Food Karma: Beyond Organic/h1>
A Special Report on the Ethics of Food Choice
By Lorraine Dusky, Carrie Demers, and John J. Kochevar
Think Global, Eat Local is the new slogan in food reform, taking mindfulness about what we eat to a new level. We know that the better our nutrition, the healthier we and our children are likely to be—and happier, when we are able to eat in a joyful, celebratory way. But as these articles show, eating well and in good company are not the only factors in our food karma; the good or bad practices of the farmers and food distributors we support with our purchases go into our collective karma. As moral and spiritual beings, we need to explore the issues and face up to the impact our votes and dollars have on the food chain, the global economy, and the health of our planet.
We Are What We Eat—So Now, Do We Eat What We Read?
By Lorraine Dusky
You know that box of organic pre-washed mesclun that you have been happily carting home from your local supermarket all year round? I buy it month after month too, even when the snow is blowin’ and the wind is howlin’ and the ground is frozen in the northeastern clime in which I live, the eastern end of Long Island, where farm fields are growing fewer and smaller, though they still abound.
I put the plastic container in my cart, and without actually thinking about it, I have the sense that what I’m doing follows this equation: Organic (no funny petrochemicals, no strange-sounding additives) = Wholesome (lots of vitamins, including polyphenols such as anti-oxidants, and enzymes not yet identified but certainly better than those found in a vitamin pill) = Good. At checkout, the container goes into my string bag—if I’ve remembered to bring it—now adding to my self-satisfaction that I’ve done my bit for the environment cubed. Organic + Recycling—hey, I’m golden.
Not so fast. Once you devour a few books such as Marion Nestle’s Food Politics or Michael Pollan’s more recent oeuvre, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, you will never feel the same about food you buy.The first question is: Where did it come from?
The second question is: How much energy was used to get it to my market?
And therein lies the rub. In meticulous detail and in terrific prose, Pollan—a journalism professor at Berkeley— pulls the scales from our addled eyes and informs us in no uncertain terms that for each calorie of energy we ingest from that box of mixed salad greens, it most likely took between seven and ten calories of fossil fuel to get it to our plates. Yikes.
He salves our collective conscience a bit by pointing out what organic eaters already know—that the “organic” label means that the greens were grown on land not hypercharged with “fertilizers made from natural gas or spray pesticides made from petroleum,” which is good, but then he adds this distressing caveat: “Organic farmers often wind up burning more diesel fuel than their conventional counterparts: in trucking bulky loads of composts across the countryside and weeding their fields, a particularly energy-intensive process involving extra irrigation (to germinate the seeds before planting) and extra cultivation.” Not good.
But wait. There is good news in that the boom in organic farming—it’s now a $14 billion dollar industry—has taken thousands and thousands of acres out of conventional production and returned it to a more natural state. One of the largest brands of organic fruits and vegetables, Earthbound Farms, estimates that their growers alone cultivate some 25,000 acres in ways that eliminate the need for 270,000 pounds of pesticides and 8 million pounds of petrochemical fertilizer, making it, as Pollan states, “a boon to both the environment and the people who work in those fields.”
There’s more. Growing the food is just the start. Trucking it around the country eats up a lot of petroleum. More than you might think, Pollan says: “Only a fifth of the total energy used to feed us is consumed on the farm. The rest is spent processing the food and moving it around.” Add in the food miles, and this means that the food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States. At this point, I’m thinking: Holy Cow, that’s a lot of energy. My ecologically sound string bag—even millions of such string bags eliminating millions of plastic bags normally used at checkout—seems like…small potatoes, to use, uh, the metaphor that comes to mind.
Now I’m wondering what I’m doing eating mesclun in the winter, anyway. Why not just stock up on the locally grown root vegetables and “winter greens”? Off I go to the local farm market to buy heavily before they close for the season. A large Savoy cabbage is cooling in a neighbor’s half-empty fridge as I write, while mine is stocked with winter squashes, kale, broccoli, and cauliflower.
Organic? I don’t know. I do know that the farmers’ signs said “our own” which means the petroleum needed to get it to market was minimal. Because the heavy government paperwork to qualify for the label “organic” is scaled for big agribusiness rather than a family farm, which Falkowski’s Country Garden decidedly is, it’s possible that my produce is organic without the farmers’ being able to say so.
The ubiquitous Horizon dairy, for instance, gets as much as half of its milk from industrial-scale dairies that milk as many as 10,000 cows in feedlot operations, according to the Cornucopia Institute, an aggressive organic-farming watchdog. Instead of grazing like the contented cows you imagine when you think “organic,” these cows merely have “access to pasture,” a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) term that is nearly meaningless in such big dairy operations. How often, how much pasture per cow is not specified. Like “river view” in a real estate ad.
As for my locally grown veggies, a bit of online sleuthing found at least one local Falkowski growing organic mushrooms, so I may be in luck. Furthermore, I have the satisfaction of knowing that a lot of oil imported from some Middle-Eastern country wasn’t required to move it around.
Price Points at Issue
Organic almost always costs more. A bag of pre-washed faux-baby carrots that is $1.99 in the regular produce section will be $2.59 in the organic. Non-organic Spring Mix will be $8 a pound; organic shoots up to over $12 a pound. Shop-ping at Whole Foods Market, a chain of 189 organic food shops in the U.S. and Canada, is a satisfying expedition, friends say, but you pay up for what you get. A BMW is not the same as a Chevy, yet both are cars. If my food must come from far away, I might as well go organic—better taste, better for you.
And that’s why the organic movement really got going back in the hippie era of the long-ago sixties—not as a means to use less petrol and save the earth; it was for these more self-satisfying reasons: taste and nutrition—and no chemicals with unpronounceable names. We’d all read Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring or absorbed the basic messages: Don’t Panic, Buy Organic. Pioneer nutritionist Adelle Davis’s best work alerted us to the value of well-farmed whole foods. Whether learned or by instinct, the public knew that a carrot is not just a carrot. And once upon a time not so long ago, so did the USDA.
Back in the fifties, the old USDA found that carrots grown in the thin, sandy soil of Florida were not the same as those grown in the rich, deep soil of Michigan, but this information made public undoubtedly discomfited the Florida growers. Pollan proposes that this is why the USDA no longer rates produce this way. New York University professor and nutritionist Marion Nestle, who has written extensively about the power of various food lobbies in her 2002 book, Food Politics, points out the regulatory assumption that food is a mere commodity. “The current system of industrial agriculture wastes resources, pollutes the environment, raises animals under insanitary and inhumane conditions, externalizes every possible cost,” Nestle says, mincing no words, “and is based on only one rationale: producing the largest amount of food possible at the lowest possible cost.”
Yet to satisfy the agribusiness lobby, the new USDA in 2000 went out of its way to equate organic with conventional. Then USDA Secretary Dan Glickman called the organic label a mere marketing tool. “It is not a statement about food safety,” he said, as Pollan reports. “Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” Incidentally, Mr. Glickman is now president of the Motion Picture Academy of America; one wonders if he declares that a movie is a movie is a movie. Doubtful.
The well-credentialed Dr. Nestle (her PhD is in molecular biology and she has a master’s in public health nutrition) summed up in a 2005 speech: “Are foods better if they are organic? Of course they are, but not primarily because of nutrition. Their true value comes from what they do for farm workers in lower pesticide exposure, for soils in enrichment and conservation, for water supplies in less fertilizer runoff, for animals in protection against microbial diseases and mad cow disease, for fish in protection against contamination with organic hydrocarbons, and for other such environmental factors.” A compelling case.
An eager public has increased sales of organics by 20 percent every year since 1990, despite the higher price tag that reflects not only transport of compost, but high labor costs to keep land productive. Organic farming relies on people more than chemicals. Flowers that discourage bugs are planted among rows of lettuce; weeds are pulled by hand. Plus—and to me it’s a big plus—workers at organic fields are likely to get treated and paid better than the average picker at a conventional field. Knowing that I contribute to a farm hand’s living wage makes my salad on my plate a lot more palatable.
Big Organic: Global Goliath
Michael Pollan has criticized Whole Foods Market for creating an organic food chain so vast that it has the weaknesses of conventional Big Ag’s long-
distance distribution, for getting so big that most of its produce comes from a few huge suppliers that put little guys out of business, for buying globally which pits local farms against cheap third-world labor. Not to mention the fall-off in flavor of high-mileage food.
Stung by sections of Pollan’s new book, Whole Foods co-founder, CEO, and Chairman John Mackey wrote in an open letter on the company website:
Without Whole Foods Market’s pioneering work and without the growth of our stores and distribution centers, it is very unlikely that the organic foods movement would be where it is today. In 2005 the total sales of all the retail food co-ops in the United States combined was only about $700 million, less than 15 percent of Whole Foods Market’s total sales that year.
The simple truth is that the organic foods movement was largely a fringe movement with adherents numbering only in the thousands before Whole Foods Market came into existence. The year-round supply of organic foods across the United States today consumed by millions of people is in large part due to the success and growth of Whole Foods Market.
Their public correspondence continued even after they met personally last spring. In June, Pollan wrote in his blog:
Any retailer can treat the consumer as a dumb beast that wants what we wants when we wants it—the narrowest view of our self-interest. Such an approach has done much to create the debased industrial food chain we now have—the “pile it high and sell it cheap” philosophy that ramifies up and down the food chain, degrading the land, eviscerating the animals, and making us fat and sick.
But as Whole Foods recognized before many others did, there is another consumer being born out there, one who takes a broader view of his interests, understands that spending more on higher-quality food is worth it on so many levels, and who treats his food purchases as a kind of vote for a better world. You have educated that new consumer about organics and persuaded him to spend more for better food—something we will have to do if the food system is ever to be truly sustainable.
In the same way we now need (as you pointed out in our meeting) to raise the bar again on American agriculture, we need to raise it on the American eater too, teaching him about the satisfactions (and nutritional benefits) of eating in season, from his locality, and from a food chain based on grass rather than corn. I think we agree that this is where the “reformation” now is headed; you are in a position to lead rather than to follow it there.
As competitors like Wal-Mart and Safeway move into selling industrial organic food, Whole Foods can distinguish itself by moving to the next stage, doing things they can’t possibly do. “Local” surely is one of those things: and your buyers already know exactly how to do it. All Wal-Mart knows is how to source industrial organic food from China.
Big Organic Squeezes Out The Small Farm
All of this makes you wonder about how Wal-Mart is going to keep prices down to a mere 10 percent over their chemically enhanced foods, which is the goal they announced when they expanded into the organic market last year. First of all, their deserved reputation as a wage-busting employer belies the organic spirit from the get-go. And secondly, their aggressive discounting that has squeezed American manufacturers who cannot compete with cheap labor overseas is certainly going to further impact the organic movement.
The large-scale operations that can supply the burgeoning organic market have drifted far from the ideal of the small biodiverse farm. The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute reports that in addition to signing Horizon, Wal-Mart is in contract with the Aurora Organic Dairy of Boulder, Colorado, for dairy to be sold under the “Great Value” label. Aurora’s practices have been widely criticized.
Wal-Mart, along with Trader Joe’s, a seemingly more friendly store, sells frozen organic produce that is shipped in from China—as well as New Zealand, Mexico, and Central America. Not only do these labels under which the food is sold offer little package information on how the food is grown and processed, the energy expended to get it to us belies the concept of sustainability. For my money, I’ll go local rather than organic, when organic comes from halfway around the world.
And lastly, such aggressive pricing—the hallmark of Wal-Mart—must undoubtedly be passed on down to the lowest member of the food chain, the farm hand, who is already receiving wages most of us would scoff at. Will Wal-Mart destroy the advantage of workers at organic farms? In terms of organic at Wal-Mart, caveat emptor has never seemed so apt.
The spiraling success of the organic movement has left in its wake a whole host of new issues for the health-conscious, ecologically minded consumer to ponder as she checks out the apples and oranges at the market. To “Don’t Panic, Buy Organic” has been added “Think Global, Buy Local.” If we’re lucky, local is organic. But sometimes the choice is between local and organic. Each comes with its own set of trade-offs. It’s not a perfect world.
Author Lorraine Dusky frequently writes about environmental issues and social justice.
Are We Having Fun Yet? Local Food, Co-ops, and CSA Challenge the Cook
By John J. Kochevar
Community food groups that contract with local farmers are one of the most promising trends in American food ways. These partnerships imply sustainable farm practices and improved nutrition, suntanned healthy people carrying baskets of really fresh produce, and children learning to love green vegetables by watching them grow. The image of community groups banding together with local farmers has the wholesome, old-fashioned quality of a Norman Rockwell painting. What’s not to love?
For many people the reality of community supported agriculture, or CSA, only hits home with the delivery of a weekly bin containing various fruits and vegetables (and sometimes grains) in all their seasonal and often dirty glory. Everyone can take a certain high-minded pleasure knowing they are helping local farmers better manage supply and demand, cutting down on cross-country trucking and building a more humane food chain. The low-minded pleasure of everyday food prep, however, requires a bit of practice and discipline and perhaps a sense of humor.
Dinosaur kale, how shall I cook thee? Let me count the ways….
By any standard the local food movement is experiencing rapid growth. The number of local farmers’ markets has more than doubled in the last 10 years, and community gardens and city farms have proliferated. There are now more than 1,500 CSAs in the U.S. In Brooklyn alone, just one of New York City’s five boroughs, there are nine neighborhood green markets and at least 15 CSA locations. The Cobble Hill CSA, a cooperative with the Green Thumb Organic Farm on neighboring Long Island, announces, “You can feed a family of four from June through December for just $14 a week plus a small administrative fee.” The famous Park Slope Food Coop (founded in 1973, it’s one of the oldest and largest, with 12,000 members) publishes a quaint print newsletter with hometown classifieds (sell outgrown nursery gear, hire Melissa Cook, Esq.to sue your landlord or draft your will, sign up for Myra Klockenbrink’s “Eat with the Seasons: Winter.” Across the continent San Francisco has 15 different CSAs with such names as Full Belly, Good Humus, and Farm Fresh to You.
The standard CSA model requires members to buy shares at the beginning of the season for regular supplies of locally grown fruits and vegetables; fees break out at $14 to $27 per week depending on quantity and variety. Most CSAs are co-ops; members must put in time either on the farm tending crops or in the neighborhood shelving or distributing produce.
The initial fee allows farmers to plan their planting more efficiently and sustains their commitment to organic and/or transitional agriculture. Members who go into the fields get a chance to experience a bit of farm life, the weather, bugs, dirty fingernails, and the company of like-minded individuals. Their kids learn that vegetables do not originate in a freezer bag; some may even develop as great a taste for greens as the Berkeley, California, middle schoolers who tend the Edible Schoolyard in a school curriculum led by renowned food-reformer Alice Waters. Most of all, people learn to cook with the rhythms of the seasons and not with a shopping list.
Therein lies the CSA challenge.
Odd Greens Met Face to Face
CSA peaches and strawberries are easy. Fresh off a tree or warm from a sunny field, they give off a fragrance that cannot be matched by anything in a supermarket. If all the fruits and vegetables were this good, half the country would belong to a CSA. But what do you do with mature swiss chard? Or collard greens?
Some CSAs offer suggestions: Parboil the chard stems, sautÈ in olive oil with minced garlic and shallots, add the chopped-up greens, and braise for two minutes longer. Perfect side dish. Too earthy? Chop it finely and mix with brown rice pilaf. Recipes get passed among members. Potluck suppers introduce members to new combinations of ingredients and cooking techniques.
Still challenged? Get a good vegetable cookbook. Elizabeth Schneider’s 800-page Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini has 500 recipes. You will never be intimidated by a strange vegetable again.
The 100-Mile Diet
The lure of a bin full of fresh seasonal produce means that most shares are booked early in the season. “Sold-out” generates buzz for CSA, as do seasonal celebrations and local personalities that stimulate media coverage. None, however, is more curious or fascinating than the “100-Mile Diet.”
“Locavores,” as practitioners of the diet are called, pledge themselves to eat only those foods grown within a 100-mile radius of where they live. Think of it. No chocolate, sugar, salt, or curry powder for most people in the continental U.S. No tofu, rice, or olive oil if you live in New England. It is tempting to dismiss this approach to eating as a stunt until you start thinking about how you would survive. Then, little by little, life takes on the adventure of the Swiss Family Robinson or the deliberate focus of Thoreau on the shore of Walden Pond.
Consider the case of a young couple, Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, who in the spring of 2005 set out to practice what they preached and committed themselves to eating only those foods harvested within a 100-mile radius of Vancouver, Canada. They quickly learned that none of the staples of their nearly vegan diet— tofu, rice, beans—was grown within 100 miles of their apartment. Nor could they find any grains, pasta, or bread from local ingredients. In early spring there were only local micro greens ($11 a pound) and storage vegetables—potatoes, turnips, cabbage, beets—left over from the autumn before. James was a good cook and he improvised: Sandwiches had roast turnip substituting for bread. They lost 12 pounds in the first month.
Compromise followed. They bought fresh wild salmon, oysters, and local eggs (even though the chickens ate grain from outside the 100-mile circle), and it became the “unexpectedly expensive diet.” As the season progressed they discovered small local farm stands, a baker who grew his own wheat locally, and a fairy-tale field of pick-your-own strawberries. This was the fun part. They chronicled their adventures on a blog and scores of readers wrote notes of encouragement and advice. It was not easy, however. As Lisa wrote at one point, “Every time I open the refrigerator I feel like a pioneer.” They learned to can and freeze in quantity (“blanch first!”) when peas, asparagus, and tomatoes were in full season. Canning 60 pounds of tomatoes was hard, boring work (their kitchen must have smelled like tomato heaven); the homemade sauerkraut was delicious but too odoriferous for their living space.
Lisa and James’s stunt was a great (albeit time-consuming) adventure and they have since made their journals available online and created a not-for-profit “100-Mile Society” to further the goals of CSA (100milediet.org). Their book will be published in June (Harmony Books/ New York and Random House, Canada).
A good deal of the appeal of CSA and local food is very fundamental to human behavior. If you have the time to cook and otherwise process your own food it can be very rewarding. As they conclude, “There is something about acts of self-sufficiency that seem to please the Paleolithic mind.”
Bucking the Trends
The CSA challenge has a larger social and historical perspective. Currently, only a small number of Americans, estimated at 30,000 to 50,000, are involved in local CSAs, and perhaps 5 to 10 million participate in some aspect of community focused agriculture, either by shopping at a local farm market or by visiting a city farm or garden for an event. The focus is primarily on fresher food from sustainable, environmentally low-impact agricultural methods used on small farms. However, in a country of 298 million people who’re highly dependent on advanced industrial agriculture and national supermarket chains, CSA members are bucking some major trends. Since the 1980s U.S. Department of Agriculture policy has subsidized the largest and most efficient farmers who produce commodity products like corn, soybeans, milk, pork, and beef. The goal has been to keep the cost of food low and to encourage exports. Subsidies for the interstate highway system and energy markets have made it possible to truck products from giant farms in the West all across the country and still make a profit. The food-processing industry has consolidated, becoming more efficient; high- tech packaging has extended the shelf life of many products; and a trend to mega-supermarkets has increased the variety of processed and raw foods available year round. Overall, Americans now have access to an unprecedented variety of reasonably safe foodstuffs at historically low prices. What’s wrong with this picture?
Food Chain Becomes Vulnerable
Most supermarket organic products are grown and harvested by a few large industrial farms in California, processed by a small number of high-tech packaging companies, and trucked across the country to get to market. Hardly community and hardly sustainable, but highly vulnerable. Last September’s E. coli-contaminated organic spinach that infected people in 26 states was traced back to a single plant packaging multiple brands in one eight-hour shift on a single day. Scary.
Since the first Farm Aid concert in 1985, many people are aware that small farms are taking a beating from a combination of low commodity prices and high costs associated with federally subsidized agriculture. As the Washington Post reported recently, large farms—those with more than $250,000 in annual revenues—account for only 7 percent of the total number of farms but they produce 60 percent of agricultural output. They also get 54 percent of government subsidies, doubled from 10 years ago. With their bigger profits and easier access to capital they can afford to invest in energy-intensive farming methods and purchase nearby smaller farms, to grow more subsidized corn and soybeans.
McMansions on the edge of suburbia are an insidious threat. Large suburban homes (and large garages to hold large cars) in our continued residential/commercial development is rapidly consuming all the farmland within an easy drive of most American cities. Farming is hard work, made even harder by two-hour commutes to reach local city markets. Unless city councils establish land banks and zoning regulations to protect farmland, CSA will hit a ceiling with no more accessible fields and pastures.
The times are ripe for change and we can find precedent in earlier times. After the Civil War small farmers found themselves squeezed by the monopolistic practices of expanding railroads and large national food-processing companies. They responded by forming cooperatives, called “granges,” across the South and the Midwest, which coalesced into The Grange movement and eventually had an enormous impact on rural education, agricultural innovation, health, safety, business law, and government transportation policy. Women were full members, and local Grange halls played host to educational events, dances, pot-luck suppers, and community activity. The Grange remains one of the best examples of grassroots activism in American history. And, it sounds like fun.
Food safety is a troubling challenge for CSA. Before Taco Bell’s trouble, who would imagine that lettuce could be dangerous? And spinach, beloved of Popeye the Sailorman—how could spinach poison our children! Yet “organic” has lost its invisible safety sticker. The biggest organic farmers who supply most of the produce available in supermarkets have invested in crop rotation, organic fertilizer, and numerous mechanical devices to eliminate chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They also have laboratories and food scientists to monitor quality. Sadly, despite their high-tech investments, it is nearly impossible for them to detect low-level bacterial contaminants in water and soil that can infect their produce. Nor can they control the processing plants where low-level contamination can also occur. Big farms cannot guarantee safety; small farmers have an even bigger disadvantage.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 76 million people are sickened by food-borne pathogens each year. Most are meat-related. Only 6 percent of major outbreaks are from contaminated produce. But news coverage of nationally significant outbreaks leaves the impression that organic produce from big companies is unsafe, just the way the big airline crashes give the impression that flying is unsafe though in actuality, per miles traveled, flying is safer than driving. Most food-related illnesses in America are caused by unsanitary food handling in nursing homes and schools or by improper storage in our own refrigerators. CSA has a good safety record, but these networks of small farms are at a distinct disadvantage compared to big agriculture. Stringent health standards modeled after NASA’s practices for space stations were recently adopted by the European Union. They were developed in cooperation with major food producers who have laboratories, specialists in white lab coats, and the deep pockets to afford production changes. The new regulations are state-of-the-art, but too costly for most small European cheese makers, butchers, and other food artisans to comply.
CSA is faced with other economic challenges in the form of organic regulations. In the case of lettuce, for example, big organic farmers in California use huge vacuum cleaners to suck up insects that would quickly devour their tender young leaf lettuces. These machines cost a lot of money (and use a lot of gasoline) but they are the only way to grow large fields of lettuce efficiently and organically. Small farmers have to handpick bugs or use methods that are too costly for them to compete with the larger producers. They can produce lettuce for short periods of time without spraying but after a while the bugs find the lettuce patches and they are no longer commercially viable. If small farmers cannot provide a guaranteed supply like their large California competitors they cannot get shelf space at big markets. It is a vicious cycle only partially broken by support from consumers willing to purchase shares. Other farmers resort to spraying and call their products “transitional.”
How dangerous are the pesticides? In the last 20 years agricultural scientists have developed sprays and application procedures that have greatly lessened pesticide residues. Most government regulations now set permissible pesticide risk levels below the point where they are known to have any detectible empirical impact. In the overall scheme of daily life, eating transitionally farmed produce is probably one of the smaller risks in American homes. On the other hand only organic farmers can make the claim “no pesticides/no pesticide risks.” Is that chain-store food labeled “organic” really as fresh and as nutritious as locally grown food? Does it taste as good? Is it more expensive? In the end consumers have to make a judgment call and it is difficult.
The Joy of Slow Food
If we are lucky the best aspects of CSA will merge with the Slow Food movement. Slow Food (slowfood.com) started in Italy 10 years ago as a tongue-in-cheek reaction to fast food. The founders’ symbol was the snail and their mission was to improve the quality of our food by supporting environmentally sound farming practices for the sake of good-tasting food. They organized in local groups called “conviviums” intending to practice a philosophy of conviviality by sharing the everyday joys of food.
In doing so they brought together people who were interested in dealing with environmental problems and world hunger without renouncing pleasure. There are now more than 65,000 members in 42 countries. They have been instrumental in protecting and promoting heirloom varietals and successfully lobbied the European Union to change policies that were more favorable to small Italian food producers. In America the CSA movement still has a significant proportion of founding members with ascetic lifestyles and high-minded beliefs. Fun is not a primary objective for granola heads. But Slow Food’s manifesto declares: “A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of fast life.” This will resonate with people who came of age in the sixties. High-minded hedonism might be just the thing to bring the aging baby boomers into CSA movement.
Nearly a thousand years ago, Dogen, founder of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism, wrote an influential treatise (Tenzo Kyokun) on meal preparation for monastery cooks. His basic tenets are worth repeating: Be of moral spirit in the preparation of meals. Choose the produce of the seasons. Use appropriate preparation for the ingredients. Vary cooking techniques. Make every effort for the community to eat with enjoyment. He advocated the techniques monks practiced in meditation: Do not be distracted by annoyances. Stay focused. Be mindful.
History does not describe any of the meals Dogen served his monks but the tradition of vegetarian shojin ryori, Zen temple cuisine, calls for: seasonal ingredients; five different colors of food; five different cooking techniques; ingredients from the fields, mountains, and sea. The meal is a delight to the senses and the spirit, offering a path to enlightenment.
Few CSA adherents report reaching satori by chopping and peeling. They do, however, become more aware of the passing of the seasons. And, surprisingly, like the 100-mile diet, the challenge of odd greens becomes a kind of game. “There is chard from last week and a nice box of mushrooms this week. Hmmm? Maybe they would make a nice gratin….” “Dinosaur kale is a primary ingredient in Tuscan minestrone! Wahoo!” The next food reform slogan might well be: Trust your farmer and cherish your cook.+
John J. Kochevar, PhD, regularly contributed to the Yoga International “Garden to Table” vegetarian food column.
What Yoga Says About Food
According to yoga’s scriptures, our diet plays a key role in our sadhana, or spiritual practice: The attitudes with which our food is grown, cooked, and eaten can help or hinder our sadhana; and various foods can alter our consciousness in good ways and bad.
By Carrie Demers
Food is the source of life. The Taittiriya Upanishad says:
Those who are born, are born of food.
Whoever reaches this Earth,
From then on they subsist on food.
And in the end, they go back to it.
Food is the eldest among created things.
That is why it is called the universal medicine.
Food, in other words, lies at the heart of human existence—and when we die, our bodies return to the earth to start the food cycle anew.
Food is the prana, the life-force that animates the body and sustains the mind. But not all foods are equal. According to yoga, the most prana-rich foods are fresh fruits, veggies, rice, and beans that have been ripened by the sun and harvested as recently as possible. They have the most nourishing, vitalizing effect on the body and mind. Foods that are low in prana are far removed from the sun’s life-giving energy, including frozen, canned, microwaved, and other processed foods.
Food can alter your consciousness. The yoga tradition offers a profound interpretation that supports the old simple adage, “You are what you eat.” According to the scriptures, we assimilate at a deep level the sum of the characteristics of the food we ingest. In addition to absorbing physical components such as calories, protein, and carbohydrates, we also assimilate the attitudes with which food has been grown, harvested, processed, and sold. That’s why the yogis tell us that the source and quality of our food is so important. Food grown with care to make it healthy and handled with respect for its freshness and nutritional value will be better for you.
A Yogic Diet. Yoga’s texts advise spiritual aspirants to reduce and eventually eliminate flesh foods from their diet and increase their intake of whole foods. Why? Because meat contains strong negative samskaras, or subtle impressions, that are transferred into our body and mind.
You might imagine how an animal in a commercial slaughterhouse might feel at the moment of death—bewildered, frightened, and betrayed. Stress hormones flood its bloodstream and on a subtle level can be transferred to the eater.
The samskaras of whole foods, on the other hand, are not as strong. These foods, along with milk, ghee (clarified butter), yogurt, and fresh cheese, promote a state of calmness and clarity, which is ideal for those of us who are trying to live a yogic life. They lay the foundation for a fruitful sadhana and lead us to our highest purpose: to know ourselves and all the universe as an expression of divine consciousness.
Cooking is a sensitive alchemy. The yoga tradition advises us to cook for ourselves and our loved ones—and allow them to cook for us—with a calm, clear, joyful mind. When we prepare food our feelings automatically go into it, changing it in subtle but significant ways. That’s why yogis believe that if we cook when we’re angry, anxious, or upset, we infuse our food with negativity; and that when we eat food prepared by people who do not care for us, who are cooking for profit, or who would rather be doing something else, we develop physical and mental indigestion, because we absorb the energy of the cook along with the energy of the food.
Eating is a sacred act. For thousands of years, seekers have conducted sacred yajnas, or fire rituals, reciting mantras while offering ghee, herbs, rice, and other ingredients into a sanctified fire to nourish the forces of nature. In the vessel of the body, we perform yajna by offering food to our digestive fire. This yajna nourishes us and gives us the energy we need to carry out our work in the world.
One way to acknowledge this yajna is to bless our food before we eat. In the words of the 20th-century sage Swami Rama:
O Lord, bless this food so that it brings vitality and energy to fulfill your missionand to serve humanity. Bless this food so that we remain aware of You within and without. Bless this food so that we love all and exclude none. Bless those who have provided this food, who have prepared this food, and who will eat this food. Bless all, my Lord. Amen
Carrie Demers, MD, is the medical director at the Himalayan Institute and lectures widely on yoga and ayurveda in the United States.