Potatoes for Change

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Feeding families and helping college students de-stress. (Image source: thehappyhousewife.com)

For our last day of class, we all assembled at a community garden in Medford to reflect on our experiences over the course of the semester and offer some extra hands to turn over soil and plant potatoes. It was Earth Day and, coincidentally, my birthday. And, even better, the day before my thesis was due. I was stressed, sleep-deprived, and overwhelmed – not exactly looking forward to spending two hours (two hours I could have spent writing, my cranky self complained) up to my elbows in dirt.

Contrary to my pessimistic expectations, those two hours were enjoyable, relaxing, and rejuvenating. I could not have used my pre-deadline time better that day. Throughout our class, we touched on the healing qualities of the land and agricultural work – watering a plant, gardening, farming, anything that gets you out of a confined mental or physical space and into nature. Burying ugly little potato stubs one foot apart in the dirt that day was therapeutic. Simply going through the motions and noticing the sensory experiences of planting (whether I was actually any help or not) cleared my mind and relieved my stress. Community gardens are incredibly important, especially in underprivileged neighborhoods and areas labeled food deserts, not only for the food they produce and nutrition and education they provide to participating families and children. They are also important for the piece of mind they afford growers, a little patch of green to escape to in the midst of stressful situations.

Community gardens are popping up around the country in urban areas and can really impact the lives and well-being of the people who take part in them. For a map of community gardens across the nation and ways to get involved, check out this website. You can type in your zip code to find gardens in your area and get started! New food activists are policy-makers as well as farmers, organizers as well as gardeners. No act is too small.

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The Rural Romance

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A little post-thesis light reading, or maybe some anthropological research…

We’ve all heard of historical romance novels, but there’s a new genre taking Australia by storm which, given the current trendiness of food/farming movements and back-to-the-land initiatives here, might be on its way to the United States. Called “rural romances,” these lusty reads focus on the agricultural pursuits of adventurous, intelligent female protagonists who value the environment as well as their families and independence (and who, presumably, meet a nice rural boy/man somewhere along the way). While I haven’t read one of these rural romances myself, I imagine they provide a little excitement – alongside good, traditional moral values and a fairytale ending – to women looking to live vicariously through the heroines.

According to an article in Jezebel, a satirical online news source in blog format composed by liberal, feminist, and surprisingly anthropologically-minded female writers, the rural romance genre debuted in 2002 with Rachael Treasure’s book Jillaroo. A self-proclaimed “regenerative agriculturist,” Treasure actually has a substantial professional background in farming and writing Her website is definitely worth checking out for an interesting twist on new food – or rather farming, in this case – activism. When asked by Jezebel whether other farmers read her books, Treasure noted that while people within “the culture” of agriculture comprise a large part of her readership, “I sell huge quantities in the city because people are hankering for the culture and community that rural living gives.” Farms and farming are not accessible to everyone, and rural romances are one way urbanites and suburbanites access the coveted (by some) stereotypes of life on the land.

I never thought romance novels were particularly anthropological, but the rural romance literary genre is certainly relevant to our discussion of the perceptions and values associated with rural life, how farmers may or may not play into these idealized visions when marketing themselves and their products, and the alternate entrepreneurial opportunities cash-strapped farmers can utilize for supplemental income. Some might see it as selling out, but I consider this a particularly advantageous hole in the market that creative and witty female farmers-turned-writers can fill. (You know, in all that free time they have while running full-time farming operations.)

Behind the Banana

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These cheery yellow peels hide a long history. (Image source: maria-brazil.org)

For one of our classes this semester, we each brought in a food that had an interesting or significant history. Looking around my kitchen 10 minutes before leaving for class, I spotted it – the banana. To me, the banana is the perfect snack or small meal – great before or after a workout, a good source of potassium, and easily transportable in its own convenient container, the peel. I feel very familiar with the banana, although I haven’t seen many banana trees in person and have never picked a banana myself. It’s a standby fruit, the supporting actor to more exotic pomegranates or pineapples, always there when you need it.

But for such an ordinary and ubiquitous fruit that populates the majority of grocery stores throughout the United States, the banana is not local! Perhaps it has been localized in the sense that we are used to constantly having easy access to it, but the banana was originally domesticated in Papua New Guinea. The success of the fruit, discovered by colonizers and widely exported, contributed to the growth of Central American “banana republics” and was responsible for the exploitation of thousands of banana harvesters. Despite its sunny disposition at your local Market Basket or Trader Joe’s, the banana has a long and contentious history.

What if, instead of being a vegetarian or a vegan, you were a locavore? Depending on your definition of “local”, you only purchased and consumed produce and animal products grown and processed within your state or region. Living in, say, Boston, bananas would be out of the question. Instead of a daily snack, they would be a rare treat enjoyed only on vacation in Central American or South Asian countries. Thinking about the history of the banana, as well as the chains of production and supply that bring copious quantities of the fruit to the United States, gave me pause. The networks that transport bananas internationally and ship them across the country do not seem incredibly sustainable, and they certainly contribute to the excess and waste present in our current food system.

Knowing this, I still can’t bring myself to give up bananas. They’re just so practical. But the stories behind our food and how we get it are worth learning, especially when they involve a colonial past. Even if they don’t cause us to change our diets, we are more aware and informed buyers because of them. (Check out this NPR story for an interesting narrative about the banana’s “sexy, sordid history.”)

New Food Activism: State of the Field

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A farming family in Vermont looking happy and successful, courtesy of the National Young Farmers’ Coalition blog.

Over the course of this class, what has stood out to me the most is the incredible variety of community initiatives, national campaigns, people, and beliefs the term “new food activism” encompasses. While labels like “organic” and “locally grown” sometimes seem the domain of an upper class privileged enough to buy groceries from expensive supermarkets or up-scale farmer’s markets, new food activism both intersects class divides and provides a new framework with which to view those divides. A broad definition of “food” allows space for the varied expressions of new food activism: “all the processes that make animal, vegetable or mineral into something to eat and then all that is involved in what happens next to bodies and societies,” in the words of Rachel Slocum (2011:1).

New food activism is inter-class, inter-race, international, and even multi-species. It includes Latino immigrants fighting for their rights to a community garden in Los Angeles (The Garden) as well as a non-profit organization feeding orangutans with vertical farms in Borneo. While new food activism may seem elitist – a rich white woman lauding the superiority of organic produce does not give people living below the poverty line more access to chemical-free vegetables – it is actually accessible to consumers of all social, racial, and economic categories because, after all, we are all consumers. A conversation about food, including how we grow it and access it, is open to everyone who eats. And as people who eat, we each have a vested interest in our food systems and are qualified to participate in a discussion about food and farming.

As food movements develop and gain momentum in our country, the vocabulary we use to talk about them has not necessary kept up. As John Schlebecker demonstrates in his article “The Many Names of Farmers”, etymology makes it difficult to find words about farms, farming, and occupation that are devoid of some kind of connotation, either positive or negative, that frequently relates to class (1981). This difficulty reflects both our hesitation as Americans to discuss issues of class and to create appropriate terminology for this discussion as well the many values we have ascribed to the land and the people who cultivate it. While researching for my senior thesis, I noticed a similar trend in using Spanish to describe landholding categories in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Peru. Every term used to describe the variety of tenant or sharecropping arrangements indigenous peasants participated in denoted their inferior socioeconomic status. (For further reading, the most accessible and detailed account of this is Florencia Mallon’s The Defense of Community in Peru’s Central Highlands).

In a discussion of farming as it relates to new food activism, we have to consider exactly who farmers are and their specific priorities when labeling them with an identity they might not even call themselves. A “farmer” can be someone who owns thousands of monocropped acres or someone who works in a garden in the middle of an urban center; someone who is continuing generations of tradition or an Ivy League graduate venturing into new territory. In part because of recent food and farming movements, our vocabulary is growing to reflect this diversity – but we still have a long way to go.

When thinking about food and farming movements, it is important to remember that contemporary trends in food, nutrition, and returning to agriculture have historical precedents. For me, this makes conceptualizing our future less daunting. As a society, we have “left” the land and “returned” to it repeatedly, discovered the ideological importance and health benefits of specific diets like vegetarianism, and transformed our food systems. We encounter new problems and seek new solutions, but the struggle for personal and social betterment, as well as the racial, political, and economic tensions we find along the way, are characteristic of an American (if not universal) experience that extends far beyond the twenty-first century.  In Back to the Land, Dona Brown traces back-to-the-land movements across the nineteenth century, concluding that various economic, environmental, and even spiritual motivations have prompted us to escape industrialized city life, and capitalism itself, by purchasing or renting land outside of urban centers and cultivating it individually or communally.

At the core of past and present efforts to return to farming, I think, are universal aspirations enmeshed in the values we have come to deeply associate with the land. Individuals of every background have sought and continue to seek “autonomy, skill, independence, [and] self-sufficiency,” writes Brown, and some turn to the land to find these qualities (2011:12). But while farming and the values associated with it seem individualistic, farm labor and the initiatives established to support new farmers are the work of many people striving toward a common goal. In particular, the National Young Farmers’ Coalition is doing great things to get new operations started and connect farmers with resources and a larger national (and virtual!) community. (Check out the progress of five new dairy farmers here.) Financial independence (or at least a reliable source of grant income, etc.) means a sustainable operation for one farmer and a more sustainable future for the stakeholders – all of us.

Discussions of food and farming also revolve around aesthetics – what displays at farmer’s markets are most visually appealing, how farms can market themselves as tourist destinations, or how to offer potential CSA customers a certain kind of experience with their weekly or monthly baskets. New food movements have to attract interest to successfully accomplish their goals of revamping consumption and production systems, and this is often done by presenting beautiful produce, attractive displays, and idyllic landscapes. We gravitate toward perfectly red, plump tomatoes and freshly scrubbed potatoes more than we do toward those that are lopsided, discolored, or have dirt clinging to them. We have been conditioned (and this can begin another debate about learned tastes and how society differentiates “good” from “bad” and “clean” from “dirty”) to value aesthetically appealing produce over vegetables that are perhaps closer to their natural state, and are willing to pay more for this produce.

Farming is a business, and farmers need to grow food and produce animal products that sell. Some of us might prefer a manicured public market of strictly local food to noisy pushcart vendors selling conventionally grown fruit at bargain prices (the current Haymarket debate), which causes some farmers to feel pressured to live up to stereotypes of romanticized rural life and present food to customers that belies the hard work, dirt, and sweat that went in to growing that food. Through marketing schemes and the desire to be “close” to our food, we have come to expect more than just food from farmers. For me, one of the best parts of this course was hearing how farmers balance the challenges of doing what they love with limited resources with giving the public what they want in local food and the people growing it.

Food is powerful. It possesses both utilitarian and perceived values, reflects our ethnic, political, and socioeconomic identities, and transmits heritage and memory – a true intersection of culture and biology. Discussions about food are related in some way to almost every other issue concerning our society in general and us as individuals. Politics are involved when delegating public spaces for community gardens and passing farmer-friendly legislation or combating the use of GMOs. Economics determine who has the money to eat what and which neighborhoods are food desserts. Religion or spiritual beliefs also determine who eats what and how. Cooking and preparing food passes on traditions, and sharing meals together solidifies group bonds.

Our last class activity, planting potatoes at the Medford Community Garden, perfectly reflected the nature of current food and farming movements – individuals come to farming, or more generally participate in some aspect of “new food activism”, on their own terms and for their own reasons. Whether omnivores are debating vegans about feminism, new farmers are lobbying Congress for aid, or college students are playing in the dirt alongside elementary and middles schoolers, it is most important that we are all engaging with our food and food systems. I agree with many of my classmates when they say that current condition of food production, consumption, and access within the United States presents a grim outlook for the future of our country’s health, environment, and principles.

But I think there is much hope to be found in the enthusiasm, which bridges barriers of race, class, and education, for the various aspects of “new food activism”. Food and farming movements are no longer limited, if they ever really were, to the wealthy philanthropists or activists with deep pockets or college degrees. Every person can and should – and, I argue, is morally obligated to – participate in improving our food systems, expanding access, and helping farmers with similar values. A singular solution to achieving equal nutritional access and healthy, humane, and sustainable food production does not exist. Rather, the combined effort of all sectors of society and all types of people will yield working ideas to move us all forward.

A Very Gourmet Spring Break

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Our very own Oysters Rockefeller, not too bad for a bunch of college kids on vacation.

Eating can be an individual experiences—food choices may reflect personal convictions as well as economic limitations, and calories might be counted to achieve weight loss goals. But eating can also be a collective act, undertaken by a group of people at the same time to affirm unity and a shared identity. During my spring break trip this March, I especially felt the connecting ability of food and food preparation. We rented a beach house in the Outer Banks for the week, and as 14 of us Tufts seniors piled in our cars for the 14 hour drive from Boston to North Carolina, I think even the most optimistic of parents had their doubts—will they trash the house? will they eat junkfood all week? will they be at bars every night? I admit, I didn’t know what to expect. But I was pleasantly surprised by the result of our combined skills and interests—a communal dinner every night that showcased our own individual identities (ethnic, culinary, or otherwise) while affirming a common one.

Each dinner had a sort of theme: Mexican, seafood, grill, and flatbread pizza, to name a few. We had vegetable tempura the way one friend’s parents learned to make it in China, key lime pie from a secret family recipe, and oysters caught by a few of us in the bay. The food was very local, in the sense that it came from nearby waters (in the case of the fresh seafood) or the grocery store down the street (where the produce was actually grown, I’m not sure). But international influences were also strong, either from family heritage or learned preferences (I’ve never been to Mexico, but I love fajitas). A different group of us cooked together each night to produce multiple courses to feed everyone, and we all sat down together in the dining room (this beach house was huge and behemoth table accommodated everyone) to eat.

 Out of everything we did over the course of the week, these moments were my favorite—looking down the table at some of my closest friends, getting closer with people I didn’t know well by cooking with them, and feeling the accomplishment of preparing a well-received meal. Cooking and eating together was an occasion to share recipes, stories, and memories. For me, spring break crystallized the ability of food to bring people together and the powerful connections we form to others as well as our own heritage through cooking and eating.