Last Mile Access: Contradictions and Obstacles En Route to the Table

I’ve never told anyone this other than Barry Estabrook: I grew up eating tomatoes planted in soil nourished by my own poop. My family’s zeal for organic gardening was unmatched. No, we did not have a composting toilet. Instead we used a 5 gallon white plastic bucket, filled up regularly, and carefully composted the old-fashioned way—in a steaming heap.

My family was a clan of Boston and Brooklyn-bred urban hipster homesteaders in the 60s, far before the trend. In the 70s, they went whole hog and bought 100 acres of land in the deep South where they could count on the sunshine and knowledge of neighboring farmers to help them carve an existence from the land.

Eco-freaks with art and design pedigrees, my family hated waste and respected art born from the crucible of a closed loop ecosystem. So they recycled cow bones, from the Chicago meat packing plants that supplied McDonald’s, into gorgeous jewelry that graced the pages of Vogue and the halls of the Smithsonian Galleries.

On the land, our access to food was limited by our skills and dictated by our natural environment: we grew most of what we ate, hand-pumped water from a well, bathed in the creek, heated with wood, kept bees, and aimed for the lightest possible footprint. We would consume meat only if we hunted it ourselves or if a neighbor did; luckily or not, we were in NRA and NASCAR country where hunting was de rigueur.

Occasionally when the wind howled and pickings were slim in our winter garden, we made soup from those Chicago bones. The soup was my favorite part of the whole operation. I’d spend hours prepping, stirring, and analyzing the flavors. Poop, reclaimed bones, then honorable soup seemed like a natural order. I partly resented our lifestyle, but mostly I was reverential, as I knew it had deep meaning. It was clear for me that the culmination of our ethics came together in the soup pot.

Fast forward from that white plastic bucket and the poop-nourished tomatoes. I didn’t stay on the family land. Still, my upbringing was simply too cool to rebel against. Goats in the living room would have been fine, so the best I could muster for backlash was to spend a decade in corporate environments, mastering the black art of communications, while my self-sufficiency skills marinated on the shelf.

In my adult life, I blamed my peripatetic career path for my mostly-tepid backyard vegetable gardening commitment. Instead of getting my hands in the dirt, I went after the best tasting authentically sourced food I could find–that was ethics enough for me. I remained serious about the kitchen: For years I was a foodshed nomad, living, working and sniffing out peak eating and cooking experiences in North Carolina, Japan, and Israel. I even tried Guatemala, with not much luck. Didn’t I earn that separation from the land after years of pooping in a bucket in service of that soil?

Returning to the U.S., I applied my communications chops in the Fair Trade movement, fighting for fair pay for farmers in developing countries. I loved my work, but I ran smack into monster-sized contradictions. I felt compelled to hide my love of food. It was not cool to rhapsodize over my homemade shallot sherry vinaigrette when coffee farmers were starving in Nicaragua. Visiting my friends, do-gooders like me employed at environmental and social justice organizations, I would cringe when I saw their kitchen trash cans stuffed to the brim with packaging from frozen processed fare—often vegan or organic—but inevitably from Trader Joe’s. Then again, who was I to tell them to shell fresh favas while Guatemala City sunk into chaos and poverty? I wished the social justice and environmental movements would ally with the good food advocates but the gulf was too wide. Where did this basic and critical connection of loving food fall flat for these otherwise enlightened people?

Over and over again, I saw the same issues: No time to cook, no skills to cook, no community with whom or for whom to cook, no cultural precedent, no acceptance of food beyond fuel. These challenges faced even those burning with desire for good food and thoroughly committed to their definition of what “good” was. I was sad that where everyone got off kilter was exactly the place where change could happen, three times a day: the market, the kitchen, and the table.

Now I am settled in Oakland, CA into a hybrid life of sorts. The native California grapes are ripening on the vines, my cucumbers are showing promise, and the solar panels are doing their thing on the roof. Sushi is a short walk up the hill, public transportation infrastructure is excellent, and the low-flow toilet sits serenely upstairs. My kitchen is not fancy, but it is the heart and soul of my house. I feed my friends who work for social justice and my neighbors who are too busy to cook. This morning I argued with my husband about soil amendments. A no-holds barred native-plant gardener, he strongly believes that a plant must make it on its own with minimum assistance. I know that to produce food from plants, you need to give the roots easy access to nutrients. You have to lend nature a helping hand, whether in the garden, in the kitchen, or in your own personal work for the roots of change.

I plan on sharing my stories about ironies, surprises, and challenges that accompany food to the last mile: from where we shop, to the kitchen, and to the table. I hope to make some new connections by telling stories about contradictions I see as the movement for good food gains steam across the country. In kitchens, at farmer’s markets, in community groups, in my backyard, and at work, tensions and stumbling blocks abound. Looking back at my family life, as committed as we were to sustainable food production, contradictions showed up there too.

The system’s level needs improvement and so do our individual relationships with food and with each other. We all have more work to do so that artichokes and beets make the leap from good-concept-but-daunting-preparation onto our forks. (Spiky thorns and red-stained fingers, oh my!)

I plan on creating a conversation, and perhaps offering tools, to make that last mile trip to the table a reality instead of a pipe dream. Stay tuned for my next post, an intense conversation with a valet in a Monterey, CA Cannery Row Hotel, who asks me what to eat, how to cook what he finds, and why he should bother. Plus, there is more to come including: crying over a corndog in Japan, generic cheese in Israel, and a pile of fava beans in Oakland.

Welcome to the Last Mile Access.

Photo courtesy of Vanessa Barrington