"Food as a Measure of Our Values"

Ken Taylor's Writings

Taken from MFA Digest, August 1992
Portions of Ken’s Director’s Report

I believe that the food we eat carries within it, in some form or another, the values that dominate the system which produced it. Our food is a good measure of how we do business as a society—what there is to like and what needs to change.

Many ask what is wrong with bio-technology that will provide us with good tasting foods that keep longer, are lower in fat, and perhaps even improve consumer resistance to disease. To answer that, we have to consider the values we wish to support and strengthen in our community.  

We must take a deeper look at the meaning of our food, to consider it as more than a periodic nutrient uptake process that fills the emptiness in our bellies. We need to look at food in terms of the cultural information embedded in what we take into our bodies. As we gain in our awareness of what goes on in the world, we become more knowledgeable about the relationships involved in our eating practices. If we can learn to pay attention to this knowledge, we can then learn to listen with a different set of ears to the messages brought to us by the food we consume.

For example, when we buy fresh fruit out of season for our climate, what does its flavor and texture tell us about the system that brings it to us? Armed with some knowledge of California’s and Mexico’s agribusiness production systems and feedback from your taste buds, you might conclude that your fruit’s tough skin, woody interior and flat flavor are characteristics selected to serve some other purpose than meeting your nutritional needs. You might conclude that it was designed to support a system that thrives on uniformity and large scale, creating the illusion of quality, efficiency and sustainable abundance, and delivering none of these.

Or take that lean pork chop provided to us in response to our concern about the relationship between animal fat and human disease. Does this pork chop come to us compliments of a carefully nurtured animal having enjoyed its sojourn in the fresh air and a lush pasture managed by a family farmer? Or is it the remains of one of those genetically uniform residents of a mass-scale, vertically integrated, groundwater-threatening confinement operations in which the labor is provided under contract with a large corporation?
It’s probably true that most of us do not take the time to think through the full range of social and economic consequences every time we take a product off the shelf. But some people do pay attention to these things, many more than just a few short years ago. The more aware people become, the more likely they are to start this examination process.
In the final analysis, a sustainable food system depends upon the qualitative aspects of the relationships involved in it, not just its ability to put vast quantities of product on the table. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the ecology of our food system is not in very good shape, qualitatively. The landscape is filled with food safety fears, unhealthy conflict and far too few statespersons providing civil and informed leadership.

Closer to home, we are seeing the emergence of new and hopeful arrangements such as community supported agriculture (CSA) groups in which the relationships involved between growers and eaters, between food and the land, can be made more evident. Let’s not let CSA production become about moving products, however fresh and tasty they may be. The community supported agriculture movement should not be allowed to lose its potential for radically reforming our relationships with each other and with the planet. Food for thought.

Editor’s Note: Ken’s words nearly always wove values into politics, or values in among scientific findings. Working with Ken in the 1980s, was when I first began to understand that a tomato is not a tomato—that the manner of food production or distribution is deeply embedded in the food itself, and that as a consumer, there were new questions I had to ask. I have asked them for nearly 15 years since the writing of this article, and whole segments of American society are now asking such hard questions about the production of their pork, their chicken, their asparagus, their tomatoes… Clearly, each food consumer’s dollar—if the consumer is informed and thoughtful—is an important tool in the reformation of our entire food system.

For those of you who never met Ken Taylor, he was the founder of the Minnesota Food Association and helped ensure the success of the Minnesota Project, as a Board member from 1986 to 1994. He died too young (57) of brain cancer in 1995. He was instrumental in forming the Sustainers’ Coalition and MISA and MSAWG, groundbreaking work in biotechnology and many other key issues within the sustainable agriculture movement. Ken carried a true inner template for community-building processes, and often challenged the community to work together on food and farming issues. Besides all that, he was just a lot of fun.