What is Your Culture of Food?

At Colchester Farm CSA we have had a lot of opportunities recently to think about food. This might sound silly, considering our daily labor out in the fields to produce the makings of good food, but we have been involved with many events this spring, most notably the wonderful talks given at Washington College as part of the Recipes for Change lecture series put on by anthropology professor Bill Schindler. This series ran through a vast diversity of idea about the culture of food, from the hunter/gatherer diets of our distant ancestors to food marketing and school lunch programs. The series just ended last week with a talk by the inspiring urban farmer, Will Allen. Going to these talks and discussing issues of food afterwards has prompted us to better examine our local food system; where does our food come from, what are we eating and is it nurturing us?

The first question we have to ask ourselves though is why we should bother to think about food so much. The answer goes far beyond the concerns of health and safety in the production and consumption of food (which are great); we must remember that when we are talking about food and it’s preparation we are talking about a vital part of our daily lives, something we must engage in every day. It should come as no surprise that such an essential part of life could be found rooted deeply within culture, science and art. The art of cuisine is a very serious tradition that all cultures uphold, because food is one of the primary ways that a people can distinguish themselves. A cultures food can tell you about their customs, beliefs, geography and aesthetic. Throughout human history food has been an effective way to bond people together; it is a powerfully symbolic act to share food (nourishment) with someone. The sharing of recipes can be an intimate way to pass on personal and cultural knowledge from one generation to the next.

We can see the importance of food framed eloquently when we read from the work of L.R. Kass, who once wrote, “We human beings delight in beauty and order… sociability and friendship… song and worship. And, as self-conscious beings, we especially crave self-understanding and knowledge of our place in the larger whole… The meal taken at table is the cultural form that enables us to respond simultaneously to all the dominant features of our world… and the mysterious source of it all… Meals eaten before the television set turn eating into feeding. Wolfing down food dishonors both the human effort to prepare it, and the lives of those plants and animals sacrificed on our behalf… Especially because modern times hold us hostage to the artificial and the unreal, we do well to remember that the hearth still makes the home, prepared and shared meals still make for genuine family life, and entertaining guests at dinner still nurtures the growth of friendship. A blessing offered over the meal still fosters a fitting attitude toward the world, whose gracious bounty is available to us, and not because we merit it… The materialistic view of life, though it may help put bread on the table, cannot help us understand what it means to eat…”

Because of the great importance of food in culture and health, a great deal of time has been invested, through science and technology, into the study, production and sale of food. The “food industry” encapsulates every part of the production, transport, and sale of food all around the world. Such a vast system includes the efforts of such diverse fields as agriculture, bioengineering, chemical manufacturing, mechanical engineering, economics, marketing, transportation logistics, nutritionists and other medical professionals, educators, politicians and lobbyists…the list goes on and on.

So we can see now that food is a very important topic, one that affects all people in many different ways, and is therefore worth our attention. The next question is what is there to talk about? What do we understand about the food we eat and is there anything that needs to be changed? You can learn a lot about someone by learning about what they eat regularly. Many times the fastest way to learn about a person from their diet is to look at what they don’t eat. Do they have reasons of personal taste and cultural appetite? Is it a medical reason like an allergy? Or is it a moralistic or social statement like the refusal to eat meat to protest the treatment of animals? We say a lot about ourselves with what we choose to eat, and in this modern, technologic age of global economics and genetic engineering we seem to have more and more opportunities to make crucial statements through our food choices.

Practices like genetically modified organisms (GMOs), globalization of markets and monoculture production, combined with poor political action and the placement of profit over health, have created a worldwide food system that has not succeeded in meeting the food and nutritional needs of so many around the world, while simultaneously degrading the rest of the environment. Though it may seem small, uneventful, and passive, the fight against these dangerous practices is being fought every day by you and I. We have the power to choose if we want these damaging practices to persist, because we are the ones who buy the food products. There are many more things we can do to actively create and support a safe, local, transparent culture of food in our area, but the ultimate fight will be won with every small victory of deciding to buy products based not on your wants and desires, but on taking a few steps back to see the needs of your local economy/community/ecosystem and potentially going out of your way to support a product and/or solution that you see having lasting, beneficial effects on your health and the health of those around you.

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