Once a month, when I was a kid growing up in the 70’s in Minneapolis, my entire family would pile into the car and head over to North Country Coop on the West Bank. We would go into the ‘back room’ where giant blocks of cheese waited for someone to cut and wrap them. In exchange for our contribution as working members of the coop, we received a sizable discount on our organic fruit, vegetable, dairy and bread purchases. This was my first exposure to the culture of organic and sustainable foods and the cooperative system of bringing this food to the public. It was not fancy or grandiose. In fact, it was more like a warehouse than a grocery store.
What mattered more however, was the coop movements mission to increase awareness and understanding among individuals and families throughout the city about what you eat, where your food comes from and how you access it, and that this makes a difference to your own health as well as the health of your community and of the planet. 35 years later the our local food coops and their patrons look different and the selection of foods, both bulk and packaged, has increased dramatically. However, their mission is essentially the same.
This year, my husband was lucky enough to receive a sabbatical from his Spanish teaching job in Minneapolis and I took a break from working as a sustainable foods chef and nutrition educator. We decided to spend that year in Mendoza, Argentina. Mendoza is a similarly sized city to Minneapolis, but it sits in the high desert foothills of the Andes Mountains. This city is known for over 300 days of sunshine a year and is home to the region that produces 80% of all the wine in Argentina, which is now the largest wine exporter in South America. There is winter here, but not snow, or below zero temperatures that we are accustomed to in Minnesota. The most unusual change for us is the reversal of seasons. I am still figuring out what seasonal means and when my favorite foods are "in-season". When we arrived in mid-July, it was cold (20s and 30s) and brown, and now as it approaches December, we are experiencing the pre-summer heat of 60-degree nights and 90 degree days, while aromatic desert flowers and succulents explode around us. There is no humidity here, so while it is becoming green it is still dry and feels like the desert.
One thing that tickled me when we first got here was that for the first time in my life, rather than debating the merits of buying organic pears from Argentina (is it OK to buy something from half way across the world because it is raised sustainably?) I could actually buy Argentine pears in Argentina! I was buying local right??
On looking further into this, questions about food sourcing have proven to be as complicated here they are in the US. Consider this tidbit about Argentine food:
According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements 2009 report on organic trends, most of the organic production in Argentina is geared towards exports, the European Union and the US being the main customers. The EU purchases 52 percent of the cereals, 85 percent of the oilseeds, 77 percent of the fruits, 98 percent of vegetables and beans and 72 percent of processed products. Local market development is still slow. For example, the second biggest dairy company in the country stopped supplying organic milk to supermarkets because of low demand. Higher prices cause consumers to drop purchases, although in 2007 some 320 metric tons of organic food were delivered to local markets. Still, recent market studies showed that consumers were well acquainted with the meaning of the term ‘organic,’ and there is a general recognition of higher produce quality among consumers. But demand is yet too feeble to support a constant and significant flow of vegetables and fruits to local markets. (Willer, Helga and Lukas Kilcher (Eds.) (2009) The World of Organic Agriculture. Statistics and Emerging Trends 2009.)
In the US, there are countless debates about the meaning of ‘sustainable’, ‘local’ and of course, ‘organic’. It is difficult to define the importance of these things and how or IF they should be prioritized. For example, I always wonder if it is more important to buy an organic apple from halfway around the world, to settle for whatever is available from closer to home (despite its organic status) or simply to go without some things during certain times of year. Additionally, I wonder about whether to take a stance that focuses on a public health perspective, where the most important thing is simply to get people to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, regardless of where or how they were produced??
Having kids makes this discussion even more complicated. I believe in giving kids a sense of the seasonality and cycles of foods which in turn can lead to an appreciation for eating food when it is the most delicious, rich and flavorful. I also understand the challenges of feeding children healthy food and the compromises that sometimes must be made. I give my parents loads of credit for having the awareness and the wherewithal to join the coop and involve us kids when it was not just a "fringe" thing to do, but because it also challenged their own orientation and had little or nothing to do with how they were raised. The fact that this was available to us as a family over 30 years ago says a lot about the rich culture of food, sustainability and health in Minnesota. Something that is virtually non-existent even now in present day Argentina.
I know that many people (myself included) would say that in the U.S. we have a long way to go; food access is a critical issue while sustainable and organic food is not available to everyone. Still, many kids are growing up with poor diets including far too many processed carbohydrates and not enough fresh produce. I believe that no matter where you live, there is a way to find healthy options.
Before I lived here, on the other side of the world, in a relatively well off community in a place with incredible growing ability, I was leading this battle cry. That perspective is evolving….
Our kids are attending one of the most expensive private schools in this region. They are socializing with kids who are growing up in highly educated, professional, internationally travelled families. They have the means and the ability to procure whatever foods and/or other items they desire. And, by all accounts, the parents really care about their kids. One might think that this would be a community full of values around food…or at least aware of the issues around food.
In reality, I have never seen kids (or adults) drink so much soda or eat so much white sugar and white flour in any given day as I have while spending time with these families. Although food and snacks are a part of most gatherings, rarely is there a vegetable to be seen. Additionally, whole grains of any kind do not cross our paths, ever. As parents, we have made numerous concessions this year in terms of the food and drinks our kids are allowed to choose. It is hard enough to be the odd kid out, still learning the language and adapting to the norms and habits of a new culture. But to also be restricted from sharing everyone else’s idea of a treat is too much to ask.
One can't even begin to wonder where the food has come from, or how it has been grown, because its doubtful that any of these folks have ever been curious enough to inquire. The level of interest or desire to understand anything related to the origins of one’s food, how it was raised and how that might affect their own health, the health of the planet, or the health of the people who raise their food seems to be off the radar screen entirely, and apparently their children’s consumption of extreme amounts of highly processed foods is entirely acceptable. Did I mention that most of these kids are on the heavy side? Currently, Argentina holds the prestigious title of having the highest rates of childhood obesity in Latin America, second highest rates worldwide, behind only the US. This is not a small problem, it is literally, an epidemic.
While I was less happy to see that the school has a ‘kiosko’ that is open to the kids all day and offers such things as ice cream, candy and soda, I was encouraged to know that our girls are required to play field hockey (or soccer for boys-don’t even get me started on gender issues here), and that they have gym twice a week. Physical activity however, is not necessarily a cultural value here. Sporty brand-name clothing and flashy running shoes are definitely common, but whether they are used for exercise is another question altogether. There are people who exercise and are active in the big park and the nearby foothills. Running and cycling groups are common, but we have yet to meet a family that ventures out together to exercise.
Recently our daughter’s fourth grade class did a field trip to a near by nature refuge. It is 20 minutes from our door, and 10 from some of the higher-up (read: wealthier) neighborhoods. We have been there a few times since we arrived. Not a single child in this group had ever been to this refuge. Ever. Sometimes you wonder why people are living in such a stunning place, if never to actually engage with it. That said, I recognize that there are probably as many people in Minnesota who have never paddled the boundary waters, or in states like Colorado or Wyoming who don’t venture into the mountains to hike. As I continue to search for like-minded people and create some sort of community based on shared values or lifestyle commonalities, I realize that this process takes time and that my community in Minneapolis is one that I have cultivated and built over many years. It is not a representation of ‘typical’ Minnesotans nor do we eat or feed our children, or recreate generally, like ‘typical’ Minnesotans. Probably the Argentines who I am meeting and the children I am observing are more similar than different to those in my own hometown, but my perspective is so skewed to one side of the spectrum that I can’t remember what ‘typical’ is.
So, in many ways this leads back to the ‘battle cry’ I mentioned earlier. Class is not the only issue involved in creating equity and balance in a food system. Education is the great equalizer. While I don’t believe any of the families in this community would wish danger or disease on their fellow humans, or on their land, it is clear to me that these issues and ideas are simply unfamiliar to them. Like many people in the US and throughout the world, there are other things keeping them occupied, like the value of the Argentine Peso (recently the Argentine government told it’s citizens that it would no longer allow them to exchange Pesos for Dollars) and the government’s policies toward unemployment. Throughout my studies in the school of Public Health, I came to understand more and more clearly, that to simply tell a person that something should be important to them does not make it so. One needs to find a meeting place, a commonality that inspires or moves someone to care about an issue. This may be a cultural tradition, or the health of their child, or preventing diabetes or obesity. Or, it might simply be a love of cooking delicious food for one’s family.
I am learning that food can be a source for division, or a way to connect. While the idea of baking cookies with honey, or eating vegetables with every meal may seem strange around here, I’d rather keep offering it into the mix, sharing it with pride and hoping that some day, at some moment, something will click.
I am also wondering why is Minnesota such a hot bed of progressive food ideals? What makes this Midwestern town, with a relatively short growing season and not a single mountain or ocean to speak of, such an ideal place to learn about, and access healthy, sustainable food? I am still figuring it out. What do you think?
Jenny Breen has been a professional chef in the Twin Cities since 1986. She is co-owner of Good Life Catering, and previously owned the Good Life Cafe. Jenny is a passionate advocate for local and sustainably raised foods, and has been working directly with farmers and producers since she opened her restaurant in 1993. Jenny has been teaching cooking and nutrition to adults and children at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, in the Twin Cities Food Coops and with Twin Cities schools since the mid 90s. She is a 2009 recipient of an Archibald Bush Foundation Leadership Fellowship and recently completed her Master's Degree in Public Health Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Her first cookbook "Cooking up the Good Life" which emphasizes local, seasonal whole foods cooking for families, was released in April of 2011.