Monday, June 29, 2009

Thoughts on Eating Well

The Eat Well Food Tour sponsored by *culture is not optional (*cino) and the the Office of Social justice for the Christian Reformed Church. Rob and Kirstin lead the workshop at Many Peoples Church in Roger's Park last night I attended the workshop after Reconciler,so I arrived a bit late and missed the beginning of the workshop. When I arrived they were talking about bananas and how their ubiquity as food has a story one that includes diverting economies and land for the production of a product that was exported. The banana we know it is only one variety and was cultivated for its ease of transport. Incidentally it is among the blandest of bananas. the Cultivation and export and import of bananas continues to be a troublesome aspect of current practices in the food industry. The term Banana republic is related to this story of injustice and how politics of certain countries can be centered arround this cash crop.

One of the emphasis of this workshop is that remembering and telling stories of food can help us evaluate our practices around food as well as become aware of our connection with food, whether good or bad, and thus allow us to either pursue a certain relationship to our food that we wish to perpetuate or bring us to be able to an awareness of negative relationships to our food. The other aspect of this story telling is to lead us into seeing how our relationship to food can or does fit into the Christian Biblical narrative of the coming reign of God and God's transforming saving work in Jesus Christ. Seeing Christians as participants in this saving and transformative work of the coming reign of God.

Rob and Kirstin then invited those present to share stories of food and eating from their families and childhood. There seemed to be two general types of stories told, one of raising at least in part ones own food, and the other being stories of not only not raising ones own food but eating primarily or only prepared foods. A third type of story was of having a particular special food that differentiated one's family from others.

Kirstin pointed out that bound up with the eating of primarily prepared foods or of ingredients that required relatively little preparation and cooking is bound up with womans liberation for some. Less time in the kitchen meant women could pursue other interests and activities. It also opened up for some like Kirstin's Father, the opportunity to cook because he enjoyed it and was an opportunity for interaction between he and his children as he invited his children to participate in the process of cooking, having the taste or taking them along to the grocery store to chose the ingredients of a meal. I interpret this that to some degree the food industry allowed for a lessening of some of the necessity of food acquisition and preparation and thus opened up opportunities of choice and desire to more widely enter in. The down side of this is that food becomes a consumer commodity. Food is reduced to commodity and our interaction with it is limited to being a consumer, divorcing ourselves from a sense of where our food comes from and how it gets to our mouths and stomachs.

This workshop is designed in part to confront this sort of disconnection that seems to be promoted by Agri-Business, and the industrialization of food production. In illustrating this they told stories of how mono-culture food production and food subsidies, automation and genetic modification of seed has lead to the dominance of one system of food production that lessens a farmers choices and reduces the number of people needed to work even a very large farm and one in which it makes it difficult for children to inherit a farm. The recounted stories told to them as they have brought this workshop to rural farm communities of the loss of communal interaction between farmers, how the industrialization of the farm creates analogous atomization and alienation in rural areas as it did and does in industrial cities.

This story of Agri-Business, and subsidization of mono-cultural food production by the government as having a deleterious effect, also has a parallel and alternative story of promotion of greater yield efficiency and better crops, and thus better life for the farmer and for society. This story was told in my family even as we found that the family farm would disappear when my grandparents died, which happened the land that was the family farm is now a neighborhood of Kingsburg, California. This story was told even as we knew that none of the family would continue to farm because it was a story of how both coming to the states and the growth of the cash crop and mono-culture brought us out of subsistence level of living where (back in Sweden in the 1800's) inability to feed ones entire family and potential starvation were real possibilities to a life of great abundance.

Even so there was a critique of this move from for my grandparents and mother a mixture of subsistence farming and cash crop to merely cash crop and mono-culture. My grandfather resisted the raising of a single cash crop even though that would have yielded him the greatest profit. He even kept vines of muscat grapes that he could have sold to wine makers but he as a teetotaler refused to sell for making wine, and which he could use for raisins but were considered an inferior grape for raisins and an unacceptable table grape because muscats are very seedy grapes. His forty acres had raisin grapes (variety unknown to me) muscats, nectarines, plumbs and peaches. I remember my grandfather critiquing farmers who would tear out perfectly good trees or vines in pursuit of the latest in demand cash crop. in my childhood a dairy farm was converted entirely into cornfields, most likely with government subsidy, I know know but didn't make alot of sense to me as a child. More and more I remember hearing about and seeing every few years fields that had been for the production of a variety of plants for food entirely being transfered over to a single crop. My grandfather was quite disdainful of this practice and also defended it as the wave of the future. He refused to take part yet he also knew that the cash crop had eventually allowed him to no longer need to have his own cow or raise his own chickens both to feed his own family and to sell eggs and chickens to his neighbors. He was able to live much like someone who lived in the city, which he and my grandmother had the first several years of their marriage until they took over the family farm.

I think that many of my choices about food have been informed by this conflicting story, memories of a different time of a mixture of farming on 40 acres(raising chickens, vegetables, having a milk cow, and fruit) and the advance of the cash crop towards mono-culture which had raised the standard of living of the average farmer but was also leading the extinction of the small family farm. I feel that my choice to become a vegetarian and my choice to once again become an omnivore as well as choosing to take part in a CSA and still largely cooking and eating vegetarian is due in part to the critique of mono-culture agriculture that agri-business and government subsidies create.