Cultivating Right Relationship with Our Food

John Woolman urged Friends to consider whether their lifestyles might be nourishing the seeds of violence. Heeding this caution, we have been prayerfully considering our daily complicity in our government’s policies that are promoting war and ecological mayhem. This year, as part of that journey, we became "localvores" (consumers of mostly locally produced food) for a month to encourage us to consider how our dietary choices may be affecting peace, justice, and ecological sustainability around the world. In the process, we found ways of eating that were not only more responsible, but also physically, socially, and spiritually satisfying.

Most food production today involves the intensive use of fossil fuels in many forms (typically requiring ten petroleum-based calories of input for every one calorie of food energy output), and our country’s growing dependence on fossil fuels has given rise to military invasions and wars. Also, scientists have determined that the CO2 created by the burning of all these fossil fuels is a major cause of global warming and harmful climate change.

Aren’t we, as Friends, called to disengage ourselves from this destructive system, not only through energy efficiency and less driving, but by eating food that is grown closer to home and with less energy-intensive methods?

We got involved in our community’s "Eat Local" challenge last winter, when a Friend from our meeting told us about a gathering of folks who wanted to support their local food economy. Even though we grow a lot of our own food, we supplement that food with store purchases. Our Eat Local group set up a computer discussion list and website to facilitate networking as we identified local food producers and shared tempting recipes.

More than 130 people in our area, the Champlain Valley, ended up taking the "Eat Local" challenge, in concert with more Eat Local challenges and several similar groups in other parts of Vermont. We ended up not only boosting our struggling local farm economy, but also recovered a sense of community, of place, and of good nutrition that have been relentlessly undermined by the current system of mass food production. Many of us also felt that we had taken an important step in making our food supply more secure by making it less susceptible to disruptions that are likely to occur because of the impending peak in world petroleum production.

Many of us, rightfully concerned about the host of untested synthetic chemicals used in conventional farming, have learned to seek out organically grown alternatives. But with the average food item traveling 1,500 miles to our tables, we have been steadily losing a vital connection with the farmers who grow, graze, or process our food. Meanwhile, organic farming has been shifting to large corporate operations that are still using lots of fossil fuels to cultivate and ship the food, including an unbroken chain of refrigeration, until it arrives on our plates. In addition, today’s foods labeled organic don’t necessarily fit what generally has been a consumer consensus on what "organic" means. For example, the image of happy hens or cows in open fields with plenty of room to roam is not the reality at large organic farms. The words "free-range" in the USDA standards means only having access to the outdoors. As described in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, an investigation at a large organic chicken farm revealed that "access" was a small opening in the barn onto a small outdoor area. The overcrowded chickens didn’t use that opening since food and familiarity were inside. In facing this dilemma we lean towards choosing local over organic in order to have some influence on how our food is produced.

Our Eat Local challenge was part of a growing "Beyond Organic" movement that seeks to raise the ecological and health standards of production by cultivating personal relationships with local producers and, through our informed food purchases, "voting" directly for practices that have a potentially lower environmental impact than organic foods that are intensively processed and transported long distances.

For the past ten years we have been balancing an attempt at homesteading (growing our own food, living off the land, coming to know the place where we live) with our work for Quaker Earthcare Witness. We thought we were doing a pretty good job at it—until the Eat Local challenge showed how much we still needed to change to be bona fide localvores.

What would we use instead of olive oil or any commercial oil? What about wheat? Could we eat bread? Fortunately we found two local growers of wheat, and for those of us who don’t bake our own bread, a bakery agreed to provide bread using local wheat. There was a long list of foods that aren’t produced in New England such as: nuts (and nut butters), salt, pepper, spices, bananas, oranges, chocolate (what a disaster!), coffee, teas, baking powder, baking soda, and on and on. All who took the Eat Local challenge opted for the "Marco Polo" exception of spices, and some of us opted for the "caffeine-addicted" exception of coffee and tea.

But this exercise wasn’t really about denying ourselves. It was about being creative when familiar ingredients weren’t available, and often discovering that the results were much tastier than that to which we were accustomed. All organizing meetings began with a local-foods potluck, at which we tried experimental dishes, shared recipes, and learned about the availability of local foods.

It was similar to our "meeting for eating" Friends potlucks. For our turn at providing refreshments after worship that month we offered current-season apples, local cheeses, sweet cherry tomatoes from our garden, and apple cider.

Ultimately, we found that the Eat Local challenge was about relationships. It was about searching within ourselves and our communities for the resources that give true meaning to our lives.
This is the first in an ongoing series of "Earthcare" columns.

Ruah Swennerfelt

Ruah Swennerfelt is general secretary of Quaker Earthcare Witness, and Louis Cox is its publications coordinator. Both are members of Burlington (Vt.) Meeting.