The importance of eating localI was invited to a meeting with a certain governor last month at which a group of experts discussed the province’s efforts to develop technology. The group assembled around a vast table spoke at great length about biotechnology and nanotechnology and unveiled their plans to encourage start-up firms.
But in the midst of all that pie-in-the-sky talk, I could not stop looking at the snacks that were offered up for us to eat.
In front of each person at the meeting stood a plastic bowl piled high with chocolates, cookies and candies, all covered in brightly colored plastic wrapping. There was absolutely nothing that I was tempted to eat.
That was not all. Although the entire event was a promotion for the province, there was not a single product among those snacks that was actually produced there.
I have no doubt that if asked, the participants at the meeting would have much preferred a snack made from the fruits or grains of the region, something with some distinctive flavors that would affirm that this province had its own traditions and cuisine. I know that Korea has a wide range of traditional crackers, dried fruits, cakes and nuts that would have been perfect for a snack and that would have also supported the local farmers.
But after some eight years working with local government in Korea I can say with confidence that it is rare that local foods find their way through the barriers of logistics to actually make it to the table for such events. In fact, the food you get in the governor’s office is more likely to be the product of a big food producer rather than a local supplier.
But the problem is more one of what is provided, rather than by whom. I have found, increasingly, that every time I enter a convenience store I am confronted with shelves lined with processed foods: chocolate bars, potato chips, crackers and instant ramen high in sodium and saturated fat. None of these choices offers nutritional value and there are rarely any vegetables or fruits to be found.
Our youth are exposed to processed foods, and even encouraged to eat them, without any awareness of the negative impact they will have on their health. Those products are not food at all, and do not compare with the nutritious foodstuffs produced by local farmers. Many medical experts recommend against such processed foods in light of increasing evidence of linkage of foods high in sugar with diabetes and even Alzheimer’s disease. We can already see the results of diets based on high sugar content. According to materials released by the National Health Insurance Service, the number of people under 18 receiving treatment for diabetes has increased by 31 percent over the last decade. According to an study the number of obese Koreans was 4.2 percent of the entire population in 2012, up from 2.5 percent in 2002.
During a recent trip to Japan I was impressed by how much more fresh fruits and vegetables were available at convenience stores — often supplied by local farms. Korea can do better and provide our citizens with truly healthy meals based on Korea’s long tradition of nutritious food. Moreover, requiring that the food available at local convenience stores be produced organically and locally is a good way to assure healthy diets and stimulate the local economy.
What is food? To start with, it is not something you make in a manner that encourages people to buy more of it regardless of its lack of nutritious value. Making sure that food is healthy, and teaching citizens good eating habits, is much more important than building yet another skyscraper or launching the latest smart phone.
The health of our children is as important as anything and we cannot sacrifice it for any short term profit to be derived from encouraging impulsive eating. If anything, we should encourage people to eat slowly and show appreciation for the farmers who produce our food, for the earth that nourishes us, and for the need for a constant harmony between the world of man and of nature.
Although it may offend the sensitivities of some, I think that the government has the right, and the responsibility, to step in and to regulate what food is available to our citizens so as to assure that it is healthy. It is entirely appropriate for the government to set regulations that limit the amount of processed food that is displayed in front of inexperienced young people, and set standards for what kinds of products are available. If it is not food, it should not be getting undue attention.
I hear all the time that food is the most important part of Korean culture, but I fear we are letting that treasure slip away.
*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.