“Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision,” writes the agrarian studies pioneer James Scott. We have to choose to see and define things narrowly and if we want to control them. We have to choose to think of a forest as so many boardfeet of lumber to cut and sell, for example. Not a habitat for birds or insects, not erosion protection, not shade for rest or to burrow, not a food source for other animals but a stand of trees that can be cut into planks. Not the forest, but the trees. It leads to problems because it reduces our view. We may narrow our vision of the problems at hand, but only at our peril (that was Scott’s point). A more ecological view—which is wider, complex, and interrelated—would help us build a healthier world.

This narrowing tendency is true in the ways we talk about food issues too. It’s not a good idea. For instance, we can think about food and food choices as consumers. We can think of food issues by considering producers, the manufacturers that make most of our food, or the farmers before them, or gardeners. We can think of the processors who take harvested crops and convert them into aisles of processed goods. We can talk about kitchens and cooking as places to look if you want to address food problems today. We can focus on community, or family, or tradition. But we don’t think of all of that. It’s too hard. I get it. It’s too difficult for me too.

One thing people can do is to keep working on better ways to talk about things. So we can come up with better ways to think about things. So we could have a society that is wider, complex, and interrelated.

The Food in the Public Square keynote speaker Julie Guthman is a great example of someone helping point out what we lose when we frame things one way over another—when we narrow our vision. In this case, much of Guthman’s work reacts to a narrow sense of justice or culture or community. Consider that she’s cracked back at Michael Pollan, or at least at a certain narrowing of vision that can come from reading his work. More recently, in Weighing In, she’s argued against the ease of body mass index (BMI) and claims about obesity. BMI is another case of narrowing our vision of who we are as people, as bodies, as eaters. You are not a fully embodied person. You are a measure of body mass index. That reduces who you are as a person.

In most cases, probably all, Guthman has made the point that our food and politics are about more than just individuals. Which means the ways we address food concerns can’t just be about what we choose to do as individuals. I think it’s a narrowing of vision that leads us to think that the way to a better food system is through better individual choices. One of her articles, If They Only Knew , speaks to that misperception. She questions who “they” are, who says so, and whether simply knowing where your food comes from makes a healthier person. It’s more complicated. It isn’t so narrow.

It can certainly be easier to talk about individual choice—pick better foods; go to different stores; grow a lot of healthy things. Those are things someone might be able to do right now, today, after they read this. It is actionable and direct. (I think we can be working on that, by the way. This isn’t an either/or situation.) Yet, when you pull back and say that it’s also about policies and cultural context and economic pressure, it gets harder to know what the One Single Action I Could Do is. We don’t live in a world of unlimited options, so the idea that there are easy answers (narrow ones) is compelling.  To say the opposite—that food issues are complicated and long-term and cultural and political and historical—is a lot less satisfying because you come away not knowing what to do. But we can create ways to work on the harder problems.

Tellingly, Guthman’s work also makes the point that working on the harder problems requires more people, requires us to ask more about people (like me) using the royal “we” in blog posts, and requires a more pluralistic discussion. (I’ve written about this in other forums, asking for pluralism over centralization, asking to avoid narrowing the efforts we make about food in the public square.) Not only would we do better to avoid narrowing our vision of food, we would do better to avoid narrowing the range of people who are in on the conversation about food. I can’t say that’s easy to do, but I do think it’s the problem to address.

– B.R. Cohen, Lafayette College