When I look back through photos of my childhood, the momentous occasions, including my baptism, birthday parties, riding a two-wheeler or the triumph of successfully completing kindergarten, it’s hard not to notice the pictures are all of food. Food? Where are the photos of me, or of my friends and family, beaming with pride? My dad is there beaming with pride, but that’s mostly because he prepared and cooked the food, usually using recipes and cake designs from “the old country.” My dad is a Serbian immigrant and my mom an Irish one — there was not much a little shot of Irish whiskey couldn’t cure. Together, my parents alternately comforted our sorrows, congratulated us, or welcomed us home with food. We had a relationship with food; the food we were eating was readily identifiable as comfort food or celebration food. It told a story about what was going on in our lives.
Today, our food tells another story. Sometimes, I’ve learned, my dinner has a more diverse and interesting background than I do. Sometimes it has traveled more extensively. Sometimes it has a darker story, one that involves the inhumane treatment of animals and the depletion of our natural resources. The simple, easy relationship I had with food as a child has become more tenuous because there was usually some suspicion or uncertainty surrounding my food. Where did it come from? Is it GMO? Is it organic? Is it from a factory farm? What, exactly, am I eating? And just as important, what was the true cost of the foods I chose?
As a child, I was not a big fan of green vegetables; I pushed them around my plate or hid them in my napkin. Instead, I consumed copious amounts of corn, which I considered to be a vegetable. All my years growing up, I also believed my corn had corn stalk parents. Now I understand that virtually all of the available corn at the supermarket is genetically modified and that farmers must purchase the seeds from a large seed company in order to re-grow the crop. I have come to understand that most genetically modified corn has been modified to sustain the application of profuse amounts of pesticide, which is bad for the environment, bad for water, bad for pollinators and bad for small local farmers. Corn is not the little golden vegetable substitute I once believed it to be. In fact, it may well be the primary representative of all things wrong with our current agricultural system.
Our family often ate steak or a pork chop with our vegetables and potatoes. I saw beef cattle grazing on nearby green hills all the time. We had local cattle and even some pigs, so it never crossed my mind that the steak I was eating may have traveled thousands of miles before it got to me and, worse, that the cow itself may have traveled hundreds of miles before it even reached a slaughterhouse. I now know that most of our meat comes from a “factory farm” where animals live in deplorable conditions, where most animals have little, if any, access to the outdoors, where the unsanitary conditions require the widespread use of antibiotics, and where there is so much excess manure that the runoff and associated chemicals poison nearby water supplies and aquatic life.
Even our dessert had a dubious history. How could strawberries and cream become the source of so much uncertainty and concern? I recently read that, of all foods, strawberries retain the highest concentration of pesticide residue. The cream? Well, the cream likely came from a dairy cow who was administered hormones to enhance her milk production. And after her short, miserable life, that dairy cow likely became someone’s hamburger. And I was squirting cream from a can as if that’s where cream actually came from.
I grew up celebrating with these foods, but now I began to doubt my relationship with food. How could I have a relationship with something I didn’t know or understand? Like other families, we thanked God for our food and those who provided it. But we never gave much thought to where our food really came from. As it turns out, there was a lot to think about. Where our food comes from says a lot about us as a nation, and I began to feel my food choices said a lot about me as a person. My relationship with food was changing and, as is the case with all relationships, there needed to be a meeting of values, or at least a discovery of them. Food sustained me physically and supplied me mentally with wonderful memories and, suddenly, I was developing a spiritual relationship with my food.
I knew a couple of things for sure. I knew a spiritual relationship with food had to be a relationship with its extended family, the soil, water and the entire ecological system. I knew I could not celebrate with food that had its source in suffering or exploitation. At first, I thought that confining my food choices in this manner would be severely limiting. Our agricultural system is largely based on exploitation and a lack of reverence for the earth and those with whom we share it. In our quest to produce as much food as efficiently and as cheaply as possible, we have traded fundamental spiritual values, but we have also traded more practical elements, including sustainability and food safety.
Somehow, a certain amount of arrogance has crept into our food system. No longer in awe of the power of nature and her relentless ability to renew or destroy, we have come to see our relationship with the earth and our food supply as something we can dominate and control and have lost sight of the ecological systems that have sustained us all of these centuries. As is often the case with arrogance and the pursuit of the “quick fix,” there have been some unintended consequences. We have replaced this natural ecological system with a precarious system which may not have the power of self-renewal, which may expose us to disease, and which may limit the ability of future generations to farm and cultivate their own food.
Luckily, consumers are becoming much more interested in the story of their food. Like me, I think people were disconnected from their food sources and this disconnectedness allowed the proliferation of an industrial system in place of a long-term sustainable one. Many consumers are now choosing foods with a sense of responsibility, foods that are often fresh, living and local. This renewed connection with food, rather than having the limiting effect I once thought it would, can magnify the pleasure of eating and create new, unadulterated memories of comfort and celebration.
Sometimes, my mom bought our dinner because she was able to “get a deal” on it. The beef or the chicken or the green beans were on “special.” For me, buying cheaper food comes with the misgiving that if I’m not paying for it, someone or something did. One of the byproducts of our industrial system is that food workers work hazardous jobs for low pay in often very poor conditions. I have learned that I would rather pay a little more for a tomato from a farm with respect for its workers than save a few pennies on a tomato from a farm that is unjust to its workers. Sometimes, it’s the animals who pay. Naturally, it is more expensive to pasture-raise cattle than it is to confine hundreds of animals in a limited space. As a personal choice, I would rather pay a little bit more for beef that was raised in a humane environment. Sometimes it’s the environment that pays. Conventionally grown fruit and vegetables are less expensive to produce than organic ones. Yet pesticides and fertilizers are hard on soil fertility, water and pollinators. These synthetics make it hard for the earth to renew itself and may one day make it hard for future generations to cultivate the land. Investment in organics seems worth the cost, and there is certainly a hidden cost to conventional agriculture.
Over the years, my relationship with food has changed from one of enjoyment and comfort to one of responsibility and respect. I see my food choices as a reflection of my values. While I still certainly enjoy my food, I also consume it with more relish because I appreciate it more than I used to. I appreciate the sacrifice the animal and the earth made and the labors that went into the food I chose. I am in awe of the power of the soil to grow and re-grow despite our efforts to deplete it. As a consumer, I am an integral part of the ecological system which will ultimately dictate the type of agricultural system we choose. I hope my choices support a sustainable system in which diversity and restraint are prioritized over efficiency and indulgence.
Editor’s note on the author: After graduating from the University of San Francisco School of Law and practicing civil litigation for 15 years, in 2011 Aisling became an adjunct professor at California Western School of Law, where she teaches in the skills training and ethics program. Her interests in U.S. food policy encompass sustainable ecosystems, animal welfare and spirituality.
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