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Defining food labels: You are how you eat


Julia Guerrein & Jeremiah Hassel

Editor-in-Chief & Features Editor

On Wednesday, Katie Chriest, a Penn State sustainable food systems program coordinator, presented “You Are How You Eat” as the final instalment in the Environment and Economy series facilitated by the Public Policy Fund at Penn State Behrend. The speech, held in the Metzgar Center lobby, discussed how eating is cultural and connected that to eating disorders and our entire perception of eating.

Chriest defined food labels and specifically addressed the true meanings behind “organic”, “natural”, and “clean” based on government regulations, explaining how where consumers spend their money translates into policy and other decisions, such as what a farm decides to invest in.

“Wherever you can, create that little intersection with the way things are,” said Chriest. “Nothing is going to stop the corporate takeover of food except our money. If we stop giving our money to the companies that are doing the things we don’t agree with, that will stop it. Nothing else is going to stop it.”

At the beginning of her lecture, Chriest had attendees close their eyes and imagine the last thing they ate. She had them imagine how that food item got to them from its source: where was it grown, who was involved in picking or harvesting it, where was it processed, how did it get to the store. She emphasized that most people don’t actually know what goes into the production and corporate sale of their food.

Chriest continued by describing working conditions for farmworkers, which consist of low wages, piece-rate pay, few social benefits, dangerous work, pesticide risk, and other health concerns related to the work.

On a global perspective, Chriest explained the problem of food waste and how interconnected the food trade industry is: food is shipped all over the world. She discussed eating local and talked about some local farms and initiatives, including the Erie School District being known for having a robust Farm to School program.

“I think a great system would be a place that allowed [students] opportunities to learn, but also allowed them opportunities on a small scale to directly interface with the consumers who they were serving,” said Chriest.

Chriest also touched on orthorexia, “when healthy eating goes overboard.” The orthorexia pandemic degrades people deemed ‘unhealthy’ eaters, demoralizing them and labelling them as lazy and socially unequal.

According to Chriest, however, the ethical issues associated with food and eating are not specific to the individual. The problems affect institutions on as large of a scale as Behrend as well.

Lena Surzhko-Harned, Ph.D., assistant teaching professor of political science and a senior policy analyst at the Public Policy Fund, advocates for the importance of food issues in public policy.

“The issue of sustainable eating is very important for United States policy, from the perspective of public health, from the perspective of food security, from even the perspective of border security and trade,” said Surzhko-Harned. “I thought that Katie also did a very wonderful job highlighting some of the important aspects of how eating relates to policy: not just domestic policy, but international policy.”

Both Chriest and Surzhko-Harned believe that cooperation in the university will be the best way to incite change. “In the Public Policy Fund, we are interested in promoting the kind of discussions and collaborations,” said Surzhko-Harned. “I really would like for us to dig deeper and foster the more meaningful cooperations between the offices, and then again maybe have another conversation where we can highlight what has been done to the Behrend community.”

While the journey to conquering the ethical issues of food has a long way to go, Chriest is optimistic that solutions exist. “Everyone has a reason for eating the way they do,” said Chriest. “If we want people to make better choices, we have to create those better choices for them.”