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Social Science: The Role of Food in Society

We explore how food is more than just bundles of useful nutrients, but also something that creates and sustains identities and cultures.
© EIT Food
Food is essential. Not just as bundles of useful nutrients, but also as something that creates and sustains identities and cultures across the world.

How food shapes society

Consider the example of Egypt’s Koshary: for foreigners at first it can seem a strange combination of pasta, rice, lentils and chickpeas, served with a tomato sauce, a garlicky vinegar and fried onions. Supplemented with a green salad the meal comprises nearly all essential nutrients to sustain a human.
However, it is so much more than that. Culturally it is important on a number of levels: it is a unique dish that is not part of the broader Arab food culture in the Middle East, and therefore Egyptians identify with the dish.
The dish is a staple across socioeconomic divides, as it is a cheap and widely available street food but, importantly, it is not considered a food solely for the poor. It is also significant in a religious context for the Coptic community in Egypt as it is a key dish that can be eaten during the regular fasts that are spread throughout the year. Koshary connects: it is not a food that is eaten on one’s own, but at home with the family or with friends. Indeed, people get excited about sharing it with their loved ones.
Finally, it warms the soul as many Egyptians living abroad create their own versions at home when they long for home and when they want to ensure their children have a taste of their youth.
The example of Koshary shows that food shapes societies in different ways. This is highly relevant for medical practitioners: a focus on food as nutrition misses some key dimensions in which food relates to economic, sociocultural and moral aspects of everyday life that influence how populations and citizens will respond to advice and indeed prescriptions.
Given the cultural significance of Koshary, a prescription to avoid all refined carbohydrates for medical reasons may well result in resistance or subversion by an Egyptian diabetic. So, what are some of those key dimensions?

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Drawing on some insights from the social sciences, in this article we will focus on four.

Food is (nearly) everywhere

In the second half of the twentieth century, the “green revolution” brought scientific and technological breakthroughs into land management and agricultural production.
The introduction of industrial fertilisers, pesticides, efficient irrigation systems, and new and hybrid seed varieties allowed global society to dramatically increase the amount of food produced per unit of land (Pilcher, 2012).
Food has become progressively cheaper, and many foods and ingredients are available throughout the year, no longer bound to the seasonality of the harvest. As a result, in many parts of the world food is everywhere.
Yet, this does not mean that healthy, nutritious food is necessarily affordable, accessible or part of diets. Ever-present food means that the way in which it is valued in society has changed: its importance for survival has reduced. For affluent consumers there is a previously unimaginable range of choice of products, cuisines and outlets.
There is no question that food is available whenever it is desired, and it can be consumed at any point in the day. For less affluent consumers getting sufficient calories and the right balance of nutrients is more complicated.
Often, ultra-processed foods are cheap and more convenient for time-poor individuals whereas more nutritious alternatives cost more not only in monetary terms but also in time required to buy and prepare them.
However, the recent rise in demand for food banks in Europe and North America shows that despite food being available, the number of people not being able to afford food at all is rising fast.

The economics of food

From an economic perspective, food is an essential input to ensure a society can produce goods and services. It is also a main provider of jobs to any economy and drives consumption. The increased productivity of the food system as described above has gone hand in hand with a range of global systems and infrastructures to enhance the efficiency of food manufacturing and of supply chains (Lang et al, 2008).
They are a key phenomenon of globalisation as production is shifted to locations where it is cheapest to grow and process food. These infrastructures are driven by global commodity markets which are increasingly volatile driven by the effects of climate change and oil price fluctuations.
This creates food insecurity: it affects the cost of staples, with people going hungry periodically, on top of the 800 million people who are structurally undernourished (FAO, 2019). Furthermore, the supply chains are finetuned to predicted patterns of demand to be as efficient as possible.
The Covid-19 pandemic exposed how small changes in individual purchasing patterns (buying an additional meal per day due to lockdown rules) can quickly result in empty supermarket shelves.

Routines of food

As the example of Koshary shows, food is embedded deeply into cultural practices. Eating patterns have context-specific histories that firmly embed what is eaten when and where and with whom.
Some cultures have a pronounced snacking culture with a vibrant street food scene, whereas others follow a three-meals-per-day regime at set mealtimes. Food consumption also fits in with other rhythms of everyday life of an individual, such as working hours, leisure activities, family rhythms, etc.
This means that changing an individual’s consumption and dietary patterns are structured by routines. They are very hard to change if an individual’s social context and routines do not change as well.
Yet, it is also clear that routines can change. Longer working hours mean that there is less time for cooking resulting in a higher reliance on prepared meals and takeaways. This can have further consequences in that key skills are lost, for example how to cook traditional meals, assess if food is still safe to eat, or what to do with leftovers.
Furthermore, globalisation processes have enabled the circulation of specific forms of food consumption around the globe, for example fast food and street food, and trends such as a vegan lifestyle.
Such forms introduce new ways of consuming food which may partially replace existing consumption practices and contribute to shifts in dietary patterns.

Conclusion

The insights from social science discussed above show that the role of food in society is much broader than just nutrition. This means that diets are shaped by deeply rooted norms and routines, by economic structures and by its ubiquity in society.
It is clear that any interventions to make changes to diets for individuals or populations need to take the aforementioned key dimensions into consideration to be effective.
Author: Dr. Maarten van der Kamp
© EIT Food
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