Back when I started writing the novel version of Fast Food at the Centre of the World, food banks were not on most people’s minds. We were well underway with the current obesity epidemic, but at the same time, it wasn’t at the level it is now. Monsanto were busily trying to take control of the world’s seeds, but again, things have escalated over recent years. The increasing threat of climate change, and the shocking degree of both hunger and food waste in the world make food an intensely political subject.
Food is also about our connection with nature. Young people today are growing up indoors, factory farmed by an increasingly pressured educational system and then distracted with small electrical boxes. They don’t get out much, they don’t play, they eat edible food-like substances and too many of them bloat. How many modern children will eat berries from a hedge or pick apples? How many would have a clue as to what they could safely forage? How many would want to?
Increasingly, we are imagining and developing food as something separate from nature; a manufacturing process that delivers it shrink wrapped, by lorry, to a supermarket shelf near you. How many children will get to lift a potato from the soil for themselves? How many will see a potato with mud on, and have to wash it? Vegetables come pressure washed, partially skinned and eager to decay.
It doesn’t get much more basic than food. In terms of basic survival, food is key. In terms of health, the state of your immune system, and your long term prospects, food plays an important part. And yet, we seem happy to accept whatever comes in the packets, and have done for years. The additives, some of which it turned out made children hyperactive. The sweeteners in soft drinks that will dry your mouth out and leave you feeling more thirsty. The trans fats, the corn syrups, the rising use of palm oil and its catastrophic implications for rain forests. The welfare of animals raised in utter misery to feed us. Animals sustained by antibiotics that are, through their overuse, reducing the usefulness of this vital medicine for treating human ailments.
Food is a battleground in which the profits of big business do war upon your health and wellbeing. Food is a battleground on every piece of land where indigenous species are wiped out to make way for farming. Agriculture is not blameless in this process. Just because you aren’t eating animals doesn’t mean your diet isn’t implicated in killing them (I say this as a vegetarian). Nuts, soya, palm oil, exotic fruits… it is not a comfortable thing to consider what a cashew costs in terms of lost habitat. Food is a battleground between us and every other species, and yet we waste so much of what is produced, we kill and destroy for no good reason, all too often. Viewed from a distance, it might look a lot like an inter-species form of genocide in which we go forth to wipe out everything that isn’t us and doesn’t overtly serve us.
Food is nature. Food is politics. It is health. Food is our relationship with the world, and with each other. Hunger and excess should be matters of shame and alarm. Some of our children are rotunned with bad food and limited lives. Some of our children are dying of hunger.
We really need to start caring about this. I know, when I write here that I am largely preaching to the converted, that you’re reading because you share my concerns and beliefs about a fair few things. The challenge, for me, is in reaching out to people who are wilfully oblivious, convinced it’s not their problem, or that there is no problem. Fast Food at the Centre of the World is a bit of a stealth project. It’s an audio serialisation of the novel, free to listen to, and raises food issues, but it does so with magic, zombies, plenty of comedy, a slightly deranged magician and a fast food restaurant like no other. If I can just get one or two people thinking about food in different ways, that would be awesome.