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ELCA World Hunger

Home again, home again, to our national food culture

“Make half your plate fruits and vegetables,” says the USDA, which recently introduced “My Plate,” a new nutritional icon.

Not a problem for garden-tenders with productive backyards and back fields, or people who live near farmer’s markets and produce stands.  Not a problem for the Obama family, whose 2011 Kitchen Garden is teeming with seasonal produce. Challenging for people in “food deserts” and everyone whose diet is heavy on frozen and processed foods.

This fascinating kitchen garden map hints at the reasons why our national food supply favors frozen pizza over fresh vegetables. It compares two versions of the 2011 White House kitchen garden: the actual garden, and how it would look if it were planted according to how much U.S. taxpayers spend to subsidize crops! (To enlarge the map, hold your control key and hit the plus sign.)

The subsidized garden is devoted to commodities: corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans, and rice. A lot of them, like 70 percent of our wheat crop, end up as processed food. While 80 percent of the rice crop is eaten as just plain rice, about 20 percent goes into processed food or beer. Corn, the only vegetable on this list, ends up as animal feed (40 percent), ethanol (33 percent), or things like corn chips and high fructose corn syrup that nutritionists recommend we avoid. Soybeans become oil, livestock feed, or even cement. Way up in the corner you can see “fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other specialty crops” which receive one-half of one percent of subsidy dollars.

This is not a polemic about crop subsidies but my next step in pondering the subject of local food cultures. After eating so well and so darn locally during my pilgrimage across northern Spain, I’m curious about the foundational ideas and policies of our own food culture. Lots of helpful stuff has been posted on this blog, like this review of the movie “King Corn”. Nancy Michaelis brought up the subject of our lack of crop diversity long ago.  On her visit to a food desert in Detroit, Julie Reishus ran into lots of products made with commodity crops and very few fresh fruits and vegetables.

But we don’t seem to talk about the farm bill, food subsidies, or the values that are built into this system…and how our participation in this system impacts not just our own diet and health, but the world’s food supply.  Hmmm. I guess it’s time to finish my half-read copies of Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma—and time to put a little more energy into understanding agricultural policy. Unsubsidized fruit and vegetable growers are my new neighbors, and now that our rainy spring has ended, their tractors are out in force, prepping for a new season and new crops. If I’m going to live in farm country, if I’m going to eat locally, I have a lot of learning to do.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

Slow Food, Sore Feet

A bowl of chewy bread is placed in front of us, with a green bottle whose label, the size of a bandage, modestly identifies the town where this white wine was produced. Next comes a wooden plate of chopped octopus drenched in oil and dusted with paprika. A few thick toothpicks are our utensils, and for an hour and a half we nibble, chew, sip, and sigh with pleasure in the company of an Irish Franciscan nun.

In our backpacks we carry breakfast and lunch: bread baked in the last town, cheese, yogurt, oranges, chocolate, pears, dried ham and sausage, all made in this province or this country, Spain.

When it’s time to eat, everyone sits down! Nobody is walking around eating like Americans do. We sit too, as often as possible, because my friend and I are completing the last third of the Camino de Santiago, the 450-mile long ancient pilgrim path across northern Spain. Subtracting a couple of quick bus trips, by the time we reach Santiago we will have walked 228 kilometers or 141 miles over 11 days, up mountains, through valleys, along rivers in chestnut forests, and down the streets of cities big and small.

Slow food has been the reward for having sore feet. How delicious, at the end of a 20-kilometer day, to tuck into real food produced by the farmers whose tractors, cows, and pigs we evade on dirt tracks. So much more enjoyable than gripping the steering wheel with one hand while clutching a styrofoam coffee cup or a plastic wrapped something –something shipped a few thousand miles—with the other!

Astonished by the abundance around us, I read up on Spanish agriculture in an internet cafe. After absorbing lots of facts about exports and imports, farm land fragmentation and concentration, humid regions and arid regions and so on and so forth, it finally hit me: on our pilgrimage we are experiencing an informal local food culture that exists alongside and within officially tracked Spanish agribusiness. These farmers don’t just produce for export. They also feed their neighbors.

Where I have lived, that’s not so true. All those soybeans and corn in Illinois go somewhere else. California rice and tomatoes are exported. Lots of farmers in the Skagit Valley, where I live now, raise seeds for others to grow the next year. Sure, we have farmer’s markets and CSA farms, but they are still the exception. The fruit, bread and yogurt in our stores have generally traveled a long way. And they taste like it!

Eating my way across Spain is reminding me that local food culture matters. Food that is shipped can be food without flavor. Food that is shipped is also food that can’t reach us when fuel isn’t available or a natural disaster like the floods along the Mississippi, as Nancy pointed out in her last post, interrupts delivery. For maximum food security, some portion of our food supply needs to be produced near by. And why shouldn’t we be able to savor the abundance of our own region, and say to visitors, these peaches came from that field, those cows made this milk?

As a pilgrim, I’m getting to participate this strong local food culture. When I get home, I’m going to be intentional about getting to know whatever food culture surrounds me. As for those sore feet, they are just part of the journey, says Lutheran theologian and writer Martha Stortz, who walked the Camino de Santiago last year. Fortunately, a little glass of the local vintage takes away a lot of the pain!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity