Us students band together. As I prepare for my CEcD exam, across the country, my fellow blogger Stephanie Bostic is working through complex food issues at Cornell. Please join me in examining her thoughtful work.
Most of us depend on grocery stores for food, but our food environment can be very complex. While I haven’t belonged to a CSA in recent years, I’ve had farm stand shares, belonged to coops, gone to u-pick places, shopped at roadside stands large and small, patronized orchards, gone to farmer’s markets, mail-ordered specialty foods, and bought maple syrup from a Boy Scout in front of a golf course. And I’m not even including informal barter, gifts, or growing my own! One way to look at how we respond to and manage our environments, food and otherwise, is the Reasonable Person Model (RPM), which was developed by two psychologists.
The first component of RPM is intuitive: we, as humans, need information to survive and seek it out. At a basic level, we need to know where we can breathe, find drinkable water, find food, and eventually reproduce. Exploration lets us wander into new spaces to collect info tidbits like the location of a berry patch. We then build all these nuggets of information into mental maps. Take a second and draw your mental map of food shopping. Does your map focus on individual items like onions, categories like dairy, or product characteristics like organic? Did you include landmarks like signs or “the fourth mailbox after the row of pine trees” to help guide you through the map? Do you have distinct sections, like by work versus by home or seasonal patterns? We use all of those when we consciously or unconsciously navigate our mental maps.
Building these mental maps helps us take action: catch a fish, pick some apples, or gather from the farmer’s markets. Beyond just ensuring survival, food is a venue of adding meaning to our lives because it is so deeply embedded in our senses of ourselves, our families, and our communities. Choosing to shop in different places, to buy foods that meet a certain way of eating, to buy items that support certain values like supporting local economies, or to care for another person are ways we add meaning to our food shopping. It may not even be conscious, but every time you prepare a meal as a certain mixture of foods, you are acting on and reinforcing cultural meanings.
The challenge with being an information-seeking being is that we live in a world with what economists call imperfect information: our maps may not match reality. We do not have complete knowledge, and our limited information isn’t even always the information we need. Misleading or incomplete information can distort our mental maps, or we can feel unpleasantly lost when our mental map no longer matches our physical environment. If you’ve ever been frustrated after a grocery store rearranged or overwhelmed by deciding between local or organic or fair trade or bird friendly or…You get the idea.
When information isn’t presented appropriately, we also struggle with what to give our attention to. There are a few example of food packaging on this Pinterest board that illustrate how bright and large letters can present completely unimportant info in a way that places it in the center of your attention. Another example you may have seen in stores is “Bakery” signs being quite prominent while “Vegetable” signs are less noticeable. A sneaky way of catching your attention is by using scent or sound. Attention-grabbing marketing that is distracting, pushed you toward less healthy choices (usually), and fails to provide you with the important information you need to buy, prepare, and eat healthy meals is makes it difficult to achieve your goals. Too much distraction like this and we’re likely to become mentally fatigued and less able to be effective. You could also just call this feeling cranky and unreasonable!
Recovering from this type of crankiness is surprisingly simple but hard to practice. You have to disengage from the blaring information overload and use your soft focus, a way of letting your mind wander and recover. One soft focus approach proposed in RPM is exposure to nature, even passively looking at trees through windows. More active action, like walking through a park, is also a way to recover from mental fatigue. Conventional grocery stores rarely feature nature, but you often have a chance to involve nature in your food shopping experience through farmer’s markets located outside, farm stands, u-pick operations, or even just by walking through a park on your way to the store.
To summarize, a Reasonable Personal Model-compliant experience supports information seeking, exploration, and mental recovery while avoiding overburdening you with distracting, undesirable, or misleading information. Key features of the food shopping environment that may help lead to happier and healthier people include moderated advertising, opportunities for exploration, and thoughtful incorporation of recovery in the food environment. To see some specific examples, visit Reasonable Food Shopping. What are some experiences that you have had that have achieved “reasonableness” or have completely failed?
Stephanie Bostic is a PhD student at Cornell studying community nutrition. She is, unsurprisingly, interested in our food environment. If you’d like to read more thoughts about our food environment and RPM, visit these posts on the proposed nutrition facts label and food labels. The Reasonable Person Model was proposed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan.