First Harvest: We Are What We Eat
Leviticus 19:9-10 commands:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not fully reap the corner of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you collect the fallen individual grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.
These two verses literally ask farmers to leave a piece of their land unharvested for a landless, hungry passerby to pick from and eat. Whether it’s a stranger from a far-off land, or a neighbor down on his luck, we are supposed to make sure they feel welcome to our food. At some point, every one of us either has been or will be in a strange land, has been or will be down on our luck. If we have a cultivated corner to offer, we should never forget this fundamental truth.
At the same time, these verses have immense symbolic significance. They ask us to resist the urge to isolate ourselves, to resist the urge to retreat behind our gates. They ask us to remember our myriad connections, to remember that we exist in community with our family, city, country, and world; in communion with the land and water; in communion with some ineffable life spirit that animates it all, ourselves and our minds included. It reminds us to share our harvests, our bounties, our energies.
This is a column about seeking truth and harmony in the food system, not about religion. But I view these verses as ancient wisdom and find them to be as relevant today as they have ever been. Now is the time to open up our gates and open up our minds, to be cognizant of the fact that at our core we are all wandering this earth together, searching for true sustenance, for our true selves and for authentic connection. In our food system, the trend has been toward more separation—both geographic and metaphysical—between us as eaters and the origins of our food. The ties between food and culture, history and tradition have been severed in many instances, casualties of fast-paced lives and increasing corporate consolidation in the food realm. The trend has been a move away from the inherent biodiversity of the world toward an artificial homogenization that pushes against nature. These trends affect us and our society in profound ways.
Our food system is both a symptom of our alienation from our truths and a potential path toward enlightenment and authentic connection to other people, to land, and to ourselves. As of now, many of us do not know, and might not even really care to know, where our food comes from or how it is made. The neon lights and pristine white floors of the supermarket are about as far back as we can trace it. Yet what we eat becomes us—when we eat foods processed beyond recognition as actual food products, we incorporate that artificiality into our own bodies. We eat not the rich diversity of soil but instead consume the homogenous, monotonous, industrialized food product sold by a faceless, unaccountable corporation.
For many of our neighbors and friends, just eating at all is a struggle. The USDA Economic Research Service reported last fall that in 2010 14.5% of U.S. households were food insecure at some time during the year, meaning that at that time, they were “uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other low resources food.” This means that 48.8 million people were food insecure in the United States at some point during 2010. This in the richest country in the world, and clearly a country in which many corners have not been left unharvested.
Alongside this food insecurity, we have many areas of this country with access to fast food but not to healthy, fresh food. Access to healthy food is a human right, and we cannot forget the necessity of having everybody share in the harvest. There is true power in reconnecting to the source of our food—seed, soil, sunlight, human hands—and regaining control of our food system. There is power in living in harmony with the land and with the seasons.
Taking back control means constructing positive solutions, like bringing urban farms or farmer’s markets to areas without an abundance of healthy options, providing alternatives to the corporate food system. Ultimately, regaining control starts with spreading consciousness about food, inviting people to open their eyes and look critically at a system that does not work properly for us and that alienates us from what we put into our bodies. For something as fundamental as food, this is unacceptable.
Our food system, land, water, air and souls are all in need of repair and revitalization in the face of a mindset that views food purely as the conduit of nutrients and nothing more. Food does not simply feed the human machine. It represents something much deeper: our fundamental dependence on, and partnership with, the land. It is a marker of culture, tradition, and heritage. It brings us together, it brings us closer to the spiritual power of the earth. We are more than our bodies, and food feeds more than our physicality.
I have only recently awoken to the potential for renewal available in our food system, and I will be exploring that renewal in this column. The journey is ours to share together. By connecting more to our food, we can connect to the land, to people around us, to ourselves, and can come to think more spiritually and holistically about what happens each and every time we eat. I am seeking to find rootedness in my life through food and through all that food represents, and hope you will join me.