09 October 2012

Relationships to Food: Rural Thailand vs the United States

For the villagers of Yasothon province food is a way of life. This is derived from the community’s ultimate goal: to cultivate and retain a strong sense of community through self-reliance and sustainability. Agriculture is the means to this goal and is what places food at the foundation of all life. Most villagers own their own plots of land and cultivate gardens that border their homes. They work together as a family, help each other on their farms, share meals, and bag rice together to sell at markets. As Suwit Thankakoon, a Yasothon organic farmer, puts it, his community must “work together, struggle together, fight together, and love one another to make a difference.” Food is what connects every person in this community together and it is this kind of connection to food that most Americans cannot relate to. However, this also goes the other way. Villagers are in shock when they hear that most Americans buy their food at stores. There is a disconnect between these two worlds that causes me to reevaluate my own relationship with food.

In America, there is a kind of food security that often goes unappreciated. If you simply travel a few miles, it is highly likely you will run into some kind of store selling all the food you could possibly need, want, or imagine. When entering this store, having access to any fruit or vegetable is commonplace, even though this contradicts the nature of the earth. With endless options at the store and the added stress from day-to-day life, taking the time to prepare and consume a meal can often feel more like a dilemma or a tedious task. The question of “what should we make tonight?” can be more irritating and difficult than exciting. This is the direct opposite for Yasothon and most rural communities. Their access and availability to food directly depends on their own immediate land, what it can provide depending on the season, and their own physical ability. This places a sense of accountability on the villagers that turns food into a consistent celebration of survival. When rice yields are high and the soil is good, their mental health, sense of happiness, and level of security immediately rise.
The disconnect between Americans and food results from the fact that on average food travels 1,500 miles from producer to consumer (DeWeerdt). This means that unless one makes the effort, they do not know where their food comes from or what goes into its production. Since Americans are not the producers and have no direct relationship with the production, it is easy to not be conscious with food choices. Most Americans buy whatever they want and as much as they want, far exceeding their need and causing a lot of waste. Statistically, 40% of all food in America is wasted (Lendon). Essentially, food is something we commodify, indulge in, and waste with minimal guilt or immediate effect. The villagers in Yasothon do not get this privilege. They are the producers of their own food so they know exactly where it comes from and what goes into its production. Since it is their own effort that brings food to their table, their connection to food is sacred and they only take what they need. Food is not wasted. Leftover crops are sold in local markets to generate money for things like electricity. Crops are also shared between neighbors, making sure everything is sustainable. Farmers currently invest so much time fighting for organic agriculture, because previously farming with chemicals and pesticides significantly affected the health of all villagers and caused debt for most. Having this kind of investment in one's relationship to food creates an awareness that results in healthier, happier people and a better environment.
It is easier for the rural villagers of Yasothon Province to foster a strong relationship to food because the wellbeing of their community depends on agriculture. In America the production of food is out of sight and therefore out of mind, making it difficult to relate to food in a meaningful way. However, my opportunity to observe and learn why the villagers of Yasothon invest so deeply into the land, the food it grows, and the individuals who cultivate it, has shown me that having a strong relationship to food does matter. I may not be a producer, but as a consumer my health is still affected by the quality of food I buy and consume, and the environment is still affected by the way I buy and dispose of that food. While it is impossible to relate to food in the same way that the villagers in Yasothon do, it is vital that Americans attempt to follow their example.

Nicole Hale           
Arizona State University            


Hannah said...

While in Thailand, I’ve also been thinking about our society’s relationship to food in comparison with Thai society. I really appreciate your insight Nicole; a lot of my thoughts align with yours. When I think about America’s food system, it seems to revolve around substance and convenience. While home, I am constantly surrounded by food and an overwhelming amount of choices. I can essentially eat whatever I want, at any hour of the day. There seems to be no restriction to the type of food available, regardless of where the food is traditionally grown or standard growing season.
Because of this convenience, lack of restriction, and overwhelming access to food, I often find myself eating for substance. What’s for dinner? A question I dread asking myself when I get home. Instead of utilizing dinner as an opportunity to connect to my culture, friends or family, it’s a chore. I do not have nearly the same cultural connection and appreciation to my dinner as the Thai families I’ve observed have to there’s.

Mallory West said...

I think that your point about unappreciated food security in the U.S. is incredibly important. On top of Americans’ access to food being so easy and convenient, and the food being so overly abundant, this food is a privilege that so many of us fail to acknowledge. It’s yet another item that goes into (to use Peggy McIntosh’s term) the “invisible backpack” of privilege that certain groups have the luxury of carrying. The fact that so many Americans have come to see eating a meal as a chore, something done purely for sustenance, is at least to me pretty unsettling given the scarcity of food in other parts of the world. In this post you do a great job of acknowledging this disconnect between Americans and food and the fact that this access to unlimited food remains so underappreciated. I do think, though, that a good portion of Americans are working to be more conscious consumers of food. Change is happening in peoples’ thinking when it comes eating, even if it is a slow process.