Connecting Myself to My Food
Like many children, I grew up with a confident and committed passion for animals. From feeding the llamas down the street to watching the birds in my backyard, and playing with the cats, dogs, and cockatiel that lived with me, I shamelessly adored them all. While I would sob when I found a pile of feathers after my cat had a feast, I would also shamelessly eat my mother’s beef stroganoff or beg her to make chicken quiche. Of course I knew that the meat I ate came from animals. I briefly considered joining my best friend when she became vegetarian in second grade for animal rights purposes, but eating meat was such a central and accepted part of my household, that at eight years old I was not about to spread my own wings on this issue.
When I was in fourth grade, my parents decided to buy a ram and two ewes so we could raise our own lamb. I was horrified. My father gleefully joked about calling the lambs “Chop” and “Rib”, but tears were involved on my end of the conversation. I so enjoyed having new animals in our backyard to observe and befriend, but when the time came to butcher them I hid, pretended it wasn’t happening, and then tried to refuse to eat the meat when it appeared on the table. However, again, I was too young to make my own decisions about something as central as food and I ate our lamb alongside the rest of the family.
From banding the tails to throwing alfalfa in the summer, I helped my parents with the sheep and so enjoyed learning how to raise lambs. At first I hated discussions about our lambs with my friends because they always ended in the inevitable exchange, “Oh my goodness that’s so cute! What do you guys do with all the lambs you raise? Do you just keep them, or sell them?” And the conversation would suddenly take a turn for the awkward as I replied, “We butcher them and eat them”. While before, I would try to console whoever I was speaking with, explaining that it was horrible and I hated it too and didn’t like to eat them, now I proudly explain that if I’m going to eat meat this is the best way to do it. Now I understand that eating meat from a far away sheep (or cow or chicken) is not any better than eating meat from a very real sheep in my backyard. In fact, it is far worse. When I eat our home-raised lamb I know exactly what it went through from the moment it was born until the moment it reaches my mouth.
The only way I can know what happens to my food with that precision is to raise it myself. However, the next best way would be to obtain it directly from the farmer who raised it; a farmer I converse with; a farmer who’s land I’ve visited and who’s livestock I’ve seen. It is easy to understand that each middle-man that’s added, creates another opportunity for miscommunication. Like a game of telephone, the more people a message of agricultural practice goes through the more it can get convoluted and by the time that meat reaches my mouth I don’t really have any idea what’s happened to it.
I love animals, but I also love myself, which is why I continue to eat meat. However, a necessity of loving animals and myself is a love for the environment. Knowing where my food comes from enables me to ensure that the animals who I appreciate get the fair treatment they deserve, the healthy body I rely on is able to flourish because it’s been ingesting wholesome, clean food, and the planet I depend on is able to continue on because it’s being considered and respected in this process. Of course, I can’t raise all of my own meat, or vegetables and I can’t even know all of the farms where my food comes from. But I can make an effort to connect at any level of the supply chain that I can and by doing so I can increase my understanding of my food. It’s easy to see how I can talk to the venders at farmers’ market about their goods and practices, but I can also talk to the man behind the meat counter at the store. If he has nothing to say about the turkey bacon he’s slicing up for me, that might be a bad sign. If he can’t tell me a lot but he knows where they source that turkey and something about the ranch besides its selling price, that’s a good sign. I can go look that ranch up and ask them some questions. When I begin to dig a little into the travels of my food, I learn so much about what I’m really eating and about the real people who handle the food before it gets to me. Thus, rather, than being limiting, this conscious effort to increase my awareness opens so many doors for increased relationships with others and increased knowledge of myself as I strive to know what I’m really eating.
What’s been important for me to understand as I grow from a naïve child to an educated consumer, is that everything is connected. I cannot separate my love of the cows in the field next door from the meatballs I so enjoy. And I cannot separate my concern about the changing climate from the watermelons I crave in winter. All of my actions, especially my food choices have a huge impact, and thus I have a responsibility to myself and others to consider this. By figuring out where my food comes from and how it gets from there to here, I’m able to make educated choices about the food I buy.