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Human Relationships With Food

By Alex Scheib

Last semester, I took a class entitled ENVIRON 462: Food Policy, at the end of which we were asked to reflect on the role that food has played in our own upbringing, incorporating concepts from class in a short essay response. More specifically, we were asked if food has played an uplifting or oppressive role in our lives. To me, food has played both. 

Coming from an upper middle-class family, access to food that was culturally appropriate, affordable, healthy, and sustainable (the four main criteria for a proper diet) was never a problem for me. We were the demographic modern supermarkets cater to: suburban, car-possessing families with a flexible enough income that we can spend as we wish on food. Along the same vein, for the most part, I also never suffered with micronutrient deficiencies and if I did, they were easily correctable because a nutrient-filled foods and vitamin supplements were readily accessible. I was even in a position where I could make a conscious choice to cut out meat, which resulted in an iron deficiency that I later corrected by adding more leafy greens and an iron supplement pill to my diet. This experience of having pretty much complete control of my diet is something I hope most of my readers can relate to.

My experience is largely relatable to other middle class families with the exception of one thing. I have celiac disease; I was diagnosed at 18 months old in 2003, well before it was common. I was starved because my body wasn’t getting any nutrients from what I was eating, and I almost died as a result. In this way, food was working to oppress my body. Celiac disease, combined with the financial autonomy to decide what I wanted to eat, became problematic as I got older. I had to think about food all the time. For example, I could never just show up to a birthday party as a kid and have my prescribed one slice of pizza, piece of cake, and cup of juice. Bear in mind that, in 2007, when my Kindergarten self was attending a classmate's birthday party, practically nobody was gluten free. There were almost no easy substitutes, and you couldn’t just order a gluten free pie from the pizza place. Instead, my family had to plan in advance to find a gluten free pizza in the frozen aisle of the grocery store that we could make (there were a few brands, but they weren’t good back then) and bake a dozen cupcakes from one of the few box mix options so I wouldn’t be too left out. 

Food is supposed to be uniting. Feasts were created by humans accompanying the invention of fire that lengthens our days, making more time for sparking social connection over meals. There is a social weight that comes with preparing a collection of foods for a group. Eating and cooking together is something that fundamentally makes us human, so why was I not allowed to be included? My plate ALWAYS looked different from the people around me and I believe this has had lasting impacts on my life. I know that if I eat gluten, I won’t get any nutrition and will die, but I’d rather have nothing at all than have a different plate, because eating differently from my peers made me feel different. Additionally, I have to think about food a lot because I know I won’t be able to just pick something up if I get hungry. I have to plan in advance to make sure there will be a nutrient rich, healthy option that will fuel me properly while abiding by my dietary restrictions. 

In college however, I have learned to make this a positive thing by developing a passion for cooking nutritious, yummy meals for myself. Additionally, because I am unable to eat all of the fast food options that are so heavily marketed, going out to eat is hard unless I do research in advance. As a result, I had to learn to cook for myself when I came to college. I love to try new foods and experiment with making things from scratch, which has become a socially uniting force for me, as I will sometimes make plans to cook or bake with my friends. It also gives me something to bring as a gift to my friends. Once I started cooking for myself in college and figuring out what I liked, food has been such an uplifting force in my life, but it was a long time in the making.


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