Around theTABLE, May 2015 coLAB Theme Essay - Food: The Ethics of Eating

2015 May coLAB Theme Essay - Food: The Ethics of Eating

Around the Table

by Anthony Capece, Elijah's Promise

While the challenges we face are indeed great, we are only constrained by our creativity and resourcefulness in solving them. 

Last weekend I was asked to take participate in a regular coLAB conversation series called theTABLE. I could not think of a more appropriate name for an event that whose subject was food systems. Food is something very near and dear to our hearts, not only in our consumption of it but also the "experiences and meaning" that it has in our personal lives.  During our discussion it was mentioned food can act "as an emotional bridge" and that its consumption is a "political act", which sound especially impressive when you consider how many chances we get to make these bridges and acts in our lifetimes!

I challenge you to find such a universally shared way to emotionally connect with those we interact with. 

This is why food is the perfect medium to set the stage on many issues that face our society today and in the future. Food systems can give you stark indicators of some of the more difficult dynamics humanity encounters - poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, inequality, exploitation - which are of course necessary to acknowledge in order to correct. However, food gives us something greater: a chance to connect and learn from one another, and also a chance to share our identity, and ultimately our humanity.

My work in food systems is serving as the Urban Agriculture & Food Systems Coordinator of Elijah’s Promise. I work with all of the multifaceted programming in our mission to use food to change lives including - gleaning farm produce for use in our soup kitchen, teaching our culinary students about composting, coordinating produce from one of our community gardens to our Better World Café, to managing our Shiloh Community Garden and Apple Orchard. In addition, I am empowered to serve on a few local coalitions that bring people in our community together to work around food issues - the New Brunswick Community Food Alliance and New Brunswick Community Garden Coalition.

All of these actions seem relatively small by themselves, and they are. But when they happen over time, along with many other small things happening in our community, the stage is set for great things to happen. Just in the time I’ve been a part of the New Brunswick community I have been so grateful for the help that has reached out to me from just down the street  - gardens being built in the local high school and library, an apple orchard, and apiary just to name a few. But more important to me is the way they happen, with amazing partnership and cooperation.

Deconstructing a Food System

Food systems - what do they mean to you? Where do we begin to fix them? What's most important about them? Wait, just how important are they? Once we begin to deconstruct these questions and concepts we see just how nuanced they are. During theTABLE panel discussion and talk back sitting to my right was a community advocate for our local watershed - to my left was the Elijah's Promise manager of the Better World Market who spoke about food waste and how to incorporate more efficiency in our food consumption. Both speakers had strong points and highlighted areas of focus in our food systems, but how can we choose where we individually want to focus? How can one subject area tie into three seemingly disconnected areas of thought and expertise?

Food and its systems comprise of many things, some that immediately come to mind:

Environment - Physically we do depend on our watersheds, ecosystems, soil, and everything in between to grow and cultivate our food. As much as our economy operates in a way that directly clashes with our biophysical reality, food is as subject to natural processes as other resources like wood, air, and water. While many of the natural resources that food systems depend on to bring food to our kitchens do indeed renew themselves, there is a limit or buffer to how much those natural processes like the organic layer of topsoil, or water purifying wetlands can handle - and we routinely exceed those limits. The use of fossil fuels greatly adds to our carrying capacity as it artificially adds energy that supplement these natural processes, such as the production of fertilizer or managing of water purification plants. By making food systems mimic these natural processes with their diversity and smaller scale, we can ensure our reliance on these systems for generations to come.

Equity - food is something we can consume multiple times a day, which means that there is an incredible amount of opportunity to fill that demand on a daily basis. As is the trend in a market based economy, industries that grow bigger can thus lower their production costs and can outcompete smaller operations. Limiting the stakeholders and people who work in food production is unsustainable. This consolidation of wealth also has ripple effects spatially, creating areas of wealth and areas of poverty. Hunger is a symptom of poverty - those who are economically disadvantaged do not have the same access to fresh, healthy foods because there is not enough financial incentive for markets to enter their neighborhoods.  While there are numerous strategies to distribute wealth and resources more evenly, there certainly is room for more variety in where and from whom we get our food.

Culture - Spice combinations can be the difference between making a piece of chicken taste like it is from South America, or from India. Smell (which determines taste) is the strongest sense tied to memory, our brain operates in shortcuts and something as small as a dash more cumin can bring you to a time when you learned how to cook with your parents, or the first time you tried a new cuisine in another county or with loved ones. There is a subtext to food, like the structure of different languages, that sets an immediate tone and impression.

Community - Food used to play a much larger role in the city. Before refrigeration became widespread, routine visits to the market were a necessity to prepare palatable food. Also, preparing food used to take larger parts of our daily lives, before fast food became so prevalent. These hours of interaction with others, either in our homes or neighborhoods, that simply do not exist in the same ways any longer

Networks - okay this is really a synonym of systems but it is exactly that systemic nature of food that touches on so many other facets in our lives and makes it so ubiquitous in many of the issues we face. Improving food systems inherently improves areas of our society that need it - equity in our resources, implementing sustainable systems in our agriculture, regionalizing our food based economy and bringing more people to the table in terms of opportunity, environmental protections that ensure the food that is grown where we live remains healthy to our well being, minimizing transportation of food, and many more.

To me, food systems are what most strongly remind us of our connection to nature, both the nature around us and within us. There is no stronger connection to how much we depend on our natural environment than the food that nature provides us on a daily basis. Like all natural processes, there is an ecosystem of connectivity and feedback that effect all of its inputs and outputs. When you take another step back and look at the human element and its history with food, you can appreciate the power it has.

It is this complexity that gives food systems a great deal of importance in our consideration for the future, but also muddies where to start. My background before starting my food systems work was in environmental studies and science where the exact same dynamic applied: 'how can I even begin to make a difference?' Even worse, the knowledge of the extent of these issues can be downright depressing. Fear is a wonderful mechanism to captivate our attention, but the shock eventually wears off and we fall to a sense of complacency. When the problem is framed to us in such a immense, unsolvable way it is fatiguing, confusing, and leads to inaction.

The Beautiful Scale of Food

“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.” -  Robert Pirsig

There isn’t a magic bullet that will make our systems better, however there are countless great places we can begin. Everyday I am inspired by the work of great organizations and efforts across the world - creative solutions that fill niches in piecing together our food systems. All are at different scales, there are entire regions that are incredibly food conscious and actively support their local agriculture, as well as initiatives that work to bring  agriculture and food systems to places that historically have not benefited from them. Both are needed. "Context is everything" and operating within it is the key to making long term change.

This is why working in food systems in exciting to me - we all have our unique take on food and our history with it. There is so much opportunity for expression and creativity, which makes way for amazing inclusive solutions that take everyone into account and empower them to take part in the future. Each of us has knowledge that can contribute in these areas and we can contribute to a collective effort of individual actions. The issues we face are very much human problems, it will take human actions to solve it.

Over time these actions create a  new baseline for what we expect to see and interact with in our neighborhoods. Our physical environment has a great deal of impact on the way we view the world around us and ultimately our perceptions of what we want elsewhere. By bringing food back into the city, by making community spaces of place that spark conversation with urban agriculture as a backdrop, these changes have positive feedback to nurturing an environment that inspires stronger communities and food systems. 

My work at Shiloh Community Garden is very much a metaphor for all of the food systems work that I take part in. Gardens need continuous care and nurturing to produce. These community gardens have diverse gardeners, engaging people that would not have met normally - talking over a common  human element - food. It is my dream to promote agriculture in an way that brings people together and pushes the envelope in rethinking how we use our shared community spaces. There are so many examples of the therapeutic effects of working outside and gardening.

Art and Inspiring Change

The core question posed during theTABLE was - "how can we use art to communicate these complex issues?" I think art can play an immense role in sparking the conversation. Artists use different mediums to tell stories and invoke feelings in those who participate in their work. We are storytelling animals, that is how we have passed our knowledge throughout generations. There is great power in these experiences, and artists can set the tone of their message in a creative way that gets us to think about things just a little bit differently.

The expression and organic interactions that come from an artistic experience can be hard to quantify but have a great deal of impact in our perceptions. There are times in our lives when we learn something small that just seems to make everything we have experienced before that point seem a little different or nuanced. A small, but powerful piece of knowledge or perception that makes it hard for us to imagine the viewpoint we held just moments before. The more we expose ourselves to different viewpoints, and especially in constructive inclusive conversation, we open our mind to the beautiful connections that are right in front of us. These kinds of reactions don’t come from reading abstract statistics or studies but rather through the realization of the stories around us.

These are the kind of thoughts and connections we make when we engage our minds and each other in a creative and open way. That is the artistic touch to bring into advocacy for the complex issues that face us, from food - to race - to to equity - to violence.

Sitting at the Table and Listening to Each Other

It was refreshing to sit and talk constructively about the roles we play in building our food systems. Too often it feels we are bombarded with information that we consume, make a judgement about (and/or snarky comment), and move on to the next small bit. There are many issues that face our communities today both locally and globally.

There is something we all can bring to  "theTABLE" and to the conversation, but it is on us to figure out what that is. Our journeys' all begin win one step and each is a chance to learn from others. By finding what it is that inspires and what calls us to this action, we can go and do the work that is so necessary at home, in our community, and eventually the world.

I am honored to have been asked to be a part of the coLAB theTABLE series and connect with people I hadn't yet met in our community, but are also working to better it. Events like these, where we take the time to talk, listen, and grow, are how we build capacity within individuals and communities. I am excited to see where this new conversation will go and the lessons I will learn that will guide me in the future.


- Anthony Capece is the Urban Agriculture and Food Systems Coordinator for Elijah's Promise in New Brunswick, NJ.