In October, students of the undergraduate programme in sociology (University of Latvia) were engaged in the project SINFO to conduct three focus group discussions (FGD). In these discussions we wanted to gain a more in-depth understanding of issues raised in the public opinion survey and to learn about the factors and values people take into consideration when making choices concerning the food they consume, thinking about the perceived risks associated with food and the food system, and their views on (potential) societal food consumption trends in the future. One discussion was organised with predominantly Latvian-speaking participants, another with Russian-speaking people, and the third with people who were approached due to their specific dietary practices. Below are some of my initial impressions from reading the transcripts and analytical summaries provided by the students.
(Dis)similarity in principles
Most of the people participating in the Latvian-speaking group and with specific dietary practices connected veganism/vegetarianism, zero waste lifestyles, and also minimalism, suggesting their principles overlap. It was indicated that people who follow these lifestyles strive for sustainability in everyday life by buying no more than is necessary, consuming less by choosing quality over (lower) price in their purchases. But there are also collisions when people have to decide which criteria (and values) they will prioritise, e.g. when deciding whether or not to buy specialised vegan products in plastic packaging imported from another country, they have to prioritise a desire to add to their vegan diet, their zero waste ambitions, or their wish to support local producers. As these FGDs show, veganism/vegetarianism and zero waste lifestyles imply quite a lot of knowledge about nutrition and food preparation, national and international politics, ecology, local waste management systems, product design and properties of packaging materials etc.
The ethics of food consumption
It was interesting to encounter narratives that are familiar to me due to my own fieldwork while writing my undergraduate thesis on zero wasters (or less waster as people often tend to call themselves). These narratives are filled with moral and ethical quandaries about day-to-day practices, for example, whether or not to buy soybeans, weighing their nutritional value against their ecological footprint in comparison to animal products. It also demands self-discipline which is a source of both pride and shame: people state that they are proud and feel good about themselves when they are living/doing/acting according to their moral and ethical values, but, at the same time, they note that they occasionally (or regularly) slip up due to a lack of time, being tired or cravings, and emphasise that they are not 100% zero waste or vegan/vegetarian but they aspire to be. In the comments made by FGD participants it is often implied that recycling, reduction of meat consumption, buying locally and ecologically grown products is something that should be done and that some of them have finally started doing that.
Specific contexts and access
The Russian-speaking FGD group provided a different viewpoint. I should mention that these results obviously do not represent the overall differences between Latvian and Russian speaking communities in Latvia. Nevertheless, the discussion brought other opinions concerning food consumption into the picture. Products with a long shelf life were discussed at length. This was associated with sustainability, especially in light of the restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic – products with a longer shelf life mean that there is less need to go to the shop, thereby avoiding potential infection spread. Participants focused more on specific contexts a consumer is in and how it may affect what choices are possible (e.g., a mother provides food according to preferences and needs of other family members, some people might not have enough money or time to purchase ecological and qualitative products, dietary habits might be affected by a chronic disease).
The concept of sustainability
FGD participants were asked to create a list of sustainable products and explain their choices. In general, sustainable food is believed to be biologically, chemically or genetically uncontaminated food (without pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, preservatives) and does no harm to our environment. Other important criteria were a long tradition of growing specific vegetables in the local culture, these crops are easy to store and have various ways to prepare them, they can be grown locally and grown by people themselves in their garden plots or at their relatives in the countryside. At first glance, I see that emphasis is put on ecological and economic factors, and less on social aspects – there were a few mentions of social aspects of sustainable food production (e.g. fair trade, community-supported agriculture). Some said that there should be more zero waste oriented bulk shops and small local producers’ stores to create more access for city dwellers to unpackaged or locally produced products. Participants said that people, schoolchildren and old people specifically, should be educated about food and food system sustainability, although often old people were said to be so set in their ways that it might not even be worth trying to convince them to change their habits.
These 3 FGDs have generated a lot of interesting data about what kind of attributes and values people ascribe to different kinds of food and different kids of food production. Perceptions of sustainability and sustainable food includes utilitarian considerations concerning food in the time of Covid-19, moral narratives involving animals and food producers, views about contaminated food that can be approached through the concepts of purity and danger à la famous anthropologist Mary Douglas. There are also interesting perceived divisions in attitudes and practices between city dwellers and rural residents, young people and the older generation. Discussions have also showed how different values of intermingle and collide in everyday practical decisions. This all shows that food and the choices surrounding it are personal, social, political, economic and that all should be taken into consideration when imagining sustainable food futures.