Local Food and Good Eating in a Season of Plenty

Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market, October 17, 2012

The Thanksgiving holiday is a good time to step back and reflect on our amazing good fortune to live now, here (Washtenaw County, Michigan).  We are truly living in a time of plenty.  And we are living in a region that produces a lot of food, good local food.  It didn’t have to be that way, and for so many people at so many times it hasn’t been. It is good to be mindful as well as thankful.

The holiday that has been debased as merely “Turkey Day” and worse,  Early Black Friday, may seem trite to us at the moment, when obesity is considered the nation’s major health problem and ready-to-eat food (at least in some palatable form) is available at every convenience store and strip mall.  But we should remember, at this time and always, that we are living in a privileged moment of history and in an exceptionally endowed food environment.  Don’t forget that the first “Thanksgiving” was a celebration of escape from hunger.  The Pilgrims who set off for the new world in the Mayflower in 1620 numbered 102.  In autumn of 1621, the 53 survivors celebrated the harvest.

As a country, we have experienced many episodes of mass hunger, despite having the wildlife and natural resources of an entire continent to exploit.  Most recently, the Great Depression was characterized by hunger marches and bread linesFranklin Delano Roosevelt’s Second Inaugural Address (1937) is worth rereading.  (You’ll find some startling parallels to today, at least if you are of a liberal viewpoint. )

I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. –Franklin Delano Roosevelt

My mother was a teenager during the Depression, a member of a family with 9 children.  She experienced hunger – not starvation, but the experience of never having quite enough and never being sure about future meals.  To the end of her life, she couldn’t bear to see food wasted.  Then there was World War II, with food rationing.  Finally, in the postwar period, Americans were able to have enough to eat.  But food was expensive. Michael Pollan, in his revolutionary treatise The Omnivore’s Dilemma, tells the story of how political pressures due to food prices caused a change in farm policy.  In 1973, there were supermarket protests after the cost of grain soared (we had shipped our stores to Russia, where there was a famine going on).  President Nixon instructed his Agricultural Secretary, Earl Butz, to make food cheap.  He did – and launched the American industrial food era by ensuring an endless supply of cheap corn.

I well remember those times.  I was a graduate student in Madison, Wisconsin, and we coped with the high price of food by growing our own vegetables, joining a co-op (it sold only bulk food), learning to eat mostly vegetarian food, and making as much as possible by hand and at home.  The price of a pound of hamburger doubled in a matter of months (it was like watching the stock market).  I read Diet for a Small Planet from cover to cover.  But then – things got easier.  Food became all too accessible. Prepared food of all kinds and restaurant meals became cheaper and there were fast-food restaurants on every corner.  As a nation, we relaxed and starting eating too much so that diet-related disease has become a crisis (children are now diagnosed with Type II diabetes, unheard of earlier).

Our relationship to food is complex.  It is one of our chief sources of pleasure.  It is something that we require for life.  It can be an addiction, a morbid affliction.  It has profound effects on health and longevity, the exact mechanisms for which keep changing, at least in the information we are provided. It is a chief means of celebration.  It is an ethical dilemma.  It can affect the generations to come (malnourished mothers have children who never grow as big). It is a social bond. Scientists have even suggested that cooking it is how we became human (more calories with less work, feeds big brains).  And of course, it is a business.  So it is difficult to come to just the right place with the subject, yet many of us became aware that something was wrong.

In this last decade there has been a rebirth of something worthy of being called a Food Movement.  The previous move toward homemade food and what would become known as organic food in the 1970s never really went away, but it was a narrowly observed cultural phenomenon until recently.  Now, with the influence of works such as Pollan’s book,  there is a new emphasis on locally produced food and away from the industrial food model. I was fortunate in picking up on this in the early days in Ann Arbor.  Here is the article I published in the Ann Arbor Observer.

(continued with next post)

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