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Food challenges global and very, very local

I'm at a food conference, blogging off the rec room where a Chanukah sing-along is taking place. This conference is mostly about big issues surrounding food, like sustainability, the scourge of big agri-business, local vs. imported food, pesticide use, the importance of composting, and...Jewish farming.1 There are the usual normal varieties of hippiness here, but I was also surprised by how many meat-eaters showed up.2 Of course, I also spotted a fair number of knitted wool caps, environmentally-friendly shoes, hand-made bags, flowy clothing, dreadlocks... I haven't been around this many fruity, crunchy Jews in awhile. It's nice to be back in that environment! I've missed it!

I wasn't incredibly excited about attending this conference, partly because I like to use Shabbat to decompress/unwind, and I'm not great at decompressing/unwinding in large groups. I travel a lot to see friends and family, but if I'm not going to see friends and family, or some exotic locale, I'd just as soon hole up in my apartment. That was sort of a minor consideration, though, and was more than balanced by the enticement of a weekend out in the woods of Connecticut, far away from the grime and noise of Manhattan. I love being in the woods, and so far in two and a half days here, I've been up the "mountain" (read: hill) into the woods alone twice. Heavenly. Truly. It was so quiet.3

The main reason I wasn't overly excited about attending this conference, though, is sort of embarrassing. It's that I feel like sustainability, the precarious position of the small family farm, and attempting to eat exclusively local, seasonal produce is more than I can handle. Like all of the major challenges facing our world these days (Darfur, AIDS in Africa, access to safe abortions in the US), I often take the approach of avoiding educating myself about these things, because then I would feel terribly guilty about not doing more about them. As long as I don't know, I feel complacent in my inaction. And I didn't particularly want to spend 72 hours in a place where I would be unable to remain ignorant!

I doubt that educating myself about the world's problems would empower me to go out there and change the world. There are only 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week, and I seem to have enough trouble doing the things that I need to do to take care of myself, never mind saving the rest of humanity. I subscribe to the belief that one must take care of oneself before taking care of others, and I don't really feel like I have the "taking care of oneself" bit down as solidly as I'd like. That's not to say that I don't make it through life intact--I do, and more, just not always with daily exercise, eight hours of sleep a night, and three square meals a day (with five servings of fruits and vegetables, grams and grams of fiber, and only spare amounts of fat). So, I am just somewhat-embarrassingly content to bury my head in the sand about these enormous, monstrous problems facing humanity, until the day arrives when I feel like I have the capacity to do something about them. I do reach out to the world around me and try to make a difference, but only in doing a few small things that I feel are within my capacity.4 It's these big things that intimidate me into intentional ignorance.

But something interesting happened to me here. I watched a film on Thursday night about the apple farming situation in Wenatchee, Washington, called Broken Limbs. The first half of the movie was predictably depressing, about how big agri-business is buying up all the small farms, and how you have to be able to produce x bushels of apples in y amount of time to even talk to the big grocery store chains, and how the small farmers are chopping down their apple trees because they can't afford to pick the apples, and, God, it's depressing! But what are you going to do? Who can blame Safeway or Kroeger's for buying their apples from the cheapest source, which is, by economic necessity, going to be the humongous farms who have big packing plants and ship and market their own apples? It just seems to be the way of capitalism, and what can you really do about the small farms? Convince Americans to pay more for their apples? Not bloody likely.

The second half of the film turned things around, though, especially towards the very end. The film described a new model for eating, where people think about what goes into their mouths and care about who grew it and where it came from. This new model for eating might be called mindful eating.

I was turned onto the general idea of mindfulness when I was a junior in college. It was presented to me as a way to reduce stress and anxiety, but it had the ancillary benefit of making me enjoy and appreciate life more. Like meditation, it is something that I know from experience is good and helpful for me, but isn't something I currently integrate into my life on a daily basis. It requires a certain, well, calmness and present-ness that I often don't achieve. Saying brachot (blessings) before and after eating promotes mindfulness to some extent, and I love the brachot connected to eating for that reason.

This movie and other things that I've heard over this weekend have shown me a way that I can
make a small difference in a big problem while also doing those things that promote the self-care that I'm still working on. One of the problems with eating, for me and I daresay for much of this country, is that we eat without thinking. Even those of us who say brachot often glance at the food, mutter the appropriate incantation, and then shove it in, chewing it while reading the paper, making lunch for the day, finding our gloves, and taking out the trash. And that's on a good day! A bad day finds me eating for emotional reasons, and that kind of eating happens completely without tasting what I'm eating. (And, hey, to be honest, it usually happens with trans-fat-laden highly-sugared foods that were imported from a great distance.)

What would happen if I adopted the spiritual practice of noticing what I'm eating, how it tastes, and how it makes me feel? Through reclaiming daily prayer, I've already shown myself that I can make a decision and stick with it. That doesn't mean that any particular day unfolds in the exactly ideal way. It just means that I've set a new standard for how I would like things to be, and if I don't reach that standard today, well, there's always tomorrow.

So what if I started practicing mindful eating, not as a way to combat the monstrous problems of how food is produced and distributed in this country, but as a way to reconnect to food in an entirely positive way, in a way that promotes the multi-sensory enjoyment of food, rather than my sometimes haphazard way of eating that leans more towards cramming it down because God I'm hungry and I've forgotten to eat lunch today and whew my blood sugar has crashed and I'm irritable and shaky and it's already 3 pm and I'd better eat lunch now so that I'm hungry for dinner at a reasonable hour and don't bypass dinner and head straight for the junk food? (Okay, most days don't look like that, but I wish no days did.)

What if I made deriving pleasure and experiencing wonder the goal of at least one of my three daily meals? How might that change my buying habits? I know that I value the bread I buy from the man who sells (kosher, parve, pas Yisroel) bread at the local farmer's market over the bread that I buy pre-packaged in the grocery store. I enjoy its taste more and I take more care not to waste it by letting it mold before I can eat it. It means more to me when I know that I can shoot the breeze with the man who has some hand in its production and delivery. I guess it's a little bit more expensive than grocery store bread, but that price is worth the additional pleasure I get out of talking to the bread man, and the convenience of being able to pick it up at the farmer's market that's down the street from my apartment. Also, it tastes better! So fresh and soft on the inside, so deliciously crispily crusted on the outside! I don't see myself switching over to all organic, all local produce any time soon, but if I articulate a goal of appreciating the sight, sound, taste, and smell of all of my food, then I might move in that direction not out of fear of the world coming to an end, but out of self-love and self-care.

Rabbi Steve Greenberg spoke at the conference, representing the "normal" people who don't manage to cook their own dinners most nights (opting for microwaving veggie burgers instead), who head for the Haagen Dazs after a long day, who aren't quite on the "organic or bust!" bandwagon. He spoke about how change that comes from fear or anxiety isn't really sustainable, and that the only change that can be sustained comes from:
  1. expanding our desire to figure out what we really want
  2. experiencing gratitude
  3. seeking joy
I want to blog more about desire, gratitude, and joy, but there's a line for the computers so I'll have to sign off now and blog more about this later. It was moving and applied to all areas of my life, not just the mindful eating that I'm thinking of integrating into my life to the extent that I can. (How's that for a qualified statement?) Starting small has worked for me in the past, and maybe it can work for me on this issue also.

1. Yes, Jewish farming. I'm actually finding the whole concept of Jewish farming to be more inspiring than I had expected. I've heard several Jewish farmers speak from the heart this weekend, and it was great.
2. Even some real meat-eaters. Not like me, who eats meat maybe 2-4 times a month, and that's almost always chicken. I eat beef maybe once a month, if that.
3. In answers to Heschel's questions as quoted in the previous post ("Many are the opportunities for public speech; where are the occasions for inner silence? It is easy to find people who will teach us how to be eloquent; but who will teach us to be still?"), I often feel that the occasions for inner silence occur mostly in the woods or the desert. I learn how to be still most when I can stand still and hear only birds, running water, or the rustling of the wind in the trees. Learning to use the woods as a place to quiet my mind and still my sometimes crashing, racing thoughts has been one of my greatest lessons over the past year.
4. Like visiting residents at the nursing home, using real dishes instead of paper, recycling, walking everywhere humanly possible (rather than, say, taking public transport and then running on a machine at the gym), and attending the occasional Darfur rally.

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