What is good food?

August 29, 2010

So speaking of hunger (weren’t we?) a while back my wife Diane presents a sack to me that our newspaper carrier left for canned goods so we can donate to a local food drive, “What do you want to give?” she asks. I rumble through our rather limited stock of canned items and my hand moves quickly to some condensed milk that I know has been sitting there some time. Diane looks at the can, noticing a “best by” date of December 2008. (This particular episode is occurring in May of 2009.) She points out the date but I am not dissuaded. At this point she berates me for thinking that I can dispose of outdated food items by pawning them off on needy people.

My immediate response is defensive. “That’s perfectly good food,” I say. “I would eat it and I would feed it to my children.” The can of milk is in fact there because it is an ingredient in the pumpkin pies favored by my son, Walker. I go on to point out that canned foods can remain quite safe to eat for many years, even decades, especially when they show no signs of deformity, rust or any other breach of integrity. The condensed milk, I should add, looks to be in pristine condition. I note that food pantries routinely receive items from grocery stores that have passed their sell-by dates, but that are still within the margin of time for safe use. For canned items the use date may be a year or two after the product needs to be removed from the grocery store shelf.

These points are batted back and forth between us for a while. Diane is skeptical. “Why are those dates there if they don’t mean what they say,” she asks. I reiterate the point about margins of safety and the difference between a “sell by” and a safe-use date. I also note that these are not even sell-by dates, but “best by” dates. “How would I be supposed to know that, if I were in a food pantry looking for something to feed my family?” she retorts. I reply that this is not esoteric knowledge that only I know because of my professional work on food. It’s something I learned growing up.

But by now I am actually coming around to her view. I disrespect the eventual recipients of these items if I pick something that can be questioned in the way that Diane is now doing. The condensed milk goes back on the shelf, eventually to become a pie for my son, while a can of spinach well within its “best by” date goes into the bag.

Oddly, however, Diane is now taking my point. Isn’t there an ethical problem here, she asks, if we are wasting perfectly good food simply because the food companies have incorporated these margins of safety into their labels? They have an economic interest in selling more food, after all, while the public interest here should be geared toward getting good food to needy people. Our conversation has now become more philosophical, as we recognize the tension between these conflicting notions of good food. The outdated milk is perfectly good food in the sense that it is safe to eat. What is more one influential idea has it that canned milk is particularly good food. My hand had gone to it partly because of conditioning from my youth that places items like condensed or dry milk into the “good food” category, even though if it weren’t for pies we would hardly ever use these items today. They come from the middle of the super market, and as Michael Pollen has taught us, the good food in the market is around the edges, not in the middle. Such considerations have been working at the back of mind as I switch my ground, coming to a very different notion of good food, one that is much closer to my daily practice. So we are now sending lots of fresh tomatoes on the food bank, but I won’t promise that the now out of date can of organic pumpkin pie filling in the cupboard won’t go in the bag next time there is a newspaper carrier canned food drive.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agriculture, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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