Do Sweat the Small Stuff
OCT. 14, 2014
SEATTLE — I’m jet-lagged. Many days I wonder what day it is, or where exactly it is that I’m waking up. I have moments of near giddiness, and they’re likely to be the same moments during which I’m asked to be intensely serious in front of a large crowd. I feel tired, or joltingly invigorated; I may feel loving and kind and even empathetic, or I may quite resent human company and prefer to hang out with a dog. And I may feel any of these ways in unexpected combinations and at inappropriate or at least inconvenient times. Large groups of people I don’t know demand my attention all at once and individually; I feel resentful and needed and sometimes loved. I’m on a book tour.
Book writing can be solitary. Book promotion is anything but: Everyone wants a piece of you. It’s enough to make you think you’re important. Indeed, people seem to care what I say, and so I respond.
There is nothing more like a therapy session than book tour. And although I’ve arrived on the West Coast only recently, I’ve stored up a week’s worth of the usual author complaints about airports, planes, trains, cars and hotels. I’ve also garnered a week’s worth of wonders, from the pork-and-broccoli-rabe sandwich in Philly to rooms full of people asking some questions that I’ll never be able to answer and others that I can, confidently.
A thoughtful answer to a single question is usually about the length of a paragraph in this column. Longer answers would limit the interviewer and the audience of their chance to voice their concerns. So in a way, the more difficult the question, the shorter the answer. For example:
“How do we change the food system?”
A: Slowly. One step at a time.
“How do you define ‘real food'”?
A: It existed 100 years ago.
“What do you think about GMOs?”
A: Both fear and benefits are overrated.
“What are the biggest problems in food?”
A: Unregulated junk, unregulated marketing, barely regulated antibiotics.
“What about people who can’t afford real food, or don’t have access to fresh produce or kitchens that are safe and equipped for cooking?”
A: These are justice issues, not food issues. Of course they’re important, but they also serve to point out that when you address food issues seriously, you must also address broader, systemic issues like those of inequality.
“What can I do to help change things in the food world?”
A: If you care about real food, and you keep caring about it, it almost doesn’t matter what your job is; you’ll help make real change.
These are common questions from both interviewers and the public. But when people approach me individually, the questions change. One on one is more personal and feels more meaningful.
They’re questions I’ve answered a thousand times: What do I do with chard? Should I buy organic food? When and how should I salt pasta water? How do I feed my kids? What do you eat when you have nothing in the house? How can I eat a decent lunch? How important is local food? What do you do with turnips?
The questions show how important food really is to people, even though they may appear trivial. They’re easier, but they’re meaningful, because their answers are empowering rather than frustrating.
And this is what I try to emphasize: We can look at the big issues, we should look at the big issues, but the big issues can be discouraging. We’ve made a little progress, and I’m confident we’ll make much more, but changing the food system is a big battle, a war even, and winning it will take campaign finance reform and a more representative House and perhaps even the abolition of the Senate as well as a whole lot of restructuring and re-regulating.
When we talk about changing the food system, we talk about changing just about everything. So we should be prepared for sudden change — it could happen (see: gay marriage) — but we should expect a long and difficult struggle. We won’t, in the near future, see a ban on marketing junk food to children — perhaps as important a childhood issue as there is right now — any sooner than we’ll see the national minimum wage raised to $15.
So much of this is so big that it’s out of our individual control, and it’s easy to become disheartened and even skeptical. We are the underdogs, and to emerge victorious will take so much time that it’s likely many of us will not live to see the changes we know are due.
Which makes the so-called little issues that much more important. You can swear off McDonalds and Pepsi — iconic brands, but not the only ones worth boycotting — right now. Most of you can begin to cook. You can teach your youngest kid to eat better than your oldest. You can garden, or grow parsley on your windowsill. You can cook your favorite dish for your kid’s classroom, or get your kid to cook his or her favorite dish with you. You can force yourself and your loved ones to eat a salad every Monday, or Wednesday for that matter. You can probably pay a little more for food and support a farmer who isn’t growing a thousand acres of corn. You can eat an apple instead of a cookie. For breakfast, you can eat leftovers of something you made for dinner.
These are not always easy things to do. Like New Year’s resolutions, they may have to be addressed time and again. If you once stopped smoking or once started exercising, or did anything else that was challenging, you probably recognize two things: One, changing your relationship to food is a difficult thing. Two, it can be done.
I recognize that this is preachy. There is something about the nature of becoming public — of listening and speaking instead of writing — that demands a direct response. It feels immodest and perhaps it is. But I’m encountering hundreds of people every day, and the ones I speak to individually usually say one of two things: “You’ve helped me change my life,” or “Please help me figure out how to change my life.” The answers are already out there; it’s all been said already, by me and dozens of other people: The small things, the seemingly little changes, they do matter.
“How do we change the food system?” is a question that cannot be directly answered. We elect representatives who understand what’s wrong. We petition. We make noise. We don’t settle for the grudging, halting, sometimes downright stupid changes that government agencies make, but demand more. We don’t know the end but we push for progress. We don’t quit.
But “How do I change my relationship to food?” is a question you can answer yourself, now, in a continuing manner. We need both questions. But in a way the second one, the littler one, is much more powerful.
Some ways to get involved on the local level in Tallahassee:
Join the Tallahassee Food Network
Grow a garden -- Local gardening information and links to some of our Community Gardens
and other resources at North Florida VegHeadz
Buy food from a local farmer through Red Hills Small Farm Alliance or a local Farmers' Market
Join a food cooperative -- New Leaf Market Bread and Roses
Eat at local restaurants who use local products