Food, Choice and Freedom

Discussion by: Lillian Brown

What is freedom in food choice? Is it fair to articulate a uniform notion of freedom across a differentiated eating landscape? Fours articles illustrate just how complex the eating landscape can be. In Ty Matejowsky’s article, “Spam and Fast-Food ‘Glocalization’ in the Philipines,” he discusses SPAMJAM, a fast-food chain in the Philippines, in the context of colonialism, globalization, and modernity (Matejowsky, 2011). The chapter from Marion Nestle’s book Food Politics, “Pouring Rights: Pushing Soft Drinks,” exemplifies the entanglement of food choice and public policy by examining how soft drink companies “push” their products in public schools (Nestle, 2002). Perhaps the piece most influential to our discussion was Wendell Berry’s, “The Pleasures of Eating” (Berry, 1990), which provoked important questions about the responsibility ‘inherent’ in food choice. Throughout our discussion, the relationship between freedom, access, and responsibility in food choice remained thematic.

In part, food choice depends on access. Accessibility is largely determined by location, cost, preference, and an individual’s ability to purchase. In combination, these factors can help to explain choice as well as lack of choice in food consumption patterns both locally and abroad. For instance, SPAM is inexpensive and can be purchased almost anywhere in the world, but not everyone would choose to eat it. In the Philippines, SPAM is attributed with a higher social status because of its association with the US; however, SPAM has a lower social status in the US because it is cheap and often eaten only when other ‘better’ options are not available (Matejowsky, 2011). Prohibitive cost also prevents access to different foods. When Berry says, “to eat responsibly is to live free,” he neglects to consider how responsible eating practices may be influenced by access (Berry, 1990). Responsible eating is characterized by any number of factors including environmental integrity, health, and social obligation. Simply put, not everyone has the freedom to choose.

But what about those who do have access to multiple food options? Berry suggests that individuals should be held responsible for making ethical choices—but what are the limits of this reasoning? For example, should children also be held accountable for unhealthy choices, like buying soda at school, or should schools and soda companies take on this responsibility? Nestle (2002) shows just how complicated this question is in a world where soda companies pay large sums to under-funded schools to push their products. In one soda-sponsored school, teachers were actually encouraged by the administration to provide students breaks from class to visit the vending machine to increase rewards for soda sales (Nestle, 2002). Given a vending machine, kids have the freedom to choose to drink soda or not to drink soda. But should kids be held responsible for the influence soda has on the quality of their health and their education? The crux of this question is whether or not freedom of choice absolves the responsibility of soda companies to monitor the influence of their product.

A similar question applies in reference to health both in the US and abroad. For example, SPAM is a product of the US. If the US is concerned about the health implications of SPAM, then is it our responsibility to endorse that concern in the Philippines? Or is it our responsibility not to endorse that concern for fear of acting paternalistically? The recent New York City ban on selling large sodas (discussed in the last post) brings this issue to the fore– should access to ‘unhealthy’ food products be regulated, or is it up to the individual to decide? As we progress in this Seminar, I propose that we take time to consider the relationship between responsibility and morality in food choice, freedom, and politics. Then maybe we can begin to understand if there is a time and place for responsible food policies.

Berry, W. (1990). The Pleasures of Eating. What Are People For?: Essays (pp. 145–152). North Point Press.
Matejowsky, T. (2011). Spam and Fast-Food “Glocalization” in the Phillipines. In P. Williams-Forson & C. Counihan (Eds.), Taking Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World (pp. 369–382). Taylor & Francis.
Nestle, M. (2002). Pushing Soft Drinks: “Pouring Rights.” Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, California studies in food and culture 3 (Vol. California, p. xii, 457). University of California Press.

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