If you think about it, none of us is “new to food.” Food is something each of us has experienced and interacted with since our first days. However, the growing complexity and commercialization of food in recent decades has distanced us so much from this thing so elemental to our existence, that we sometimes feel confused or like we’re new here. Despite knowing a great deal about food, I too often wander the supermarket aisles, assaulted by trends and market forces, wondering if I should buy this or that.
Despite a growing collective renaissance we’re having about food and keeping what we consume as close to the earth as possible, food is still something we largely obtain through corporate channels. Having grown up with a food scientist father in a factory environment, and being an experienced food industry professional myself, I would argue that what we now call food isn’t really food. Since we’ve come down on “big food,” another goliath industry has emerged comprised of “natural, non-GMO, dairy- and gluten-free, small batch, hand-crafted, functional, superfood-infused better-for-you” products. I call this “Big Food 2.0,” an industry of which I was a part (kind of) and about which I have much to share.
Around Christmas of 2017, I decided to formally exit the food processing game. For six years I had been running my family’s fresh foods company, a thriving zero-additive preservative-free enterprise my father started in 1985. We could no longer keep up with (and also refused to oblige) the mass-quantity demands of an industry that had outgrown our humble family business ways and sustainable production systems, neither of which were designed to accommodate the unnatural shelf-life demands and nationwide supply levels our vending partners wanted.
Selling our business felt like losing a third parent, and I sought to hold on to a huge part of my identity. I also discovered I have a lot to say about an industry few really know about. Very few people, even shoppers who buy things from places they think are removed from the food industrial complex, know where their food comes from and how it is handled before it reaches them. I am continuously stunned by the level of ignorance of the average consumer, and also how many veils the food processing industry has yet to drop. Also, although my time as a food processor has now come to a close, my study in food has not. Nearly every day I discover interdisciplinary topics tied to food that warrant further exploration.
When I started working in food warehouses as an overeducated petite young brown woman ten years ago, I suffered from a great deal of imposter syndrome. The very physical nature of the work topically ruled me out as a potential success story, not because a woman couldn’t do the work, but because few would choose to. It was lonely and I couldn’t even find a glossary to keep the egghead in me company. The fact that food was dominated by older and seemingly unapproachable midwestern white men who knew a lot about chicken feed, BOLs, extruders, retorts, IQF spirals, reefers, and a bunch of other steely truckish concepts didn’t help.
But I stayed with it, mostly to prove to my father that I could do it. Before long I started meeting people who noticed my desire to learn and gave me advice. I latched onto these new friends and enveloped them into mentor relationships that carry me forward to this day. Food, even the kind that comes in packages, has an incredible way of bringing people together. Now, as an educator, my greatest goal is to help people understand systems that shape their everyday lives.
My work in this idiosyncratic industry helped me develop my own vision of food, something I hope to aid others in doing. It’s important to have and share opinions about food because it is the most timeless thing on earth tied to our intrinsic and extrinsic wellness. There is room for everyone at the table.