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The Other End(s) of the Food System

Stealing a few minutes to write here, although I should really be spending any writing time on my dissertation.  But hopefully this will get me warmed up!  I’m currently house sitting for my parents (in Niagara).  I brought academic work, and of course the animals, but being here means I can’t spend any break time doing stuff around the house.  This means I can do at least a little catching up on my poor blog!  Of course I did go to market this morning (downtown St. Catharines has a vibrant Saturday morning market, although it is shifting more and more towards non-farming vendors) and bought some veggies to make soup.  I brought with me about four liters of whey left over from cheese making this week and am going to turn it into a nice soup for lunches next week.

This week was yet another stretch of insanity.  While in September I was still able to get up in the morning, do some yoga, a few house chores and a little cooking, as well as more of the same in the evening, I am now rolling out of bed and hitting the books.  Days that I teach I am typically finishing up my lesson plan over breakfast, while days that I am home (which seem to be very few and far between of late), I am simply work.  And working.  I really have no idea how I’m going to survive next semester with another 30% increase in my workload.  But I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.

While I don’t usually go to campus on Thursdays, this week I was invited to get a brief talk in celebration of World Food day.  As such, I headed off to campus to work there.  I got little done, being available to students and others who needed to talk with me.  The ‘talk’ was fun – only a handful of people showed up, so we sat on couches and discussed the struggles around shifting towards a more sustainable food system.  It was to be followed by a showing of the movie “Food Fight”, which I have never seen.  The trailer suggests that the movie is a big plug for eating local, based on improved taste.  It appears to imply that the transition is simple – just buy local.

I couldn’t have watched the trailer at a worse time.  Exhausted and cranky, it infuriated me.  This may be surprising, coming from a dedicated locavore.  And I need to watch the film to say anything further about the contents.  Likely it’s a wonderful movie, so what I have to say from here on in is not directed at the film.  It was just the spark that really set off a blaze in me that day.

What upsets me is the myth that is being perpetuated that if we simply buy local, we’ll solve all our problems around food.  I’m afraid to say it, but this is simply not the case.  Buying local is a very big step, and is very important, but it’s not the panacea many are making it out to be. The bottom line is, shifting our buying patterns – substituting one product for another – does nothing to address the source of the problem that is making our food system such a mess.  In short, it does not change, or even seriously challenge, the system at hand.

System is the key word here.  Wikipedia succinctly defines a ‘system’ as “a set of interacting or interdependent system components forming an integrated whole.”

Integrated whole.  This is what is overlooked when we focus on one part only.  When we talk about buying local, we are only looking at one of the ‘interdependent system components’ of the whole food system.  This food system does indeed include food producers; they are a major component.  But it also includes other components, such as animals, the environment, food workers, businesses, distributors, supermarkets and – very importantly – eaters.  For us to develop a truly sustainable food system (and by sustainable I mean a system that can carry on indefinitely), we need to address the sustainability of each of these (and others I have missed) system components.  Until we focus on all of these aspects, we are not going to effect change in any fundamental way.

There are some really important issues here that I will talk about in greater length at some point in the future.  For example, the importance of ecological sustainability in food production.  Just because food is produced locally doesn’t mean that it is ecologically better.  Much local food is still produced using harsh industrial methods, and toxic pesticides and herbicides.

Furthermore, local food doesn’t necessarily mean social sustainability.  Yes it helps local farms, and this is very important.  I buy just about all my food directly from really wonderful farmers and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  But you have to do your homework and know what practices your purchasing is supporting.  This is easy at farmers markets, where you can ask the producer directly (or even visit their farms in many cases) but buying ‘local’ from the grocery store leaves open the possibility that your produce comes from large factory farms that employ migrant workers.  In some cases, these workers are forced to work under terrible conditions. In fact at times the term ’employ’ is barely applicable.  Right here in Southwestern Ontario there are migrant workers from Latin America & the Caribbean (and elsewhere) who are  forced to work under near-slave conditions.  I am only just learning about this and will write more as I become more knowledgeable.  But it’s shocking and needs to be addressed.  Just a few weeks ago, two such workers died of chemical exposure.  While the exploitation of migrant works is also true of non-local produce, my point is that buying ‘local’ does not guarantee that you avoid supporting this despicable practice.  For more info, read this, check out this website, or watch the documentary El Contrato.

In addition to these issues, what upset me so much on Thursday was the frustratingly unsustainable aspect of the role of the eater within the food system.  Sure ‘they’ are offering cooking courses and there’s plenty of noise around reclaiming cooking skills and doing basic canning and so on.  All wonderful in theory, but in practice it plays out quite differently.  Thursday morning I was rushing around my house, feeding my crew and myself, making cheese, trying to get some yogurt going and otherwise process the 9 liters of milk I had picked up the night before.  Ever try processing 9 liters of milk in 20 minutes?  Give it a try.  I guarantee it will make you VERY cranky.

I also realized that I had forgotten to take lunch out of the freezer the night before.  Lunch being a jar of ratatouille, the only thing I’ve managed to make in the last month.  Fortunately I made a gigantic batch and have eaten it for lunch and dinner ever since.  I love ratatouille (thank goodness), but this is getting ridiculous.  Eating the same thing day in and day out also is a contributing factor to being cranky, no matter how tasty it is.

I dashed off to campus, lunchless, milk fermenting away on my stove top, and bought my lunch at the cafeteria. Blech.  I ended up buying dinner out too.  That at least was better because I managed to wait until I left campus and went to a nice little independent restaurant that makes great Mexican food from scratch.  Letting my blood sugar drop makes me, you guessed it, cranky!

Friday I rolled out of bed, tossed the dogs outside, and poured my fermented milk into some cheese cloth to strain for the day.  I then desperately rushed about doing some basic cleaning of the disaster zone my kitchen has become, before dashing off to campus for the day.  Still cooking all meals from scratch (although an increasing number of meals have consisted of bread, butter, fresh cheese and milk), but without time to clean up, things are completely out of control.  My floors are disgusting, although kept somewhat clean by dogs who lick up the spills I have no time to mop.  I’d be mortified to have someone come in my house right now.

I arrived home at 6pm last night, packed, loaded the car and drove to Niagara for the weekend.  Before leaving I filled my composter with all the beautiful vegetables I had purchased over the last few weeks – hoping to cook and preserve them for the weeks and months to come – which were moldering away in my fridge.  Such a waste!  I did throw a bag of red peppers in my car, along with the jars of whey, two half dead leeks and 4 liters of cream (two of which are likely soured – perhaps I can make sour cream?) needing to be turned into butter.  Hopefully I can at least tackle that over the weekend.  At market I picked a few more items for soup.  Good thing I don’t mind simple eating.

I am exhausted and frustrated, but stubborn and determined.  Because I am a ridiculous idealist, and because I know too much to give up and go back to industrial food, I will persevere.  But few of sound mind would take this on I’m sure.  Perhaps if you have supportive family members who can pitch in and help out, for certainly year-round local eating is a multi-person job, it might be easier to sustain while working and having the semblance of a social life.  But for the most part how I eat is not feasible for most people.  My friend Angela, who stayed with me this summer, called this week to say she’s going insane trying to make dinner from scratch for her family every night.  She doesn’t want to give up either, but is spending just about every minute of her day not spent working or managing her kids, doing food-related work.

Our current food system both dictates, and sustains, our frantic lifestyles.  As a society, we work too much and have too many other demands on our time to allow food to return to being the central focus that it needs to be.  And until it is, the food system will not change.

The bottom line, at least in my humble opinion, is that until we address all components of the whole food system, until we make food production both environmentally and socially responsible and sustainable, and until we restructure our society such that we make it a priority for people to have the time not only to cook but to can, freeze, preserve, ferment and root cellar (as well as to learn all of these practices) we will not have a sustainable food system.  Simply buying ‘local’ is not enough.

2 Responses

  1. I’m sorry to hear things are so very busy, but you raise some really important and really complex issues around food that aren’t always discussed, and yet that are so important for us to think about. Changing the system is hard work – so many parts, so many things to think about, and some many things that rely on other and different things to function – and I hope we can move towards some ways to facilitate this change better while still addressing the problems within it.

  2. When I didn’t have a job, I had the time to cook and clean, but not the resources to visit farmers, markets, and pay for good food. Now I’m back working (12 hrs / day with travel), I (soon I hope) will have the resources, but no time to get to the farms and cook and clean. It’s very frustrating!

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