Recently, young students in Michigan, Arizona, California, and Florida had a twist in their educational experience when tainted strawberries served to them in their school cafeterias triggered panic and forced mass inoculations against hepatitis A virus.
Last year, it was E. coli, before that Cyclospora, Salmonella, Alar on apples, Temik (aldicarb) in watermelon, and on and on. And although it may appear that these outbreaks are isolated and unrelated situations, a common thread runs through all of these occurrences.
With each new food-safety scare, I become more concerned. Not over the particular threat of the day, but by the fact that as a society we don't seem to recognize that the problem is not E. coli, Alar, or hepatitis, but the food system itself and our wholesale disconnection from it. We rail against the yearly food crises but forget that we may be poisoning ourselves slowly every day.
Hepatitis may be prevented with shots, but there's no inoculant to protect us from pesticide residues, no injection that will replace the nutrition that industrially produced food has lost, and no real long-term security in corporate control of the family table.
As the percentage of the population bearing the responsibility for growing food for the rest continues to get smaller, the problems in our food system will get larger. The few farmers who remain on the land feel pressured to plant more and more acreage and rely on chemical and industrial methods to ensure a break-even living for one more year. But they can't ensure the safety of our food that way, nor protect those whose hands hoe and harvest it, nor preserve the natural resources such as soil and water that our survival depends on. The corporations that now control many of our farms have all the power of an individual with little of the conscience a person would have.
When we can't trust the food that comes to us, should we blame the farmer, the wholesaler, the trucker, the FDA, the USDA, Monsanto, Dupont, the schools, the cafeterias, or the government? Or should we take responsibility ourselves for not becoming more involved in that most basic human act of procuring food? Should we look to ourselves for not taking more time to find out where it comes from, whose hands harvested it, how it was grown, what materials were used to produce it, and how far it traveled from the field to our plate?
Wendell Berry has written that "Eating is an agricultural act." I would add that it is also a social, political, and environmental act.
And although, as a parent, I understand those who jammed the health department's phone lines in fear of hidden dangers to their children, many opportunities now exist to replace that fear with power. Farmers' markets take place in almost every community, small farms catering directly to families and schools are on the rise, and community and private gardens increasingly provide chances for urban dwellers to grow their own food. Everyone has heard that catchy cliche, "You are what you eat." Real power will only come from knowing what you eat.
Children respond to this more readily than anyone. The parents of the kids who visit my farm regularly report that their children are now eating vegetables-they see the food growing, not just sitting in a cellophane package on a store shelf. They no longer look at food with no idea where it came from, who harvested it, or what was used to grow it. Disconnection from the source of food not only removes us from the pleasure of the process but places the health and safety of our families at risk.
Knowing what you eat is about developing a relationship with a farmer, a local produce stand, or a farmers' market. Knowing what you eat is about planting and nurturing and harvesting food for yourself. When people begin to take the responsibility for their food literally into their own hands and when as a society we no longer rely on distant farms, wholesalers, or govern inspectors to ensure that our food is safe to eat, we create a food system that is not only safe for our bodies but nourishing for our souls as well.
Author and photographer Michael Ableman founded and directs Fairview Farms, Goleta, California.
Photography by National Gardening Association