You may have already read my thoughts on the joys of eating vegetables and on what (and how) I eat. But what good is loving vegetables and wanting to eat them if you can’t access them? If you can’t afford them? If you don’t know how or don’t have time to cook them?
These are all challenges I’ve faced to varying degrees at various points in my (relatively short and rather privileged) life. And with some hindsight, I can see how my surroundings have always been important influences of what I eat.
Up until high school, my diet was essentially dictated by the foods my parents bought, what was on offer at school, and the occasional meals eaten at friends’ and family members’ homes. I remember seeing a lot of TV commercials for highly-processed snacks and juices and cereals and popsicles. I also remember eating a lot of highly-processed snacks and juices and cereals and popsicles. So did everyone else at school. Nonetheless, aside from those “as seen on TV” snacks padding my lunch box and awaiting me after sports practice, I mostly ate so-called ‘real foods’ in the form of home-cooked Meat, Starch and Two Veg.
Towards the end of high school, I started packing my own lunches and, once a week, my friends and I would leave the school grounds, hop onto a bus to the nearest shopping centre, and scour the mall’s (fast) food court for an exciting lunch. Ironically, at this time in my life, the highly-processed snacks got replaced by fresh fruit, nuts and raw vegetables, the juices by water, and the sugary cereals by slightly less sugary cereals. I was reading a lot of women’s health and lifestyle magazines and that’s what they said to do. In spite of all this, I still happily ate my weekly serving of Teenage McFreedom with a side of fries.
LEAVING THE FAMILY HOME
At university, I spent my first year hastily dining on campus lunches in between classes, and cooking straight-forward (and admittedly repetitive) dinners in my shared dorm kitchen. I don’t recall many of the campus meals being particularly healthy. The prevailing culture made it seem nearly a given that we students should be eating poorly. But I do remember that the nearest place to buy food from my dorm was a retail pharmacy chain. I would typically go in looking for something like conditioner and end up coming out with whatever chips and chocolate were attractively displayed in the discount bin by the register.
When I moved into my first apartment, I had no room (let alone time or money) for a TV. I also started using an ad-blocker. Suddenly, the only junk food ads I was seeing were the ones in public spaces. To keep my food shopping to a minimum, I walked the 40-minute round-trip to my nearest grocery store only once every other week and stuck to a list. I bought a lot of fruit and vegetables (mostly frozen), grains and legumes (mostly dried), and a small amount of meat, fish and dairy to keep costs low. Then I would cook enough food on Sunday to last me the week. I still bought discounted snacks from the pharmacy, though.
I moved to Montreal for graduate school. And for the first time in my life, I came to truly cherish farmers’ markets, as well as understand the significance of city planning, culture and design. I fell in love with all things fresh, local, seasonal and organic at the city’s many public markets. I found a renewed sense of appreciation for nature — thanks in part to the markets, but also in large part to the city’s numerous parks and natural spaces. My new surroundings seemed to make eating and moving well much easier for me than previous ones had.
A semester abroad took me to Melbourne, where I lived minutes away from many green parks and an always-bustling farmers’ market (there were also 7-Eleven convenience stores everywhere, but I didn’t really go into those). The university I attended had its own community garden where I met great people and first got to experience the thrill of harvesting my own potato. And every week or two, I would walk through neighbourhoods full of citrus trees and rosemary hedges to go collect a box of fruit and veg. This regular exposure to food in its most unrefined states likely helped to cultivate an ever-growing love and respect for local, seasonal, organic — in other words, quality — ingredients.
Back from Australia, I spent 6 months working in a restaurant where I had access to exquisite lunches as well as some irresistibly good pastries. Let’s just say I ate a lot of very good restaurant food. Then I moved to Norway. Norwegians buy more snack foods than any other Nordic country. Hot dogs, ice cream, and frozen pizzas are all national favourites, and something resembling bread is eaten quite a bit here. The local climate is a limiting factor when it comes to growing food (although it is not uncommon to find fruit trees and berry bushes nearly everywhere you go), and traditional fare typically involves meat or fish served with potatoes or cabbage. So, in addition to all the plant-forward meals I like to cook, I have eaten a lot like the locals since settling into my latest surroundings.
As much as we like to think that what we eat comes down to personal choice, a lot of what we put into our bodies depends on what is around us — be it physically, socially, economically or culturally. Context matters. Some of it we can change, and some of it we cannot. Understanding the difference between these two requires observation. And acting upon the knowledge gained from such observation will more often than not require collaboration.
A lot of the work can and has to involve those in positions of power, be it in government offices or business offices (or, ideally, both). But in every case, the possibility exists for each of us to shape our immediate surroundings in such a way that eating well can become easier — if not the easiest option available.
We all have the agency and the responsibility to make positive changes around us, wherever we go. So whether it’s at home, at school, at work, in your neighbourhood or communities at large: how can you help create environments that foster the healthy habits and behaviours you want to make easy to achieve?