This is the second in a series of posts on politics and food. Please forgive us if it gets a little heavy in here for the next few weeks. Your regularly scheduled programming will resume shortly.
Beliefs are based on many different factors. Some we inherit from our parents, some from our teachers and peers, and others from media. But the most lasting and powerful beliefs come from personal experiences. Sometimes the circumstances are right and these things align to make us passionate about something. This is how I became interested in food and farming. I hope that the story of my influences will help you consider why you believe the things that you believe.
It began, as many great things seem to, on the couch. Several years ago I was looking for a way to kill a few hours in front of the television, and popped in a DVD that had been collecting dust for several weeks on my bookshelf. It was a Netflix mail order disc that I’d received by accident and felt compelled to watch before sending it back for something more action-packed. It was a little documentary called Food, Inc., and it made an impression on me.
Still, I didn’t act immediately. Sure, I started “voting with my wallet” and buying more local and organic products. But I didn’t drop everything and become an activist waiving signs and stomping around Washington. My life continued pretty much as it had for the last five years.
A few months later I picked up a copy of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dillemma. At this point I was a vessel primed for Pollan’s preaching, so he converted me to the ways of the green revolution fully. This was no longer just something I thought about; it was part of who I was.
My diet in college consisted of prepackaged foods filled with preservatives and chemicals. Now I was eating better and my body was thanking me for it. I felt better waking up in the morning and going to bed at night. Maybe cutting out drinking thirty beers every other night helped too, but we’ll never know. Anyway, I felt like a million bucks and that was good enough for me. If other people were still eating fast food and guzzling soda that was their problem.
And then Christina came home one day from work (she was teaching fourth grade in the South Bronx) and told me about the breakfast program at her school. The previous year, the school began supplying students with a small breakfast: cereal, milk, sometimes fresh fruit and yogurts. Some of the kids went from eating nothing at all before school, or worse, guzzling an energy drink loaded with caffeine and sugar, to being provided a real, reasonable meal. According to her, productivity skyrocketed. The morning became their most useful time. Behavioral issues disappeared. Students were more focused and had fewer “stomach aches” that were really just hunger pangs. A simple breakfast transformed her classroom and thus the lives and futures of the students in it. Oh, and her principal was considering cutting the breakfast program because it was too expensive.
This sent me into a blind rage. “How could anyone be so short-sighted? What is your principal thinking?! Find the money!” I know the realities of budget management require tough decisions, but Christina’s descriptions of the students before and after the breakfast program were undeniable. Kids need food to learn. Have you ever tried to dig a hole without a shovel? Having the right tools are essential parts of a job, and food is the most basic of our tools.
Now I was ready to act. I couldn’t do much to save the program at her school (which actually received an eleventh-hour stay of execution), but I could take some action in my own eventual backyard. So I’m in New Zealand, learning a trade and traveling the world, with my loyalties to home stronger than ever. I’ll return to the US armed with the skills and knowledge to bring more good food to markets where it’s needed most. Stay tuned for more about that last point, serving the underserved, next time.
On Saturday we’re butchering two nine month old Saddleback pigs named Bubble and Squeak. They’ve lived the last nine months together in a big paddock between the goat pasture and the pines at the edge of the property where they have plenty of room to run, root, and roll in the dirt. In addition to their grains, Lyndal and Steve feed them everything from table scraps to garden weeds to castoffs from the local fruit and veg store. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, they get tummy rubs between meals. The pigs live a great life, but they’re being raised for their meat.
A few years ago I watched Food Inc. and read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was how I became interested in where my food comes from. It pissed me off to see a billion chickens crammed into a tiny little box, pooping all over each other, gobbling antibiotics for breakfast, just to make a profit. And there I was thinking that chicken is healthy, while it’s full of chemicals that can kill you. I felt like I’d been lied to.
So I started paying attention to where my meat comes from. It turns out that meat from local, small scale farms is usually more expensive, which just means that you can’t afford to eat a lot of meat. And that’s fine by me. Let it be special, and tasty, and exactly what it claims to be.
We came to this farm specifically because Lyndal and Steve invited us to participate in butchering Bubble and Squeak. Their pigs are raised humanely, and they’re killed with a single shot in an environment that’s familiar to them. They’ll be killed together, so that neither will be traumatized by the loss of their friend. Then they’re butchered into the cuts of meat that Lyndal and Steve prefer, reducing waste.
I suppose I’m writing this because at some point, I’ll be helping to cut off a pig’s head and I’m a bit apprehensive about that. But, some animal’s head had to come off every time I eat a pulled pork sandwich, or a steak, or a salad with grilled chicken. Someone had to raise that animal, to care for that animal, and then butcher that animal so that I could buy it’s meat in the store. I feel that if I can purchase meat in the store, I should be able to stomach where it comes from. It also makes sense that everyone involved cares about how it’s done.
When I tell people I’m leaving the grand ole USofA to hang with some sheep and kiwis across the world, I usually get one of two responses:
- Wow! That’s awesome. I’m totally jelly.
The first one is more common, but the second pops up enough that I’ve developed a mental list of responses I draw on at random based on who I’m talking to. There are a million reasons, some are simple, others are complex, some are trivial, others are important. In no particular order, I’m traveling to get away from:
- sitting inside an office at a desk all freakin’ day
- car horns and ambulance sirens
- drivers trying to kill me on my bicycle
- a government that doesn’t treat all of its citizens equally
- the inevitable zombie apocalypse
- a broken agricultural system
- taxes funding wars I don’t believe in
- neighbors that don’t hold the door for me
A note on the last point: New Yorkers are very nice to outsiders. I think this comes from years of people portrayed as assholes in the media. However, they continue to embrace the stereotype of brash, apathetic, and rude behavior to their fellow New Yorkers. The city instills an extreme tendency to be competitive, whether its in a race up the corporate ladder or the escalator from the subway. Mostly, I want to get away from the constant rush to the top. We all have our own definition of happiness, and that isn’t mine.
I often ask myself why we’re doing this. Why leave solid jobs and great friends? Why dump the contents of our life out of this carefully constructed reality, with no guarantee that things will fall into better places? I have a great life, why change anything?
There are many answers, but the one that I keep falling back on is: if you don’t try something new, you’ll never accomplish anything great. Fear of failure is a healthy and normal reaction, but totally counterproductive. Do you think that Edison and Einstein got it right the first time, every time?
I don’t expect to change the world with our adventure, but I do expect to change myself — and I’m certain it’ll be for the better.