For the two weeks before Thanksgiving I was on the road spreading the word about good food. From the San Francisco Bay to the Delmarva Peninsula, from Boston to Bethesda, and Oklahoma to Iowa, I became the itinerant preacher thumping the bible for a just and sustainable food system. I met hundreds of blessed folk along the way, most already converted and no doubt bound for heaven, but some still firmly in the clutches of the devil’s industrial food system. And like preachers everywhere, I tried to embrace them all – sinners as well as saints – in hopes that we all might find a healthy and tasty path to redemption.
Maryland’s eastern shore is the heart of Big Chicken country. Here, Perdue and Tyson manage the devil’s workshop where chickens come off the factory line looking like McNuggets with legs. Sharing a pulpit with Baltimore public radio host Marc Steiner, two local farmers, and another journalist, we showed Food, Inc. to a SRO crowd at Salisbury University. As someone who has seen the flick a dozen times, I was surprised that this was its first showing on the Eastern Shore. But I soon learned why. Not only were half the buildings and streets named after members of the Perdue family, rumor was that Perdue executives had asked the University to not screen the documentary. Not only do animals sometimes suffer at the hands of Big Ag, so does the First Amendment.
The audience was roughly divided between benighted representatives of the poultry industry and outspoken numbers of sustainable food advocates. When the house lights came up, the feathers flew. The poultry people gave as good as they got, and absolutely nobody turned the other cheek. While I may rain fire and brimstone down on factory farming, there is a part of me that prays for a way to heal communities like Salisbury.
There was far less conflict in the liberal bastions of Bethesda and Boston. At the Cedar Lane Unitarian-Universalist Church I delivered a lecture to a large audience of metro-Washingtonian alternative food believers whose national denomination had recently adopted a statement of ethical eating. Though I was clearly preaching to the choir, it was heartening to know that hundreds of thousands of Unitarian-Universalists are united in the good food cause.
In Boston (more precisely Cambridge), I stood nervously before an assemblage of Harvard Law School students who had invited me to speak on local and state food policy. While addressing the future masters of the universe can be intimidating, they are just like students I encounter everywhere, in thrall to food and food issues. They have established the Harvard Food Law Clinic which is sending the best and the brightest to places like the Mississippi Delta to unravel ancient local food codes to better serve a bourgeoning local food movement.
Moving from the blue states to the red, I arrived in Oklahoma. My mission: enable 50 people who had been invited to a full-day workshop to establish a state food policy council. While not exactly a mission impossible, my hope for a positive outcome were severely shaken by some chilling remarks. One farmer complained about those “lazy housing project residents who won’t work on my farm.” I then overheard one redneck farmer warn a state legislator that the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) was the only way to deal with “invasive gov’mint regulations.” And I was firmly upbraided by one Oklahoma State University economics professor who told me that it was capitalism that should be thanked for making so much cheap, safe food available to Americans.
Iowa proved to be more fertile ground for progressive thinking. There, I had the opportunity to share some words at the one year anniversary meeting of the Iowa Food System’s Council. The group is a newly formed non-profit organization that wants to ensure “that Iowa has a just and diverse food system, which supports healthier people, communities, economies and the environment.” As I was signing books, however, I was confronted by a plant science professor from Iowa State University who wanted to make sure that I understood that GMOs, CAFOs, and agro-chemicals shouldn’t be blamed for anything. I smiled, listened, and wondered to myself why, with all the energy across this great land of ours to build a new food system out of the shell of the old that the old guard continues to fight a rearguard action.
Admittedly, food justice and sustainability are still but a distant glow on the horizon for many. Those with a vested interest in the industrial food system retain a tenacious and sometimes hostile grip on the status quo. As the numbers of advocates for sustainable, local, and healthy food grow, so it seems does the gulf between us and them. Though this preacher has not yet found the words to mend the rift, I’m not ready to wall myself off from the world in my organic garden. Keep the faith!