Are You Going to Eat That?

Christmas dinner, Sunday potlucks, birthday brunch, summer barbecues…it seems that all the important events in my life are surrounded by food. This seemed especially important growing up in a Mennonite community. Every special church event was either a potluck or a picnic, so as a kid I came to associate community and friends with meals. Although I might not consider myself to be religious anymore, I’ve retained the belief that food and community are tightly linked, and I find myself missing the days when I could bring a dish to the church potluck and reconnect with others over a shared meal.

In my own experience, the more connected I am to food the more connected I become to those around me. When I grow, cook, and share food, these activities become communal; consuming becomes a social process that connects people to each other, and eating becomes more than physical sustenance. When people shop at the Farmer’s Market, they support Waterloo’s community of local farms and food businesses. When they volunteer with Food not Bombs, they make visible those in our community who are, all too often, invisible. When they garden with Urban Harvester, they interact with community members outside Laurier.

It happens so often that people get food from the grocery store without knowing where it came from or what practices they’re supporting by buying it. Something so integral to our existence has become packaged and filled with ingredients I didn’t even know existed. Of course, I’m guilty of succumbing to the whole eat on the run bit; I’ve grabbed a granola bar and coffee to go on many occasions when I was tired and short of time. What does it mean, though, for our communities when we don’t eat together, and when we don’t support local growers? Buying locally grown food does wonders not only for our immediate communities, but for the world. If we buy locally we know who we’re getting our food from. We know they’re paying their workers fair wages, and we’re investing in our local economy. Another big plus is that we’re helping the environment by not buying food that was shipped hundreds of miles to reach our dinner table.

But is buying locally really the answer? The above was the original article I wrote, before debating the issue with me father, who called me arrogant. He said that by buying locally, I was supporting the artificial economy we’ve created by subsidizing our farmers. He said that it was arrogant of me to take international farmers out of the equation, and if we all bought locally, they wouldn’t be able to support their families. He said that the international level of food production had risen- farmers that produce for export in South America have far higher environmental and quality standards than those who produce for domestic use, because they have to compete in a global market. Maybe the answer to building better communities lies in globalization. Maybe if we operated under an economy of true free trade, without unfair subsidies, the amount of people living in poverty would drop. Wow… never thought I’d hear myself say that.

I’m not going to say that I have any answers; maybe we should buy locally, and maybe we should support free trade. Maybe in an ideal world, free trade and fair trade are synonymous, but we haven’t gotten to that point yet. I still love my local produce; I love going to the market and supporting local farmers. I’ve just come to realize that maybe the answer to the world’s problems isn’t as simple as buying locally.

I guess what I’ve been trying to get at in this article is that food matters, not only on a physical level, but on a local and international one. What we put into our mouths affects everything, and therefore it’s something that merits some thought. It’s true that eating well is about being healthy, but it’s also about choosing what sort of communities we want to build, and how we want to relate to them. So whether you buy fair trade coffee, local carrots, or burgers from McDonald’s, think about where your food came from, because whoever grew it, picked it, or shipped it is now a member of your community at large.