How Our Attitude Towards Food Has Been Affected by Our Modern Times

The Evolution of Food Habits in the Post-Industrialised Era.

Who would disagree that wasting food is bad? In 2018, we don’t expect many hands to go up. Food waste reduction is no longer a niche concern. Nevertheless, we keep approaching the challenge of wasting less food, from the standpoint of changing our behaviour and increasing our awareness of the subject, but not through re-examining our particular attitude towards food.

Over the last decade, food waste reduction has gone from being on the individual agenda of conscious activists to become a priority for many NGO’s like WRAP in the UK, Refresh in the Netherlands and NRDC in the U.S., and supranational organizations, such as EU and FAO. Despite these collective efforts, somehow, we don’t really believe in what we preach.

We cannot force ourselves into being mindful of food when deep down, we don’t hold food in high regard. Is it realistic to expect sustainable behaviour without a prior shift to a sustainable attitude towards food? We urgently need to understand, why we stopped attaching intrinsic value to our food and how this has occurred. In Part 2 of the series on Changing Our Attitude towards Food, we look at the major factors that have shaped our current attitudes in the Post-Industrialised Era. You can read Part 1 of the series about our attitude to food before the Industrial Revolution here.

Seen from the perspective of the history of humankind, food waste is a very recent phenomenon. It started less than 200 years ago, with the Industrial Revolution. The advent of mass production quickly spread to food and soon the food industry emerged, gradually making the supply of food omnipresent, consistent and cheap. This was something radically new and liberating, as people could finally ease their enduring anxiety about food insecurities. And this is where the trouble started. As people began to relax and got accustomed to the notion that food is abundant and affordable, they began to be more careless about it. Their attitude towards food began to change.

The Post-WWII Boom of the Food Industry

Swanson Dinner Print Ad

During the 19th and first half of the 20th century, food supply becomes steady compared to previous times. However, seen from our modern perspective, food supply was still volatile. It was after WWII, that the real boom in the food industry began when capacities that were built to provide packaged and processed food to the soldiers were refurbished for consumer production.

From here on, the modern food industry, as we know it today, begins to take shape. Stabilisation, conservation, dehydration, liquefaction, emulsification, pasteurization, industrial pickling, canning, freezing, mincing and macerating, precooking and packaging became part of the process that our food would undergo before reaching our homes. Eating processed food is still not only a common but a convenient and a valued practice.

The rapid growth of mass-produced food gave boost to yet another industry that was fast to shape our current enduring collective archetypes about household food management. This was the advertising industry, which back in the 1950’s unchecked by any obligation to produce ethical commercials blatantly propagated the assumed benefits of frozen and semi-ready food over home cooking, like in the famous Swanson Dinner TV Commercial.

The Mass Emancipation of Women

The period coincided with the mass emancipation of women who joined the workforce. Hence, housework and cooking were villainised as oppressive and subjugating to women.  Over the last fifty-sixty years, many women began to wear their inability to cook and the lack of desire to engage in any form of housework as a badge of honour – a sign of true female emancipation. Many of us were brought up or have acquired precisely those sentiments with anything that has to do with housekeeping.

As Dana Gunders, writes in her inspiring book “Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money by Wasting Less Food,” “Along with our attitude to food, our knowledge of food has changed over the years. Home economics is no longer offered in many schools.” This attitude has further disconnected us from food as being something precious and worthwhile.

Are fridges a curse of a blessing to our food preservation? Photo by Squared.one on Unsplash

The Mass Production of Affordable Refrigeration

The mass production of affordable refrigerators and freezers for home use is yet another factor that has reshaped our attitude towards food. Originally a blessing, especially for people living in warmer climates, the modern fridge is slowly turning into our curse. From a place of keeping food, we have turned our fridges into places for stocking and stacking food with very little idea and overview of what is inside.

We buy too much food – but it’s ok, the fridge will keep it safe. The fridge gives us the excuse not to be mindful of our food. If goes bad? Oh well, it is not really our fault, is it? We did all we could to preserve it!

The Rise of Affordable Eateries and Versatile Home Delivery

Another recent phenomenon created one more dramatic shift in our attitude towards food – the rise of the mid-range eateries. Up until several decades ago, eating out was considered pricy and reserved for special occasions. Regular, weekday dinners were prepared and eaten at home. According to USDA the period 1978-2008, the number of meals in the U.S. eaten outside the home has doubled.

We tend to second-rate homemade food to a restaurant dinner. Photo by STIL on Unsplash

Home delivery offered just a fraction of its present-day versatility. The raging 21-century trend of eating out or ordering had brought about a serious disruption in our meal planning routines. It is often a spontaneous decision.

Worse, many times it is disconnected from the fact that we already have perfectly good and even cooked food at home. But we second-rate it, as we have come to regard restaurant food as being superior to its homemade version.

You don’t need a silver fork to eat good food.

-Paul Prudhomme

Our mission is to provide confidence to people and to help them rebuild their household food management skills. Both our advice and our app is geared towards this purpose. But we need an urgent collective shift in our attitude towards food. We need to stop seeing it as cheap, abundant and hence disposable. Instead, we need to relearn to experience gratitude for being a privileged minority in the history of humankind, that has been blessed with having relative food security.

But if we do not change our attitude to food soon, this privilege of ours may not last long. So why not start with our own personal mealtime grace, next time we sit down to family home cooked dinner?

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