We just learned about a blog entitled Nourishing Words, which recently featured reflections from a Hungry for Change discussion course currently taking place in Concord, New Hampshire. Read on for more musings on local food, gardening, healthy living and sustainability. Follow future Hungry for Change posts from this blog here.

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This post relates to the first week discussion of Hungry for Change: Food, Ethics and Sustainability. We have an enthusiastic group of eleven people participating in this series, and we were off to a fine start in our first week. Week One readings included writings by Andrea Wulf, Barbara Kingsolver, Camille Kingsolver, Barry Estabrook, Scott Dodd, Zoe Weil, Lisa Bennett and Vanessa Barrington.

Never heard of most of those writers? Neither had I—and that’s actually one of the things I love most about Northwest Earth Institute courses. They serve up ideas that I might never have otherwise encountered.

Our discussion circled around the idea of our own food traditions, both old and new. In our group, many of us grew up in the days of Campbell Cream of ______ Soup casseroles, the introduction of boxed cake mixes, lots of canned vegetables, Friendly’s “fribbles” and more. Beyond those childhood basics, our paths diverged. Some remembered gardens (or even farms) playing a role in their childhoods, some did not. Most of us experienced significant shifts in our eating as we moved into and through adulthood. Not surprisingly, since we were all drawn to participate in this discussion series, we’re all pretty thoughtful eaters today, and our traditions continue to shift.

I’ve often thought about how the food of my childhood shaped me (figuratively and quite literally) as an adult, and written about it a few times. Hearing other people reflect on their own food stories makes my own all the more interesting to me. I find myself searching the shadowy places of my memories for just a little more detail—one more bite of my food story. What DID my aunt pour all over that ham before it went into the oven? Where was that ham from, anyway? Did I like it? How about the strange pitchers of punch she’d prepare? What was tossed into that pitcher?

The Working Mom’s Eating In Challenge, by Lisa Bennett, got us thinking about what it takes to make it through a week without eating (or taking) out. The discussion sorted us out into roughly two groups: the planners and the “wingers.” Whether cooking for myself or for my family, I’ve always been the latter. Sure, about once a week I cook something in a big enough batch to ensure leftovers (usually soup), but that’s not a function of planning, by any means. Even when I was cooking for two, not much planning went on—although probably more eating out. I’m comfortable as a winger. Give me a grain and some vegetables and I’ll cook up a meal.

Barbara Kingsolver launched us into talk of the challenge of eating locally in January. A few years ago, the same group might have bemoaned all that we can’t have in January, but that seems to be changing. We’ve adapted by learning to freeze and store what we produce ourselves and local farms are rising to the challenge of feeding us throughout the winter. The boom in winter farmers markets here in New Hampshire is astonishing, as is the commitment of the hoards of shoppers who support them. We want this. We’re becoming more and more curious (suspicious?) about our food every day. Eating locally is still a challenge, but it’s getting easier. What foods would we all miss if we ate absolutely nothing from far away? You guessed it: coffee, tea, olive oil, citrus fruit…chocolate!

I’m encouraged by the softness of the self-imposed rules implied by our discussion. Indeed, many of us spoke of a need to avoid the all-or-nothingness of locavorism. There’s so much more to it than that, not the least of which is pleasure. Conscious eating, rather than hard and fast rules, suits me. Asking questions, finding answers and making thoughtful choices is worth so much more to me than turning away from the questions to adopt rigid rules.

The Indignity of Industrial Tomatoes, by Barry Estabrook, fired us up about Florida’s shocking tomato industry. Raised on chemicals and harvested long, long before ripe, “green tennis ball” tomatoes depend on ethylene gas to turn red. I’d read Barry Estabrook’s book Tomatoland a year or so ago, so I was beyond shock. It’s safe to say, I’ll regard store-bought tomatoes with suspicion—deserved or not—for the rest of my life. The discussion did bring up for me that ever-present worry that I’ll simply never know everything about the food I eat.

And that worry relates to something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: the role of non-farmers in creating a better food system. A writer friend, who’s a subsistence farmer up in Vermont, writes beautifully about life on the farm. Life separate from the nonsense of big box grocery stores, fast food restaurants, and all the challenges associated with eating well in the city. So many of us yearn for that kind of independence and connection to the land. It’s easy to think (and I’ve thought this many times) that the “best” way to live would be to raise all my food myself. Therein lies the rub: I’m not going to do that. Many, many other people are also not going to do that. 

So, how can we all manage to feel good about who we are, and how we live and eat? I suspect the answer to that question lies in appreciating the complexity of the challenge. For me, there are many answers:

  • For the local farm where I get my organic vegetables to be successful, people like me need to commit to buying their products.
  • For my local food coop to offer more and more local, organic food—and to do that at affordable prices—people like me need to commit to shopping there as well as voicing our hopes for how the store will run.
  • To achieve the dream of living in a neighborhood with more than a scant handful of homes featuring vegetable gardens, I have to step into the front yard to garden more publicly than I might like.
  • I need to say no to those Florida tomatoes, California strawberries and continue to read and learn about food—where it comes from, who’s involved in producing it and what my purchase of it might mean to the environment.
  • I need to dive into food questions as I find them, and be willing to scratch around for answers. Where do those cashews I love come from, and what’s involved in growing them?
  • I need to continue to ask my local food coop to please label produce with state of origin, helping me and other shoppers to make more conscious food decisions.

The reality is that relatively few people these days are able to feed themselves from their own land. But that fact doesn’t leave the rest of us behind in the quest for a more viable food system. There’s plenty for us to do. We are not without power. Not as long as dollars buy food.

The Hungry for Change discussion guide nudges us gently to take action, and to consider the impact of our own choices on our lives and the world around us. One by one, we tentatively committed to an action for which we’ll be accountable to the group next week. We spoke of things like journaling about our food, going without white flour and sugar, trying to crack the breakfast cereal habit and shopping completely from the farmers market for one week. It’s kind of scary to voice a commitment, even a small one, to a group. Mine was to journal about my food for a week.

I’m grateful to the Northwest Earth Institute for courses like this one. I’m a naturally curious person. I read a lot. I have tons of information rattling around in my head all the time. Talking about those thoughts breathes life into them and hearing what other people are thinking teaches me so much—even about myself. More importantly, once I talk about what’s really important to me, I really do want to do something to bring about change.

There’s a lot of work to be done. Every bit of it begins with becoming aware of what’s important to each of us. That’s the first bite.

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