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Our Food Sources Can Help Us Build a Better World

Learn how eating sustainable food can work to improve the environment and workers' rights.

Farmer’s markets are my happy place; they are such a delight for the senses. Peppers, berries, breens — you can see them artfully arranged, often in their color families. It is nature’s version of The Home Edit. 

I love selecting the produce, rolling a piece of fruit in my hand, testing for ripeness. As for the aromas wafting through the market, there are almost too many to name. Many of the larger markets also offer ready-made food and craft stalls, so one is equally likely to catch a whiff of Pad Thai as handmade soap or basil. (As an aside, everyone — and I mean everyone — should smell just-picked basil at least once in their lives.)

I began contrasting these vivid experiences at the farmer’s market to the fruits of the industrialized agriculture I encountered at my supermarket. The differences have shown me a lot about the benefits of sustainable, local farming — and what we waste and miss out on when we lose touch with the people who put food on our table.

I have been fortunate to have had many teachers among the farmers and growers who sell at local markets. For example, I had a grower gently inform me that all my theatrical thumping and patting of watermelons wasn’t revealing anything. Instead, he told me to look for the watermelon’s field spot — the big yellow splotch where the melon rested on the ground. The bigger and deeper-colored the spot, the more time it had to ripen on the ground, which indicates the likelihood of peak sweetness.   

Much of my other learning has better aligned me with the rhythms of the earth. How are specific crops affected by climate change? How does alkalinity impact soil? How would my own body feel if I stooped over to pick strawberries for 8-9 hours a day? What does it mean for migrant farm laborers and their families to pick up their lives and follow different crops throughout the seasons? Can they make a living wage for doing the arduous labor of helping bring food to our tables?

Meanwhile, modern grocery stores seem to exist in a vacuum where everything is marketed with uniform blandness, like the monotonous tomato varieties that inevitably still look alike in size and color. Amid these boring tomatoes, significant issues of food justice are at play. According to a 2012 research paper from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), America loses 40 percent of its food from farm to fork to landfill.

Grocery stores alone toss an incredible 43 billion pounds of food every year. In many cases, this happens to produce before even hitting the shelves as many grocery suppliers assume that their picky customers will disregard so-called “imperfect foods” with differing shapes or colors. On average 50 percent of grocery store food is thrown out while still edible.

This waste is particularly appalling when nearly one of every four Americans experienced food insecurity during 2020. Even though households with children were always more likely to become food insecure, an analysis by the Brookings Institution found that 27.5 percent of households with children (13.9 million homes) are now impacted since the pandemic began.

We lose something deep and profound when we separate ourselves from the land from which our food is grown, from the hungry in need of access to it, from the local farmers who grow it and ultimately from the very food we consume. This is a lesson that is woven into my family history.

My great-grandparents immigrated from the Azores Islands to Northern California, where they grew English walnuts as their main source of income for more than four decades. The area they farmed was called Blossom Valley, known for its rich soil and temperate climate. Today, that once pristine agrarian landscape is now recognized by another name: Silicon Valley. 

During my mom’s lifetime, Blossom Valley changed irrevocably. She recently recalled a story from kindergarten when the big tractors came to demolish the acres of prune orchards across the street from her home. She remembers pumping her legs on the swing so she could get high enough above the fence line to see the action. Even so young, she knew that things would never be the same — that the valley would lose the sweet scent of the blossoms which had always permeated her spring days. 

I will never know the intricacies of the land in the ways that my great-grandparents once did. Nor am I likely to spend my late summer afternoons gathering walnuts the way my mother remembers her childhood. Yet, I can pass on my love of farmer’s markets to loved ones. Together, we can share a sense of gratitude for the work of growers and pickers, an appreciation for the earth’s bounty, and a belief that every family deserves access to healthy and sustainable food. 

In an interview given around the onset of coronavirus, Pope Francis used the metaphor of a plant to illustrate the relationship between younger and older generations — referring to young people as bud and foliage and their elders as roots. He acknowledged that no bud can bear fruit without the strength of its roots. I pray that we draw inspiration from previous generations as the realities of climate change necessitate the transformation of our entire agricultural economy.

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