In praise of chain grocers and frozen French fries

Speak in favour of one thing and everyone will automatically assume you’re against its opposite. It’s a tempting but flawed logical leap that happens all the time in the food community. I’m sure it’s not unique to food, but this is where I’ve noticed it the most and what I’m focusing on in this piece.

Write something supporting organic farming practices, and everyone will assume you despise conventional agriculture. Mention that you’re vegetarian and everyone will assume you condemn meat-eaters.

I find these black-and-white, us-versus-them dichotomies very unsettling. We live in a world of grey where everything is on an infinitely complex sliding scale, yet we love to oversimplify, draw rigid lines down the middle of a subject and then push everyone onto one side or the other.

Shopping local is fine. Shopping at chains is also fine. I’m willing to wager that except for very, very few people, all of us shop at chain grocery stores at least a little bit. A lot of us probably get the majority of our groceries from there. I love going to farmers’ markets, but it would be really hard to sustain myself entirely on products from there, and it would mean I couldn’t cook a lot of things I love.

So why have I started feeling guilty every time I pull into Superstore’s parking lot? Why did it feel like some kind of betrayal when I cooked some frozen French fries one night after work when I got home late and was too tired – and didn’t have any potatoes – to make them from scratch? (Or make something healthier, or make something organic, or make something local…)

The expansion of awareness and information about food is amazing and necessary. It’s also throwing into sharp relief the sheer amount of food illiteracy out there, as well as the constant deluge of food jargon, propaganda, advertising and straight-up lies that are obscuring the real information even more. That’s not a jab at people, either – as a culture, we decided/had it decided for us that food knowledge should be relegated to the food industry, with their shiny packaging and the government’s mandated food guide supposedly providing everything we need to know about what to put on our plates. As people began working outside the home, and working longer hours, it seemed to make sense – food takes time, both learning about it and making it. When we do have free time now, we’ve been constantly told that we should be using it to do … whatever else, but definitely not spending it “slaving away” in the kitchen. (This is why food – along with financial literacy – needs to be a mandatory subject taught in all grades in all schools everywhere, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I’m not going to dig into this vast subject any further right now. Consider this my plea for balance and moderation in our approach to – well, everything, but especially food. Food is our sustenance, it’s non-optional and it’s absolutely something we should be passionate about. But it’s also not something that we should instantly and vehemently condemn others for. People make their food choices for various reasons, most of which are completely unknown to the outsider observer.

Are there major problems with chain grocery stores, conventional agriculture, the local and global food systems and the general level of food knowledge? Hell yes. This is not an argument for the status quo or a wholesale endorsement of chain grocery stores, frozen French fries or any other food-related stance. (Please recall what I said at the beginning about our alarming tendency to break everything down into this-versus-that dichotomies.)

We can all stand to make better food choices and our food system needs a major overhaul before it’s going to be able to feed everyone in a sustainable way. The path to this doesn’t start with throwing around judgments and blanket assertions.

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