Long Reads

D Is for Diversity in Food (& Why It Matters)

Why is it important to eat a variety of foods, from a variety of cultures? We look at meanings of diversity, and its impact on the individual, the community, and the soil.

by:
March  5, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

What makes your good food “good?" The ABCs of Good Food will attempt to answer that (and ask more questions along the way). We’re hoping to clarify jargon, highlight underrepresented issues, and help you feel a little less paralyzed in the egg aisle.


what is diversity in food?

“Diversity” is defined as the “condition or fact of being different or varied.” Diversity in food then, can mean a few different things: For one, the representation of all cuisines and culture. Or, the array of nutrients needed for a full, well-rounded diet. Or, the variety of crops grown on a farm.

If you’ve been following this series, The ABCs of Good Food (see here, and here, and here), you might already have noticed a pattern in food rhetoric: Just like “authenticity,” “diversity” means something different to each and every person you ask, depending on what is at stake for them. For the sake of brevity, we’ll talk about the two most considered definitions, as they relate to food and how food moves culture.

Diversity in diet means the year-round enjoyment of geographically varied foods. In our current food system, this is not very difficult to do. As of 2016, over 50 percent of fruits and 30 percent of vegetables that we enjoy year round in the U.S. are imported. Hailing largely from Latin America and Canada, these imports manifest as plump, crisp blueberries and perfect avocados in the dead of February—when we can’t even keep an herb plant alive indoors.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Growing up poor-ish in the Mountain west in the 70's, we ate darn near to mostly local year round. But, here's the thing...it's a lot of work. Mom and granddad spend long, long hours in a 3/4 acre garden. We also picked neighbors and friends fruit trees, and foraged wild fruit, mushrooms, and asparagus. Followed by long, long hours drying and canning the garden/wild loot. We ground our wheat for bread, bought milk, eggs, and cheese from an old dairy man down the road, and filled the freezer with venison, elk, antelope, and an occasional beef or pig quarter. We ate really well, with fruit, pickles, and veggies at every meal. but Mom worked days at home longer than dad did in town. So much work, you guys. ”
— OnionThief
Comment

Diversity of culture means the consideration and representation of all experiences—independent of social, political, gender, class, race distinction. As New Yorker writer, Louis Menard, explains it: “Diversity, however we define it, is politically constructed and politically maintained. It doesn’t just happen. It’s a choice we make as a society.” To consider American cuisine, then, as consisting of hamburgers, hot dogs, and apple pie—and not of hummus, sushi, and pad thai—is a political choice. “Diversity” acknowledges that all these foods fit within what we know as American cuisine, and reflects the varied experiences, preferences, and identities of its peoples.


3 Misconceptions About Diversity in Our Food:

  • In our hyper-global world, our diets are culturally diverse, as they are.

In “Eating Far from Home,” an essay on Vermont-based, Latinx farmworkers’ access to culturally appropriate foods by Teresa M. Mares, Naomi Wolcott-Maccausland, and Jessie Mazar, we meet Alma, the wife of a Vermont dairy farmworker. Alma, despite visiting her local grocers’ “Hispanic” aisle countless times, was unable to find the ingredients to make tamales for an upcoming Dia de los Muertos festival. This grocery frustration is not unique to her and her community—sometimes the store doesn’t have what you need, and you make do with a substitution.

But, aside from the ingredient itself, it’s necessary to factor in the “lived reality of searching out the components of such a beloved and culturally meaning dish” required. For Alma, this is “a driver’s license and a fairly serviceable car”—or, “mark[s] of privilege linked to the benefits of U.S. citizenship and flexibility of time and labor.” It’s clear that the “ethnic” aisle, then—what Dave Chang has called “the last bastion of racism that you see in full daylight in retail America”—is not sufficient in integrating and servicing diverse communities equally, and robs some of the agency over the very food that sustains and satiates them.

Good news is, there’s a fairly simple fix: Eliminating the “ethnic” aisle completely, and disseminating those products throughout the store—dried chiles in the spice aisle, soy sauce with the condiments, tahini with the nut butters—is a helpful starting point. Along with offering a wider variety of culturally appropriate items, businesses can send a message that these cultures and cuisines are not “other,”” but are, in fact, celebrated as part of our unified, rich cultural fabric.

  • Because we can get tropical and northern climate fruits year round, it’s proof our agricultural system is diversity-minded.

Our diets are rich with geographically diverse nutrients and flavors previously unavailable to us, but a large proportion of them depend on a very select few ingredients. Environmental researcher Seth Cook writes: “A mere 30 crops supply 95 percent of the calories that people obtain from food, and only four crops—maize, rice, wheat and potatoes—supply over 60 percent.”

Monocropping—the practice of growing the same crop in the same soil year and year—is hugely risky for producers (think: Irish potato famine) and not ideal for soil health. But, producers continue to do so because of the high product (and financial) yield at a low cost.

This goes for foods grown locally and from far away. In her book, We the Eaters: If We Change Dinner, We Can Change the World, Ellen Gustafson looked at the environmental and social impact monocroppers Dole and Chiquita have had on the earth. Many of those seemingly diverse imported foods, like tropical pineapples and bananas, are produced at a colossal enough scale to be cheaper than domestic, even given transportation costs. It’s forced domestic producers to be more competitive with their pricing. And that’s not even yet considering the ecological impact monoculture has, and the carbon footprint caused by shipping around the world.

  • So, sourcing all your food locally is best.

Foods, locally sourced, should always be fresher and kinder on the environment. Right? Well, that’s not always the case, given all the other resources that go into the equation.

Robin Mckie and Caroline Davies reported for The Guardian on this phenomenon in the U.K.: “Consider these two staples: apples and lettuce. The former are harvested in September and October. Some are sold fresh; the rest are chill stored. For most of the following year, they still represent good value—in terms of carbon emissions—for British shoppers. But by August those Coxs and Braeburns will have been in store for 10 months. The amount of energy used to keep them fresh for that length of time will then overtake the carbon cost of shipping them from New Zealand. It is therefore better for the environment if UK shoppers buy apples from New Zealand in July and August rather than those of British origin.”

Even locavore Michael Pollan offers a somewhat surprising defense of imported produce. “It’s easy to criticize food that comes from far away,” he said to David Karp for the New York Times; “[I]f the question is whether this is good for your health or not, in general it is.” Importing has allowed for a previously unprecedented diversity of nutrients in our glocalized diet. There will always be some sort of cost—to your wallet, body, the soil, climate—it’s entirely up to you, given your personal priorities and anxieties, which you’re most willing to take on.

Renee Cho, staff blogger for the Earth Institute, furthers that choosing the lesser evil between imported and local produce is a bit like splitting hairs and totally besides the point. In fact, the majority (83 percent) of greenhouse gas emissions come from the production of food itself—and the byproducts that that food, itself, creates. More than shopping locally, Cho believes that diversifying a largely red-meat-and-dairy-centric diet to include more “chicken, fish, eggs, or vegetables achieves more greenhouse gas reduction than switching to a diet based entirely on locally produced food (which would be impossible anyway).”


Food for Thought:

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Comment
Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga. When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.

1 Comment

OnionThief March 5, 2020
Growing up poor-ish in the Mountain west in the 70's, we ate darn near to mostly local year round. But, here's the thing...it's a lot of work. Mom and granddad spend long, long hours in a 3/4 acre garden. We also picked neighbors and friends fruit trees, and foraged wild fruit, mushrooms, and asparagus. Followed by long, long hours drying and canning the garden/wild loot.
We ground our wheat for bread, bought milk, eggs, and cheese from an old dairy man down the road, and filled the freezer with venison, elk, antelope, and an occasional beef or pig quarter.
We ate really well, with fruit, pickles, and veggies at every meal. but Mom worked days at home longer than dad did in town. So much work, you guys.