My whole life, I have viewed food as more than simply sustenance for my body; for me, it has always been about relationships.
I spent summers at my Nani’s house in Southern California, cooking and eating traditional Indian cuisine that transcended generations. I travelled around the world, approaching local delicacies as a bridge to new culture. I went to the restaurants surrounding the University of Washington my freshman year, laughing with new and old friends.
The last couple of months, however, have been absent of the simple joys of travel and restaurants. Despite this absence, I forged a new connection that completely changed my relationship with food. It all started with a couple of seeds.
In the spring of 2020, I enrolled in a University of Washington course, The Urban Farm, in which students learn the ins and outs of food production while volunteering on the student-run campus farm. I was excited to spend my spring quarter outdoors getting hands-on experience with agriculture, a topic relevant to my chosen field of environmental economics.
When the UW announced that all spring courses would be taught online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, I wondered how I could gain the experiential learning I sought while sitting in my parents’ house in front of a laptop. An idea started to grow in the back of my mind, slowly putting down roots that only went deeper as time passed:
Could I create a farm of my own?
After consulting with my professor, Dr. Eli Wheat, and my mother, who owned the land where I hoped to build this farm, my idea started to sprout into reality. Following weeks of research and prep work, my mother and I successfully replaced a 400-square-foot patch of grass in my backyard with compost plant beds and wood chip paths.
The process was full of trial, error, and moments in which I almost gave up entirely. I will always remember one disaster distinctly: the morning in which the compost arrived.
My mother and I had spent the weeks prior scourging for cardboard from local stores and neighbors in order to begin the sheet-mulching process. We meticulously laid out the cardboard pieces across the entire plot of land, double layering in order to fully kill the grass below. Two minutes before the giant truck arrived to deliver the compost to put atop the cardboard, a massive gust of wind ripped through my backyard.
Hours and hours of work were swept into the air, swirling around our heads like a mini tornado, taunting us. I’m not proud to admit I was on the verge of tears that day, and the cardboard catastrophe was only one of several challenges I faced along the way.
Despite these setbacks, I pushed on until every small detail of my small farm was perfect. Soaker hoses on an automatic timer for irrigation, hand-buried fencing surrounding the land to deter pests, and crops started from seed indoors ready to be transferred.
After classes ended, I continued working on my backyard farm throughout the summer, attending to and harvesting the crops in the summer heat. In the time since classes started in March, my farm evolved from an ambitious idea into a bounty of colorful crops.
Lettuce bigger than my torso, pumpkin plants so large they invade neighboring beds, and broccoli plants taller than I am are some of the plants you will find in my backyard.
Still, many Americans eat their dinner every day with little awareness about where their fruits and vegetables came from. Today, it’s all too easy to ignore the history behind our food; simply go to the grocery store or your favorite restaurant, and your food appears as if out of thin air. The meals we eat exist within a vacuum, absent of any proof that hard human labor went into their creation.
For me, harvesting crops in the blistering heat, pelting rain, or suffocating smoke was a fun hobby to pass the time in quarantine. For millions of farm workers in the United States, it’s a livelihood.
Those who provide our food do not have the luxury of staying home to protect themselves from the dangers of a global pandemic or a climate emergency. Without their labor and hardship, we would not be able to feed the hundreds of millions of people living in America today.
Sitting down before each meal and thinking about the hands that harvested your vegetables, or even trying to harvest vegetables yourself, allows for a connection to your food, your land, and your neighbors that is priceless and irreplaceable.
However, it seems that my generation of young people have been gaining more awareness of this fact, increasingly engaging in resources like farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture boxes, or CSAs, in order to feel closer to their food and the people behind it.
Since the pandemic started, I haven’t been able to enjoy food as a social or cultural transaction in the ways I have in the past. However, as I walk through my little farm in the morning, plucking spinach leaves to munch on and cutting kale leaves to make soup for dinner, I realize that growing my own crops has cultivated a relationship to my food and land that could never have existed before.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of watching something you planted grow almost imperceptibly larger every day until you pull it out of the ground and feed it to someone you love. It seems almost silly to feel a sense of pride over a beet or tomato. Nevertheless, the amount of joy and satisfaction I feel when walking along the wood chip paths between plant beds is unprecedented within my life.
Eating food that I grew myself is certainly a new experience, but my experience eating any food at all now feels entirely new. Never before have I been so aware that every fruit and vegetable that goes into my mouth had to first be meticulously planted, grown, and harvested. The time and energy invested in every bite stays at the forefront of my mind at each meal.
I’m not suggesting it’s easy or even possible for everyone to engage so closely with food production as I have these past few months. It was anything but cheap to turn my family’s land into a mini farm, not to mention that we even had land available to begin with.
Lack of economic freedom prevents millions of people from accessing quality produce, making it nearly impossible for them to have a healthy engagement with the food they consume. It is a privilege to choose which foods you eat, to know where these foods come from, and to have the opportunity to grow food yourself.
It is a privilege to choose which foods you eat, to know where these foods come from, and to have the opportunity to grow food yourself.
This is all the more reason for those of us with the ability to do so to engage with our food production system.
Taking time to learn about the inequalities plaguing the produce market from production to distribution to consumption allows us to engage more thoughtfully as consumers. Sitting down before each meal and thinking about the hands that harvested your vegetables, or even trying to harvest vegetables yourself, allows for a connection to your food, your land, and your neighbors that is priceless and irreplaceable.
Last updated 10/5/20
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