Sunday, December 11, 2005

Eating As a Political Act

by Jenny Kurzweil

As a kid, I knew that almost everything I ate came from just minutes away, and I think I assumed it was that way for everyone. Pacific Grove, where I grew up, is a little town on the Central Coast of California, and just a breath away from the giant Salinas Valley, one of the largest areas of agricultural production in the country, with endless fields of lettuce, artichokes, garlic, carrots, strawberries, and Brussels sprouts.

When I was 19, I went to Vermont to live on a friend's organic farm and work as a baker and line cook at a local restaurant. I was shocked on my first day when I checked-in the produce delivery. The carrots were from Salinas, the strawberries from Watsonville, the garlic from Gilroy, and so on. I couldn't believe it. My friend was growing all of these things right down the road from my home, and the restaurant was getting them from clear across the country. One of the chefs at the restaurant had worked in a resort in the Caribbean and said that, even there, the strawberries they used were from Watsonville. Maybe he was pulling my leg, but it seems absurd enough to be true.

From then on, I realized I had better learn more about where my food was really coming from. But once I opened my eyes, the news wasn't pretty. I began learning tidbits of information about biotechnology, the hidden health costs of pesticides, suburban sprawl, development of farmlands, and factory farming. Knowledge wasn't power in the case of this education. Knowledge was making me want to subsist only on nuts, berries, and rain water that I collected myself. Ultimately, I learned that eating local, sustainably-grown food is the first step in taking back personal power, and ultimately political power. I found that shopping at my local farmers' market was much more empowering than the anonymity of my neighborhood Safeway, or even my local natural foods store.Buying food at the farmers' market is a political act, and eating locally-grown organic food provides a practical way of saying "no."

No to the massive movement of multi-national corporations to globalize the world economy. No to companies like Philip Morris who earn ten cents to every dollar spent on food in this country. And no to strip malls, gulping up farmland with insatiable hunger.There are successful farmers' markets in almost all of America's cities and in a growing number of small towns that are striving to make a connection between growers and consumers and working to bridge the ever-widening gap between the rural and urban communities. The rise in popularity of the markets and their subsequent success shows a number of things about the American public.

We are getting more conscious about eating fresh fruits and vegetables. We are interested in supporting locally-grown produce. We enjoy going to a friendly, lively place to shop. We like to meet the people who are growing our food. Farmers' markets are also benefiting from America's conscious choice to start buying organic. According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic food in the United States grew from $1 billion in 1990, to $7.7 billion in 2001.

But typical of the United States, large corporations dominate the market. "Industrial Organic" is a new term coined to define companies like Horizon Organics, a dairy company that is a $127 million public corporation. Other names in the business are Cascadian Farm and Cal-Organics. These companies, though beneficial because they dispel the myth that it is impossible to produce organic food in large quantities, are also jeopardizing the small sustainable farmers that sell at our local farmers' markets because it is the large companies that are setting the prices.

Given the option, I will go to a farmers market rather than buy organic produce at my local grocery store. I am however, grateful for the choice, because no matter how corporate these industrial organic companies become, they are still producing massive quantities of food without the use of pesticides. When I buy food at the farmers market, I know it has not been shipped across the country. It has not been grown using the products of bio-tech corporations like Monsanto, who are monopolizing the world's food supply by patenting seeds that have been in existence for centuries.

Most importantly, when I buy food at the farmers' market, I meet the grower. I have a connection, an interaction, and a place to express my gratitude.It is this connection which holds the deeper meaning. Food is the common denominator of all life on this planet, and buying my food from the people who have grown it helps me see the interconnections between my life and theirs and, on a larger scale, the connection between all producers and consumers.

Jenny Kurzweil is a writer/editor based in Santa Cruz, California. She has recently completed a manuscript that combines interviews of farmers who sell at a successful Seattle farmers' market with a social/cultural history of agriculture in the United States. She can be reached at

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