Thursday, September 7, 2006

Our Relationship to Food

There are certain questions that continue to fascinate us no matter how many times we ask them. Such questions are complex, deeply rooted in our human experience, and common the world over. When was the last time you looked down at your plate, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner, and asked yourself, “where did this food really come from?”

The question seems almost childish in its simplicity, and sixty years ago most people could have given you a pretty informed answer. Today, it would be a brave man or woman who would refuse to admit their own ignorance in the matter. The fact is both urban and rural populations have become dependent upon an industrial food chain that has disconnected us from the source of our own food. The questions to ask may be simple, such as “where did this apple come from,” or complex such as, “what was the cow fed that produced this meat and how healthy was it,” or “how many gallons of oil did it take to produce this loaf of bread?”

I used to believe that farmers possessed an edge on the urban masses when it came to overcoming our ignorance about food. I was always bemused, if not downright alarmed when farmers would remind me that today’s urban youth believe that food simply comes from the grocery store. While urbanites may barely understand that milk and beef come from cows, and bread comes from wheat, they are less apt and less capable of comprehending the connections between the food on their plate and the natural landscapes and processes that produced it.

Michael Pollan points out in The Omnivores Dillema that a trip down the aisles of your local supermarket could, and perhaps should be viewed as representing a “landscape teeming with plants and animals.” After all, even the most processed of our foods were once “some sort of formerly living creature.” Virtually “every item in the supermarket is a link in a food chain that begins with a particular plant growing in a particular patch of soil somewhere on the earth.”

Today’s farmers may possess a better understanding of the basic origins of all things edible, but few are any better informed than the rest of us regarding the details behind their modern diets. That’s because most farmers today are specialists, growing a large volume of only a few crops or livestock. The old days of producing most of one’s own food are long gone. Canning fruits and vegetables for the winter is nearly a lost tradition. Taking your surplus and bartering with the neighbors for eggs or fresh milk is little more than a nostalgic memory. Most farmers can remember growing up this way, but the supermarket has won out, even in our remaining farming communities.

But have we really lost anything with the decline and the demise of a local food culture? After all, we can now get canned, even fresh foods anytime of year, and at reasonably cheap prices at the local supermarket. Why should farmers bother with the growing, harvesting, and preserving of a wide array of foods that are now so easily and efficiently provided in one convenient location? Let farmers in Kansas grow wheat, those in California grow lettuce, and Georgians can stick to peaches, peanuts and chickens. Let everyone stay focused on their own singular efficiency and it will all get sorted out on the supermarket shelves.

Wendell Berry suggests that if we examine where our food comes from we will become perplexed and confused, and anytime that our most basic needs are beyond our own comprehension it creates anxiety. Americans are becoming increasingly helpless in providing their own sustenance locally. As a result we are becoming increasingly dependent upon a food system that fails to instill us with confidence in the basic integrity of our food. The modern food system excels at efficiency, but leaves us guessing in terms such as quality, taste, nutrition, and the true ecological, health and human costs behind those calories. If one peach was picked unripe by a hungry laborer in a third world country, sprayed with pesticide, and shipped 2,000 miles, while another peach was grown without pesticides, grown in good soils, picked ripe by a farmer who will receive the full dollar for every food dollar spent, and then turn around and spend that dollar in the community in which you live, which peach would you choose? In recent polls, 71% of Americans said they would be willing to pay more for food grown locally, near where they live, rather than far away.

I recently spent a few days on a small family farm in Eastern Colorado where they grew tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, corn, onions, squash, eggs, and pigs which they had processed into sausage. They also sold fresh fruits grown by a friend of theirs on the western slope of the Rockies. The farm, located just east of Pueblo, is called Country Roots Farm and is one of the only farms in Eastern Colorado that sells direct to consumers. They take some of their produce to a weekend farmers market in Colorado Springs, but the vast majority of their produce is sold or picked up right off their farm at a Saturday morning farm stand. Ryan Morris isn’t what you would call an extrovert, or a salesman, or even a “people person,” but he and his wife Betsy, his mother Virginia, and his son Reed, have amassed a loyal following. As I observed their Satuday morning ritual, it became obvious that a lot more was being exchanged than some simple food for some simple dollars.

Virtually everything being sold had been picked ripe within the last 24 hours. Many of Ryan’s customers would accompany him into the fields or out to the hen house where they could survey his farming practices, pick up the soil and smell it, and ask Ryan questions about this year’s harvest and next year’s plans. There he would explain his late season cover crop of Buckwheat, a succulent plant that brings in pollinators, or how he uses a simple vinegar and citric acid mix to control his weeds. Ryan’s five year old son Reed would play with the visiting children, and show them Roscoe the pig and how he gets to eat all the surplus or damaged zucchinis. “It’s a pretty good diet,” Ryan explains and it cuts his feed costs in half in the summer time.

Ryan’s mother Virginia sent Reed to gather some squash blossoms, contributing something of beauty to complement those items of nourishment sent home with each customer. After filling their bags with tomatoes and melons, most folks would stick around enjoying the sunshine and the companionship. Over the last few months of traveling, meeting people, and studying these things, I’ve begun to see where we derive much of the meaning in our lives and a good share of our happiness. The societal tradition that teaches us that success and happiness come through independence, competition, and self interest has proven insufficient. It contrasts poorly with the benefits of nurturing our relationships with others in our community, with the land, and with our food. It is our interdependence, not our independence that most accurately reflects reality.

So the question remains, “Where does your food come from?” Well the answer is it comes from the soil, from plants, from a patch of land under the sun, from animals, and from people. If you want to know the details about these ingredients, then you have to re-establish a relationship with these things. What better place to begin than in your local community?

If you have comments or suggestions for this article...send 'em on. Also, please encourage other venues for publishing these articles. Many thanks --Justin


  • 9/9/2006 5:01 PM Anna Erickson wrote:
    Hi Justin,

    I just got back from my first Famrmer's Market here in LA. Before leaving this morning, my roomate gave me a list of things to pick up for her, including mangoes, bananas and lychee fruit.

    Our ignorance is astounding when it comes to many things, but our ignorance about food is more than astounding. It's alarming. How can we be so disconnected from something so central to everything we do? I agree that the anxiety our disconnect produces undermines our health (spiritual, physical, mental, communal) in soooo many ways.

    So I told my roomie that no local farmers produce those things. And I bought her some melons and peaches instead.

    My internship this year is with the United Methodist Urban Foundation. One of our largest grants is a health initiative for poor Latino families at two churches in South LA. The people are so out of the (privileged) "loop" that they don't even know (how) to apply for healthcare for their kids who are, by and large, overweight if not obese.

    It's overwhelming. I want so much to help people, to help us all connect to each other, to what nourishes and sustains us, to the source of our nourishment, to our Source.

    But how do we connect when such connections threaten that which our our society is founded on--the bottom line. Insurance companies wouldn't profit from gastric bypasses if the people who ate a big mac a day all the sudden realized the consequences to the entire web of life produced by the process that gets those stupid beef patties into those stupid greasy yellow wrappers.

    I forget too often--when the alarm and fear and sadness and resignation sink in--to trust the Source.

    But wahoo for people like you, Mitch, Elisabeth and Bryce (and the farmer today who gave me a wink and an extra free cucumber for bringing my own bag) who give me hope and remind me to ENJOY the connections we ARE making!!!!!!

    So the point I meant to make without all this blather: Thank you for such a connective article!

    My only advice is to take out some of the "would"s in those last couple paragraphs. Verbs that aren't prefaced by "would" pack more punch.

    Keep on Keepin' On,
    Reply to this
    1. 9/9/2006 6:57 PM Justin Ellis wrote:

      Incredible feedback. I love the story about your new roomate and her grocery list. It's perfect. I'm sure your influence on her will get the gears working again.

      Go United Methodists! I'm sure you had told me that's who you would be working for...but I forgot. This is going to sound silly, but I think the Methodists have got it going on. The church I joined in Athens, St. James, is where I have first begun to probe into the denomination. Then ironically, on this trip I began to notice that the majority of churches that host bikers along the route are Methodist. Now, whenever I can't find a good place to stay, I just call the local Methodist church or better yet, go knock on the door of the parsonage, and they either let me camp in their yard, or more often than not, let me sleep right in the church. So far I've met one Methodist preacher who has sworn not to shop at Wal-Mart because of their support of companies that violate human rights, and just two days ago had a brilliant conversation with a female pastor about my interest in the Chrisian stewardship responsibility for creation. You're on to a good thing there. If you haven't already, study up on John Wesley, then teach me all about him because what little I know inspires me.

      Great advice on the "woulds." Much, much appreciated. And I agree. That's the point of sharing in this way. It helps me craft my message. So keep suggesting improvements. Big help.

      Great to hear from you. It really feels good to know people are out there and that the thoughts I'm generating touch people....especially when they come back and touch me again.

      Can't wait to hear more of your adventures. I'm proud of you for the move you have made.

      God be with you,

      Reply to this

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