Food represents more than the provision of nourishment for survival. Food is an essential factor in community-building and cultural expression. Breaking bread together is a way of building social cohesion within a community that represents social capital that we can later rely upon when needed, making communities more resilient. Traditions related to food growing, gathering, hunting, for example, are embedded in many cultures and are strongly tied to a community’s identity and individuals’ sense of security and a safety. Many of us turn to comfort foods when we are emotionally upset and identify different foods with traditions that we participate in such as holidays and religious celebrations. We also may have memories we associate with certain foods. I myself associate soft boiled eggs with my grandmother and fresh garden tomatoes with my father. It is important to understand the strong visceral connection we have with food when we explore food’s role in equity, climate change, food justice, and resiliency so that we can balance the vital role that certain foods play in our social and emotional lives with the current challenges of food security, food justice, and climate change.
If, for the moment, we ignore the emotional connections we have to food and just look at how food contributes to climate change and how climate change represents risks to food security, we could develop the least GHG food supply that has the greatest resiliency. That probably would mean a vegan diet of xeric vegetables and grains that have a high nutrient value and are locally-grown. I consider myself a hardcore environmentalist but even I can’t imagine such a limited diet leaving my palette satisfied not to mention my emotional attachment to traditional dishes from my childhood or from more recent attachments I’ve formed here in New Mexico such as frito pies, stuffed sopapillas, or enchiladas. (OK, now I’m getting hungry). So, what’s an environmentalist to do?
Balance! Think about the correlation with energy and water use reduction measures. Personal actions that people are taking to reduce other sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions don’t include turning off our electricity, gas, and water entirely. Rather, we limit how much we use them and seek to use sources that have a lower carbon footprint. Similarly, with food we can reduce the amount of meat and dairy we eat, both in how much we eat of them in a given meal and how frequently we include them in our meals. Increasing our vegetable and complex carbohydrates to compensate for reductions in meat and dairy is healthier for us, as well as the planet.
Food miles are the transportation miles that food travels to our kitchens and they always make me think about bananas. Bananas don’t grow anywhere near New Mexico and therefore must be imported from distant tropical lands. I can’t imagine a diet with out at least the occasional banana but I can reduce how often I enjoy them. And oranges and grapefruit in winter when their vitamin C helps stave off nasty winter colds. Our modern food network has introduced us to foods that are not limited to time of year or geography. I don’t think we can put that particular genie back in its bottle but that doesn’t mean we can’t consider food miles in our food choices and reduce the overall miles associated with our individual diets. Again, it’s a matter of balance. Being aware of the food miles associated with our food allows us to make informed decisions about what we buy and “conserve” the GHG associated with those purchases.
Food justice is a movement that believes all communities, regardless of race or income, can have both increased access to healthy food and the power to influence a food system that prioritizes environment and human needs over corporate profits. The concept that access to healthy, affordable food is a human right has been codified in the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, a multilateral treated adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966. Governments that sign the covenant agree to take steps to use their available resources to achieve the right to adequate food, both nationally and internationally. The US Declaration of Independence gives three examples of “unalienable rights” which it says have been given to all humans by their creator, ad which governments are created to protect. Those rights are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. It’s hard to imagine how those rights can be protected if people don’t know where their next meal will come from. It is reasonable to expect societies to ensure that all people have the basic necessities for life and after air to breathe and clean water to drink, food is the next primary need to sustain life. Yet we still see people dying from lack of access to food both here in the United States and elsewhere. Maybe we need to rethink the food industry, taking the projected effects of climate change into account, and create a system that balances corporate profits with human rights.
Food resiliency is a term used to talk about how we get food to people after a natural or manmade disaster. What if the transportation network is interrupted or a main source of food gets impacted by storms or drought or fire? All of which are predicted to be more frequent and of greater severity due to climate change. Emergency response agencies suggest keeping several days, if not weeks, of food on hand in case of food shortages but that is not a realistic goal for people experiencing food insecurity. Even if they had the food, where would someone that is unhoused keep such a bounty? This means that lower income people will suffer greater impacts related to food insecurity during emergencies that interrupt transportation routes. This is yet another aspect of food injustice.
Home and community gardens, greenhouses and hoop houses, and hydroponics and aquaponics are all ways to address food insecurity and resiliency at the individual home or community scale.Here in arid New Mexico it is critical to consider the water use associated with these strategies.These investments might not replace going to the farmers market or grocery store but they could take the edge off during food shortages, connect us to nature, and if for no other reason, the taste of fresh picked veggies is amazing!Let’s eat!