Trust is a loaded word. Great minds have been contemplating it for centuries, and yet it's a feeling, like love, that you can't exactly define. But you know when its there, and perhaps more poignantly, you know when it is not.
You could argue that the world spins on an axis of trust. People create families on the premise of it. Companies merge with the assumption of it. Nations forge treaties; all based on a foundation of mutual trust and creating enough security to make the shaky ground stable enough to support them both.
And when trust alone doesn't quite cut it, we create rules, laws, police and watchdogs. We do so when the simple bonds of trust get too complicated. Hence the "stop" sign, or the contract.
But let's examine trust in the mundane, every day act of buying our food. Do we need to trust? Who can you trust? Who don't you trust?
Remarkably, Americans tend to be imminently trusting of the people that serve, distribute, market and produce our food. Or maybe we just choose not to think about it.
From my perspective, trusting the people that grow, process and market my family's food is both a romantic ideal and an absolute imperative. Every time we eat or buy food, unless we've grown it ourselves, we are essentially putting our lives into the hands of at least a few people. The more processed the food, the more people we are trusting. Our lives actually depend on them not messing up, or lying to us.
And while trust is at times about life and death, bacteria and other unwelcome critters in our food, I think it's about more. And I think our collective gut is telling us that something's not quite right. We've trusted without much evidence that we should for quite some time now, and we are finally starting to ask questions we don't really want to ask.
Consumers are starting to have second thoughts about whom we should trust and they're making those thoughts clear not only at the store but at the voting booth as well. Movies like Fed Up, A Place at the Table, and CNN's daily reports exposing e-coli outbreaks, or the actual amount of sugar in kids' cereals, and the thousands of hidden food additives in our food are beginning to erode at our collective belief that our food system has our best interests at heart.
That's perhaps why we continue to vote for GMO labeling, and we are buying directly from farmers more. It's why we are asking more questions and trying to shop a little more carefully. It's why almost every day we hear about a new product with better ingredients.
But food companies have obligations to their shareholders, not to us. The government's obligation? That's another story.
People are indeed getting Fed Up. And in addition to telling food companies to be better and do better, we need to tell our representatives to stop creating loopholes and unfair subsidies for massive food businesses. The current discussion over white potatoes and school lunch unfortunately has more to do with agribusiness than the nutrition and well-being of our kids.
We need to tell our legislators to regulate pesticides and labeling and to minimize antibiotic use in meat production. We need our government to pass legislation to ensure that food workers are treated with dignity and fairness.
We can't ask the food companies to stop selling our kids food that will make them sick, but in addition to slowing our consumption of those foods, we have to tell government to stop letting companies slip those products into our children's hands on the premise of false claims about nutrition and cost. And while it's quite convenient to blame consumers (it is a free country right?), it is not fair when we are given incomplete and at times totally inaccurate information. And it's not fair when those foods are made artificially cheap by government policy.
There are many sound reasons for supporting a local food system: creating vibrant markets, food security, better tasting food, fresher produce, and more. But shaking your farmer's hand is about more than an abstract belief in a local food system. It's about creating a bond of trust and re-forming some of the social bonds that we have lost since the food system in the U.S. tipped over into the industrial behemoth that it is today.
Perhaps trust is just too romantic of an ideal in a complicated food system. I'd argue the opposite: It is precisely the complexity of the system that demands us to have trust in those that feed us.
We want to trust. We need to trust. But we are starting to discriminate. We are, as eaters, consumers and voters growing up.
So how do we create trust in our food choices?
- Buy directly from a farmer in any possible way.
- Support a community food project to help others connect with a farmer.
- Make your representatives accountable. Go to http://www.foodpolicyaction.org/ to see how they are voting on the issues you care about.
- Decide to pay well for your food. Trust me, farmers aren't making a killing selling you kale. And every time you eat a Happy Meal you've paid twice: taxes towards the subsidies on corn and at the register. Good soil and fair labor are more expensive than you are used to paying for commercial stuff.
- When you shop at the grocery store or market, ask questions about where they get their food, what values they have as a company. Tell the butcher that you want to trust him by engaging with him.
- Think before you buy or eat. Ask questions. When we ask, it makes food establishments up their game.