When I was in third grade, my teacher assigned a paper called “How to Make A Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich.” In what I can only assume was some sort of exercise in good scientific methodology, we were instructed to carefully catalogue all of the steps of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
All right, I thought:
Step One: Get the peanut butter out of the cabinet.
This was back before I thought about what happened before the peanut butter got in the cabinet. Oh wait—I corrected myself:
Step One: Open the cabinet.
Step Two: Reach into the cabinet.
Step Three: Grab the peanut butter.
Step Four: Put it on the counter.
All in all, I catalogued over forty steps for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Looking at food as something beyond what you put in your mouth is somewhat like an elaborate “how to.” Like many things in nature, the more closely food is examined, the more gloriously intricate it becomes. Take, for example, a tomato on a small organic farm, at Long Lane, or at Urban Adamah, the farm I worked on as part of a fellowship this summer. In examining a tomato, you could start anywhere in the cycle, but for the sake of the third grade how-to, we’ll start with the seed:
Step One: Plant the seed.
But of course, it’s already more complex than that. The soil has a history that is written into its composition, the pH level, the sand to loam to clay ratio, the biotic matter, the toxins released by previous plants that make it more suitable for some plants than others. If you amend the soil with compost, you add stories of decomposition, of past meals and remnants of foods, of animals who left remains that allow for high nitrogen levels, of the people who carried it and worked it into the soil. The location itself also has its specific properties, levels of shade, elevation, and amount of human interaction.
Step One: Know the land and its history.
There are stories and complexities for every step of growing the tomato: watering it, pruning it, doing any pest management, harvesting it, and eating it. To save the seeds of a tomato, you can squeeze them out into a jar of water, let mold start to form, strain them, and dry them out. A number far greater than forty steps later, the process can start again.
If you get this tomato at the farmer’s market, you add more steps: loading into boxes, loading into a truck, driving, unloading, selling. Grocery store, you add even more: building, buying and operating equipment for the farm, connecting with the store, negotiating prices, hiring people, labeling. If you turn the tomato into sauce, you add a whole new set of people and equipment. When you start adding other ingredients, this story gets linked to hundreds more, and it gets dizzying.
This is the immense power of living in the 21st century. We can perform a thousand steps in one gesture, and it is with this great efficiency that we arrive in a society in which so little of our time is devoted to providing for our basic needs and so much openness is left for art and philosophy and science.
There are many benefits of efficiency. But it also allows us to accept certain things that we may not be comfortable with if we were directly confronted with the reality of the consequences of our decisions. Looking at an item in the grocery store, it is easy to see the price, but often impossible to see the labor conditions and farming practices through which it was produced.
At Wesleyan, where our food choices are limited and sometimes non-existent, this is particularly salient. Through our meal plan, we are essentially relinquishing control of our food system to a few companies and individuals. With the exception of a few significant items, our knowledge of the food before it arrives on our plates and also what is done with what is not eaten is largely a mystery.
Food can be an access point to our values and a source of connection to a complex network of people, plants, and animals through which we are able to live. The choices that we make about food are powerful far beyond our own bodies. One of the benefits of our institutionalized food system is that changes can occur on a much larger scale than if a few students decided individually to shift their purchasing preferences. By identifying the holes in the system, opportunities for transformation, and working at different stages in the food cycle, we can promote sustainability and justice.