A dear old friend sent me an article recently… really a boiled down version of a book called The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber. (Here’s a link to the article, if you’d like to read it yourself.) Dan Barber was one of the people who started the “Farm to Table” movement (if you’d call it a “movement”) in 2004 by buying ingredients as locally as possible for his restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, NY. In the article, and his book, he talks about how at first he thought it was a revolutionary idea that may help local agriculture, by expanding the tastes of the diners and really designing meals around what the farmers and farm land wanted to grow or produce. But upon closer inspection, it wasn’t really changing as much as he thought. The restaurant was still buying the things they were used to cooking with, and people still wanted and expected the best cuts of meat, for example, and weren’t really expanding their tastes to the rest of the animal. They were still expecting the largest portion on the plate to be a hunk of meat, while the vegetables were on the side. And so the diners weren’t experiencing much of a difference in their food, the farmers weren’t experiencing much of a difference in what they could sell, and the farm land wasn’t experiencing much of a difference in what it was asked to produce. Dan Barber is changing his restaurant to address these things in some interesting ways, and I hope it works. But this article brought up a bunch of different thoughts for me about food in our country… I will try to be coherent about it all.
I was lucky to grow up eating super high-end food. And I don’t mean my parents were wealthy and shopped at Whole Foods; I mean we were poor as dirt, but we had land, and my parents grew a giant garden. As a result, nothing in any produce section anywhere will live up to the food I ate as a kid. But here’s the thing… why can’t it? I’m sad to see the quality of fresh food being linked to one’s income level. Since when did organic local food become something for only rich people? When my mom was a kid, people still got milk delivered in a glass bottle to their front door. Fresh, local milk. She could ride her bike out into the countryside and buy eggs from a local farm, right out of their barn. That was normal life. Local high quality food shouldn’t be a privilege, it should be easy to access and widely understood.
Because of targeted government subsidies, farms got huge and started growing primarily corn, wheat, and soybeans, which then get bought up and fed to cows and chickens in feedlots, or made into processed food that’s designed to push our evolutionary taste buttons for fat, salt and sugar, but are doing us no favors. Meanwhile the little farm down the road that my mom could ride her bike to for tomatoes and eggs is a parking lot now. And when you go to the grocery store and you don’t have a lot of money, it’s more affordable to buy chicken nuggets and frozen pizza than fresh fruits and vegetables. Where did we go wrong?
There are a few restaurants in Rochester that buy locally raised meat and produce, and I think that’s great. And as a farmer, I occasionally sell some extra greens or herbs to those chefs. But are fancy restaurants the solution to the way we eat now in this country? No. And I think Dan Barber was starting to see that. These ideas are some of the reasons why I farm in the CSA model. Many of my members are just families who want to feed their kids good food, and don’t have the time or ground to grow the garden my folks had. I find it encouraging to see more CSA’s pop up in the area, and I’m trying to educate people about what they are… its one way for people to start getting really high quality food into their normal lives, without dropping the big bucks on a fancy dinner. And it is about education. Many of our young people have no idea how normal it was a generation ago to get your food straight from the farmer. There’s a whole body of knowledge lost; knowledge about how cream rises to the top of the milk and you have to shake it. Knowledge about when melons come in to season, or peas, or tomatoes, or cucumbers. Knowledge about the many different varieties of lettuce out there, or the different kinds of winter squash. (The produce manager at the local Wegman’s doesn’t even know that; Buttercup and Butternut are very different things, my friend.)
I see Community Supported Agriculture as a new way to be an old thing; a mutually beneficial relationship between the eaters and the farmers. Simple as that. There’s a place for it, but there’s no need for locally raised game hens garnished with pea tendrils at 30 bucks a plate to change the way we eat in this country. We just need to remember how our past used to be, and find a way to get good farmers putting good food directly into the hands of good people.
***Shameless plug: These things have been on my mind lately as I’m doing some free info-sessions at local libraries, telling people what a CSA is. Keep your eyes peeled on our facebook page, or our website for more dates as they come up, or even let me know if you want me to do one in your area. This concludes our shameless plug***