Food Chain

What’s the story of your food?

One of the people working in food I admire most is Amanda Rieux, whose Mala’ai school garden has become a model for food education in Hawaii.  A couple of days ago she shared some training notes including a heads up about the Nourish series of short films each of which asks a provocative question about our food.  They are very short films, at 1 – 5 minutes, and get straight to it, largely leaving  the answers to the viewer.  The Food Chain video left me with a question I suspect will stick with me.  The speaker was Michael Pollan.  He asked does our food come to us in a form our body can recognize?  Making the point that a food chain has a biological system on both ends, being on one end the sun, soil and plant (or ocean and fish), and on the other end an eater, in a human body, food can be transformed away from its biological form by industrial processes in the middle.  Our bodies recognize edible species and know what to do them.  Our bodies don’t recognize novelties like additives.  What does it cost us physically to process non-food food when our bodies lack the evolutionary knowledge of what to do with it?  What does that disconnect lead to?

There is a big social aspect to food that makes it nourishing.  When it’s missing, do our bodies find it less nourishing too?   Another of the videos, called Cooking Together by Chef Bryant Terry, makes a case for the social life of food and the kitchen as ground zero for joy.  When family and friends cook a meal together the joy meter can hit 10 with little effort; yet this is happening less because people are intimidated by cooking and can’t relate much to the ingredients.  In the USA, where we eat imported seafood largely, we don’t know where it came from, according to NOAA.  Product origins disappear in the middle of the chain.  As a result, eaters can not see what fishing looks like today or imagine the hands and human face of fishermen and plant workers.   Doesn’t this seems like a profit leak?  We’re not on farms or throwing net like our grandparents but as eaters we are evolved to recognize soul in food.   In a garden, kids instinctively pick the food their bodies know they can eat, says Amanda.

Know your Farmer is a great idea, as yet another video says.  There’s no escaping long-distance food however because it makes up the bulk of the American diet.  There is no room for excuses about blind spots in production.  Let me be clear.  Either a food chain is socially and biologically accountable, or it is not.  Accountable doesn’t have to mean organic or farm to table; but it must mean the food origins are accounted for and also the social impacts of production are accounted for.  Food has a story and knowledge of where it came from and how it was made is part of the nourishment.

Last night a colleague said Pacific fleets are going to the poorest places on the globe to recruit now.   Instead of looking for seafarers, unskilled crew from Nepal are being sought out.  I am strongly behind access to fishing work for all comers, but this is a red flag in a couple of ways.  It raises questions about how the rights and entitlements of untrained foreign crew can be protected at sea.  Is a premium on fishing knowledge inside the food system also slipping away?

All over the world I see fishermen use their fishing knowledge to persevere economically and also mind the store.  The Farnham fishing family in Long Island fish recently started a bycatch avoidance network  for haddock for example, with the Cornell Cooperative Network.  They are part of the corps of fishers on the Eastcoast who are helping to rebuild Atlantic cod and haddock stocks.  Fishers will share location data with their peers for a heads up about where they are encountering haddock, so they can avoid those fishing areas.   People like the Farnhams out there chasing wild fish for a living and caring for the biological system are taking care of the food system as a whole.

Michael Pollan said solving the food chain problem is about resolving the conflict between how machines like to work and how human bodies work.  Conflict is a terrific source of evolution.  Human bodies work hard on fishing boats, and they are not machines.  People function well with adequate food and rest, freedom of movement and power to negotiate as a free agent.  Unlike machines their efforts feed families and their hands work with dignity.  Humanizing the food machine means putting faces back onto the food at the family meal.  It will be achieved with a little gentility, ethics, and some room again for creativity and craft.  It’s not about work only but also respect for food.  Leaders are some of the biggest industrial producers in the middle of the chain, Thai Union, Nestle and Highliner.  These companies reach eaters in their daily meal and it is exciting to see them reaching out.  Reconnecting the biological aspect of fish and oceans to the social life of the meal is how industrial seafood is nourished.

Tremendous innovation is occurring in American restaurants but not enough yet around eating fish at home.  It’s not about the industry being perfect or omniscient or about adding and adding and adding checklists.  We learn a lot more about food from eating it than reading about it, if you think about it.  It’s not about adding and adding and adding ingredients either like additives for a pop of color.  Our bodies recognize food that is safe and food that is socialized.  We have to trust in that again.  I am convinced that future profitability in food is about marrying production back with taste and feeling and around re-socializing the meal.  Fish is healthy and delicious but today raises so many questions (sharks, turtles, slavery, illegal fishing……).  That is for sure a profit leak.

What if a personal connection makes food taste better?  That would be a big market opportunity, right?  Retail grocers like Wegmans and Whole Foods give food a story and deliver it in-store with a personal touch.  The big question looming is how can eaters be touched by seafood at home in the kitchen?  Appeal to the customer as an eater, I’d say, as though the critical mind has an outpost in the heart.  It definitely has one inside the digestive tract.  Here in Hawaii when invited for a meal to somebody’s home, the custom is to bring food from home.  It can be a cooked dish or a mango, avocado, breadfruit or passion fruit grown at home.  It’s a social way to add a little extra love and identity to the meal.  It’s not different from taking a minute to collect herbs from the pot on the stoop or a tomato from the backyard when cooking a meal at home.   There must be a way for us eaters to do something like it across the food chain to show respect and thankfulness to the producers at the base of the chain who put a lot of energy and soul into our food.

If we don’t eat fish, we lose sight of it.   We also lose big on nourishment.  Eat it to love it and, if you are a committed fish eater, how about mixing it up?  Pay attention to what tastes better and sits well in your stomach.  This species over that, which goes best with your favorite sauce?  Look at the label to see what’s local.  If you don’t see something that looks good in the fresh case check for seafood in the frozen aisle.  Nutritionally it’s worth a lot to your family and children’s future health to put seafood into the cart regularly.  Pay attention also to how fish is displayed in the store, how much the label is telling you (and not telling you) across the brands.  Look directly at the product and ask yourself, can I imagine where this was fished, and whose hands pulled it out of the water?

“Don’t be afraid to be picky about what you put in your body, because you have to live with it.” says Dr. Nadine Burke in the last video I’ll mention (there are 54!).  She also says Read labels. Read labels. Read labels.  “You can’t make an informed choice if you don’t know what’s in your food.”

Aloha from Katrina

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