“What’s for Dinner?”
I grew up in the meat and potatoes sixties! Nary a meal went by that did not include a protein, a starch, and a vegetable. No doubt it was a sign of prosperity and pride for my father to be able to provide such a wealth of foods. Part of what made that sustainable was the huge garden that we all tended in the back yard – weeding and watering nightly during the growing season; shucking peas and corn, stemming green beans; prep work for the next steps. My father canned and froze some of almost everything he grew; made tomato sauce and pickles and jelly; root veggies went into the cold cellar under the stairs below the kitchen. “Putting food by” was a way of life for us. We were blessed with ‘just this side of fresh’ vegetables all the way through winter when the cycle would begin again. Sustainable meant hard work and big rewards; that we would always have enough; that local was best, even if we didn’t call it that back then.
In my twenties I began to develop more of a social consciousness around food, buying into the belief that I could eat the grain rather than feeding it to the cows and pigs and chickens so that I could then consume them. I began to think about the planet and how all that corn we grow depletes the soil and that the amount I required was far less than what the animals needed to grow to size. Sustainability took on a different meaning, related to the whole rather than to just my little corner of it. I became a vegetarian in those years; hooking up with a rather left of center band of folks of like mind and a distinct message. Sustainability became political; the personal is political we would say! Vegetarianism was a statement about sustainability and our world to be boldly proclaimed in our actions along with our words.
It was also around that time when I was a young single mom with little in terms of resources, working as a waitress, alongside other odd jobs. And I found that going through the line at the grocery store with a heaping pile of fruits and vegetables stretched my allotment of food stamps quite a bit further. Signing up for a food buying coop with my compatriots helped in this regard, too, buying tofu and cheese; grains and nuts in bulk to be divided monthly amongst us at monthly potluck gatherings. Sustainability was about making it from day to day as a woman and a mother in the world who wanted the best for her young daughter and who was savvy enough to figure out ways to survive on a meager income.
My journey through “What’s for dinner?” has taken many twists and turns over the years. These days I still garden and love nothing more than “picking my dinner” and bringing it in to prepare. I aim for local as my first choice, realizing that I will not be able to do this completely without sacrificing perhaps more than I am ready to right now. We are blessed with land to grow things on; local fish from our beautiful Cape Cod waters; lots of area farmers who offer a wonderful variety of palate pleasing opportunities. I am not exclusively vegetarian, but am just as inclined to lean that way as not, on any given day.
When I think about sustainability I see that I could do better by the world and the planet if I were to make some more changes and I seek after ways to incorporate this in my planning and purchasing; preparing and consuming. But I see, also, that sustainability has meant different things to me at different times in my life. There is a contextual factor involved and I am careful not to cast a shadow of shame on myself or others for the choices we make in the day to day of our existence. It is all a part of the journey.
I was prompted to explore this topic by a recent article in Yes! Magazine, a seasonal publication with a more frequent online presence that touts “journalism for people building a better world.” I like to think that I, and we as Unitarian Universalists, are about this business of improving living on this Earth home. In a section entitled, “Solutions We Love,” the question of a ‘social justice diet’ was raised. And I found that it went directly to the question that I was asking myself about sustainability, that being, “Sustainable for who?”
Climate concerns and social justice get right at the heart of the inequities we are probably familiar with, but I will mention them here to center us. The people who have the least access to the healthiest diet have been relegated to food deserts where the only food they can afford to get to is offered in small grocery stores that supply the cheapest and least healthy of products. And then, as icing on the cake, we tend to blame and shame these marginalized folks – read here: the black and brown people – for a lack of attention to their personal health and care. It is no wonder that heart disease, obesity and diabetes run rampant in these communities given the options available to them. Factory farming and the subsidizing of crops that deplete the land and our overall health when consumed are woven into policy decisions that favor the wealthy among us.
Not so long ago I read the book from which our reading this morning came, and the article reminded me of its theme. The shift that answers part of the question involves a return to relationship with the land that we are sitting on and to the exploration of how that land was used to cultivate a healthy and sustainable diet for the people indigenous to those places. Basically, it asks the questions, “What grows here naturally? In what season is it plentiful? What lives in abundance here that was food then?” It concerns itself with regionalization because that is good for the state of the climate; our physical environment; the air we breathe and the soil in which we plant. When our food is less processed and doesn’t travel for thousands of miles to get to us it is better for our bodies and our planet.
A piece of this sustainability puzzle has to do with community and with relationships. The story of the Sankofa Village Community Garden in Pittsburgh exemplifies what this means. It is about growing one’s own food in unlikely places as a testament to the value of black and brown bodies, deserving of natural foods as opposed to those usually available; filled with sugar and salt. It is a place of teaching and practice; knowledge and experience that fit its participants with tools for sustainability, both personally and globally. This is a story about relationships on many levels – the individual to the land – the people of a community coming together to make a better choice for themselves collectively – the community taking a stand and being empowered to use their voice in the public square where policy can be effected.
I can imagine that little of this is news to you who have become my people - a well-read band of UU’s hunkered down in Chatham and its surrounds, waiting out the storm, as it were, until the time when we can safely reconvene in the communal ways we miss and love. We know these truths about food insecurity, global climate change and how we contribute to it, the value of buying local. A dear old friend once said to me, often, when making commentary about the state of things that, “Knowing doesn’t always help.” He was a philosophy major and a baker. So, I am given to challenge us – this includes me – about what we know. I find myself as I write a little frustrated with my own cavalier approach in times that we espouse as being, fairly desperate regarding our planet. I am in the fortunate position of being able to do something different with a relative amount of ease; something more in response to the situation at hand. Maybe this is the case for you also.
The challenge has to do with moving from our heads to our bodies. It applies, most certainly, to the topic at hand, but in other ways as well. To be sure, sustainability has to do with education, and we should not let go of being studied up on the idea or of sharing the information we have gleaned. What we do with what we know is the key next step. And this is what my philosopher friend was getting at, I think. Knowing requires something of us and that may feel like a burden, not a helpful thing. We can’t exactly take our message to the streets in these times. We can, however, take our message to heart – into our bodies - and make changes personally that will in some small way help to shift the tides – growing what we can – buying locally sourced foods – connecting with local organizations that feed those in need and supporting their healthy choices – you will insert your own methods here. In so doing, we make ourselves more credible when the time comes that we can dialog more freely about what we have learned and how the practice of alternatives has changed our lives and supported the planet.
The challenge is to walk the talk as we are able, to use our bodies along with our minds, and to agitate and advocate for those whose ability has been hampered by injustice. This means developing relationships with people who we don’t normally spend our time; relationships that ask what we can do that will really make a difference on the ground; relationships that ask what is most important to people; and in what ways we can be allies in the struggle. It means showing up ready to get to know folks and to join their effort as opposed to bringing our own agenda to their doorstep.
Today’s message about sustainability is an invitation into an embodied way of being in the world; about an embodied faith born of action and response; creativity and care, for ourselves, for communities near and distant, for our nation and our planet. May we dig deep as we consider all of what sustainability has the potential to mean and to be in our lives. May we cultivate an ethic of sustainability that is meaningful to all of humanity.
So may it be and Amen.