About Food, Again

posted September 11, 2007

I recently heard a talk by a wonderful meditation teacher named James Barez. He said:

“In the Buddha’s teaching called Transcendental Dependent Arising, he lays out how suffering can lead to a joyful heart. The list (what’s a Buddhist teaching without a list?) starts by showing how suffering, when held in the light of wisdom and compassion, can be a causative factor for faith. Our hearts crack open as we see we have no control over life. Surrendering our imagined control, we learn to trust that we can meet what is here with wise attention. This is the birth of faith. Faith then leads to gladness, and gladness flowers into joy. So suffering, in the light of dharmic understanding, is actually a precursor to joy. We can choose whether or not to let our suffering lead us into a downward spiral or open our hearts to life, allowing the goodness to shine through.”

Of course this makes me think about food.

Backstage at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, there was a sign reading, “Thank you to the farmers who provided much of this food.” Logos appeared under the words, identifying which of the many Manitoba farms had donated produce and livestock so that we musicians could eat. Later, at the Fairmont hotel in downtown Winnipeg, I asked the waitress if the chicken in my salad was organic and free range. “Oh, yes,” she said. “Our chef won’t work with any meat that isn’t. And all of the vegetables are local too.”

As we drove into Northampton, on our way back from the airport, I noticed in several of the town restaurants those big yellow and green signs saying, “We support local farms.” “Local heroes,” others read. Am I just opening my eyes to these signs, or is a subtle but crucial cultural revolution occurring right now?

I choose to believe the latter, though it’s also true that I have had my consciousness raised recently by two wonderful books: Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, in which the well-known novelist chronicles her family’s year long experiment with eating locally, growing much of their own food, eschewing bananas and hewing closely to their farmer’s market. And The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s wonderful account of four meals he serves to his family and how each one of them came to be.

My love for organic farms has its origin in my first summer as a professional musician. Katryna and I had moved to Williamstown in 1991 to take that little town of 8000 by storm (our motto: first Spring Street, then THE WORLD!) Coincidentally, my great aunt Sally, an eighty year old Taoist and gardener, chose that same summer to move back to Williamstown, her girlhood home. She invited us over to tea and said, “I’ve just joined a local organic CSA (Community Supported Agricultural Farm) but I won’t be able to eat even a third of the vegetables. Why don’t you girls come with my on Tuesday and help me pick? I promise I’ll let you have all the sugar snap peas.”

That was the deal of the century. For the next few years, every Tuesday we drove Aunt Sally to Caretaker Farm, nestled in a valley of the Berkshires, and she sat in a rocking chair in the shade of the old barn and knit while Katryna and I picked green beans, peas, raspberries, strawberries, tomatoes and took home more fresh, delicious vegetables per week than we were used to eating in a year. Thus began my love affair with summer squash.

I’ve joined other CSAs over the years, and slowly learned the value of real, homegrown food. I began to get it that commercially grown food costs a lot more than the price tag would indicate: there are environmental and social costs the consumer pays in the form of taxes (subsidies for corn, wheat and soybean farmers) and in the form of environmental degradation (commercial fertilizers are literally killing the soil in the Midwest; age old methods such as crop rotation and the manures of local animals which used to protect the soil have been replaced by synthetic fertilizers which reduce the complex balance of elements in the soil to three: phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium.) In other countries, food costs more, and people generally budget for that, choosing nutrients over a new cell phone every year, and an entirely new wardrobe every season. Is this a bad thing? Certainly, no other country has the obesity epidemic we have, and perhaps a part of that is due to the cheap availability of calories here, many of them derived from soy and corn, turned into junk foods and soda.

When I buy a commercially raised chicken at Stop & Shop, it costs me $2.50 a pound. This chicken has probably spent its entire short sad life living in a room the size of my bathroom in a crate with 1200 other chickens, each in their own crate, stacked up one on top of another. Its beak has probably been removed so it won’t peck its neighbor in the tail feathers, a common occurrence among birds caged in this manner. As this isn’t the most supportive environment for the chicken, it needs supplements of antibiotics to keep it healthy. On the other hand, if I buy my chicken from a local farmer, or even at Whole Foods, and it’s been certified organic, or at least free range, that chicken will set me back more like $4 a lb, but I will know that my chicken pecked grubs and nibbled on grass and maybe even sat on eggs and knew its mother for few weeks of its chicken life.

As I am writing this, I have the same strange mixture of anger, shame and hope that I always have when I write about the places where my desire to be a good citizen of the planet collides with my desire to be accepted as one among many fallen humans, normal people who just want to live a good life, who want to enjoy the occasional chicken McNugget and not have that moment ruined for them by a Climate Change Cassandra campaigning against junk food. In other words I feel the need to apologize. There is no issue that divides people as quickly as food, and this makes sense, of course. Do you know anyone on the planet who likes and hates all the same foods you like and hate? Every mother I know tells me serving dinner to her family of three, four or five is almost impossible: someone’s not going to like something. Why should it be any different with our food politics? These issues are complex. My current belief that it’s more virtuous to eat locally means I no longer buy my weekly box of mangos from Tran, the owner of a wonderful local Asian market because that box was shipped from Haiti and cost who knows how much fossil fuel not to mention the mango pickers might not have been paid a fair wage. But where does that leave Tran? Michael Pollan writes about how monocultures-the growing of just one crop on a given plot—is one of the root problems in our agricultural system, and the solution is to support small, local farms who provide many types of plants and livestock, rotating fields, using the manure of the animals to nourish the crops, and using the grass of the fields to nourish the animals. But in our global economy, we now have farmers in third world countries committed to growing monocultures to feed our curious and growing appetites for exotic fruits and vegetables, which we’d like to have available all year long, and not merely when they’re in season. Do we pull the rug out from under them?

At Winnipeg, we ran into an old friend, and got to talking about the OTHER big concert happening that day.

“Can you believe Madonna?” he scoffed as we watched the Manitoba sunset at 10:15pm. “Doing this Live Earth benefit, pretending to be all holier than thou, and here she is flying her own jet to get to her stage. Some carbon footprint!”

“Yeah,” said my sister Katryna. “But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

This has been our mantra recently. Also, “It’s not easy being green.” My mother just called to tell me she was eating nothing but local food, and the seventeen-year-old in me wanted to point out that her rice had come from China, her peach from California, her chicken from God knows where and her coffee from Indonesia. But good for you, Mom, for your zucchini and tomato!

Where does that get me? Into a cranky, aversive judgmental place. Glass houses. We all have plenty of environmental sins; no one’s hands are clean. The problem is there are too many of us using the slim resources the earth has to give us, and by that logic, we are guilty for just being alive. But where’s the hope in that? Thinking along these lines—judging my mother, looking at anyone’s plate besides my own, for that matter–just brings me to a place of despair.

Here’s what I like better: I like to think of the changes I feel called to make as challenges, sort of like the challenges I faced when I was starting my music career. Or the challenges I like to think I would take on if I were ever crazy enough to train for a triathlon. Eat locally? Sure! That’ll be fun! I’ll find some farmers and get to know them; ask why they make the choices they make, put a face behind the food on my dinner plate. Feel good knowing that my dollars are going into the pockets of those neighbors with the red barn and the big fields so that their kids can go to college or take over the business when the time comes. Use less fuel? Hey! What a good way to get more exercise, burn some calories, see my town from the vantage point of a bike or on foot. And when I’m on foot, I run into more people I know. Spend less money on the various plastic things I buy, the cheap clothes and ingenious gadgets (like the new iPhone I covet)? Great! I’ll save money and find other ways to spend my time (which is not exactly one of my problems.) If I can take the Buddha’s precept about suffering turning to joy, it’s easy to make these small sacrifices, and I do always find the surrender a gift, that when I give something up, my pack becomes lighter and my journey therefore more easy and pleasant. But that’s my journey—not anyone else’s. So above all, I get to be gentle with all the other six billion humans stalking the planet, and be gentle with myself, treading as lightly as I can and knowing that even with the best of intentions, I’m still going to make an impact.

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