Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Intimacy of Food Relationships

Food is central to preparations for post-Peak Oil Transition, and much attention has been focused on developing local food systems that require fewer fossil fuel inputs to enhance food security while supporting local economic relationships.  However, the rapid growth in the number of US farmer’s markets in the last two decades, rising from 1755 in 1994 to 6132 listed on the National Directory of Farmers Markets in 2010(1) was certainly not driven by public concern about the effect of Peak Oil on the availability and affordability of food.  I suspect this phenomenon was driven instead by something else: quality.  Moreover, as a longtime farmer’s market aficionado, I don’t think I’m speculating too wildly to suggest that something besides the quality of the food itself is moving people to these local markets, although this is certainly one factor.  Just as important, my sense is that people want relationships connected with their experience of food.

This should come as no surprise.  Though we seldom think of it as such, food is a remarkably intimate human experience. When we eat, we are taking something into our bodies—what’s more intimate than that?  Sex, perhaps? 

The fact that we have to look to sex to find something comparable to the intimacy of food brings up an important point: food without relationship, like sex without relationship, is fundamentally less satisfying, and probably also less healthy for both individuals and society.  To put it in positive terms: food is best enjoyed in a web of quality relationships, starting with the relationship between growers and soil and extending to all the people and other organisms involved, from production to consumption.

When we look at modern industrial agriculture, however, what we see are breaks in this web of relationships at every stage of the process.  Waiting in the drive-through lane at a fast food restaurant brings all these levels of disconnection into sharp focus.  I have no idea of where the grain is grown, under what conditions the animals were raised, how they were handled, who picked the produce and under what conditions they live, who prepared the food, what engineering processes the food has been subjected to, what it really contains, or where it has been. I know nothing, except that there’s something more or less edible in the bag, plus whatever the advertising has told me about it. 

As we have identified ourselves as “consumers,” we have become inured to this system, but I sense that deep inside many people are feeling that something about this isn’t quite right.  Like anonymous sex, anonymous food starts to feel less satisfying and less nourishing to our subjective experience of it, and most likely to the body also.  Given the inner relationship between our feeling states and the biochemicals involved in successful digestion and assimilation of nutrients, it may turn out that these feelings are worth paying attention to and acting on.

Maybe it’s as simple as this: We’re people.  So, we want there to be actual people connected with our food-as-intimate-physical-experience, people with faces and names, people we can get to know.  And also because we are people, we want places to associate with food—not just a particular aisle in the grocery store or a familiar logo on a sign, but a community, as in the farmer’s market, or, as in the case of many CSA’s, a real farm we visit or at least could conceivably visit, or perhaps even our very own and other people's gardens and kitchens.

There are many ways to start rebuilding one’s food relationships, but most of them that I’ve seen tend to be local in their orientation.  The simplest is to cook more of our own foods from basic ingredients and then share the results.  Even more basic is to plant something we plan to eat.  Growing and/or gathering plants and raising and/or hunting animals are about the most direct relationships we can have with food, and my sense is that the caring and appreciation that goes into the maintenance of these relationships will ultimately show up in the harvest.  Growing our own food nurtures the most primary relationships involved, which span many species and encompass all the manifold layers of a given location. We can also begin to deepen both human and plant relationships by seed saving and the sharing of plant stock, and this opens a whole new level of relatedness and community.

Many people feel overwhelmed as so many systems seem to strain and teeter toward chaos at once.  But the flipside to the feeling of overwhelm of systemic chaos is that, because so many things are broken, there are many opportunities for healing the broken food relationships now common in our experience of nourishing ourselves. Each break in the food relationship web is a point of entrance for significant participation.  We can start right where we are, with our current skill sets, and we can start today.

So in practical terms, even if a person has no interest in tending the soil or caring for animals as a way of developing these primary food relationships, there are many other relationships that can be nurtured.  One could, for example, launch one’s own local farmer’s market, participate in the organizing of one that already exists, or simply shop there.  Alternatively or in addition, one can increase the number of self-prepared meals in one’s household, or even open a restaurant featuring locally-sourced menu items.  Indeed, something as simple as selecting a locally-raised menu item while dining at a local restaurant is a kind of participation that nurtures important relationships.

To give another example, whether one starts a CSA or Farmer's Market, participates in one, or creates an online resource to help people connect with one, one is helping to mend and strengthen the web of food relationships that feed us in all the ways we need to be fed.  I recently attended a community local food breakfast featuring live music.  My feeling, given the ambience of the total experience of dining, was that those musicians were supporting local food and the local food community in a significant way.

What I’ve found is that real participation of any kind is a powerful remedy for the infantile “consumer” mindset and the sense of powerlessness that inevitably follows from it.  By participating in one’s food relationships, food becomes less anonymous, more real, and more satisfying.  The relationships we create through engagement and participation are a fundamental part of the local food recipe, making it nourishing and connecting in this intimate sphere of life.

(1) see: