As some of you already know, I am currently student teaching in an English classroom at Ashe County High School. Along with my regular lesson planning, I also have to create something called an Impact Unit where I write – in detail – 5 days’ worth of lesson plans. The novel I have chosen for my project is set in inner city New York. One of the topics mentioned in the book is the types of food stores and restaurants that exist in the area where the main character lives. As I am already very interested in food, gardening, and sustainability, I decided to create a mini lesson on food deserts and food insecurity in inner city areas. By definition, a food desert is “Parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.”
While researching for this topic, I began to feel quite disheartened regarding the food situation extant in our country. I cannot imagine living in a place without access to fresh, whole foods. All of this made me think about how tragically disconnected we have become from the food we eat. Food is at the base of our life source, yet most people have no real grasp of where their food comes from and many aren’t sure what their food is truly made of. It saddens me to think that a child in the US is more likely to know exactly where to go and get a candy bar than to be able to go and pick a tomato straight off the vine. Throughout the years, I have become increasingly aware of how blessed I am to have grown up with a grandfather who taught me how to tell when a tomato is ripe, dig potatoes, shuck corn, string beans, cut okra, and save seeds and a grandmother who taught me how to cook, can, vacuum seal, and freeze the food my grandpa grew. Some of my fondest memories as a child were spent working quietly beside my grandpa with my hands in the dirt and my face full of sunshine. To think that the magic of growing and harvesting food is a phenomenon some children will never know anything about is simply heartbreaking. It is understandable that all children do not grow up in rural mountain communities like I did, but I think this sense of separation from what we eat is caused by more than geography. Somehow, our society has fallen into the mindset that it is not important to know how to grow food or even to know anything about where it comes from and how it is produced. Somehow, the preciousness and necessity of food has been (like nearly everything else) thrown into a pile of things valued for their convenience. The quicker, the better. It has become about the result and not the process, and at a great and accumulating cost.
Although artist Paul Cezanne died in the early 1900’s, I think he was absolutely right in his musings – “There will come a day when a carrot, freshly observed, will spark a revolution.” We no longer exhibit shock regarding the existence of ingredients in our “food” that we cannot pronounce or the fact that corn is disguised and passed off as an innumerable amount of other additives, but we are surprised when we hear about people growing their own food because, well, most people have forgotten how. We live in a nation where we are held under the false pretense that we do not need to know how to grow our own food because it is provided for us, making us not only relient upon but also forcibly trusting of the food industry extant in the United States. This is not to say that there aren’t people who are making their way back to the land – there is an increasing interest in farming and gardening and, in the case of the inner city, urban gardening. While these realizations are hopeful, there is undoubtedly a wealth of systems and actions that do not fall under the category of optimistic.
I am often overwhelmed by the state of despondency I see the word falling into. It is a great measure of sadness to find one’s self in the midst of such and feeling that there is truly nothing you can do. And there isn’t – at least not alone. If we ever have a hope for things to be different, our hope will be comprised of individuals who refuse defeat. In the words of the Kenyan environmental, political, and feminist activist Wangari Maathai, “I am doing the best I can.” And that is all anyone can be expected to do.