Archive for October 16th, 2008

World Food Day Post: Bringing Cooking and Food Preservation to the Table

Sharon October 16th, 2008

Today is World Food Day - and time to assess the prospects for the future (and near term) of our food.  As I write this, there are more than 100 million new starving people in the world over a year ago.  As I write this people in Iceland, one of the world’s richest nations, are wondering whether there will be any imported food coming into their country.  As I write this, one out of every eleven Americans - and as many as one in seven in states with high levels of poverty - require food stamps to be able to eat.  As I write this the city of Houston is finally returning to normal after weeks of disrupted food supplies and hunger.  As I write this food price inflation remains high, while farmers are increasingly unable to get prices that cover their rising costs.  We are experiencing a food crisis now - and we are only at the beginning.

This is one of a series of projects to draw attention to food security today.  Along with this post, Aaron Newton and I have published a short excerpt of _A Nation of Farmers_ over at The Oil Drum, and a longer one excerpt (ie, more of the same chapter)  at Hen and Harvest .  There is simply no more important issue than food facing the world in the next decades - and “facing the world” doesn’t mean “something we can conveniently leave to others” - it faces each of us directly.

I want to talk here about two things - first I want to address anyone who may still have the lingering sense that dinner isn’t really as important as how to keep transportation going, or where to drill.  Because dinner has been the territory of women, and then the disdain for women’s work and women’s territory shifted over to working women as well, and often dinner was the territory of no one, we are only just beginning to realize that we do have to understand food, to be familiar with it and to have a relationship to its creation. 

The power of our food system is this.  Up to 12% of our total fossil fuel use is linked to the food system.  More than 35% of our total greenhouse gas emissions are linked to our food system.  Our hope of controlling climate change, or chance of avoiding a world in which many, many people simply die from lack of food access depends on the creation of a system that can withstand the coming shifts in climate, energy costs and availability, and a worldwide depression.  And without basic food security, we can expect radical political change - people looking for scapegoats, governments overthrown, acts of war, violence.  Without basic food security we can expect to see a lost generation, people all over the world stunted developmentally, children dead, anger rising, people unable to address the coming crisis because they are too weak, their mental development was shaped by hunger, they were too hungry to learn about citizenship,  because they are too angry, and too hopeless because as Gandhi said, they can see God only in the form of bread.  So yes, dinner is just that important.

And why mention cooking and food preservation? What not focus on growing food?  There are a couple of reasons.  The first is that there are already many people and organizations who focus on that end of things - the production end of food, the distribution ends of this issue have the attention of many groups - community gardeners, victory garden groups like Kitchen Gardens International, food and farming experts, and millions of ordinary people are starting to see how important it is that we focus on the agricultural system.  Michael Pollan wrote in this week’s New York Times about the ways that food production needs to be at the forefront of our policy initiatives.  The other is that we have enough food - it is true that we need to increase yields in some of the poorer places of the world - but access and not wasting or losing what we have is as central a project as producing more - perhaps more so.

I’m focusing on the quieter end of this, the one that hasn’t as yet gotten the attention it so desperately needs. Worldwide, nearly a third of all the food we produce is lost before it can be consumed - whether it is lost in the field because there is no one to harvest it (as in some US states this year due to a decline in migrant labor) because of transport delays and shortages, pests damage or lack of the right tools for low-energy food preservation.  In the US, millions of people suffer food insecurity in part because they do not know how to cook low cost staple foods, or how to make use of leftovers and parts of vegetables not commonly eaten.  In the US our food security may well come to depend on local food systems - but most Americans who “eat local” do so only during the harvest season - because they have no idea how to preserve food, or to minimize loss.  In the poor world, children suffer poor nutrition and hunger because the food their parents grew cannot be preserved - they have no access to basic tools, or fuel for cooking and preserving due to deforestation. In the rich world, children suffer poor nutrition and hunger because no one knows how to cook, preserve or feed themselves, so we eat cheap, toxic fast and processed food at high cost.

I write a lot about growing food too, but today I want to draw attention to the urgent problem of making the best possible use of the food we do have - to minimizing waste, to the support of the local food systems we will depend on in the new economy, to cooking, that most ordinary work of human beings, which makes the difference between the normal development of children and decent nutrition and good health, and disastrous loss of health and future.

And this is one of the places where everyone can act.  We can all learn to store and preserve food, to take local foods and learn to put them up to bridge seasons where little is grown, be they hot and dry or cold and snowy.  We can all learn to cook - we can learn to use basic staples as our primary source of food, leaving rich foods like meats for festivals, increasing both pleasure and health.  We can share food with our neighbors, and strengthen local communities when we sit down for a meal together.  We can save a bit of money on our grocery bills by eating what is local, abundant and basic, and give that money to the increasing number of people in our neighborhoods and the world who need a helping hand just to eat.  We can share our knowledge and our techniques with others, and help them out of a growing poverty.  We can take the appalling quantity of wasted food, and eat more of it, creating greater equity in the world, and reducing methane in landfills.  We can come closer to the use of a fair share, and leave more for others.

There is no question that food security will be the central issue of the coming decades all over the world, for developed and undeveloped nations alike.  I applaud the attention that agriculture is receiving on this World Food Day.  And I draw your attention to the equally urgent problems of cooking and preserving food in the creation of a sustainable and equitable food system!