July 14, 2012

One Hundred Meals–Building Community At America’s Table.

Photo: Grant Kessler

Screaming headlines, gritty, dark video footage taken seripticiously, sobering documentaries—if you care even a whit about the food you and your family eat, it’s hard to avoid bad news.

Scary news. The kind of news that has driven my friend, Grant Kessler, and I to grow as much as we can in my small urban backyard. Most people would consider us localvores—it’s more accurate to label us backyarditarians. We go that far to avoid what we see as the environmental, societal, medical and humanitarian havoc the industrial food complex wreaks on our society.

So, it came as a bit of a surprise when Grant and I were invited to sit down with some “industrial farming” folks over breakfast, on the invitation of the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance. The group, which appears to have deep ties to Big Ag, was formed to help American farmers and ranchers of all stripes and sizes connect with the American public. Somehow, they picked us, though our commitment to avoiding the very food they offer up makes us anything but representative of the typical American public.

It didn’t go over very well. But it did, in fact, start a conversation.

We learned about folks who are experimenting with half GMO corn in their field this year because the corn borer just might be extra virulent this year, since winter wasn’t winter at all. You know, we get that. Really—though we still have a lot of questions about GM crops we’d like to discuss.

We started learning a bit about the finances of big meat from a former board member of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. We might not agree with him—okay, we don’t agree with him—but we started feeling the need to at least understand him.

We got challenged about feeding the poor. It seems no one has any good answer about that, to be honest, but it does loom large over all our heads as the world’s exponential population growth makes the magnitudes of future peoples who will need food nothing short of staggering.

We launched discussions with an industrial dairy man about why we can’t get raw milk and while he talked a lot about safety, we talked a lot about how the dairy idea of safety and our idea of safety are two different things. And we want to know where we can turn to, maybe, get our voice heard.

And we learned that industrial farmers are often terrorized in their homes by “well-meaning” foodies who commit violence, vandalism and other hate crimes in the name of saving the food supply. Scary but true.

In other words, we started learning what the other side is thinking—and that they were, in fact, thinking. And we realized that what seems to be missing in the food dialogue is active conversation with people who don’t agree with each other.

We’re not talking about groups of people setting out to educate the other side. We definitely are not talking about getting the propaganda right. We’re talking about actual dialogue. The kind that sparks new ideas, broader thinking and maybe even builds some new communities.

Because in a world where one Obama is greenlighting GMOs while the other is promoting a family garden, we believe it might be time for all of us to take a step back and learn. Time to unravel the crazy contradictions, to wade through the misinformation and disinformation and get to the bottom of the hypocrisies we all have about our food supply.

Our goal is to at least understand where our food supply went off the rails and how we are supposed to live—and make good decisions about what we eat—within the bubbling mess.

After all, it can become a little difficult to make the right decisions when the answers to just about all the questions are murky and complicated. Heck, we’d venture that even the questions are essentially murky and complicated.

So, we decided to start a project.

The idea is pretty simple: start sorting out the questions, meet with the people in our food community that can give us some answers, experience first hand the realities of food, and build a platform for people on all sides of the conversation to come together and discuss those questions and answers.

To, really, bridge the divide and build community through One Hundred Meals.

Here’s the rundown:

  • >> We’re gonna eat one hundred meals with people who are involved in our food supply. We want to eat with GMO advocates, urban foragers working with the homeless, farmers of all stripes, policy makers and even some regular folks.
  • >> Each one of those meals is designed to get us out of our comfort zone and into a learning zone — helping us stand up and face parts of our food supply we don’t want to think about but should probably know about.
  • >> We’ll share photos and stories from the meal, inviting all participants to weigh in and present their ideas and thoughts so that everyone has an equal opportunity to say what’s on their mind.
  • >> We don’t know how long it will take. We have a website to build, funds to raise, plans to make and a lot of learning to do. And, since this is just a project and not our jobs, we likely won’t be racing through the meals one after another, either.
  • >> Our goal is to open up productive discussion. On the website, we’re planning an extensive discussion platform and we’ll invite all to participate. But, we’ll also work to keep the conversation civil—so we hope you’ll join in but we also need you to add to the discussion, not just drag it down.
  • >> We’ll share an extensive reading list from all sides, helping our readers learn about topics holistically, instead of just from their own vantage point—an opportunity sorely missed in most everyday discourse.
  • >> Although we definitely have opinions, our goal is to try to approach each topic as neutrally as possible and with as much humility as possible. We invite you to tell us if we veer off course.
  • >> We’d like to be a platform for building a community of food that helps everyone learn, grow, and hopefully, eat.

As I wrote on Backyarditarian.com, we both, Grant and I, would like to explore our food shed, for a time, in the spirit of the Nash Equilibrium—an expression of game theory where, in order to win, each person in food needs to make choices that contribute to everyone’s welfare.

After all, food is not a zero sum game. We either all win or, frankly, we are all going to lose.

We hope you follow our posts here on elephant journal (and at OneHundredMeals.com). And, more importantly, share with us the questions and concerns you have that you’d like us to explore. We’re just regular folks, like you, who care about our food and hope to learn what to be hopeful about, what to campaign to change—and , like you, we’d like to get to the bottom of the hype and learn the facts so we can make the best choices for ourselves and our families.

Co-written by Grant Kessler.

Grant grew up a picky eater, surviving on peanut butter until a year spent living abroad in high school expanded his food interests. Ok, mussels were still weird, but the emergency stash of peanut butter went largely unused. His growing love of food and cooking combined with his career choice and he became a freelance food photographer based in Chicago, working with chefs in the top restaurants. For years he chased their styles in his own cooking, creating elaborate meals at home and for friends. But as he became exposed to produce from farmers markets and the thinking behind buying local, in-season foods, without packages and from people with names, he realized simpler is better. I find an heirloom tomato slice drizzled with olive oil and a pinch of salt is so much more nourishing than an overwrought tomato soufflé!
Grant blogs about exploring MyFoodshed, delving into backyard gardening, chickens, small farms and local foods. In the case of 95% of what he eats, he knows exactly where it came from, how it grew, how it was raised and by whom. But he does know that is the story of only a tiny (but growing!) fraction of food in our country. We have a complex food system and he is looking forward to trying to understand more of it on this One Hundred Meals project.

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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