Paco Underhill’s How We Eat: The Brave New World of Food ad Drink, was a book I picked up several months ago. I ignored it for quite a while. Then, after reading Corey Mintz’s The Next Supper, I picked it up again. It seems to me that How We Eat is a good companion read alongside the Mintz book.
How We Eat – Futurecasting
I think the best way to describe How We Eat, is as an exercise in futurecasting. The link at the end of the last sentence will give you a fairly decent idea of futurecasting. In a nutshell it’s looking where your industry is going, and making sure you can adapt and thrive.
Underhill is well positioned to write on this subject. He is the founder of Envirosell, Inc., a global research and consulting firm. Do you ever why your local grocery store is laid out the way it is? Underhill’s firm has led the way in such layout planning. One example of this, is why dairy is always put at the back of the store. This is to make you walk by other things on the way to get your milk.
In his introductory section, “My Life in Food,” Underhill writes
My reason for wanting to write this book now was simple. I think that where food is concerned, we are at an inflection point unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before. We’re definitely in “best of times/worst of times” territorypage xvii
With that said, How We Eat generally falls on the “best of times” approach to where food is headed in the future. This is not surprising given Underhill’s career dedication to helping grocery stores and chains market their foods.
Much of what Underhill is doing in How We Eat amounts to a re-imagining of the food spaces we already occupy. Underhill suggests among other things, creating a food court out of food trucks(9). Further down the page he suggests turning our shopping places into one-stop entertainment centres.
Something of this nature is happening in Winnipeg, with the Hargrave Market at True North Centre. However it is limited mainly to the middle class and above.
Certainly, reorganizing our current spaces to encourage people to eat better, partiularly less wastefully, is a good practice. Vertical farming holds much promise to helping us produce more food.
Underhill is also a big believer in the entrepreneurial impulse as our greatest food hope. While we have received many benefits from entrepreneurial capitalism, it has also left many holes in our society, and that’s where How We Eat, falls down as a resource for ongoing plans to feed ourselves and each other.
A Limited we
The biggest drawback to How We Eat, from my perspective, is that the We in the title is rather limited. The overall tone of the book seems to be, technology and marketing will save us all. The human element of our food systems gets little attention.
Underhill himself writes from a position of wealth and privilege. While he shows an awareness of the people who struggle at the bottom of our fooid stystems, the concerns of where his next meal might come from don’t seem to be part of Underhill’s daily life
That’s why I think this book is best read in tandem with a book like Mintz’s “The Next Supper.” Mintz gives a better idea of how our food system’s underpinnings are problematic. Items such as how apps like Skip the Dishes make many restaurants unviable. How migrant labourers are exploited to allow us cheap produce.
One problem that both this and Mintz’s book share is that they were both written at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Both of the books could use a second edition in four or five years to see how things in the marketplace have settled out a little.
How We Eat, offers a series of thought experiments on ways we can continue to produce plentiful, cheap food. Potentially enough to feed us all. Maybe what we really need is a book called How Everyone Can Eat, A book that focuses on learning better to shre the food we have, and