It all started with food.
I grew up as a meat-and-potatoes Midwestern kid. My parents made a lot of casseroles. Tuna casserole, one of my mom’s go-tos, consisted of noodles, tuna, cream and breadcrumbs. Chinese Pie, aka Shepherd’s Pie, one of my dad’s specialties, was made of layered potatoes, peas and ground beef. Every year for my dad’s birthday, my mom made a pot roast — his favorite dish — along with his favorite dessert: pineapple upside-down cake with canned pineapple dotted with canned maraschino cherries, whose radioactive-red color only modern food science could achieve. It was a Betty Crocker kitchen.
Needless to say, my mom was flabbergasted when my art teacher in high school converted me to veganism by informing me of the appalling factory conditions of farm animals in the U.S. There was no way my mom was cooking two different meals every night, she declared. She had scarcely cooked a vegan meal in her life. I was on my own.
Little did I know that my first big food decision would lead me down a rabbit hole — from the infamous World Trade Organization protests on the streets of Seattle in 1999 to the Sierra Tarahumara of Chihuahua, Mexico for community-based conservation work, to the roof of Chicago’s City Hall to help manage rooftop beehives. I could never have expected that I would grow 200 heads of garlic one year in an abandoned Chicago parking lot or that I would live in the woods of northern Minnesota butchering roadkill and gathering wild rice.
How did food lead me along such a path? Isn’t one of the benefits of modern life the convenience of cheap and fast food, the privilege of not having to think about it?
In Berkeley, the home of Alice Waters and the birthplace of the farm-to-table food movement, it feels almost trite to talk about sustainability and food politics. It is easy to assume that everybody is familiar with the Slow Food movement, the local food movement, conscious eating, sustainable agriculture and so on. But this assumption would be another Berkeley liberal conceit.
Anyone on a restrictive diet has experienced how central food is to life and culture. It affects all aspects of our lives: physical and mental health outcomes, pocketbooks, relationships, cultural and class identity, environment and economy. But where veganism hooked me in my teenage years was in asking the simplest of questions that quickly became, and continues to be, a foundation for modern morality: How was this made? And food continues to be made, despite some technotopian strivings to the contrary, starting on the farm.
Through veganism, I began to learn about the food system and the perils of industrial agriculture. I learned about the great transition to processed foods in the 20th century and about the monumental power of a few giant agricultural corporations over the food system. I learned of the threats to the environment, democracy and food security posed by the reduction of crop varieties and the concentration of the seed industry. I learned about the rise in obesity, diabetes and heart disease associated with the rise of industrial diets. I learned that a third of all food produced globally gets wasted. And I learned that in the industrial era, hunger has never been an issue of scarcity but one of access.
Recently, I was reminded of another lesson about food. At a student picnic, we were told to bring snacks. I had made a tortilla española and brought it to share. The other contributions were a bag of shrimp chips, an economy-sized container of chocolate chip cookies and a smattering of other processed foods. I remembered myself as a teenager. Some days in high school, I would eat two bags of crispy red hot chips because it was cheap and delicious, and the cafeteria food was depressing.
It reminded me how much privilege there is in buying local produce, in shopping at the farmers market, in having time to cook a nice healthy meal, in avoiding factory-farmed animal foods. According to The Daily Californian’s own reporting, almost half of undergrads in the UC system are food insecure. Not everyone has the privilege of voting with their dollars when their budget calculation involves, for example, a choice between food, medicine, rent or some other basic need.
I do vote with my dollars because I have that privilege. In fact, I have spent an unruly percent of my meager income over the years supporting local farmers and an inordinate amount of time preparing fresh food. You see, in my process of food discovery, I was questioning everything and lost the religion of my upbringing along the way. But after years of farming and interacting with land, I have come upon a new kind of religion. I have come to see that the holiest thing of all is the food chain and the sacrament of planting, harvesting and eating. Food is the very way that we can come to know life and death, and most of us, thankfully, have the opportunity to make this connection at least twice a day.
The next time you put food on your plate, ask yourself how it got there. It will take you on a curious journey.
Mark Shipley writes the Thursday column on his experience as a Gen X transfer student. Contact him at [email protected] .