images/voice_uploads/Circle_Eggs.gif">Imagine your most recent meal sitting on a table before you. Let’s say it’s breakfast. Now pick one of the ingredients, maybe an egg, and trace its journey back to the chicken. How far did you get?
I’ve done this exercise often with Radford University classes, and the trail of the egg almost always grows cold in the nearest grocery store’s dairy section. Like most of us, these students don’t know how far that egg traveled, where the chicken lived, or how the chicken was treated. Like most of us, my students don’t know the source of their food, and often, they don’t care.
But care we all should with the growing concerns about food security, health, and the environment. A 1983 study found that the average food item in the United States travels 1,300 miles before it reaches the dinner table. Given NAFTA and the globalization of our economy, that number surely has increased. How often have you brought a bag of Chilean grapes home from the grocery store in the dead of winter? More importantly, how much ecological damage occurred with the mere shipment of that produce? And what are the human costs of this vast food distribution system? We would be horrified if someone sabotaged a shipment of beef, tainted it with e coli, and caused thousands of people to get sick and die. A scary proposition, but it regularly happens by accident because our food system is so gigantic and geared toward efficiency, speed, and money.
Take that breakfast egg, for example. As a teenager, I worked at my best friend’s farm. His dad operated a layer house, a windowless factory longer than a football field that held over sixty thousand birds. Each white chicken lived in a three-foot-square cage with eight other noisy birds, sandwiched between other cages beside, above, and below. The eggs rolled out on a conveyer belt, the food rolled in on a different belt, and the droppings fell into a ten-foot pit.
At the time, I thought little of the birds’ plight. I was more fascinated with the German-speaking Amish girls who worked beside me. Later, though, I began to realize all of the problems with such a large-scale industry. These clucking creatures never saw the sun, never scratched the earth, never even enjoyed a dirt bath. They were pumped with antibiotics to prevent diseases. And instead of spreading their own feces over a pasture, they simply had to let it drop below them. Imagine sleeping, eating, breathing, just plain living with 59,999 other creatures above a year’s worth of your own shit.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Our eggs can come from local farmers, our lettuce from a nearby market gardener instead of a California mega-farm. Our region still has an agricultural tradition, and our population centers are still small enough that local farms could supply many of our needs. Imported oranges and avocados would become true luxuries instead of the everyday miracles we take for granted. If we valued health and security more than wealth, we could begin this process of becoming more self-sufficient, and in turn, create healthier local economies.
One of the first steps we would be ascertaining what assets we already have. In Watauga County, North Carolina, a class taught at Appalachian State University spent a semester creating an “Asset-Based Map” of the county. They interviewed local farmers, suppliers, and marketers, and then listed them in an index to show the many food assets that already existed. The class also examined the agricultural education and cultural assets, diagramming the connections and resources available, as well as the barriers. They found the main barriers to be poorly planned land development, the dying out of the farmers, and industrialization—the same issues faced across our country.
Other schools have taken the process of local food security a step further. At the University of Northern Iowa, thanks to a grant, students have become interns at area institutions like hospitals and nursing homes. The intern’s job is to find local food for each institution, making connections between farmer and chef. In California, also through grants, many of the public schools now produce a portion of their own food in school gardens. Local farmers, who often visit the classes, produce much of the rest of each school’s food.
We can do this, but not with ease. The existing system already gears itself against buying locally. Our state universities, for example, are governed by laws which require volumes of paperwork and capital, usually eliminating the local farmers. But laws can change, and so can people.
Though less than 2 percent of our population farms, we all eat. We affect the earth the most, not by what we drive or wear, but by what we eat, by how and where that food is grown. We make choices every time we take a bite, and often we are ignorant of each mouthful’s effects on the earth and ourselves. If we eat from the sustainable table, we buy local produce of higher quality, we pollute much less, and we protect the soil, water, and air, as well as our farming neighbors and our own food security. Consider this at your next meal.
Jim Minick lives, writes and farms in Wythe County, Virginia. He also teaches in the English Department at Radford University.
Minick’s book, Finding a Clear Path, intertwines literature, agriculture, and ecology as he takes the reader on many journeys, allowing you to float on a pond, fly with a titmouse, gather ginseng, and grow the lowly potato. Using his background as a blueberry farmer, gardener and naturalist, Minick explores the Appalachian region and also introduces information that can be appreciated from a scientific point of view, explaining, for example, the ears of an owl, or the problems with the typical Christmas tree. Reading this collection of essays invites you to search for ways to better understand and appreciate this marvelous world, opening paths for journeys of your own. Scott Weidensaul, author of Mountains of the Heart, writes:
“In FINDING A CLEAR PATH, Jim Minick maps the trails, real and metaphorical, that twine through the ancient Appalachian hills and through the hearts of those who love them, gracefully uniting the land, the wildlife and its people.”