Food Diversity and You (or food diversity, anyway)

I have a lot of thoughts on food diversity, and I apologize in advance if this turns into a bit of a disorganized rant.

I think that food diversity is a topic that should be more widely taught, because it affects everyone. The food we eat is tied to our identity and culture, and impacts our health, social behavior and energy. Yet most people don’t think about food diversity at all.

My personal goal is to eventually move towards a more vegan, local-based and seasonal diet, but I don’t know when I will have the independence or the personal and financial resources to make such a change. I do know that I’m not comfortable with the state of the meat farming industry, or the overall conditions of animals used in food production. And I definitely know that fresh, local food is almost always better. Some of my best memories are of being in Russia, eating my grandma’s delicious, ugly apples, or black currants, gooseberries and green peas picked straight from the plant — or fresh mangoes, avocados, bananas or starfruit in Florida and the Caribbean — or stopping a car on the side of an island road and cutting stalks of sugar cane to chew — or in Arkansas, plucking sweet wild onions on a hike and getting stuck in raspberry bushes — or even making tea with the lemons from my own back yard. I think the most difficult thing for me to give up would actually be California navel oranges. I’ve just never had a local orange that compares (though who knows — maybe it’s out there!)

In Russia, supermarkets are becoming more and more common, at least in urban areas. The general stores in more rural parts often stock mostly local produce, and only Russian-produced packaged and processed foods. Russia is big enough to have a thriving internal food industry, and imported fruits, veggies, meats and products tend to be very expensive. I know from talking to my grandmother that avocados are very difficult to find, and turkey is one of the most expensive meats you can buy (whereas my mom and I eat mostly turkey, because it is so cheap here.) In my hometown there are also lots of farmer’s-market type things, and people will often just sit at bus stops with buckets of berries or vegetables from their gardens to sell. I think the most interesting thing about Russia is how drastically the food availability has changed since the Soviet time, when everyone got food tickets and products were strictly (and often arbitrarily) rationed.

In an ideal world, food production and distribution would be concerned with the wellbeing of people and the environment as much as with profit and efficiency. Healthy and local foods, and information about food diversity and healthy eating, would also be easily available to all people. Right now, eco-conscious, local, and cruelty-free foods are mostly the domain of foodie culture, which in turn is a fairly small subset of economically well-off people. We have seen that this culture can actually be environmentally or culturally damaging, as with quinoa. At any rate, until the demand becomes much more widespread, I’m afraid that local and organic food will just be another profitable niche industry, instead of causing large-scale change. Which is all to say, I think we’re moving in the right direction, but there needs to be more. And we need to think about how our food affects the people who produced or harvested it, as well as animals and the environment.

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4 thoughts on “Food Diversity and You (or food diversity, anyway)

  1. I am actually really curious about Soviet era food restrictions now… Not that you would necessarily know from personal experience. I guess it’d be a lot of wheat, right?
    I also had no idea you were such a rugged outdoorsman.

    • Haha, I was a lot more rugged in the past, I guess, due to circumstances.

      As for food in Soviet times, I only know what my mom has told me… basically the food “rations” per month for the entire country were determined by some random bureaucrats in Moscow. If you were a single person or a family or whatever, you got tickets for a certain amount of each thing. A lot of it was ridiculous, like one smallish chunk of meat for the whole month, really small amounts of butter, stuff like that. There’d be these huge lines in the stores, which never had anything. (There’s actually a lot of Soviet standup comedy about food shortages in stores.) Most fruits and things were very scarce. My mom didn’t try a banana until she was a teenager, and oranges were specifically a really special treat you only got in the holidays. This is part of the reason people all had gardens with their own veggies out of town. And if you had friends or relatives in Moscow, sometimes you could get special things. There was a thriving black market in books, toilet paper and decent clothing, for example.

      And that’s all bad enough, but of course in the beginning of the Soviet regime they straight-up starved out entire villages to crush the spirit of common people who could resist, creating artificial food shortages while government employees in the capitol ate whatever the hell they wanted. Lots of people died.

      • That’s fascinating and also quite harsh. Were people allowed to grow their own foods during the Soviet era or was it restricted? Also, do you know anymore about this “black market” that came about? I never knew about this portion of Russian history until now.

  2. Caitlin, I don’t think there were restrictions on people having gardens on property that they owned and growing food there. Another interesting aspect was that, because of the concept of “equality” in Soviet communism, everybody was required to participate in large-scale farming for the government. So every so often a bus would go out to the countryside full of art students or nuclear physicists, or accountants or whoever, and they’d have to plow the field or sort fresh from rotten vegetables. It was weird.

    The black market was mostly unofficial as far as I know — goods that were usually difficult to access would filter down from people who had a source for them (some people traveled internationally, and of course large cities and places close to ports or borders would have more stuff coming through), to friends and family members, who might sell it to people they knew. There are scenes in old Russian comedy films of people going up to someone’s apartment to see a secret stash of American brand-name clothes, and stuff like that. (Or people would get their hands on hood ornaments from American or Japanese cars and attach them to their crappy Russian-produced cars.)

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