No One Eats Alone: Food as a Social Enterprise

Michael S. Carolan

171 pages, Island Press, 2017

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Food books have become as ubiquitous, and just as hard to keep up with, as new product lines in the supermarket. On Amazon I counted 2,259 food titles published in 2015, on such topics as sustainable agriculture, hunger, and food systems. Compare that with only 436 such titles published 10 years before. Neither count includes cooking, gardening, or diet books. It might be argued that not much more could be said about human sustenance.

Not unless, of course, a brave soul wants to attempt the grand synthesis. One contender who has stepped into the ring is Michael S. Carolan, a professor of sociology at Colorado State University. His book No One Eats Alone takes on no less a subject than the human connections that undergird the global food system. Carolan’s contribution should not be confused with cookbook author Deborah Madison’s What We Eat When We Eat Alone, a whimsical, tasty treatment of life at a table for one, nor theologian Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith, whose constant dinner companion is, well, you guessed it. Carolan is concerned not with who sits by us at meals but with our food system’s potential to either connect us to or isolate us from food production and each other.

To explore this theme, Carolan relies on interviews with some 250 food system participants, from farmers to corporate executives, around the world. One of his more unsettling conversations is with a food scientist who explains that the aquaculture industry can make salmon flesh any color that consumers prefer. In cavalier fashion, the scientist describes how precise adjustments in carotenoid pigments in farm-raised salmon feed produce the perfect pink blend—number “33” on the color chart—that consumers associate with healthy salmon. This cynical manipulation of buyer “taste” is one way that the food industry subverts connections between people and their food, presenting what Carolan calls a “highly reductionist understanding of health.” He contrasts this scientific propensity to narrow health interests with the approach of the Maori, New Zealand’s native people, who see “good health [as] a balance among mental, physical, family/social, and spiritual dimensions.”

Though this is not your typical anti-corporate diatribe—Carolan’s research includes voices from all persuasions—his sympathies clearly lie with perspectives that promote, as he puts it, “connectivity.” Finding kinship with the Slow Food movement, he deepens the idea of “slow” over “fast” food by highlighting the importance of care and reflection. We hear the by-now-familiar mantra “Know where your food comes from,” spoken by a Canadian food activist for whom this involves “encouraging people to care more about their food and the people involved in preparing it.” The case that Carolan lays out echoes the familiar refrain of critic Michael Pollan and other anti-industrial foodies: “The food system is broken.” For Carolan, the repair job requires rebuilding the “social infrastructure” of our “foodscape” and the relationships that glue it together.

We learn little, unfortunately, about how to realize this vision. In a too-abbreviated fashion, we hear about food hubs, farmers’ markets, and community-supported agriculture, all part of the standard playbook of the alternative food movement. In one of his few forays into public policy, Carolan notes how the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released last year, presented an opportunity to link dietary health, sustainable agriculture, and reduced carbon emissions in one important piece of federal policy.

Formulated every five years by a panel of health and nutrition experts, the Guidelines provide essential scientific recommendations on every facet of food policy and practice in the United States, including the composition of school meals and healthy eating habits for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program recipients and Americans more broadly. Sustainability advocates pushed to include environmental considerations in the current Guidelines’ dietary advice, but ultimately their aspirations succumbed to “Big Food” politics. Carolan skates over this promising policy mobilization, which represented a perfect illustration of what’s necessary to connect people and food, and could reemerge in the lead-up to the next Guidelines.

Though unacknowledged, the ideas of Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone reverberate throughout Carolan’s book. Putnam attributes much of society’s ability, or inability, to function to the basic, everyday human interactions within communities, neighborhoods, and families—what he and others term “social capital.” Applying these ideas about the power of human connection (real face time, as it were) to the complexities of our food system is effectively Carolan’s contribution in No One Eats Alone. What’s lacking are more robust examples and compelling analysis. There are some good moments, as in the case of the salmon colorist, but Carolan never shares a synthesis or compiled findings from his interviews. Stylistically, too, he seems to have difficulty maintaining focus. Numerous paragraphs packed with sentences ending in question marks, terminated by a “Bingo!” or a “Voila!,” come off as an overeager application of the Socratic method.

Carolan has given us a book whose theme of building social relationships resonates in these times of disconnection across the global food chain. While there is certainly a place at the table for No One Eats Alone, I look forward to more substantial offerings in the future.