For the first time since coming to the States, I’m living in an actual house instead of a dormitory. Our neighbor upstairs grows tomatoes and zucchini in the backyard. I hear them playing pop music outside my window as they tend to their plants. It’s a lot of work. They buy mulch and fertilizer and sanitize their clippers before cutting off diseased branches. I see them repotting the little plants every few weeks.
Their roommate is a gleaner at nearby farms. According to the dictionary this refers to “someone who picks up grain left in the field by the harvesters”. I think she drives around a few times a week to pick up produce and drop it off at various food banks. She gave us a shallot once. She said, “Sorry if it’s dirty, I just pulled it from the ground.”
One of my colleagues has chickens in his house. They have a group chat in our staff communication system dedicated to chicken discussions. They talk about coops and runs and other things I’m not familiar with. They think about water heaters for their chickens, and when to let them out when it’s warm.
I really like watching people do these things. Watching people try to grow their own food and collect their own eggs and bring harvest to others makes me feel like we care about where our food comes from—for our own health but also for the environment. It feels nourishing and good; kind of like buying handmade butter and jams from the farmer’s market. I know where it’s coming from, and it seems to sidestep a lot of the evils of mega-farming.
But it also feels wrong to like these things. I wanted to try working at farms too, but realized I can’t because I don’t have a car so I can’t easily transport myself to different places. On my busiest days I don’t have time to cook or clean, so I settle for eating takeout. Caring for plants or chickens requires free time. My parents ate the worst when they had long working hours and very little money. Frozen chicken and frozen vegetables are cheap and easy to cook, but these days we have financial stability and with it comes organic brown rice and real parmesan cheese. It’s costly to care about food! It’s expensive to buy products that are organic or small batch or free trade, and cooking takes time that people might not have if they’re working long shifts.
The higher price isn’t for nothing though. It allows for slower but less harmful practices like crop rotation, which allows soil to rest and naturally replenish nitrogen levels instead of using synthetic fertilizers that decrease soil fertility over time. The lower crop yield then results in a higher price. So maybe shopping small is good, and we should spend that money if we can?
I talked to a friend who researches food networks in New England and he told me that ⅔ of the food in the United States comes from Central Valley in California, and the food that is in lots of farmer's markets or farm-to-tables are still supplied by this dominant food system. This was confirmed when I looked at websites of farms near me, and found that much of the produce wasn’t grown on site. He seemed suspicious of how effectively small-scale farming could help mitigate the environmental impacts of current food networks given its inability to fulfill the food needs of even the local population. I was back at square one. Maybe thinking local doesn’t really matter?
The more I thought about this problem, the more bewildered I felt. It seemed that I was in an inescapable moral bind with no innocent option. I was originally drawn to Michele Pace del Campidoglio’s Still Life with Figure because the luscious produce made me feel joy at the prospect of plenty, but now I can only think about synthetic fertilizer and over-cultivation.
I didn’t know what to do, so in the end, I made a meal. I dragged my partner with me to the farmer’s market because I didn’t have enough hands to hold all the vegetables. I invited everyone I knew in Providence to dinner in my backyard. People trickled in an hour late; the table wasn’t set. We chopped and we cooked and we cleaned and flies threatened to overwhelm the tables. We passed around tomatoes, and we dug into bread.
I don’t have any conclusion from all the worrying I’ve done. But it’s difficult for the ugliness of an industry to completely overwhelm the simple joys of a meal on the table. The corn is so sweet, and the peaches are so ripe. We use our hands to mix the salads and it is wet, cold, real. Even with the knowledge of the destructive nature of mega food chains in mind, for now there’s still food on the table, and for now, we are full.
Elizabeth Xu was the 2021 Andrew W. Mellon Summer Intern in Digital Initiatives and is a Junior at RISD in the Film/Animation/Video department.