If eating were solely for physical nourishment and sustenance, we would live fragmented, solitary, and joyless days because food is part of a daily landscape. Over a meal we meet at the end of the day and knit our lives back together. The food we make is soaked in feeling. It is pleasure and respite. It is borne out of our histories, cultures, and moods, and is nourishing in myriad ways beyond the physical.
FoodLandscapes encourages people, institutions, and companies to build relationships to food defined by trust and joy through storytelling and research that views food as integrated with culture, imagination and communication. I called Valeria, who is in humid Mexico City and has to stop mid-call to swat mosquitoes away, to talk about her relationship to food, the language of fear, calculation, and classism in nutrition narratives, and sustainability. Her voice is warm and steeped in curiosity as it filters into my room in wet and wind-swept Cornwall.
Your vision, philosophy, and strategies at Food Landscapes are as expansive and holistic as the name suggests. What do you do and why does Food Landscapes exist?
My business partner Miriam, who has been doing a lot on the Anthropology of nutrition looking at our behaviour toward food, and myself decided we want to change the conversation around food and nutrition beyond obesity, and overweight, and “fight the sugar”, and “fight the salt”.
To change the conversation everywhere. Our vision is huge so we said, “What if we start with some small or big companies, or public health institutions and we work with what they are doing to change the way that they see food and the whole cultural process of eating?”
We are very clear with our clients about it. We say, “We are not going to help you go after your clients and tell them, “Avoid sugar! Avoid this! Avoid that! Essentially don’t eat!” We would rather be a partner for them to enjoy food. Maybe they have a health condition that should be observed and treated but that doesn’t mean they are not allowed to enjoy food, to share food, to take part in the whole cultural concept of sitting down and sharing a meal.
The classical conversation of nutrition focusses on a relationship of fear: you must scrutinise, quantify and calculate everything (say, proteins or calories) that goes into your body. How do you change this calculated nature?
This is a huge long term vision which is hard because it has become part of the culture in Mexico; being afraid, having this fear.
Recently, in a conversation with a friend, she suggested participating in an alkaline diet. And I said, “Please don’t share that because that’s adding to this fear. Now counting calories, then looking for low fat, and no sugar, and now you tell people to go around and look for alkaline foods?”
One of our strategies and plans is trust. Trust in foods. Trust in your body. And enjoyment and balance. Trust, enjoyment, and balance.
These plans of paleo, vegan, high protein and no carbs etc, these offer us fast solutions. There are tonnes of websites, or apps where you weigh yourself and it’ll tell you how many calories you consumed. We forget that eating is a cultural process, it’s a cultural need, a social need beyond the physical and physiological.
How do we change it?
Step by step. We get called by big companies and they are sometimes happy with us but at the same time we tell them that we practice this philosophy around enjoyment. Of course all big companies want to earn, they need to sell products but we tell them what they don’t want to hear, “You also need to be conscious of moderation. You need to put this message through all the channels you use as a big company.”
Balance. Moderation. Sustainability.
At the end of the day, sustainability means eat less, consume less. So that is hard for companies to hear but they know it’s coming, they know it’s what their consumers want. And they have to do it.
How does class intersect with diet and choice? Diets like paleo, vegan, and no fat require the privileges of choice and time.
We did a very interesting project with an economics institution where we talked about lower socioeconomic people who barely have access to the basics of food. They asked us to help them build the minimum diet to be healthy but still have a dignified diet, to feel dignified. Just because you’re poor and have a lower economic budget it doesn’t mean you can’t eat a dignified diet or that you can’t enjoy it.
So this institute asked us, “We can ask anyone for a basic diet to survive but we need you to build on the basic diet that they have access to include all these foods that people eat for pleasure.”
People from lower socioeconomic status have very few opportunities for pleasure. They cannot be travelling around the world. If they gather some money together, maybe they can go to the cinema once a year. They do not have access to Netflix. At least in our culture, the one I know about but also in Latin American cultures, they satisfy their pleasure, this alternative piece of enjoyment, through food. Unfortunately the foods that are today’s celebrations are sodas, chips and sweet snacks.
Through that economic conversation we are now about to start working with the government, who is a little slow but we know that when we get there it’s going to be a nice impact for society. It’s a project for Mexico City, which is one of the largest in the world, to build this food policy for the city where they can have a dignified diet.
Has covid-19 and subsequent lockdown changed how you and people in Mexico City think about food?
I myself have been eating better. I’ve been lucky to have more time to cook and to think about what we’re going to eat (Valeria jumps up to swat a mosquito away). We eat better, more fruits and vegetables, a more varied diet, and because we’re less in a hurry we sit together more.
Before, we would eat with my mom, the grandmother, two, three times a week and once a week with my father. And I miss that a lot, my kids miss it, especially my little girl. She is like the antithesis of a nutrition mom. “Oh my god” my husband laughs at me and my theories, “that’s your little girl bringing down all your eating habits and theories.”
She doesn’t care, if she could go through the day without eating that would be the ideal for her. She eats because of a physiological need. It’s taken us a while but we’ve discovered together with therapists that she has a neurological-sensorial thing but it’s also her personality. It’s a weird combination of her having no interest in eating and then she literally cannot taste or identify some textures.
The response to lockdown is divided. There are a lot of people going through food insecurity at the moment and we are very worried about it. That’s why we are building this project with Mexico City. Our approach is still the same but the Minister of Health and Wellness for the city is very specific. She also thinks that the reality that they are poor does not mean they cannot have a dignified diet. Food insecurity is happening big time in Mexico City, Mexico Country and across Latin America. That worries me and my colleagues who are working on this a lot.
And on the other side, the more affluent and lucky people who have access to food I think most of them are eating better, although they say they are eating more and that’s probably true. But most people are eating a more varied diet and they are moving more.
I would definitely say it is clearly class divided.
Through our podcast we are trying to communicate to people to eat locally and support local communities and when you go there to cover yourself because they’re the ones suffering. I’m hoping that from now on we consume more local produce and figure out that dynamic within the family not to rush, to have time to eat, to go back in the past in some ways and ride bicycles and eat fruits and vegetables.
What is a daily food landscape?
This philosophy is about food beyond nutrition: the whole daily landscape of your food. You go through your day and food is with you in a lot of ways. Either you are cooking, you are eating, sharing, sitting down or talking about it. That is one part. And also we promote the storytelling of food, that’s really the expertise of my colleague, Miriam, she’s an academic in the anthropology of food and knows a lot about the history of food overall.
For example, we are working on a rice project talking about how rice got to Mexico. We tried to grow it here but there is a lot of water involved and we don’t have that much water precipitation like in Asia but it has still been inserted in food culture in Mexico. We tell this story of how rice has been inserted in food culture in Mexico and then parallel to this story we talk about the benefits of mixing it with original products from Mexico, like beans, to improve the nutrition profile. That is a historical food landscape.
We also participate in some discussions on food regulations. The value we add to this is precisely the landscape. Say you’re regulating the potato chip. If you regulate just the potato chips, of course the profile is high in fats, high in sodium but the potato chip has a role in your whole food landscape. It has a role in why you’re eating, when you’re eating, how you’re eating it.
Why don’t you eat potato chips for breakfast? Because it’s not for that moment. It’s part of a whole landscape because of the taste, because of how you’ve been brought up. Maybe if I start giving potato chips for breakfast to my family then it will become part of my family culture and that will be normal for the kids. Foods have certain roles in a whole landscape.
It’s hard, especially for regulations. They are correct, definitely we need to eat better. There’s a huge discussion into labelling in Mexico right now. They’re going to be placing black hexagon stop lights on foods to warn people through their certain profiles that it’s unhealthy but again the profile is for one product only, “High in sugars, calories, salts.“
We need to eat better, that’s for sure. There’s no discussion about that but this adds to the fear. It’s not the way to do it because you don’t just eat one food, you eat a whole landscape.
People do not react to that, it’s educational knowledge. They will stop buying it but just for a while. This happened in Chile: this regulation was implemented a few years ago and people reduced their consumption but then they started again because it became normalised in their landscape. They went to the supermarket aisle and the stop lights are everywhere. It doesn’t mean anything anymore.
One of the studies identified that kids would go directly to the items that have more warning stamps because it’s probably the ones that taste better.
Is FoodLandscapes engaged in sustainability action?
Every Thursday we have a new podcast in Spanish, we want to do some in English, and the last one was about a specific product in Mexico which we eat a lot, it’s called nopal cactus (a.k.a prickly pear). We actually eat cactus. It’s a very sustainable product because it grows everywhere with very little water and it’s very nutritious. It’s like this star product for the planet and for everybody.
Before that, last week we did a podcast on sustainable diets for a Latin American conference for sports nutrition and they were talking about sustainable diets for athletes. This professor from the USA was saying that every nutritionist and dietician has to consider the planet with everything they recommend.
They were criticising diets for athletes specifically, which traditionally are very high in meat protein. That does not help the planet right? One of her conclusions was, and we think about this as well, is that a more flexitarian approach is better, it’s more achievable. Some people can lead full vegetarian diets forever but most cannot and they go from one extreme to the other. They go from vegetarian or vegan to thinking No, no I need to eat meat. A lot of meat.
A more achievable diet that would be one that goes with your culture, with your landscape, with your family history, your family routine. That’s the diet you need to take. And if you’re eating too much meat just reduce it and look for protein options that are locally sourced. We go for plant protein sources but then they are sourced from South Africa or Brazil but that doesn’t make sense.
Whet That Appetite is primarily for connecting people and sparking their curiosity about food, how would you like to be involved?
Since we have it in our name it totally makes sense that we are involved. Any questions that people who are part of Whet That Appetite might have about landscapes and culture, at least the Latin American culture, and we encourage all people who are involved in this network to be curious. I would like to participate with anyone I can to change the conversation to one of enjoyment, to trust in their food, to enjoy, and to share. Share food but also share cultures to learn from other cultures.
You can explore Valeria’s work with Food Landscapes here: https://en.food-landscapes.com/
And listen to it here in their podcast series (only in Spanish for now): https://open.spotify.com/show/5RXHa9X65ReruSbV8IxuxJ