad on the front. Saving rainforests can happen in better ways than buying orange juice. But the percentage of people that are too worried about convenience to care, purchase the commodity anyway, and believe they made a difference-when in reality, they just played right into the company's hands.