by Mel Lions
Through every phase of human development, food has been central to human cultural identity. In every culture, everywhere, through all time, whenever humans come together in cultural moments, there is food. From our births to our deaths, in every family and civic celebration, for religious and secular holidays, at sporting and entertainment events, there is always food. If you’ve gathered with others and there’s no food there, you’re at a meeting.
Family and cultural heritage are strung together, meal by meal, with recipes from our ancestors. Food provides us cultural memory and enriches our lives as we share our heritage with other cultures. We know ourselves and each other through food.
Throughout history, it has been common practice for humanity to express the value of culture by saving the best of our agricultural output for celebratory feasts. The freshest produce, the ripest fruit, the prize bull, the most-wholesome of grains. These were set aside for the moments when it mattered.
What matters to our culture?
If I am forced to use food as the scale to judge the value placed on 21st-Century American culture, I’d say that we don’t have a high opinion of ourselves. We seem to value cheap food, no matter the cost. Over the span of just a few generations, we’ve outsourced most food production and preparation to a food-service industry whose only goal is to minimize costs and maximize profit. Cheap food seems to be a cultural goal, but at what cost?
When I was a kid and introduced to the concept of the potluck, probably at a church function, I remember my mom putting real care into preparing her famous ratatouille, which in the ‘60s, was a pretty exotic dish. It must have been summer, because that was the only time that special blend of summer-garden veggies was available. Mom’s dish was put on the banquet table alongside other mom’s dishes (it was the ‘60s, remember), each of which had been as carefully prepared. For whatever reason we were there, we feasted because it mattered.
At any potluck these days, carefully and consciously prepared foods are a remarkable and welcome rarity, and always the first things devoured, even by the vast majority of those who took the cheap way and brought something packaged and preserved. What does that say about the value put on our culture when bringing a bag of chips fulfills a cultural obligation? It seems like we all know what quality is, but don’t necessarily understand the role quality and care has in keeping our culture together. Cheap food, cheap culture.
Cheap food — or what’s better described as the illusion of cheap food — has many hidden costs. There is no other human activity that is more devastating to the environment than how we grow food. Industrial agriculture is a leading driver of habitat loss, including soil, water and air pollution from agricultural chemicals; fossil fuel use; genetic modifications to allow for increased pesticide and herbicide spraying; poisoned and depleted aquifers; disruption of climate patterns; rising sea levels; and loss of biodiversity. The poor-quality food that industry sells us is harmful to human health and provides mostly low wage jobs that tax social systems and which perpetuates an underclass. As food prices have dropped, these conditions have all been exacerbated.
When environmental and human health costs are not paid for by the producers of these problems, it does not mean that the costs are not paid for; instead, the costs are outsourced. Most environmental costs, aside from those that we’re hoping nature will take of (thus climate change, the depletion of fisheries, unaddressed pollution), are born by taxpayers, who pay to clean up industrial messes (Exxon Valdez, BP’s Deepwater Horizon). Human healthcare costs have skyrocketed as our food system has cheapened, largely because the cheapest foods are high in sugar, fat, refined flours, artificial ingredients and preservatives. By all measures, our culture is in a race to the bottom, a race that has only losers.
The Value of Fresh Food
By and large, our culture has lost touch with the value of fresh, whole, ripe, delicious seasonal food: Produce grown in our yards, or coming from nearby farms. Milk and cheese from local dairies. Bread and meat from neighborhood bakeries and butchers. While there has long been a global food trade, until recent decades this was restricted to non-perishable foods such as grain, legumes, spices and herbs. It is only in recent years — as we have lost the threads of a fresh food culture — has there been a global trade system in fresh produce. We used to know and celebrate the seasons by the food on grocer’s shelves. In today’s society, we expect to have everything we want, when we want it, no matter if it’s in season or not. Produce is selected, grown and picked not for flavor or nutrition, but for its ability to be shipped around the globe. That may look like a tomato on your sandwich in January, but it is really a pale, flavorless shadow of a real one. We’ve been tricked into accepting this as okay, and convinced that cheaper is better.
One rap that fresh, whole, delicious, locally grown food often gets is that it is elitist, that only the well-off can afford it. That argument has some legs as long as we — as a culture — accept that the producers of cheap food do not have to bear the social and environmental costs of providing it to us. You can bet that if they did, they’d quickly change their practices to that which causes the least harm as this would become the least-costly means of production.
Rather than waiting for industry and government to change, we can re-energize our culture by growing food ourselves, in our neighborhoods, at our schools and places of worship, in our civic spaces. Food grown close to home is fresher, more flavorful, picked when ripe and full of nutrition. Kids who grow vegetables are likely to eat them, enjoy them, and ask for more. Food bought from nearby farmers helps strengthen our local economy. The character and nature of our back-country is preserved when populated by family farms.
If you don’t know how to grow food but want to, there are people willing to teach you. San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project has been offering food-growing programs in our area since 2008. Our Victory Gardens San Diego program give classes in people’s yards all over central San Diego, giving three-class, hands-on lessons in building a garden from scratch. Over the course of three weekends, a homeowner gets a garden and a dozen people learn how to do it themselves.
For those who have bigger ambitions or agricultural pursuits, we have Wild Willow Farm & Education Center, where we operate the only land-based sustainable agriculture program in southern California. Our six-week Farming 101: Introduction to Sustainable Farming course gives students a solid base of understanding in what they need to grow food successfully in urban environments. Our agricultural philosophy is based on the development of healthy, living soil, and the use of the most environmentally appropriate means to grow food. The school operates year-round. Proceeds from produce grown by the farm is sold a local farmers markets and in a small CSA and supports operation of the school. School kids come to the farm on field trips and learn that not all carrots are the size of a little finger and shaped alike. Watching a kid pull a real carrot from the ground never gets old, and you know that that carrot will live in that kid’s memory, and become a cultural touchstone in her life.
Please join me in regenerating our culture with delicious food. There is no reason that each of us, no matter our status, cannot be eating like royalty. We have the power, we only need to make the choice.
Mel Lions is founder and director of San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project, a 501(c)3 educational non-profit whose mission is to educate, cultivate and empower sustainable food systems in San Diego County.