A friend told me a story about a woman with limited English proficiency who makes and sells tamales. She did not understand when customers asked her if the tamales were gluten free, so she asked her daughter what gluten free meant. The daughter said, “That’s something rich people won’t eat.”
In our Quaker meetings in recent years, I have noticed a marked increase in special diets; paleo, gluten free, vegan, and dairy free. Preparing food for a potluck, for a Friend’s home, or for Quakers dinner guests, now typically requires me to take a trip to the specialty food aisles in the grocery store. There I have found products such as non-dairy cheese, which costs $12.15 a pound, and which contains the following ingredients: Filtered water, tapioca flour, expeller pressed non-GMO canola and/or safflower oil, coconut oil, pea protein, salt, inactive yeast, vegan natural flavors, vegetable glycerin, xanthan gum, yeast extract, citric acid (vegan, for flavor), annatto (for color), and titanium dioxide. A non-dairy yogurt, for $7.22 a pint, contains the following ingredients: organic coconut milk (water, organic coconut cream), chicory root extract, pectin, algin, magnesium phosphate, tricalcium phosphate, rice starch, locust bean gum, live cultures, guar gum, dipotassium phosphate, gellan gum, xantham gum, vitamin D2, vitamin B12 (a naturally occurring mineral). While wheat bread costs 4.4 cents per ounce, gluten-free bread costs 37 cents per ounce.
What are the factors leading to the popularity of these alternative food products? Clearly the food corporations stand to gain more profit from selling more expensive products. Many consumers, including Quakers, accept the advice of advertisers, other non-evidence based advice, and word-of-mouth in deciding how to limit their diets. While studies of blood chemistry indicate that about 1 % of North Americans have celiac disease, which necessitates that they avoid gluten, many more North Americans than 1% are eating gluten-free products. It is possible that residues of agricultural chemicals have increased in our foods and are contributing to an increase in food intolerances among people in North America.
Quaker Meeting is a place where one can generally expect freedom from popular consumerism and fads, presumably as a response to our testimony on simplicity. However, it seems that Friends are “buying into” many new food preferences.
Meanwhile, people living in poverty in the United States are experiencing increasing rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases. Many children lack “food security.” Due to the existence of “food deserts,” neighborhoods that lack full-service grocery stores, people living in poor neighborhoods lack access to minimally processed fresh food, which contributes to the problem of poor nutrition in those communities. Mega-agriculture and industrial-style food processing are contributing not only to public health problems, but also to depletion of the world’s soil, decrease in biodiversity, abandonment of more sustainable smaller farms, increased use of hazardous agricultural chemicals, burning of fossil fuels to transport food across great distances, and wasteful water use.
How we eat and what we eat are matters that carry many implications for health, earthcare, class, and our global economy. Navigating these concerns with the testimony of simplicity in mind is no piece of paleo vegan gluten-free cake.
Returning to the question of what to bring to the potluck, I am reminded that as Friends, we ask ourselves to center our awareness on the presence of God, so that all other things take their rightful places. In framing our concerns about what we eat in the much broader context of all of the people in the world, not just privileged liberal Quakers, I find useful guidance in this grace translated from Spanish by John L. Bell:
God bless to us our bread
And give bread to all those who are hungry
And hunger for justice to those who are fed
God bless to us our bread ~~~
Jane Snyder is a member of Multnomah Monthly Meeting in Portland (NPYM), who mostly attends Bridge City Meeting. She enjoys being a part of the “Multwood” group, Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conferences, Convergent Friends, the Local Support Committee for Quaker Voluntary Service, and the Progresa Quaker Scholarship program for indigenous Mayan university students in Guatemala.