The delicate art of changing harmful customs


The delicate art of changing harmful customs

Here in central New Jersey, the confluence of food events continues: Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, Carlo Petrini, Alice Waters, and Carolyn Steel, a London-based architect and author of "Hungry City."

In November was a panel discussion on food politics and health care that I helped to arrange for Princeton University, with, again, Ms. Nestle and David Kessler, moderated by Ruth Reichl.

The questions about confluence were simple: What's causing this? Has this good food movement reached the tipping point? The answers are, for the former - food talk is a crowd pleaser - and for the latter, no.

Media attention aside, the good food movement - a loose collection of independent-minded people - seems more wave than water. It is normal today that most of us buy and eat industrially grown meat and shop the inside aisles of supermarkets. It is normal that we eat from boxes and bags and jars, in our cars and by ourselves. We perceive ourselves as too busy and good food as too expensive. We eat too much, and we eat for the wrong reasons; computers and videos add more sedentary time to our entrenched television viewing habits; we're undernourished and overfed; diet-related disease is epidemic and normal. It's normal, too, that joy is absent.

The good food movement is an attempt to alter those mainstream practices. But those passionate about making such changes might find instruction in Kwame Anthony Appiah's essay, "The art of social change," which looks at how, and how not, to alter harmful customs. In his piece, which is taken from his new book, "The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen," he examines foot-binding and genital mutilation, but it's easy to draw a parallel to what clearly is a harmful custom in our nation: the food-agriculture-health care system cycle. If we partake, it makes us sick, then it treats the symptoms of our sickness. Complications of diabetes, for instance, are blindness and amputation. Medicine manages the illness but does not cure it.

Foot-binding, writes Mr. Appiah, was a thousand-year-old practice and a symbol of status that had the force of convention:

"Chinese families bound their daughters' feet because that was the normal thing to do....If Chinese families bound their daughters' feet because that was the normal thing to do, you had to change what was normal."

In a single generation, the practice largely disappeared, mainly because a mixture of campaigning outsiders and modernizing insiders began "a dialogue of mutual respect, free of self-congratulation," and then, once they had converts, organized "a program of public commitment to new practices, which takes into account traditions of the community." The international community also held the practice up to ridicule, with visitors taking photographs of women's damaged feet and widely sharing them.

So. How do we change what is normal? Who are outsiders, and insiders? What is self-congratulation? How do we organize public commitment to new practices? What traditions do we take into account? It's difficult to imagine, too, that international ridicule of our food/ag/health-care system could occur today; the growing global middle class is adopting the Western diet as fast as it can.


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