I was talking to a friend recently about activism and allyship and she said something that really stuck with me. She told me that instead of focusing on a label that expresses your views—a feminist, let’s say—focus on your continued, everyday actions. Labels can make us lazy. By identifying as a feminist, I may not feel the need to speak up the next time I hear something that sounds like it perpetuates patriarchy. After all, I’m already a feminist. Once I’ve been converted, my work is probably done!
As this thought has been marinating, it trickled down into thinking about food. Here in the food movement, we have many labels. There are the labels for the food itself: local, organic, pasture-raised, fair trade, free-range, and hormone free (and these are just the tip of the iceberg.) While these labels can be misleading, I find them to be ultimately useful as I continue to navigate eating consciously. “Cage-free” may not mean much of anything, but the label proclaiming a food item’s origin is pretty important if I want to be aware of local eating.
Then there are the labels we use to describe people and concepts. Here’s where it gets tricky. For example: true cost. I first read about true cost in Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” but it’s touted in many corners of the food movement. This is the idea that our society wires us to expect and demand cheap food; this food comes with hidden costs at the expense of the land, workers, and our health. This leads to a food system where even those in a position to pay more for food that was sustainably and ethically produced can’t accept that such a food system would cost more. As I was reading I nodded vigorously, but it wasn’t long until I found myself in the grocery store buying conventional produce without a second thought. I’m not suggesting that price isn’t a legitimate or realistic reason to forego organics. Yet there’s a difference between making a choice to buy conventional produce and allowing your labels to keep you distanced from your choices.
The name of the game is cognitive dissonance, and I think labels fuel the fire (or dim it, as the case may be.) By labeling myself as someone who knows about and subscribes to true cost, I allow myself to adopt it as part of my identity and then stop thinking about it. As long as it was once part of my consciousness, why keep pulling it to the front of my mind? Instead of adopting true cost as part of my food identity, and then putting it to rest, I’d be better served by continually questioning what a $2 carton of eggs says about their production conditions, or if my salad really needs red peppers that were grown not in the US, but in Holland. It would serve me to be aware that my food choices are just that—choices—instead of allowing myself to function on autopilot because I read a Michael Pollan book once.
Labels can also distance us from each other. I recently started eating a vegan diet, and I can tell you from experience: it is one loaded label. I’ve seen how uttering the word can (not always, but often) lead to images in friends’ minds of a militant crew of angry vegans climbing under slaughterhouse gates on a mission for liberation. “Foodie” is another label with the power to polarize. To many, it comes with class connotations and stereotypes of $30 bottles of herb-infused olive oil. This doesn’t mean that this is the intention of those who call themselves foodies, or that it is inherently wrong to put a lot of one’s own money into artisanal products. But use of this label can encourage blind stereotyping instead of conversation around favorite foods, meals, and products.
The distance that can be incited by labels is accompanied by an opposite and equally present force: the opportunity to find community. When I became a vegetarian, labeling myself as such and talking about it helped me find my way to clubs on campus, potlucks, and the world of vegetarian food blogs (a black hole I have yet to emerge from.) Whatever your deepest held beliefs about food are—whether you bow down to bacon or want a space to talk about composting as a religious experience—finding people to discuss them with around a shared meal is one of the most joyous and basic human experiences. If labels help you reach these spaces, then they can’t be all bad. Maybe the answer, then, isn’t to completely decry labels. But instead of relying on them as a way to self-conceptualize our own food identities and fully explain these identities to others, let’s move toward a culture where labels are accompanied by commitment to awareness and explanation.