Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Food for Thought, Thoughtful Food

I am in the vegetable garden pulling weeds (it is always a good year for weeds.) I am glad to be away from the computer with my hands and feet in dirt. I am thinking: there is no such thing as a virtual vegetable garden. I uproot some mustard greens that are crowding out the peas. In an hour or so we will eat them for dinner. I am wishing everyone in the world could have a chance to eat something he or she has grown.

On this edible planet where we all eat (and/or are eaten), food connects all life. How we grow it, how we transport it, how we prepare it and how we share it matters. As a woman, I sometimes feel responsible (read guilty) for the invention of agriculture. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, being able to stay in one place with the babies, being able to store surplus food for winter or other difficult conditions, being able to feed more people.

As agriculture took hold, we needed more people to produce the food, and so we produced more people to feed, and needed more food. Though most of us no longer work in agriculture and many have been forced to sell family farms, global human population is still growing, projected to reach nine billion between 2040 and 2050. Modern commercial agribusiness has given us the ability to feed a burgeoning population—although many still go hungry, not because of local famines but because of a system that keeps them in poverty, including the very people that labor to grow commercial monocrops. Refrigeration and global food distribution must once have seemed like a good idea, too. (Who among us has never eaten vegetables and fruits out of season, grown in a faraway place?) Now most of us are dependent on this system—and the oil that fuels it.

Oil-driven food industry is a relatively new, post WWII phenomenon. My mother’s generation, the ones who spawned the baby boom, was the first to turn en masse to processed foods, instead of pickling or canning at home. (Again, an idea that looked good at the time, marketed as freedom from drudgery.) I married a vegetarian and learned to grow, cook and eat food I never dreamed existed in my hamburger-centered youth. My daughter, granddaughter of the woman who made everything from a mix, is an accomplished cook and baker who makes everything from scratch.

Things can change quickly. In my life time, family farms disappeared from the Hudson Valley, driven out by lower cost factory farms further west. Now farming is returning to the region in the form of Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs)which sell vegetables, eggs and grass-fed meat directly to the local population. Many towns in the area host farmer’s markets. People are getting to know the provenance of their food, as well as the people who grow it. This change in our relationship to food has the potential to spur other changes—in the way we use land, develop housing, and connect with our neighbors, the way we structure our local and global economies.

It’s only a beginning. Local, organic food is not readily available or affordable to everyone, especially in economically depressed urban areas. We have a huge population to feed. We need visionaries; we need private and public investment in new ways to grow and equitably distribute food. Oil-dependent agribusiness is neither healthy nor sustainable, nor at all careful of preserving soil and ground water. Neither is car-centered suburban sprawl that has already consumed vast acres of arable land.

Food, a need and pleasure we all share, offers hope. Maybe the way forward is back to the garden, literally: in our back yards, on community-supported farms, on common lands around cluster housing, in lots on every city block. Let’s meet in the garden across generations and cultures. Let’s share vegetables, swap recipes. Let’s all come to the table. Let’s eat.

For books on this subject:

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered
by Woody Tasch


  1. Maeve speaking: I have a favorite verse of scripture that someone made into a round that we sing every year when we celebrate Unorthodox Easter aka The Passion According to Maeve:

    And everyone neath the vine and fig tree
    shall live in peace and unafraid 2x

    And into ploughshares beat their swords
    nations shall make war no more 2x

    seem apropos for this post and for what's happening in the world right now, so near where we lived our passion.

  2. Too right!!!

    I am thrilled and blessed to live on a farm where we grow horses, vegetables and trouble. My brother-in-law is an organic farmer (cattle, sheep, and, also, trouble...)

    I grew up in a big city thinking that my food grew on trees wrapped in Styrofoam and cellophane. I am delighted that my children will know, celebrate, respect and revere where their food comes from.

  3. We can hold out the hope that our consciousness as eaters is gradually turning around. Thank you for being part of that!

  4. This is inspiring!

    Growing up in an area that was all farms, and is now all exurbia, I hope that the slow food movement and the slow money movement you reference will bring back that sacred connection between what we eat and what we do.

  5. How timely a post for me. I've recently gotten interested/obsessed by the raw foods movement, something I'd never imagined would appeal to me. Funny when you are ready and something feels right how you can change--and change starts with each of us in our gardens remembering how fresh fruits and veges are supposed to taste! I wish I could say I had a green thumb though. Thank you for this post!