Take a moment and remember the last food or meal you ate. Do you know who made it or where it came from? How many steps in its journey to your table can you trace? Can you place yourself along the way?
This morning I had some Kellogg’s cereal that probably contained ingredients from several different countries, wheat from an over-farmed Midwestern industrial field, genetically engineered plant sugars, and processing from a factory in Battle Creek, Michigan. The 2% milk came from Winder Farms, dairy and produce providers from Utah. I had some bread from Aspen Mills Bread Company, based in Ogden, UT. And blackberries from the Daniels Family Farm in Willard, UT.
I try to find a balance in all of this.
I do not have a garden. I currently live in an apartment with a yard that is not conducive to growing much of anything. But I look forward to one day having a stable life and planting my own seeds. I can grow herbs. Back east, I helped grow tomatoes, peppers, and edamame seeds. But beyond that, I feel a cutting disconnect between my body and my food. Someone else’s hands put it in the soil, or took it from a cow, or put it through a factory assembly line and added preservatives.
Where do we begin to fix the break?
It seems that in some ways, being responsible for the necessities in one’s life has become a lost art. It cannot have been too long ago that more people knew how to plant, can, cook, preserve, sow, knit, and build. This summer, I took the Ecology of Residency class at the Environmental Humanities Education Center in Centennial Valley, Montana. We spent a night listening to, watching, and talking with two women from Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Company. They showed us how to spin wool and I felt a few moments of pride before it was obvious that the process was harder than it looked and mine fell apart. The farm they run is predator-friendly, meaning non-lethal methods are used as frequently as possible to keep predators away from the livestock. Against many challenges, these women learned to integrate their needs with the needs of a world bigger than themselves.
Becky Weed, one of the women who came to talk to us, explains her interests this way:
“Making basic stuff from natural materials – food or fiber – seems to hold its value, not because we need more stuff…but because it carries so many different kinds of freight, needed more or less at different times:
Physical nourishment and clothing are always vital, though we forget that in a land of excess; our appetites for aesthetic pleasure and pride in quality and culture are perhaps almost as vital, though we suppress them in the name of ‘efficiency’; our hopes for justice require constant reminders of the work and care it takes to create the basic tools of living, whether we do it ourselves or someone does it for us. No matter what our station or our season in life, we can all learn from immersing ourselves in that mixture of concrete and cerebral in some way in our lives. My interest in the diversity of fiber all grown by animals on grass, and what people can create from it, is just one spoon into that stewpot.”
And so we keep stirring, hoping to find some footing. The University of Utah has its own edible gardens on campus, from which produce is sold weekly in late summer and early autumn at the campus farmer’s market. Students tend to the plants and interest is ever growing. The tomatoes are lovely in their fiery reds and yellows and incredibly sweet in a pasta or salad.
But why are we interested?
One downside of modernization and globalization is the feeling of our lives being pushed further out of our own control. It is too easy to ignore or forget this. Yes, there are plenty of good things that come from being connected to people all across the world and having technology that seems to make things simpler and faster for us. But perhaps not everything needs to be easy. Perhaps it is worth some extra time to know the story of the nutrients you give your body.
That is what everything comes back to. If we do not take responsibility for our own bodies and physical needs, how can we be responsible for anything else in our lives? Anyone who has faced chronic health issues can confirm the sensation of not being in control. At any moment, your body might decide to make your day significantly worse without taking your opinion into account. But food, and maybe even clothes, are something we can be responsible for. A little piece of control in an otherwise hurried world.
Slow Food Utah asks us to step back and take a breath. Slow Food was created in order to:
“…counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world. It is an idea, a way of living and a way of eating. It is a global, grassroots movement with thousands of members around the world that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment.”
I realize that for many people, here and elsewhere, just putting any food out for dinner is challenge enough. Too many people do not have the luxury of worrying about where or who it came from. But we have to start somewhere. Farmer’s markets, CSAs, and community gardens are becoming more popular. And I consider any amount of participation in this to be a positive step – a step towards taking back something that used to belong to us.
Adrienne Cachelin, a professor in the Parks, Recreation, and Tourism department here at the University of Utah is teaching Eating for Justice, Sustainability and Health this semester. She easily ties societal needs to our food and our surroundings:
“As we grapple with the biggest ideas of sustainability, including not only intergenerational equity, but justice, eating is one of the tangible places where we can make a difference at individual and community scales. Aside from that, there are so many different approaches to eating and food and cooking that it’s fascinating and fun.”
Our not-so-distant ancestors certainly knew what we have learned to ignore – that our bodies and minds depend upon the health of the world around us. Learn those connections. Put yourself in them.
And don’t forget humility. My sweater says “Made in China.” I’m currently eating a bag of treenuts from Brazil. They’re good, but it is time to change. One day my hands and my mind will find a balance.
Annie Gilliland is an Environmental Humanities graduate student at the University of Utah completing a fellowship with the Office of Sustainability.