Musings on Our Relationship with Food

Note: This is oddly not what I set out to write tonight when I started writing, but apparently it’s been bouncing around in my mind without me really noticing it.  This is, as always, just my personal take on things.  If you find truth in it, that’s great.  If you think I’m a raving loon…  Well, the world fortunately has a place for all kinds of people and beliefs. 😉

The plants in my garden are starting to develop actual vegetables. This is, as far as I’m concerned despite having confidence in my abilities, nothing short of a miracle. Plants as a whole are magical, miraculous, living beings that I am constantly left in awe of even with understanding some the science behind them. This growing season, they have taught me a great deal including helping me develop my patience, refusing to grow faster simply because I make impatient demands on them. They’ve given me quite a few lessons in worry, resiliency, and the insect world. And they’ve taken my hand and led me to understand that I can, in fact, tolerate being out in the heat if need be. I am not a delicate flower… And in truth, I’m no longer sure there is such a thing as a delicate flower in the plant world.

Oddly enough, my gardening has also affirmed that for me, personally, I’ve made the right moral choice for myself in not being a vegetarian. I only purchase local, small farm meat, and most of the people I buy it from are pretty vocal about treating their animals with respect. It might be skewed thinking from a girl that’s emotionally tied with plants, but I’m pretty sure that livestock owners on small farms treat their animals with more reverence than many do produce. They’re plants. They don’t have feelings… It’s hard for me to shake the feeling that they are sentient beings, which to me says they have to have some concept of feeling though perhaps not exactly like ours (this debate wages on in my household due to Mr Science sometimes thinking I’ve absolutely lost my mind). I find it oddly cruel that plants work so hard to grow and reproduce… And it’s so easy for us to come along and eat all that hard work.

So many of us hold thanks and compassion for the animals we eat (as we should), but we overlook the silent plant who seems so foreign and different from us. It’s easier to recognize the pain and suffering of animals… Not so much with plants unless you’ve spent time with them. The truth is that in order to sustain our lives as humans, we must eat. And eating in all forms comes from death… Eating a tomato will not kill a plant, but it kills the potential for those specific seeds in the fruit to carry on its genetic lineage. Eventually we rip the plant from the ground once its time and dispose of it some way, and since so many of us don’t practice seed saving from non-hybrids, the genetic diversity offered by the plant we grew is gone.

And don’t get me started on pest control… That’s a whole different topic that’s currently giving me nightmares. Actual nightmares. Involving squash bugs.

This is possibly the biggest lesson my plants have taught me this season… My existence is fueled by death in all its forms. I’m trying to really dig deep into this thought and learn the difference between needless killing and necessary – Which sometimes is not as clear of a line as we typically think. My garden is not fully necessary in order for me to survive. I have grocery stores and farmer’s markets that I can depend on. But at the same time I’m not about to let the bugs have full reign of the plants I take care of… For the most part the plants are helpless to their attack. In some cases it appears I am helpless, too.

I find veganism admirable. I was a vegan for a while. But I have a hard time placing a hierarchy of importance on the food I eat and finding where to draw the line on what is okay and what isn’t. To me a plant is no less sacred, wonderful, and worthy of my compassion than a cow. In farming with plants, bugs die or your crops die, and if your crops die, nobody eats. When harvesting (especially in row crops), animals die accidental deaths. And in regard to honey bees, the local apiarist is our ally in making sure our bee population stays healthy and strong as the mystery of Colony Collapse Disorder continues on. (I’m not talking the traveling hives or mega-farm beekeepers, but the local, small scale folks once again.) It’s important, because we need the bees. And, at the moment, the bees need us.

I understand the abhorrence in the exploitation of animals. Honestly, I’m pretty horrified by the reality of our modern food system myself, which in part is why I’m going into agricultural work. But this summer, working out in my garden and considering my future, I’ve learned something… Life is exploitative. In order to survive, all animals must exploit another living thing. As a Pagan, my understanding of the world is that the world is a living being from the dirt to the sky to the plants and animals. Everything. It’s an ecosystem, and that ecosystem is its own being. The plants take from the dirt. The herbivores take from the plants. And so on and so forth…

To fully remove ourselves from exploitation in its simplest terms would force us to die. The problem isn’t our survival. The problem is a lack of reverence in the harsh reality of life. I admire vegans and vegetarians both for seeking to lessen their blow to the world around them. But I feel like the answer to the problem of where we stand in the world as a post-industrial society that has removed itself from agrarianism isn’t to practice harsh asceticism. The carbon footprint of a vegan is a small drop in the bucket to that of a typical omnivore, but I think looking at mass-produced, pre-made substitutes for things such as meat or dairy products are made in a petroleum-based world that is just as exploitive of the world around us as eating animal products is probably just as bad and more overlooked.

I believe in moderation in all things as a virtue. If one swings to one extreme or another, it can have disastrous results on countless levels. The answer, then, is not to deny or glut yourself with things. The answer is, instead, to practice mindful moderation. Do not close your eyes. Do not ignore the fact that your survival requires other beings to die, which is partially how we’ve gotten into the mess we have today. Instead realize that your life requires the sacrifice of other living things to survive. In all forms from plant to animal, those beings likely did not really want to die.

It is absolutely necessary that we as a people come to understand this. Our attempt to ignore our uncomfortable feelings about this fact has caused us to become more and more removed from our food, which has turned into poisoning ourselves and everything else in the world. The answer is not to ignore the situation. The answer is to hold and understand this fact of life as sacred and to be thankful.

Your understanding and personal relationship with food and survival may lead you down the road to abstaining from certain things, and I think that’s fine. My fiancé, for instance, is a vegetarian who grew up on a livestock farm. He understand the truth of how things are on family farms, and how animals are treated in that situation is not why he’s a vegetarian. Our agreement is that if I bring meat into the house, it’s locally-raised from a small farm that practices compassion and sustainability.

This is because we both accept that, on our own terms, we are closer to the source of our food in this manner. The system isn’t perfect, of course, but to me there can’t be perfection because survival leads to suffering and/or death of other things.

The closer you are to your food, though, the more respectful of it you become… Thanking the sacrifice another living being makes is what is necessary. Understanding that we humans are animals, despite attempting to remove ourselves from that realm, is imperative to restoring the balance of things. Accepting that we are animals is part of a spiritual journey, and we should hold this task as sacred.


Doing Hard Time for Vegetable Gardening?

I am thankful that I live in the city I do. Our city’s approach to urban agriculture, homesteading, and gardening is huge. In fact, it’s all too common to see someone growing vegetables in their front yard. We allow urban chickens, and I do believe you can probably have goats. We have food preservation classes that are affordable. And for a while the city even gave away free rain barrels for those who wanted and could use them. Personally, I find it inspiring.

So it blows my mind that in Oak Park, Michigan, a mother of 6 is facing the threat of 93 days in jail for doing exactly what it is so many of us do in this town: Raised bed gardening in her family’s front yard…

(Obviously the city planner didn’t actually look up suitable in the dictionary, because of the few I cited, I couldn’t find common used in any of the definitions.  What dictionary is he speaking of exactly?  Unless he’s going by the obsolete usage of similar or matching…  Still not common.  Word of advice?  Don’t talk to the press and cite something before looking it up…  Sort of like don’t quote a religious text unless you’ve read it and made sure the quote is actually in there.)

The urban homesteading community along with gardeners on the internet are up in arms. And you know what? They should be! If a woman wants to grow organic vegetables for her family (especially her large family!) in her front yard instead of grass, I personally don’t think it should be a problem. In fact, I would go so far as to say she should be held as an example of what we all should be trying to do in this economy and current agricultural system! Good for her for working to provide healthy food for her children! Good for her for being frugal! Good for her for wanting to be more environmentally responsible.

Having read some of her blog, I noticed that despite wishing she could have chickens, rain barrels and other accoutrements of sustainable urban homesteads, she doesn’t because they’re illegal in her city. The law over the plants in her front yard are very vague and subjected… What I find suitable obviously isn’t the same as the city of Oak Park. Personally I don’t feel that grass is a suitable plant in any yard unless it’s native… It’s both an environmental disaster, and well… It’s an allergy nightmare if freshly mown or left to go to pollen (aka the yard’s not taken care of) for me, so maybe I have a tiny personal problem with it.

This really is just outrageous, though… I mean, I’ve spent a few days trying to wrap my brain around this. Aren’t there real criminals to throw in jail? Doesn’t the city have better things to worry about, like maybe making sure they have healthy meal options in public schools or something? Are they just so bored that they need a hobby other than picking on their citizens?

If you feel this is as ridiculous as I do, please take a moment to write an email to send to the appropriate people (see below), sign the petition, write about it in your own blog, and join the Facebook page dedicated to keeping us updated on what is going on.

Oak Park City Planner – Kevin Rulkowski
Oak Park Mayor – Gerald E Naftaly

The 2011 EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen

Very few people will argue that organic produce is better for you than produce obtained from commercial farming. At our home, we’re on a very limited budget for food of around $30 a week for two adults right now, but that budget does fluctuate throughout the year. Fortunately, we keep to a vegetarian diet at home (I eat meat when someone else is kind enough to fix it for me) unless we have company. If we were eating meat, we wouldn’t be able to get by on that little.

We eat seasonal as much as we can, because doing so cut down costs and doesn’t support shipping things like tomatoes from other countries.

We eat local produce as much as we can, which in the summer is actually easier and more enjoyable than going to the grocery store. I’m not sure when the last time I bought food for us at a conventional grocery store was, because most of our food is currently coming from the farmer’s market or a CSA share we belong to. When I go to pick up my CSA, I grab up flour, milk and the other necessities I can’t get at farmer’s market at a tiny grocery store that only sells locally-produced products and a few carefully selected organics from not within our state.

We also eat as organic as possible, which admittedly isn’t easy when we’re stretching the dollar, though the price of organic food is actually more realistic and fair to the farmers that produce it. Most of your local farmers would likely tell you that conventional farming doesn’t pay a living wage.

Still I sometimes have to choose to obtain certain things from the grocery store, and they aren’t organic due to cost. We do what we can, but we’re committed to not owning credit cards to buy our necessities with.

For those of you who are like me, you can still buy a mix of organic and non-organic produce. When I have to buy conventional, I stick to the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists. Things on the Dirty Dozen list are the produce for the year that they’re finding the highest concentration of pesticides (and sometimes unapproved ones! Yikes!) on, and the Clean 15 are the least chemical-laden. This is even after being washed and peeled.

This is the Dirty Dozen List for 2011: Apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, nectarines (imported), grapes (imported), sweet bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries (domestic), lettuce, kale/collard greens. I personally ad #13 to the list, which is cilantro, because that’s a big one for unapproved chemicals this year (33?  Really cilantro farmers?  Really?)

The Clean 15 List for 2011: Onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocadoes, sweet peas (frozen), mango, eggplant, cantaloupe (domestic), kiwi, cabbage, watermelon, sweet potatoes, grapefruit, mushrooms, and winter squash.

Here is a link to a basic article on this year’s list

Get the full scoop from the EWG’s website

So what about you?  Do you stick to lists like this to help you make decisions in shopping?  Are you organic or death?  I’d love to hear about your rules for grocery shopping.