The Sustenance of Democracy

Why eating local—now more than ever—is a political act.

May 8, 2017

EssayIssue 24: May/June 2017

I came to local food years ago, in college, when I learned how unsustainable our industrial system was—how precariously it rested upon the back of fossil fuels, a broken immigration system, and ecologically harmful monoculture crops. I learned that what looked like food could be built from things other than food—that it could actually not be food at all. What looked like food might allow me to survive, but it would also deposit into my body chemical compounds that left me moody, vitamin-depleted, laced with pesticides.

More important, I learned that an industrial food system that stretched across the globe failed, by default, to be accountable to its communities. It could nourish neither individual nor place, because its priority lay so inherently in profit margins and efficiency, in the logic of working parts. What seemed to be a miracle at first—that we could grow so much and transport it so far—has revealed itself to be profoundly undernourishing for all but the stockholders at the top, and not a form of sustenance at all.

Here is a question, then: What does it mean for our eating to nourish us? If the word sustenance refers to food or drink regarded as a source of strength, how might our eating become a deeper and more powerful source of communal strength in this way, in a political moment when we need it?

For the tiny tomatoes I buy each week from the father with round glasses and his two kids are votes. In the act of purchasing—by consuming intentionally—I cast a vote for my community: that the money stays here in Tucson, where it can do so much more. That the money not go onward into the pockets of corporations with the money and power to bulldoze ecosystems, scatter pesticides, and influence policy in ways that benefit a powerful few, the way it does when we shop in the industrial economy. As the strength of regulatory agencies weakens under the new administration, our strongest hand in protecting ourselves from the noxious chemicals so wedded to agriculture may be in extending that hand to our local farmer—not once but weekly, as a feature of our lives. It’s that farmer who’s helping hone our stocks of drought-resistant heirloom seeds in the face of climate change. It’s that farmer who’ll develop the sustainable water practices necessary for prospering in parched-earth Arizona.

Illustration by Marcy Ellis.

That our consumer choices amount to votes has long since ceased to be a novel idea, but I want to offer one variation. When we eat local, we create the conditions under which people are able to live the lives they love. Statistics about the way dollars spent locally stay within a community fail to illuminate what this looks like for individual entrepreneurs and farmers, freelancers and artists, those with the itch to make beautiful things, those deeply invested in living lives wedded to the land. To be a farmer, you understand, is to risk. It is an act of faith to plant the crop, to kid the goats, to bring your salsa to the stand. Yet for those of us filled with the creative impulse, to not do so is a betrayal of the self. Our communities are enriched when people are able to be their boldest, most vibrant selves.

And what we need more than anything right now is to be our biggest selves.

If we honor the fullest potential of our community members when we buy from them, we also build that community in real terms. These are the faces I’ve come to know, faces I likely wouldn’t have met otherwise: the Syrian ladies in headscarves and sunglasses, gesturing at their fresh semolina cake and baklava dripping with syrup; the sunburned and white-toothed Sleeping Frog Farms crew, joking about our addiction to fresh oranges; the goat lady who makes my shampoo, whose ranch I visited early one morning with friends to bottle-feed her bleating, jumping kids.

It is easy to lob around the word community in a digital age, in which we have access to the minds of people whose bodies we’ve never sat beside. But the truth is that flesh bodies matter. In an uncertain political climate, I feel more and more certain that we need to occupy spaces together, to gather together as bodies, to look each other in the eye. To invest in each others’ creations. These are the touchstones that have satiated humans for all of history.

We have long been an America of grand gestures and cutting corners. In the current political moment, we want record levels of protestors. We want clogged congressional phone lines and airport terminals shut down. We must be, somehow, everywhere at once. And so there exists an enormous temptation to compromise our food choices, to make possible our activism by reducing the time we spend on the simplest part of life, to let efficiency—rather than sustenance—become our guiding value.

Yet as the Trappist monk and American writer Thomas Merton reminds us, “The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.”

He goes so far as to say, “The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

A question to walk with: How might we choose a daily bread that sustains our own wisdom and rootedness?

Illustration by Marcy Ellis.

Certainly it is my habit of visiting the market, and nothing else, which calls me back from this edge. That my Sunday calendar is built around the market, that my body is so accustomed to packing the basket, that I miss the faces there: This is why I eat local. It is a routine not just of purchasing but of connection. In a busy week, the routine reminds me to fill a jar with soup or buy a premade tamale—to let this community, not industrial agriculture, hold me up.

And perhaps it should be noted: It is a routine. If it is a decision I make each week, I rarely think of it as such; it is a practice I keep, so obvious that I do not put it on the calendar anymore. Unlike a grocery store, where I will need to scrutinize labels or look for special tags to determine local products, at the farmers’ market I need mostly, simply, to show up.

If we sustain ourselves on the backs of industrial agriculture while committing ourselves as activists, we lose some of the potency of our work. There’s empathy and thanks owed, of course, to those who are engaged in grand gestures, who place their bodies so firmly in the midst of the struggle; the Standing Rock activists enduring rubber bullets, staring down machinery, no doubt must eat whatever comes their way.

But I maintain that the greatest activism is, and always has been, a simple life in alignment, not fueled by the sort of sleeplessness, anger, and judgment that burns activists out regularly, but fueled by an attention, a love, that connects neighbors to each other and to the land. To respond to the current political moment is necessary, but it is also not necessarily grand. It is sustained, careful, and clear. If we rage, it is what Terry Tempest Williams terms “sacred rage”—a deeper, more focused burn. These long-burning coals don’t go out in the night.

The election of Donald Trump reminds us: We must not be lazy. We must not, through our quiet, unnoticed actions, hand our power away to others who do not have us in mind. Wendell Berry writes, “The ‘environmental crisis’ is no such thing; it is not a crisis of our environs or surroundings; it is a crisis of our lives as individuals, as family members, as community members, and as citizens.”

Let us step, as citizens, back into the habits of communal life that nourish us. Let us make possible each others’ most beautiful lives; let us cast our votes in favor of heirloom seeds; let us withdraw our small bit of power from the people who will not serve us. Let us look each other in the eye each week and sustain each other—even on the days when the system does not. ✜

Katherine E. Standefer teaches intimate classes that help writers explore sexuality, illness, and trauma. Her writing appears in The Best American Essays 2016. Follow her on Twitter @girlmakesfire or KatherineStandefer.com.







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