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Our Food, Our Communities

June 2006

A few years ago I was driving around lost on the Olympic Peninsula. I was in a hurry, trying to make my way to Hurricane Ridge overlook in the Olympic Mountains in time to see the sunset. When I figured out where I’d gone wrong, I made a u-turn and I almost didn’t stop at the little farm stand that caught my eyes both times I drove by it, but I decided that maybe the forces of serendipity had sent me on that detour just so that I could try the local fruit.

I bought a few peaches–individually nestled in extra-large egg carton type material–and a pint of cherries, and chatted with the folks on the other side of the table for a few moments, about the growing season (it seemed late for peaches to me), about the other crops they grow, what a lovely day it was, that kind of thing.

Then I jumped back in my car and raced off on my way. A few hours later, parked in the overlook as the sun set, I sat looking at snow covered peaks, feeling the summer sun on my face and a cold wind on my back, eating the fruit for dessert, each mouthful a little taste of summer from the valleys below these peaks.

The sense of connection that I felt to those peaches and cherries, from seeing the land where it was grown, from sitting in the landscape that makes the weather that grows that produce just so, from having even a brief conversation with a few members of the family that grows the fruit, is a powerful thing, and sadly hard to come by.

When I did the food challenge, I tried to pay particular attention to where the things I bought came from. It’s not always easy to figure out. My oatmeal is packaged in America, but there’s no hint of where it’s grown on the packaging. (A bit of research on the web indicates that it almost certainly comes from the Canadian prairies in lot sizes of dozens of train cars, all from a single gigantic industrialized farm.)

Un-processed, fresh produce from the supermarket is usually labeled, but sometimes that can be a bit of a mystery. I bought a bunch of organic broccoli that was labeled “Product of the USA” on one side of the label and “Product of Mexico” on the reverse. (Ironically, I just read the other day that the US produces almost exactly as much lettuce to export to Mexico as Mexico produces to export to the US.)

When I think of it, I try to buy foods that are organic and produced by small companies, but that’s not always as easy as it seems either. Seemingly independent brands like Stonyfield Farms and Brown Cow (two yogurts that I like) are both partially owned by the decidedly un-small, un-organic Danone, one of the largest food and beverage processing companies in the world.

Part of what these brands are selling is that sense of connection–a quaint little farm, a cute, happy looking cow, packaging that’s not too slick–but it isn’t really something that you can put in a plastic container and sell on a shelf. It’s something that, if we value it, we all have to work hard to create, maintain and protect.

I went to visit my mom in Upstate New York this past weekend. We stopped at a local farmer’s market and got Hudson Valley cherries and homegrown asparagus. The first time we stopped in they were out of asparagus, because they’d sold all the picked that day, and when we went back the following morning we bought two of the last bunches that they picked for the season. My mom teased the teenager behind the counter, telling her how much she looks like her mother, one of the owners of the farm. I don’t think the young woman enjoyed my mother’s banter but for me it was wonderful to be able to eat something with my family that had that direct connection to people that we know, who are a part of our community. It’s an experience I wish I could have more often.

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