As I was driving to campus this morning, I happened to hear a story on NPR about urban gardening in Detroit. One of the points was that, given a garden around which to congregate, residents are more likely to get to know their neighbors.
This wasn't really a surprise. I've been re-reading Bill McKibben's Deep Economy, and one of the things he points out is that the experience of buying food at a local farmers' market stimulates about ten times as many conversations as the act of buying (nominally) similar food at a supermarket.
Speaking of supermarkets, another NPR story told of the drought in Southern California, the source of some one-half of all the fresh vegetables consumed in the USA. High irrigation requirements, high energy inputs, the other side of the continent (at least from me), and this is the mainstream fresh food paradigm.
The metro area in which Greenback U. is located features a number of farmers' markets, but their hours and locations aren't really convenient for us working folk. I'm far more likely to pick up some produce at an individual farm stand on the way home than I am at an organized open-air market. (Although the farm stand is quite often untended, leading to exactly zero conversations.)
However, the act of buying food directly from someone who was involved in growing it is just the sort of eminently sustainable economic activity in which I think salvation lies. It may mean forming a relationship (however superficial) with the grower, and certainly means forming a relationship (however fleeting) with the food.
One of the signs of an unsustainable lifestyle (both individually and collectively) is a lack of relationships with food. I love to eat, so I learned to cook. As a result, I do most of the grocery shopping. I was in a supermarket near campus last week, and was struck by the behavior of the woman ahead of me in the checkout line. She had used the clear plastic bags from the produce section not only to package her fresh produce, but also to package just about everything else. She had two boxes of pasta neatly enclosed in a bag with a twist tie, a package of marshmallow cookies sealed up in another. I don't think she had a single item which wasn't hermetically sealed, either in its manufacturer-supplied packaging, or in one of those plastic bags. (Of course, the cashier then placed the boxed pasta in the sealed bag inside an unsealed bag, so the story continued ...)
On reflection, there may have been some perfectly good reason for this woman's behavior. Maybe her house was suffering from an infestation of ants, or of roaches. Maybe she was headed for a boat or a camping trip, and concerned about moisture. Maybe a lot of things. But the impression that struck me at the time was that this person wanted to stay as far away from her food as possible. Some kind of aversion. Not a healthy relationship (even before we get into the marshmallow cookies).
A couple of weeks ago, I had an electrician working in my house. He was down in the cellar, working on the panel box, and then came upstairs to the kitchen. "Is something burning?", he asked. (Not my favorite question to hear from an electrician, particularly in an old farmhouse!)
Turns out what he was smelling was some chile peppers I was roasting under the broiler. He looked into the oven with noticeable astonishment. This guy lives in a community with a good number of farmers, but roasting fresh vegetables (OK, technically they're fruits) was a foreign experience to him.
The bottom line is that eating local food, buying food from the producers, dealing with food that's minimally (or un-) packaged, roasting your own peppers -- none of this is going to save the world. However, food may be the one category of consumer good where the full product lifecycle is most easily understood, and most readily experienced (if only vicariously). Food that's local and bought fresh comes from somewhere specific. Preparing food from its natural components makes you more aware of every bit of waste, and what happens to it. Assembling dishes from recipes (even if they're someone else's recipes) puts you in control of your consumption, in a way that eating out of a box will never do.
Yes, freshly prepared food tastes better. Yes, it's better for you. Yes, it's better for your neighbors (who are now your suppliers). But perhaps more important, understanding the lifecycle of food can be a first step towards understanding the lifecycles of everything else we consume. And if our food doesn't have to travel 1500 miles (national average) before it gets to us, maybe all that other stuff doesn't have to travel ever farther!