It’s frightening how many Americans are completely disengaged from the food they eat. Not only are most uneducated about the details of what actually goes into their food, but most just don’t care—and eat crap throughout their day without even thinking about what they’re ingesting.

But can you blame them? Not exactly. Our environment tends to shape our perspective on food. In fact, I believe it’s fair to say Americans’ eating habits result from what they see around them—and largely from what’s convenient. In offices and schools, it’s vending machines. In airports, malls, or on the highway, it’s eateries like Subway, McDonald’s, and Burger King. At entertainment venues, it’s popcorn and cotton candy. These food sources are rooted into our thinking because they’re often times all that’s available. They’re convenient. And when something’s convenient, it doesn’t warrant any further exploration of options.

For example, I went through the security checkpoint at Chattanooga’s six-gate airport this afternoon to discover limited food options for departing passengers. The airport offered just one eatery, offering pre-made sandwiches wrapped in Saran-wrap—chalk-full of preservatives listed on a white sticker that circumferenced the entire thing. Their “healthy” eating options included trail mix (mostly candy-coated M&M’s), chocolate banana bread (also laced with preservatives), and non-organic apples (also wrapped in Saran-wrap, indicating they’ve been there for a long time). Supplementing the eatery were three vending machines, sporting Coca-Cola beverages. Nearly every one listed “water” and “high fructose corn syrup” as their top two ingredients.

The limited availability of healthy eating options is not limited to Chattanooga’s small airport. It’s nearly everywhere. Our society is becoming increasingly aware of the unhealthy affects of our typical diets—processed snacks, synthetic ingredients, and an astounding lack of natural nutrients—but has yet to, on the whole, care about doing anything about it. All-natural ingredients are seldom found in chain restaurants, the majority of our produce is still covered with pesticides, and organic food is just too expensive. Consider the amount of oil used to produce an ounce of beef and you’ll realize our food system is undeniably hurting our society.

The system can be fixed—but only if people start to care about it enough to change their habits. In a country where all changes come down to dollars and cents, if enough people start making more mindful decisions about what they eat and where they get it from, food manufacturers will be forced to change their ways. But what does this look like? Local advocacy? Awareness campaigns? What does a system change actually require?

The truth is, food is a different breed of an issue than oil, electricity, or other public services. We need it to survive, and we’ve needed it since the world was created. We’re depriving ourselves of proper nutrition because we’ve bought into the convenience wealthy companies have provided. We’re too comfortable to think of what we could have. It’s time we educate society and help Americans remember tomatoes actually grow in the ground.

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