It’s funny how road tripping and being in the backcountry for two months has brought me to realize how much food plays an important role in shaping who we are. Living a backcountry lifestyle has forced me to think about food in ways that would easily be overlooked at home in the city. Who knew that one of the things that I would miss most about being home would be cooking?
Albert Borgmann, a philosopher and professor at the University of Montana, states the value of cooking and choosing one’s food perfectly:
“Cooking demands some awareness of the world you live in. You have to know and navigate it through the decisions you have to make- going to the farmers market rather than the supermarket, selecting this lettuce rather than that. Food like this is no more expensive than junk food and it has the virtue of displacing the hidden machinery of McDonald’s food engineering with the comprehension and competence of the cook.”
Making these conscious food decisions has not been easy. I’ve struggled to find the balance between excessive and not enough, between comfort foods (cookies) and whole foods (raw almonds), and between perishables (fresh fruit) and processed foods (meat sticks). As Wendell Berry puts it,
“A responsible consumer would be a critical consumer, would refuse to purchase the less good. And he would be a moderate consumer; he would know his needs and would not purchase what he did not need; he would sort among his needs and study to reduce them.”
Except my food “standards” have changed out here. I’ve realized that foods society has told us are perishable are not actually as perishable as we think. Blocks of cheddar labeled “refrigerate after opening” have tumbled around my backpack for weeks insulated only by long underwear and t-shirts. Healthy eating habits are thrown out the window and junk foods that you never would eat at home become mentally, physically, and emotionally comforting foods. After three endlessly rainy days paddling the Missouri all you want to do is sit in your tent and eat a whole row of Chips Ahoy Cookies.
When you’re packing everything out that you brought in, you realize how much packaging waste is generated from food. Granola bar wrappers, oatmeal pouches, tea packets, applesauce packets, foil tuna pouches fill your pack. This really made me realize how much packaging is saved through buying in bulk. But buying in bulk is hard to achieve when access to and selection of grocery stores is limited and unpredictable. Our grocery shopping has ranged from tiny roadside Conoco gas stations to large town co-ops to chain grocers such as Albertsons. Sometimes when you’re faced with 20 minutes to grocery shop for everything you need for the next two weeks it can be quite daunting. No time to read ingredient labels for added sugars and corn syrup, to check where your apples were grown, to look for non-gmos and added fillers, and to seek out sustainable business practices. No time to compare and weigh options if there are any.
And then I take a step back and think about the people who live in these small and remote Montana towns we visit. Oftentimes these people only have one option of what to buy. As I walked in to the Lame Deer trading post for a grocery resupply I was immediately surrounded by sugary cereals, white bread, processed meats, aisles full of candy and salty snacks, and a very small section of fresh fruits and vegetables. The reality of food deserts in marginalized communities really began to hit me. This was a low-income community with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. The aisles were full of dried, canned, and processed foods low in nutritional value and high in fats and sugars. I became cognizant of the wealth of food options I am fortunate enough to have in my daily life. I realized how desperate the need is to take action on changing our food system.
Thinking about how to take action to create equity within our food systems left me with a flurry of questions: How can we help people eat locally and seasonally within their own communities even when their communities are in the arid prairie of southeastern Montana? How different would our diets look if we began to do this? How can we begin to bring back a sustainable food culture which fosters an acute awareness of the world we live in? How can we begin to see food as a part of who we are and what we stand for?