Wednesday, November 7

Kitchen to Classroom: How Easy Is it to Eat Local?

Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
A weekly dispatch from our postdoctoral fellow, Angela Jill Cooley.

Yesterday afternoon, as the nation’s “Walmart Moms” cast their votes to decide who would control our country for the next four years, my class examined some alternatives to relying on this ubiquitous behemoth for our continued sustenance. We read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, in which novelist Barbara Kingsolver recounts her family’s effort to eat for a year on what they could forage, cultivate, or buy near their southwestern Virginia farm. The purpose of Kingsolver’s memoir is to bring attention to the local food movement and encourage readers to be more mindful about what they consume.

A favorite part of class is how students interpret the day’s reading through food. Southern Studies graduate student Paige Prather brought homemade zucchini chocolate chip cookies, which she made using a recipe in Kingsolver's book. She purposefully used non-local ingredients, such as Ghirardelli chips, King Arthur flour, and organic zucchini distributed by Veg-Land, which she then attempted to trace to their source—with little success. She could not find, for example, where Ghirardelli grew its cocoa beans. “It is nearly impossible to find where these companies source [their] foods,” Paige concluded. “Not a single website provides this information.”

Southern Studies graduate student Anna Hamilton went in a different direction and tried to source her sweet potato casserole locally. Anna used sweet potatoes from Vardaman, Mississippi—self-proclaimed "Sweet Potato Capital of the World" home of the annual Sweet Potato Festival (going on right now!). She sweetened the deal with sorghum syrup from nearby Etta. But she could not find local pecans, flour, sugar, butter, or salt. Paige and Anna’s efforts seemed to support the local food movement’s contention that we have become so disconnected from our food that we often cannot determine its source.

And yet, this discourse is not sufficient to resolve the complicated issues involved in food consumption and access in the South. Kingsolver’s memoir reveals the difficulties that a white, college-educated, upper-middle-class family with flexible professional schedules has in trying to reconnect to their food. They had to move across the country to a Virginia farm and local community with agricultural resources and knowledge. And even with all of their advantages, Kingsolver’s family could not live a year entirely on locally sourced foods.

This realization caused the class to question how a family with fewer resources might realistically be able to control their diets and choose to eat locally. After all, food systems are built largely upon cultural constructions that affect accessibility, such as race, gender, ethnicity, and class. Next week, we will continue our quest to understand alternative food systems by reading Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability, a collection edited by Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman.

Source: Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007)

You can follow Jill and her classes on Twitter at @foodandrace.