What’s on Your Plate?

or, How to Visit Your Food

Autumn is here. We’ve been hearing the geese go by overhead for some weeks now. Yesterday we picked up our last produce share of the season from urban CSA farmers Claire and Jake at Troy Community Farm here in Madison, Wisconsin, and tomorrow we will be visiting Maid Marion & Family for their Homestead Harvest Festival at Circle M Farm. (If you are reading this in time, you can come on out this weekend (Saturday, October 25th, 2008) to Blanchardville to share the food, hear the music, spin the wool, and generally join in the fun. Nicole is brushing up on her knitting skills as I type….)

One of the things that has blessed us in our time in this part of Wisconsin has been the chance to live close to our food. It’s not that we sat farther from our plates in the city where I grew up, of course; it’s that we sat further away from the land that was our food’s native home. You could, of course, get everything in the city, but everything came from somewhere else: corn from some vague “downstate,” tomatoes from California (right?), bread from…where do they grow wheat, anyway? The geography wasn’t important, though. The food was in predictable aisles in the usual supermarkets, neat and orderly, and every nation, culture, or style seemed to have a spot somewhere–if it could fit in the right kind of package. Most foods, according to the “packed and distributed by” labels, had their origins in this or that corporation, based in places near or far that had little to do with the food itself. Food in the city was a commodity disconnected from its place of origin–packaged and transported. Displacement was a built-in feature of the landscape.

People in the city are often displaced as well–it’s no surprise if you’re from somewhere else. Displacement is hard for humans, but we have ways of reconnecting ourselves. We welcome one another into new neighborhoods, share a pot-luck, ask “So, where are you from? What brings you here?” We visit each other’s homes and share each other’s stories and thus, if all goes well, become known to one another, neighbors able to trust and sustain each other through the seasons of life. We grow roots in a place through stories.

Sustaining trust and stories are no less important for our food. The health of the land, the health of our bodies, and the vitality of our culture is nourished when the true stories of our food supply are known. We overcome Aldo Leopold’s famous first spiritual danger of not owning a farm, that of “supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery,” by visiting the food in person. When we pick up our farm share, clip herbs & flowers, or just run around on the grounds at Troy Community Farm, we are helping our family re-place our food, and learn its stories. When we visit our friends at Circle M Farm (who came to be farmers by reading stories!) we celebrate our shared thanksgiving and joy in the land. As the land nourishes us, we are helping the land take root in our hearts.

Watch the trailer for “What’s on Your Plate?

Sometimes this takes a little effort, some active pursuit of teachable moments, as in this story from 12-year-old Sadie from New York City:

Last summer my best friend went with my family to Ohio for vacation… One night we were in charge of the salad, and when we were making it, and I tasted a cherry tomato. “This is the best cherry tomato I’ve ever had!”

So my mom said, “Do you want to meet the family who grew them?”

And I was like, “Do you know the farmers!?”

And she said, “Not yet!” And before we knew it, we had a little project going…

That little project (following the literacy of Sadie’s mother, filmmaker Catherine Gund) became a movie, which our family will go see next week, Wednesday, October 29th (time and directions here), when the filmmakers will show a rough cut of their documentary as part of the preparation for the second Tales from Planet Earth environmental film festival.

From the What’s on Your Plate? website:

Sadie and Safiyah take a close look at food systems in New York City and its surrounding areas. With the camera as their companion, the girl guides talk to each other, food activists, farmers, new friends, storekeepers, their families, and the viewer, in their quest to understand what?s on all of our plates.

The girls address questions regarding the origin of the food they eat, how it?s cultivated, how many miles it travels from the harvest to their plate, how it?s prepared, who prepares it, and what is done afterwards with the packaging and leftovers. They visit the usual supermarkets, fast food chains, and school lunchrooms. But they also check into innovative sustainable food system practices by going to farms, greenmarkets, and community supported agriculture programs. They discover that these programs both help struggling farmers to survive on the one hand and provide affordable, locally-grown food to communities on the consumer end, especially to lower-income urban families. In WHAT?S ON YOUR PLATE, the two friends formulate sophisticated and compassionate opinions on the state of their society, and by doing so inspire hope and active engagement in others.

That’s one heck of a homeschool project. I’m looking forward to seeing it!

For those who want to dig more deeply into how our society came to be disconnected from our food, Ann Vileisis lays out the history of our “covenant of ignorance” in Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back, and Thomas A. Lyson reveals how re-placed food is connected to our social and economic development in Civic Agriculture: Reconnecting Farm, Food, and Community.

If you are reading with your kids (and I hope you are), pick up No Eat Not Food by Rick Sanger & Carol Russell, in which a hungry alien bug from space provokes some culinary investigation on the part of the young protagonist. Great fun and good learning!

Growing roots in a place takes time. There are a lot of connections to make, a lot of stories to hear & tell, a lot to learn. See the movie, and read the books–but don’t forget to give your food a visit. It’s the neighborly thing to do.

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