Food : whose responsibility? The individual and society

Carol Choi, Food law and finance student.



Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz (Utah) caused quite the frenzy on social media this past week.  His comments insinuating that some Americans should choose health insurance over buying the new iPhone rightfully incensed people all over Twitter and Facebook.  This is not the first time I’ve heard iPhones used as bait to pin personal irresponsibility, especially in contexts of lacking necessities.


In 2013, my then boss, chef Christian Puglisi spoke on a panel to discuss why he wanted Relæ to be the world’s first Michelin-starred restaurant with 100% organic certification.  Christian spoke of his ethical choice and responsibility to feed people without pesticides or antibiotics.  When asked how to justify the higher cost of the organic label, he noted the shortcomings of the label but ultimately responded that we, as a society, should spend less on buying iPhones and spend more on better quality food.


He was speaking to a room full of chefs.  I don’t think anyone blinked on that one, yet Representative Chaffetz’s statement sparks massive outrage.  To be clear, I don’t disagree with Christian.  But why is the iPhone being used as an alternative choice to something as essential as healthy and nutritious food, or healthcare even?  Why is the choice between cultural participation and basic necessities even being presented as one to make?


Stephen Pimpare makes a convincing case in his article in The Washington Post for the common pairing as representative of the American perception of poverty as an individual’s moral choice.  He argues that it’s based on the assumption that America is a land of equal opportunity.  The Pew Economic Mobility Project surveyed Americans in 2009 and found that 71% of “Americans believed that personal attributes, like hard work and drive” were the key factors to economic success, regardless of externalities such as economy and economic background.  John Swansburg brilliantly chronicles in his 2014 article in Slate magazine, the pervasiveness of the myth of the “self-made man” in American society.  Both he and Pimpare argue that opposite the stories of success is often blame on poor choice, lack of ingenuity and ambition.


With moral judgement on the individual, it becomes easy to ignore, or miss if you will, the true causes of poverty and financial insecurity.  In the same vein, to view healthy food as an individual consumer choice, we neglect to see the political mechanisms behind our food system that don’t necessarily offer individuals a choice.  To miss the political issues behind our food, is to ignore where the responsibility of our food choices actually lie.


Though Christian is from Denmark and Chaffetz from the United States, their perception of healthy food or healthcare as a matter of moral individual choice is a dangerous one to propagate.  Having lived in major cities of both the US and Denmark, I’ve found myself surrounded simply with only options provided by my local green grocer or supermarket, often without information on how it was grown or processed.  In turn, when I foraged in Denmark for wild sea fennel, wood sorrel, and even pine branches (food items that aren’t offered in markets) for use in dishes, it was prohibited by law to take plants from the parks.  I believe my choices aren’t actually freely mine to make.  They fall into a system set, organized and governed by a government.


The policies adopted by the government have a tremendous impact on creating choice for us.  I’m not necessarily speaking only about choice of variety, but also of lifestyle.  With subsidies, the US government continues to support agribusiness and highly processed foods.  They encourage economies of scale in agriculture, pushing out smaller farmers.  Thus we’ve homogenized our agriculture and also created a migration towards urban cities with the jobless.


The government has not raised minimum wage past $7.25 per hour.  This of course leaves more Americans struggling with poverty, even though they are working full hours.  Poverty deters supermarkets from entering certain neighborhoods, causing “food deserts” where even if they wanted to, people can’t buy fresh healthy food.


By cutting funding to public schools, the US government enables food corporations to take over school canteens.  By counting tomato sauce as a vegetable serving, congress has allowed food companies to serve frozen pizza as a nutritious meal in schools. They enable the addiction of kids to foods high in salt, sugar, and with almost no nutritional value to speak of, setting the way for future unhealthy eaters.


Labelling is not required to announce GMO products.  Sugar percentages aren’t included in nutritional values.  While labels should aid us in making our responsible choices, congress has tipped the laws in favor of corporations to willfully mislead us.


What we eat, how we access food is largely determined by the culture or the systems we live in.  To view healthy choices as an individual responsibility deflects obligation away from not only our government but also our society.


Many food groups have encouraged the adoption of the right to food (and health for the matter) as a human right.  (Check FAO’s support of International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural rights 1991 (CESCR), article 11, for an example.)  While I have my hesitations on the notion of human rights as a legitimization of universal legality, and therefore of a perfect or ideal system when I believe we need a variety of systems to exist, I do note its potential for short-term use of protecting what is an urgent need.  The US however, has not ratified the CESCR (1991), refusing to accept food (article 11) or health (article 12) as a human right with responsibilities placed on the government.


In addition, the 2010 US Supreme Court ruling of Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commissions secured the rights of corporations to lobby.  With corporations being wealthier than major countries, corporations have significant financial power to influence our government.


The rising rate of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, malnutrition, yet the government’s unwillingness to adopt protections against corporate power point to the fact that our government is not working for us.


Amartya Sen has argued to leave the notion of ideal or perfect system aside and focus on results.  We need to stop relying so much on the idea of our perfect system.  When the government no longer works for us, we need to demand change.  We need to demand results.


While I agree we need to support and invest more in healthy food systems through agroecology, short-chain markets, we need to do so by taking out the individual responsibility and place it as a societal one.  As a society, we need to accept we are a community.  There is no individual responsibility to survive when it is a community that develops systems of living together.  We should not ask someone to choose between cultural participation and healthy food.  They don’t really come separately.









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