Like a typical millennial, I was raised to believe that I could change the world for the better and, like a typical millennial, I’m continually aghast to find that positive change isn’t as easy as it should be. Food, however, is one of the parts of life where our actions have impact not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors, children, and the tangible world around us. Every bite and sip we consume is a vote and, like any vote, has fallout. This fallout can be inspiring - every time I visit my local co-op and pick up some Ronnybrook milk, I know that money is supporting hardworking dairy farmers in upstate New York who take good care of their cows and use good practices. Those dollars I’m spending on that milk is a vote for those people and those practices. It is a vote for a better, more equitable food system. The fallout can also be damaging - I found myself without any groceries for dinner and pressed for the time the other night and decided to grab a quick egg and cheese sandwich from a local bodega. The dinner-time breakfast sandwich from the bodega is a distinctly New York gem but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m fairly certain that egg came from some truly horrific conditions. How else would it be so cheap? In spite of the satisfying eating experience, that money I spent on that sandwich was a vote for something pretty disgusting.
So, why would I, as someone who works everyday to make the food system more sustainable, make such a purchase? The real answer is that I got lazy. And it was there. And I was hungry. This is certainly not a sufficient justification, but it is so often the case with our worst-case purchases that we simply allow ourselves to put our more immediate needs before the long-range goals we have for the world around us. This tendency towards laziness is made much worse by all the factors that go into our food system that we don’t even think about as a choice, because they are so ingrained in our day-to-day. This fascinating recent piece in the New York Times delves into the world of food refrigeration. Refrigerators are something that we take for granted because they have absolutely had positive impacts in terms of our ability to keep food fresh and ward off illnesses that result from unfresh food. But the question we need to be asking around all of our food practices is at what cost?
There are several, and they are distressing. First, refrigeration contributes to global greenhouse-gas emission both generate power and fuels the heat-exchange process and currently consumes nearly a sixth of global electricity usage. Second, the physical refrigerators aren’t doing us any favors; some of them leak refrigerant into the atmosphere and some of these are known as “supergreenhouse gases” because they are thousands of times more warming than CO2.
But in addition to the environmental impact, refrigeration has actually changed the way we perceive food and the way we eat it. Most striking for me was the fact that “Americans have become so used to associating refrigeration with freshness that soy-milk manufacturers have actually paid extra to have their product displayed in a refrigerated case, despite the fact that it is perfectly shelf-stable.” As a result of the fact that we can cool our food, we eat far less pickled, dried, and cured food items (which is having an impact on gut bacteria) and we place less urgency around seasonal and local eating. I can get my berries shipped in any time of year, so I don’t need to cherish and savour them when they are actually in season in my neighborhood. Refrigeration has detached us from our food.
The article I’ve linked to above talks through China becoming a refrigerated nation and it is completely compelling. But, what can I take away from this as an individual consumer? Should I get rid of my refrigerator in an effort minimize my environmental impact and get back to interacting with my food as nature intended? Unlikely. That would involve altering my relationship with cheese in a way I’m simply not prepared to do. So, what can I actually DO to make our food system better?
I can fill that fridge (and, by extension, my dinner plate) with better products, products that actually reflect the world I want to create. I can put my money towards food grown well, harvested by people earning a decent wage, traveling as short of a distance as possible to get in my shopping cart, and containing only quality ingredients. I cannot control the fact that China’s rising middle class is taking to refrigeration in the same way we did in this country, but I can control what type of world I vote for with every bite.