A recent National Post story revolved around the town of Lac-Etchemin, Que., that prided itself on being the first Canadian municipality to ban “unhealthy” food from its arena. In the face of public pressure, and declining sales at the arena’s food shop, the ban on unhealthy foods has been lifted. This is good news not just for the people of Lac-Etchemin, but for all Canadians. The war on unhealthy food must stop. More power to poutine!
It’s easy to chuckle at the hubris of a Quebec town trying to ban the delicious French Canadian staple of French fries laden with cheese curds and gravy. But don’t believe for a minute that the poutine ban was trivial or funny. It is merely one more instance of governments’ creeping encroachment into what goes onto your dinner plate. Today, we need to borrow a slogan from a past era and update it fit our modern struggle: The government has no business in the kitchens (and snack bars) of the nation.
As much as anything else, food choices are personal. They define our identity as surely as our choices in attire or reading material. “Food is love” is a hackneyed saying that conveys the basic truth that eating is about far, far more than merely sustaining life.
Food is an integral aspect of transmitting culture and ethnicity. From Italian pastas to Indian curries, from poutine to falafels, a rich array of dishes form a part of your family’s history and the background of who you are. Often the mere smell of a dish as you walk by a restaurant can elicit a flood of childhood memories, including how recipes or cooking techniques were passed down from one generation to the next.
Food is also a form of cultural exchange through which diverse ethnic groups can automatically appreciate each others’ heritage. The appreciation happens spontaneously, without involving taxpayer dollars, laws or government programs. It happens every time someone chooses a Chinese restaurant or expresses preference for a Jewish deli. During the Second World War, sauerkraut was widely banned in North America as “unpatriotic” because of the deep hostility toward anything German. Equally, the approval of ethnic food is a form of acceptance of a culture or, at least, of one significant aspect of it.
Food is also a moral choice, as every vegan knows. It is a religious choice, as Orthodox Jews will attest. Food is also a political statement, as a farmer who produces raw milk will happily tell you.
Food shows love. When a spouse or mother celebrates your birthday, it is through making “a favourite meal.” When a man proposes, it is often over a romantic meal at an expensive restaurant. When you express sympathy at a post-funeral gathering, you do so while holding a casserole that you’ve brought over. It is commonplace for those who are emotionally distressed to seek “comfort food.” How many women have recovered from a broken heart over tubs of ice cream?
Ultimately, food is also one of the main forms of self-control you exercise over your own life. It means something different to everyone, and that’s what makes attempts by the state to set one standard for all so offensive. You set your own priorities and take your own risks. For some, the judgment leads to an Atkins diet, for others it is organic lentils. Even people who make “bad” choices are expressing themselves, as they have a right to do. The bounty and diversity of food available in every grocery store demonstrates the richness of society itself — not merely in terms of prosperity, but also in terms of choice.
Thus, when government dictates what you may or may not eat — takes away your choice — it is restricting your heritage, your religious and political choices, the control over your own body; telling you that a choice every bit as personal as freedom of speech or the art you view is not yours to make. It is making a fundamental decision for you, and they try to make it better by telling you it’s for your own good.
Imagine if the government had literary experts that decided that certain books weren’t good for you. They didn’t make you smarter or teach you anything. They weren’t classic pieces of literature. And even though you were happy to buy your books with your own money and read them privately, the state still decided it didn’t want you to have access to them. People would be outraged. Why is it any different when the government is counting calories instead of artistic merit?
The typical counter-argument is to say that since society pays for our health care, we owe it to society to lead healthy lives. In short, your neighbour has a vested financial interest in what goes into your body. If you won’t take care of it, the government will make you.
This line of reasoning — rather than justifying a Nanny State or a nosy neighbor dictating your personal choices — constitutes a powerful argument against socialized medicine, but it doesn’t do much to say that the government should control what you eat. If socialized medicine had been advertised decades ago as a government mandate to control the minutia of your daily life, then it would probably have never been implemented.
All of us should of course take care of ourselves, but for our own sake. We are the architects of our own lives and that includes our health. It is not the place of the state to try and control what we can eat because some people make bad decisions. Though it seems trivial to many, it’s an important point to make. Food is part of who we are and how we related to the world. We need to kick the government out of our kitchens.
Wendy McElroy is Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada.