The inconvenient truth about convenience


QUICK-FIX FALLACY Ready-made meals and pre-processed foods are taking a heavy toll on our own lives and the planet’s welfare.

Green Living
McKinley Neal

Recently, I’ve spent more time re-reading the books I recommended in my last column, to remind myself of why making food at home is so important. Before the pandemic, we could buy food anywhere at any time, saving us the trouble of planning and preparing a meal for ourselves. Lots of time that made a big difference in our busy lives, especially if we are parents or carers, or doing one (or more!) demanding jobs, or heavily involved in community activities.  
That access to ready-made food is convenient, sure, but it does highlight how we’ve outsourced a crucial part of the human experience, and our wellbeing, to whomever can manufacture and sell us food more cheaply. It’s not simply about finding a diet that suits, but thinking holistically about the source of our food, the people involved in the processes, and how that impacts our human health and that of the different ecosystems from which the food comes.
Growing up, I used to hear about ‘processed foods’ a lot, to refer to ‘junk’ food that you were encouraged to avoid, especially if you were on a diet. But all of our food, unless we’re only eating raw fruit and veg, undergoes some processing before we eat it—cooking, baking, freezing, preserving through fermenting, drying, curing, making into jams and chutneys, etc. These are the processes that most people would have learned in the home long ago, and on which they drew to prepare their meals.
They are also what make regional cuisines so unique and interesting to try, as they all feature distinct techniques for growing and processing food that have developed over centuries (I’m longing for Japanese and rustic Italian food!). The people who were gifted at these processes started food stalls, restaurants, delis and bakeries in their local communities to bring some convenience to their neighbours.
What changed in the past 50 years or so was the rise of large businesses dedicated to manufacturing foods, and those manufacturing processes have meant that foods have been broken down into components and used in a scientific way to bind, to colour, to add flavour, etc. This is how we now have bread that has ingredients that we struggle to pronounce, including stabilisers, emulsifiers and preservatives, instead of just flour, water and salt and a few other things we would recognise on a table.
It also means that the production of food is concentrated in ever larger factories to achieve economies of scale, and then shipped all over in layers of packaging.
I shudder to think of the brands of ‘food’ that are now available globally, sometimes in the most remote and unexpected places.
I’m making the effort to support the farmers and small food producers who are growing and processing food with respect for the ingredients, the soil and our health, and then doing my part at home to cook, ferment and savour them.
And soon, I’ll happily pay professionals to do the same in our brilliant local cafés and restaurants.

McKinley Neal co-runs PAX Whole Foods & Eco Goods, a minimal-waste shop in Westport offering bulk organic foods, reusable goods, household products, eco-friendly personal care items and gifts.