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Bee Wilson: "We suddenly see the true value of food."

03 June, 2020
Bee Wilson Natasha Runciman

Photo Bee Wilson @Natasha-Runciman 

Recent surveys in the UK indicate that 44% of people are enjoying cooking more since the restrictions began. “The whole discussion of wellness, which was kind of a dead end, is gone these days. Labels are not as important as cooking, which reminds me of professor Carlos Montero in Brazil, when he notes that ´the great dividing line in human nutrition is between home cooking and everything else´. So if you are into home cooking, it doesn't matter if it's fried, if it's baked... The odds are that it's going to have more variety and delicious flavours,” says Wilson.

The author of Consider the Fork and First Bite is amazed to see how home cooking has turned into something comforting, but mostly, “how it gives the opportunity to explore the world through flavours we never imagined by following recipes or videos, or even what friends share with us from other cultures. So in a way, food becomes the only way to travel these days.”

Even for Wilson, who is not exactly a rookie but quite the opposite, cooking has been a way to cope with the pandemic, while sharing transatlantic online sessions with her sister and nieces in Philadelphia. But it has also fed her appetite with a long-awaited sign of collective consciousness, as she finds people finally asking the right questions: Where does our food come from? How is it made? And what is the impact of our food choices (where do we buy it from, for how much and for whom...)?

To see widespread support for local farmers and producers, and those preferring to buy food from small local stores, is also a good sign of long-overdue involvement. And yet, surveys also reveal how many people struggle to put food on their table around the globe. Only in the UK, research shows that around 3 million of people are going hungry because of lockdown.

On the other hand, if something has been exposed with Covid-19, in Wilson's opinion, it is the fragility of the human side of the food industry. “It is a big paradox, almost a caricature of what has already been going on for too many years, but now it is out in the open: those who are part of the food chain, that take care of one of our most essential needs and are losing their jobs or their short incomes —from local farmers, to the thousands involved in serving or cooking what we eat— are going hungry. 

“People expect food to be cheap, without even thinking what's the real cost behind it, especially the human cost. Normally, we do not make the connection between cheap food and the way it is produced. As we see how striking the struggle is for the men and women involved in giving us so much pleasure through food, we suddenly see all around the world the true value of food,” she says.

For Wilson, this is a critical moment to keep our eyes open. “The players who have already been successful in our industry, the big, big companies or multinationals, the makers of ultra-processed food, are seeing these changes in food habits as an opportunity. The supermarkets are almost the only ones, if not for Amazon, whose share prices are going up.” 

She sees it as a moment to “stop being deaf to the idea that food, immunity and health are somehow connected, as we know patients with diabetes seem more susceptible to developing a more severe type of Covid-19.” Considering we will have to live with this virus amongst us for some time ahead, Wilson has no doubt that a healthy diet should be part of our efforts. “It is a matter of giving ourselves the best chances. But the food industry does not want us to have that conversation,” she says. 

Wilson insists we should hear the pleas of food specialists like Tim Lang of City University of London, who recently urged the British Government to consider “healthy eating as important as social distancing in the fight against COVID-19.” Rather than putting false hopes in “quack cures”, Wilson thinks diet should be regarded as a form of medicine. “It's not a magic bullet to protect you or cure you. Nobody is saying diet is the single thing that can worsen or fix this, but we are saying that there is a profound connection in somebody's immune system and diet, enough to take our nutrition seriously.” 

From the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, it has become increasingly apparent that the virus is not transmitted through food. Restaurants and bars, nevertheless, are not in the best spot right now, as they still need to adapt operations to social distancing measures and sanitary control to be able to open, and then regain people's trust. “Although I worry about how much the atmosphere of restaurants could be transformed, as the beauty of these places is built in human openness and trust, I am intrigued to see how the wish for public eating, of which we have been deprived, grows.”

So she asks: “How much would you pay to have a pint of beer in your favourite pub? The dream of food as amusement or life-enhancing will only grow bigger and bigger.” 

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