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What Makes Food Truly Convenient?
A recent visit to a convenience store prompted me to reflect on the meanings of the word "convenience." Dictionaries tell us that convenience is the state of being able to proceed with one's actions with ease or little effort. Convenience means accessibility, availability, affordability, speed, and ease. A convenience store and its many convenience foods provide a good example of these meanings. Convenience stores are ubiquitous, somehow always accessible near us. The products they sell are generally always available, often worldwide, 24/7, and year-round. Those products also tend to be inexpensive. And finally, they're quick and easy to use as they are ready-made or needing minimal involvement at most.
In contrast, off-grid organic food growth and consumption seem so inconvenient to be downright unbearable: foods are only available at specific times of the year, their growth demands patience and involvement, and their cooking with renewable energy requires forethought and problem-solving. And yet off-gridders swear by the convenience of their food. So, is the meaning of convenience, perhaps, a different idea altogether in the off-grid lifeworld?
Locally-grown food and self-harvested energy are possible solutions to much larger problems, most off-gridders would argue. Growing food locally is a way of fighting against concentrated agricultural production, flavour standardization, crop hyper-specialization, and the carbon footprint of distant food distribution. Small-scale, diversified, localized production is also a way of reintroducing a level of human-ness into the cycle of food growth. Growing and cooking local, organic food is something that people can do cheaply and simply. Yet, not enough people in our society do it.
To not do something one is able to do is an interesting phenomenon we might call concession. Take the cooking of a hamburger for example: it is something that most of us are able to do, yet it is something that we have allowed McDonald's and other fast food restaurants to do for us, allegedly, billions of times. When we let others do something we can do by ourselves we concede to them.
To concede means to give way, to yield to others, to grant them a right, duty, or privilege to do something for us, in lieu of us. At times concession is the result of defeat (as when territories are given away as concessions to foreign political and economic powers) and at other times of free bargaining (as in the case of concession stands operating under lease-like contracts), but regardless of circumstances, to concede is to surrender, to make space for others, to let them take our place.
Concessions can have dire, unpredicted consequences. We may find it convenient to let McDonald's cook for us, but fast foods have contributed to a preoccupying growth in obesity, diabetes, and osteopenia rates. Convenience foods of all kinds -- which now occupy more space in supermarkets than fresh produce does -- have destabilized traditional diets as well as entire economies worldwide. And as food chains continue stretching farther and growing in more complex ways, production and consumption are split farther apart, causing loss of biodiversity, water and soil degradation, weakening of community ties, capital concentration, reduction in agricultural resilience, erasure of local identity-based and place-based foodways, and ultimately growth in food insecurity. In a way, these concessions are fracturing food practices, skills, knowledge, and values previously tied to sense of place, locality, and community.
The main reason why -- some might argue -- we make concessions to fast food restaurants, ready-made food producers, and supermarkets is practical convenience. In fact, marketers effectively advertise fast foods and convenience foods by extolling their time-saving virtues. Convenience also explains the popularity of domestic "on demand" kitchen technologies like freezers, toasters, and microwave ovens over more frequent shopping for fresh products, cooking from scratch, and consuming shared meals. Convenience, in a nutshell, broadly justifies our concession.
But just like off-grid food growth, over the last decade alternative agro-food networks, community food security programs, democratic agriculture initiatives, shortened food chains, epicurean fashions, organic and fair trade markets, the slow food movement, and other similar plans have aimed to re-instill a sense of place in the gastronomic landscape. These deconcessions from the world of distant production and drive-through convenience have resulted in partially re-localizing and re-possessing systems of food production and consumption, have raised awareness about food insecurity, and practiced a strong resistance to concentrated agricultural corporatism.
In small ways these are also the deconcessions practised by off-grid smallholders who strive to go a step farther by re-claiming the power -- social and physical -- to grow and cook food using renewable resources and fertilizers like humanure.
To de-concede is to redeem the right, duty, privilege, and even pleasure of doing something for oneself. A de-concession is a recapture, a repossession, a reclamation of what once was one's own but was later conceded.
But off-grid food deconcessions go a step farther than most alternative food production programs, for two reasons.
First, most other re-localized food programs make no mention of how sustainable food cooking is or should be. A potato may very well be locally grown, organic, and fair trade but once it's baked in an electric oven powered by a grid fueled by coal, the environmental score is far from settled.
Second, battles over food deconcessions are easily fought on high moral grounds but their gains are regularly lost when the war is waged over convenience. To truly recapture a sense of food control we must believe that our meals as not only better for us, but also easier on us. Off-gridders' experiences teach us just that. And that change in attitude is something we can easily try too.