“Food is not just fuel. Food is about family, food is about community, food is about identity. And we nourish all those things when we eat well.”
In the early stages of the pandemic, many jokes were made about banana bread. For those not used to cooking, quarantine presented the perfect opportunity to learn. And while I was no stranger to it, lockdown did initiate a few changes in my relationship to food. For one, I began to shop at my local grocers rather than venture out of my neighborhood to larger stores. It forced me to get creative and try new recipes. Over time, I developed an awe for the alchemy of it, and the sacredness of setting time aside for nourishment; now, spending time with ingredients that came from the Earth is a ritual for grounding that I savor.
What we eat represents our most fundamental connection with the world. It should come as little surprise, then, that in the United States, our relationship with food is often tenuous. For many, food is simply a fuel, as if our bodies were some kind of separate machine that we must feed to keep running. How many of us know what produce is local or in season, or how it was grown? Sure, organic foods have become popular, but there is still a great deal of ambiguity around what that even means. How many of us know where our food comes from or how far it traveled to reach us? As Michael Pollan points out in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the average fruit or vegetable on an American’s plate makes an estimated journey of 1,500 miles to get there.
More importantly though: how many can actually afford to concern themselves with the answers to these questions? For too many, food is a source of stress; according to Feeding America, more than 35 million Americans faced hunger and food insecurity in 2019. And yet, in the same country, exorbitant amounts of it go to waste; according to the USDA, 30-40% of it is uneaten, the majority of which ends up in landfills. As it rots there, it emits methane, which you might recall is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Not only is food the ultimate case study in inequality, it’s also a contributor to the climate crisis—in more ways than one.
When it comes to global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA, 24% come from agriculture, forestry, and other land use. And those emissions can be deadly. If you follow along with our Saturday Sphere series on social media, you’ll know that a recent study found that agricultural air pollution accounts for an estimated 17,900 deaths in the U.S. annually—80% of which come from the production of meat, dairy, and eggs. And that’s just human deaths; the conditions in which big meat and dairy raise and slaughter animals are too cruel to count here. (And no, I’m not saying we all need to be vegan—only that our systems need to change.)
Whether through grassroots organizations, regenerative farming, or community gardens, people around the world are fighting for food sovereignty and a return to traditional and Indigenous food and agricultural practices. In a story recently published by Atmos, writer Maria Fernandez Garcia explores the natural remedies and holistic healing properties found in many common foods that we take for granted. “What we put into our bodies shapes the caliber of our cells and soul,” she writes. “Many of us have become disconnected from the food we consume. Even so, there is a part of us that awakens when we eat a truly nourishing meal.”
How might it shift our perspective if we saw this disconnect not as being with food, but with nourishment? I still haven’t learned how to bake banana bread, but I have learned a thing or two about nourishing myself since the pandemic started—and I mean that in more than just the physical sense. When we consider the fact that everything in our universe is energy that is ultimately consumed and recycled, we begin to understand that for better or worse, everything is food. At all hours of the day, we are being fed, whether that’s inspiration, information, emotions, ideas, or advertising. Chances are, you found these words on one feed or another.
For those of us doing climate work, it can be especially easy to lose sight of our diet, so to speak. Are we spending all of our time ingesting social media and digesting destruction in the news? Are we devouring delight as much as we are despair? Are we drinking in the beauty of the natural world as much as we are thirsting for its justice? When we become consciously aware of what we are feeding ourselves and one another, we begin to take accountability for our own state of being and self-development. Because as every good gardener knows: what we feed, grows.