Update on the past few months:
Six months ago, I wrote about missing fruit. I wrote about my connection to the story of my food carrying weight for me. I wrote about being excited to share the food projects I was starting to work on. I still feel that way. I can’t convey properly how much fruit represents in possibility and abundance and sunshine and those quiet moments of summer when you eat a perfect stone fruit bursting with juice. That’s all still real. With almost a year under my belt in Minnesota, what also seems real is the magnitude of difficulty it takes to address equity, compensation and availability in our food system. Minnesota is one of the most progressive agricultural states - and I’m still saying this. If you’ll humor me, let me visualize to you how I feel:
It’s May 21st, and we’re going on day four or five of cool days full of rain. Last week, I finished The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earth Worms. Maybe it’s because of the book, but as I bike or run on the trails and roads right now - I see nothing but worms. Everywhere. Even when it’s dark out, and I can’t pick out which lines shimmering in the slick asphalt are sticks, leaf stems, or worms. And as I go through trying to avoid them all or wishing I could stop and move them to safety somewhere, I couldn’t help but think of this being eerily similar to all the various ways I feel overwhelmed by the work the needs to be done in our society to enable a just and fair food system. (How’s that for a view into how my brain works?) The worms are everywhere. And the work is everywhere too.
Similarly, when I think about our food system, I think about the individuals in need of affordable healthy food. And I think of the farm workers exploited and endangered with limited opportunities to organize or advocate for themselves. And, I think of the small food processors who aren’t interested or can’t afford to purchase sustainably grown food or aren’t able to use it for processing due to lack of processing facilities willing to take raw farm products. Each of these thoughts has my heart, and the overlapping stories within them pop up around me so frequently, I find myself more overwhelmed than when I ride through the worms. Which cause to pick up? Which food injustice fight to fight?
I could spend a whole night picking up worms and moving them to safe soil, but I would end up exhausted and stopping my momentum towards my destination. Similarly, these past few months have encouraged me to look for balance of priorities in order to maintain momentum for what I can control or contribute towards. It’s been a challenge particularly because much of my work with small business processors sees primarily non-local, conventionally sourced ingredients come into our kitchen each day (I’ll write more about this soon). I find myself part of a project that aims to uplift minority and small business owners, which can lead to a more equitable business economy, but sees little cross over of what I loved in my job in Chicago: support of local sustainable farmers.
When I worked in farmers markets, I would strongly state their purpose in overhauling our food system. Farmers Markets are a way to encourage exploration of where food comes from and allow consumer feedback directly to farmers and processors in a meaningful way. Each week, I saw the impact of one person’s exposure and revelation at knowing more about the food they purchased. At their best, these markets also address food insecurity when placed in areas short on fresh food retailers or when they offer double value programs aimed to make local produce and other eligible items affordable for those with limited food budgets. Now separated from this experience, and discussing the system with friends who aren’t part of my work, I question my role and impact. I see issues I care about going unnoticed by non-food friends in a world of Instagram feeds with kittens, unicorns, bikes or vistas of mountains. Finding a way to break through is yet another nightcrawler scootching it’s way alongside my bike tires and breaking my heart.
Without demand for a more equitable and fair food system and the willingness of consumers to pay, I feel like the work done on the ground level at Farmers Markets or cooking classes is just a drop in a bucket. For the past few months, the balance I’ve been trying to find is not only one of choosing battles, but how to quell the inner frustration of caring so deeply about the impacts of food on animals, the earth, and (most importantly) the people who touch our food. My latest food project is one of inner conflict - of finding peace despite this feeling like nothing is really making an impact in a way that will incite systemic change. It’s a balance I’m still perfecting. Just like dodging worms (or maybe it was a stick?)