It doesn’t get any more local than growing food in your own backyard and making everything by hand. Imagine how great it would be to have your own vegetable garden, fruit trees and livestock, and to make your own pasta, ice cream and beer. Still, I must admit that though I try to eat healthy and follow my own advice, there are certain foods I feel are best left to professionals to produce, pasta and ice cream falling into this category. While I have seen Italian women making ravioli by hand in a campground in Italy (I kid you not), I am not yet ready to be that hardcore about my food. And while I have helped an ex-girlfriend make ice cream at her family’s house in Brazil, I prefer to buy it ready on a stick. Home-brewed beer on the other hand is always worth a try; in spite of mixed results, I still have fond memories of making it with friends during college.
Though one could just as well prepare them by hand, in some cases it is more efficient to buy processed foods, provided they don’t contain too much sugar or salt. I buy canned beans because I don’t have the foresight to soak dry beans, salsa because it cost the same or less than an equal weight of tomatoes, and hummus because I would either have to buy chickpeas canned or soak them dry before preparing the hummus itself.
Though I may not be a back-to-the-farm purist, I like to know the origin, nature of preparation, and nutritional benefits of the food I eat. Meat-eaters would gain valuable perspective over the slabs of shrink-wrapped flesh they poke at in the clinical lighting of the meat aisle if they witnessed, at least once, the slaughter and dressing of the mammals we eat. Similarly, if we observed the production of processed foods, we might question eating them at all. We also might see how we could make the food we enjoy healthier by preparing it ourselves.
While good cooking is an art form, it is also important to remember that we eat food for a reason: namely to provide our bodies with the nutrients they need to function. We need to put our preference for excessive salt, sugar and fat aside and learn to enjoy the complex and unique flavors of vegetables and fruit. We need to favor the inner nutritional value of food over its appearance.
Many of you may recall childhood memories of eating junk food and drinking soda, and college years spent surviving on instant noodles with the little MSG packet for flavor. Some of you may have also heard the urban legend about the student who got scurvy, due to a diet devoid of fruit and vegetables. Though this is an extreme example, many children and young adults in the United States do not receive enough nutrition in their daily diets. As a former teacher, I noticed the effects of a poor diet of candy, cookies, chips and soda on my students; the sugar and caffeine high prevented them from sitting still or focusing their attention in class, while too much salt made them irritable and hard to manage.
While some schools have banned junk food and soda vending machines on campus, and improved the nutritional value of their cafeteria menu, parents also bear the responsibility of providing kids with healthy snacks and meals at home. In many cases, this requires that parents improve their own food culture and avoid the hazards of low-quality processed food and the temptation of convenience that the modern food industry promotes. One way to do this would be to plant a garden of one’s own and thereby gain hands-on experience with food production, while reaping a modest but healthy harvest of fresh fruits and vegetables.
When it comes to growing one’s own food one obviously needs a suitable yard or property, a favorable climate and good soil. Many Americans have neither the space nor the property to achieve this dream. Today, many Americans rent apartments without yards in urban areas and suburbs. As a result, it is difficult to cultivate anything more than a few tomatoes and some herbs in the window sill or on the roof, in a pot on the back porch, or in a small part of the yard of the suburban home which isn’t already occupied with lawn and generic landscaping. Cleary, without a piece of land free of the concrete jungle of the metropolis and the sprawl of suburbia, it is nearly impossible to create even a moderate level of self-sufficiency and personal food security. Nevertheless, I think we could all benefit from growing a few vegetables in the spaces available to us, or through co-ops with like-minded neighbors.
In many cities across the United States, local communities and schools are creating urban gardens to produce their own food. These gardens send a positive message that we can take control of our own diet and health, while respecting the environment and promoting community life. As a result, neighborhoods that were previously neglected and consequently prone to vandalism and crime have been revitalized. Urban planners can take a page of inspiration from urban gardeners by including community gardens into their project master plans.
A frequent problem with suburban planned development is the lack of access to goods and services, and an absence of community spirit. Imagine if new subdivisions included, in addition to required parks, areas dedicated to gardens that were proportionally large enough to provide each household with a box of seasonal vegetables once a month, or several times a year? On weekends homeowners could tend the garden along with their children, or while their children play in the adjacent park. They could also organize potlucks based on the harvest.
For people who are unable to have their own garden, many cities run farmers’ markets where you can buy quality, small-scale produce from local growers, which is superior to what you’ll find in the supermarket. In addition, there is frequently more organic food on offer at these events. Farmers’ markets also give the opportunity to socialize with other people in the community: often a rare occurrence in a modern world typified by commuting, frequent relocation, and a preference for digital entertainment in the form of movies, television, internet, and video games.
Alternatively, it is possible to have a box of seasonal organic produce delivered to your door from your local CSA. While local, organic produce may not look perfect, it is usually superior in taste to what’s on offer at your local supermarket, which is harvested early for a longer shelf life, and genetically modified to be uniform in appearance and to travel well. For the consumer this often means rock hard peaches, mealy apples, and cardboard tomatoes. No thanks! I’ll take taste over appearance any day.
The best thing you can do with your homegrown or local-bought produce is to share it with friends in tasty meals prepared for small dinner parties, or potlucks. The potluck is a great tradition because it allows us to take time out of our busy schedules to cook our favorite meals, eat together, and interact with our friends and neighbors. More often than not, the food on offer is delicious and can inspire our own cooking. While we all have our culinary preferences based on culture, tradition, small epiphanies, habit and convenience, we become our better selves when we discover and appreciate different food and the people who prepare and share it with us. While sincere communication and mutual interests build friendship and understanding, food is still the fastest path to the heart.