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Saturday, July 30, 2011

I can't stop thinking about food

I live in Southern California; Last week I traveled to Central California. This is an important distinction.

I live (15 miles from Los Angeles) in a suburban suburbia. I live in a neighborhood in a house with a small backyard. I love walking to school, riding bikes past our neighbors' houses, and living within walking distance of two large grocery stores, a drugstore, as well as countless places to dine. There are winding sidewalks, Homeowners Associations, community pools and public schools. There are playgrounds, shopping centers, department stores and bowling alleys. I live near an ice skating rink, several post offices, Target and Walmart, bookstores and libraries.  What I don't live near is any sort of farmland. The closest we get is the weekly Farmer's Market, and those farmers are coming from 30-100 miles in the opposite direction of LA. Which is to say, in the opposite direction of where I am used to focusing.

Until I started subscribing to Abundant Harvest, I didn't really think about where my food came from. It came from the store. Once in a while, if I needed a specialty ingredient,  it came from a different store. Of course, I'm not an idiot. I know it came from farms, factories, processing plants, bottling companies, etc.  I even noticed, once in a while, the sticker that said my bananas are from Ecuador or my cheese is from Wisconsin. But I never worried myself about any of that. I read the ads, made my shopping list, and got stuff. I got my stuff from the store that is right around the corner, and where the store got the stuff was their concern, not mine.

This past week, I happened to drive right up the middle of California's Central Valley. It is a wide valley (you wouldn't know there were actually mountains on either side of you just by looking, in some parts). This wide, flat, open, hot, sunny valley is just perfect for growing things. As a matter of fact, if you have bought produce that comes with a label that says "California Grown," it most likely came from the Central Valley. And chances are, you have bought produce from this valley many many times. It is one of the main places where food is grown in the United States.

This was the first time I drove up highway 99, which cuts straight up the Central Valley, since subscribing to Abundant Harvest. That is to say, this was the first time I drove up Highway 99 since I began to think about food almost constantly.

Let's take a moment for a disclaimer. I am not stuck in an unhealthy food obsession or eating disorder. I am not always thinking about eating -- or not eating -- food. I am just mulling over the sources and the pros and the cons of all the different types and origins of the stuff I am feeding my family. In a good way.

Anyway, as I drove, I looked out both sides of the car. Growing right up to the edge of the highway, are fields and fields and fields of crops. There are oranges, pecans, corn, tomatoes, peaches, and grapes. I know there are many many other things growing, but those are the main things I could make out at 70 miles an hour. There were lots of other fields that I never did quite figure out as we flew past them.

Since it is July, and the height of summer harvesting time, there were also farm employees all along the highway. I could see people picking and boxing up produce as we went. It made me wonder how many of them were migrant workers, just here for the summer. How many are illegal aliens? How many of them are getting cancer from the chemicals sprayed on the fields they work? How many of them are underpaid and overworked?

There were also cows and pigs, barns and farmhouses. They also made me wonder. Are the cows for milk or for steaks? How long does a pig live before it is butchered? How many of the farmhouses are still occupied by a farmer and his family? How many of these farms are selling their food to large corporations and how many are selling their food to people?  Will the food be eaten as fruits and veggies? Or will it be fed to animals? Or made into juice? Or used as ingredients in food that comes in cans and boxes?

Do you see what I mean when I say I am obsessed with food and farms?

Our destination was a campground in the mountains just to the east of Fresno, adjacent to the heart of California's farmland. While we were there, we picked up the daily Fresno Bee, which made me realize just how far removed from food production I am here in LA. And just how much the concepts of growing, eating, and farming permeate life if you live in the middle of it.

For example, on the day we arrived, the Fresno Bee ran as its top news story:

Valley raisin farmers enjoy near-record prices

Meanwhile, my hometown newspaper ran an article that same day, about people attending a meeting to suggest how businesses along a particular street could develop a "consistent look." Like I said, I live in suburbia.

But the farm culture ran deeper than the front page. I also noticed that the SaveMart grocery store ad that came with the Fresno Bee announced, with portraits, that I could buy strawberries grown by Mike Miller in Salinas, or peaches from Mike Thurlow in Kingsburg. What?! The locally grown food is advertised and prominently displayed as such? The farmer is someone the people know and recognize? I think it would be amazing if I could find out which items in my local produce department are local and which farmer grew them. I wonder if perhaps more people would choose to buy local food if it was that easy to know what foods were local.  

We don't tend to think about the farmer or the farm, or even the concept of a farm or a plant when we buy our food here in the city. But it is time I turned away from Los Angeles to face that valley to the north a little more often. After all, it is feeding me.