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The founder of Envirosell Inc, a global research and consulting firm, and bestselling author, Paco Underhill in his new book, How We Eat elucidates how removed we as a collective humanity are from the primary source of our sustenance, food. While the elaborate and intricate process of how we produce, procure, and consume our food is undergoing, or has already undergone a paradigm shift, we blissfully continue to be oblivious of such far reaching changes that have immense and intense ramifications on our health and well-being.
The distinction between urban and rural eating is fast blurring with the consumer’s preference to source food ‘locally.’ Even in a teeming urban sprawl such as New York, could be found on a weekly basis, farmer’s markets that lure customers seeking produce that are freshly transported to the market. The onion or garlic with soil still stuck to their sides bear testimony to the freshness of a produce. Supermarkets, on the other hand, tempt shoppers with some carefully – and professionally – constructed psychological maneuvers.
At the very front of the supermarket would be displayed a dazzling array of flowers and plants. But as Underhill argues, the ‘secret in-store weapon’ of every supermarket is its alluring bakery. No olfactory nerve can escape the seductive lure of the myriad aromas wafting from the bakery and its assemblage of delicacies. The formidable troika of flowers, bakery and produce act upon our connected sense of smells and taste thereby exacerbating our proclivity to make a purchase – or two!
The bewildering choice that stares a consumer in her face is an information overload that confuses than convinces a potential purchaser. Take eggs for instance. A supermarket these days offers a bewildering choice of eggs. What once was a simple box of eggs is now a concoction of labels. “Cage-free” eggs, “free-range eggs,” “all-natural” eggs, and “gluten-free” eggs all compete with one another for a customer’s wallet. There is even a variety that boasts about its chickens having bred on a strictly “vegetarian” diet!
For the eager and the intrepid, there are provided QR codes on the packages of various products. Scanning the QR codes will at times take the consumer to a video elaborating not just on the organic sources of the ingredient and the method of their preparation or harvesting, but also enlist the services of a chef to magnanimously provide a couple of recipes which may be dished up using the product under question.
The way in which our food is being produced is also undergoing a significant transformation. Square Roots, a ‘modular farm’ in Brooklyn founded by Tobias and Kimbal Musk, the brother of Elon Musk, uses hydroponic techniques to grow various produce throughout the year with lot less land and water that is otherwise, the preserve of a conventional farm. The plants at Square Roots enjoy perfect environmental conditions, such as humidity, light, and temperature levels, all year round. Thus, replication of conditions for a particular produce grown in any part of the world can be reproduced to the “T” in a modular farm, thereby ensuring the presence and availability of even non-seasonal products at any point in time.
One of the biggest, if not the biggest changes that is apparent in the method of consumption, especially post the COVID-19 pandemic, has been the total absence of human interaction between the producer/supplier and the customer. An already app-infested world where products were delivered at the buyer’s doorstep has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Earlier, we used to at least greet the delivery personnel as he/she dropped off our orders with a smile and a wink. A well-deserved tip at times also embellished the goodwill between patron and producer. However, in a post-COVID scenario, even this bare minimum contact has come to an unfortunate end. Packages are now left in the lobby to be collected at convenient times.
“How We Eat” is a much-needed wake up call for resuming a connection between the consumer and the food that is being consumed in such a way that makes the relationship much more meaningful and fulfilling.