Religion, ethnicity, culture, class, taste and memory are things that influence the food we eat. Food is much more than the potentially edible things in the world that would provide us with energy and nutrients. Food can be art, entertainment, comfort, taboo; it can be a medium for celebration and commiseration. Food transcends every part of our lives.
According to the UN, “the right to food is the right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, …to… sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensure a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear”.
I am going to explore how we relate to food emotionally and culturally so that we can identify some of the issues that need to be considered in relation to food poverty.
Food preference and emotion
In the film, “The Hundred Foot Journey”, there’s a scene where budding chefs Hassan and Marguerite are sat by the river describing their favourite foods to cook. Deep fried fermented duck reminds Hassan of his late mother, and pig’s feet in vinegar reminds a chuckling Marguerite of her father before they agree:
“Food is memories.”
As identified in the right to food definition, our food preferences are significant in terms of our physical and mental well-being and different foods can afford dignity and fulfilment to the consumer. I can imagine that many people in the UK would not eat pig’s feet in vinegar, but for Marguerite, they would be a treat that would fulfil her physical hunger as well as emotional need. Our dislikes affect us too, if the only food at a foodbank was food that I disliked or had never tried, my physical and mental health could deteriorate despite being offered food aid. Depending on your personal preferences, certain foods can bring comfort or stress, and when people are living in poverty, those feelings are exacerbated by the already stressed environment. The quality of food provision could push someone over the edge into depression or offer hope and motivation, which could change the course of someone’s life.
The right to food also incorporates the idea of eating as a social activity, by referring to food that fulfils the requirements of the ‘collective’. Taste can spark thoughts and feelings that remind us of moments and people in our lives and thus food can elicit powerful reactions from us. Meals are often shared with close friends, family and special guests, and tend to take place inside our homes, where we generally feel most comfortable and relaxed. There is an element of vulnerability in inviting guests to eat with us because they are being invited into a personal, usually private family activity. Food can bond people together because of this in a way that having a drink with someone, which is usually more informal, cannot.1
Thinking of food in this way shows that it is more than just calories. We could imagine a new nutritional information label on the packaging that looks like this:
Preference is therefore a very important component of how successful food aid can be. Foodbanks or discount shops where the consumer can choose their food items affords them the dignity of shopping like others in the community. The Community Shop is a great example of an initiative that incorporates these ideas, it acts like a normal shop, overcoming the shame associated with foodbanks, and there is an area where customers can eat together and enjoy the social environment of the meal as well.
Cultural importance of food
The definition of the right to food specifies that food must correspond to the eating practices of the consumer and the culture to which they belong, and I believe that this also connects to the sense of fulfilment and dignity that food can give people. From Halal meat to using chopsticks correctly, culture is important.
Religion is one of the ways culture influences what people eat. Islam and Judaism both believe that eating pork is abhorrent because it is considered unclean, whereas eating cow’s meat is prohibited in Hinduism because it is believed to be sacred. It has been argued that these aversions were once based on health, geographical and economic reasons. Pigs are ill-adapted to the Middle-Eastern deserts where the early Jewish and Muslim people lived and unlike cattle, sheep and goats, they cannot eat food that is indigestible for humans, and so would have required a share of crops to feed them.2 These possible historical reasons have been strengthened by religious views so that no matter how efficient it is to raise pigs compared to cows (Figure 1), there will be millions of people worldwide who would not eat them.
Furthermore, geography and ethnic origin affect food practices. In the film I mentioned earlier, Hassan Kadam’s family flee India to live in France, where the supposed inferiority of Indian cuisine is sneered at as ‘fast food’, ‘ethnic’ and unimaginative (‘curry is curry’). Here, insulting the food is tantamount to insulting the Kadam family and their culture. Unfortunately, these comments are not just the dramatic utterances of fictitious characters. Last summer, a policy refusing housing to Indian and Pakistani tenants because of the “curry smell” gained enormous media attention. Instead of dividing us, cultural food practices should be honoured and celebrated for their diversity.
The right to food clearly goes beyond the availability of sufficient calories. Personal preference and culture must be considered because all food practices are equally valuable. Forcing people to eat a certain way because they require food aid is unethical. It undermines the dignity of choice and the emotional, religious and cultural fulfilment that comes from food. Efforts to diversify food available in foodbanks and emergency food parcels should be championed in my opinion.
1: Lalonde, M., 1992. Deciphering the meal again, or the anthropology of taste. Anthropology of food 31(1): 69-86
2: Harris, M., 1997. The Abominable Pig, in Counihan, C. and P. Van Esterik (eds.) Food and Culture: A Reader.