Shifting Food Culture

Last Thursday, I flew to Oklahoma to participate in my tribe‘s annual heritage festival, which is basically a huge family reunion (some years 5,000 people attend) with stomp dancing and frybread. My head is still swirling with all the mundane strangeness of family and the ongoing question of what it means to be Potawatomi today; but this post is all about the food.

Or really, the lack thereof. You see, our Nation takes very good care of us when we’re gathered each year to celebrate family and tribe. Three days of games, music and the sharing of stories and culture. And, all the food and drink you can eat. The problem is that the food mainly consists of hot dogs, bratwurst, ice cream and soda. This year, everyone was thrilled to have fried bologna added to the menu. (really?) They serve three meals per day in addition to the never-ending processed meat fest, which are also heavily processed and not vegetarian. Water is available in bottles, but by and large, soda rules.

This was my sixth year attending the festival, and the facilities and activities improve each year. The food menu has also increased, but not in terms of food I can eat. Knowing this, my mother and I always bring a cook stove and enough beans and rice to satisfy an army for our meals. Although my mother is not a vegetarian, she has weaned herself off of many processed foods because of the trouble they cause her digestive system.

So although I knew what was coming, this year was not easier. My food consciousness was doubled by finally reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle during the trip. I loved the book and was impressed by Kingsolver’s story telling abilities alongside a very practical manual for eating locally throughout the year. I may write more about the book in another post, but for now, back to the festival food.

Desperate for some live, fresh food, I bought spinach and strawberries from the grocery store my tribe owns. As the largest stand-alone grocery store in Oklahoma, Firelake Foods has thousands of square feet of products. The fresh food section is a tiny portion, filled mostly with onions, potatoes and bananas. (there were four squishy eggplant in one part, and I was impressed with the bok choy) The rest of the food is uniquely american – boxed, canned and bagged “food” products filled with chemicals and high fructose corn syrup. Do you know how much food has HFCS? Check your loaves of bread next time you’re at the store.

I know for a fact that our store employs “loss leaders,” to draw in traffic and compete with chain stores. The biggest of these is soda, sold by the large case. There is more soda in that store than fresh vegetables. Although I won’t get into a debate here about HFCS and it’s connection to obesity and diabetes (because I’m not a scientist and because you won’t change my mind about it), I do think it’s telling about our society when our food stores are loaded with “junk” foods over those things that come from the ground.

But we slurp it up, gallons and gallons of carbonated sugar water and pounds of meat of unknown origins. And at the same time that we’re serving up heart attacks on a plate, we struggle with how to pay for the rising costs of health care for our members. We give classes on managing diabetes and the health clinic screens for blood sugar and cholesterol. But the issue of food and nutrition is never addressed. This schizophrenic disconnection from the stuff we put into our bodies and our health is so… frustrating. Although I don’t understand the mechanisms that keep us eating crap while we gain more weight and require more medication to keep our hearts pumping, I do feel extremely compelled to change it.

The scariest part is that my tribe is not unique in this domain. Shelves look the same in almost every conventional grocery store, with some exceptions. (In my hometown’s grocery, there is now ONE small shelf for organic or otherwise “natural” foods)

The question for me is, how do we alter our food consciousness on a large scale? The hardest part of this weekend wasn’t the overload of gross food, or even that I could taste the chemicals on the strawberries, but it was watching my loved ones eating all of this and not saying a word.

Well, I did say a few words. But food choices are like religions – you’re supposed to mind your own business about other people’s choices without saying anything. It’s as though we’re allergic to holding one another accountable – is it because, once we start, it’s hard to stop? That if we call someone on smoking cigarettes around their children, that now WE may have to be more accountable? And, why is this a bad thing? When did we start believing that we somehow live separated from each other and that it’s somehow better that way?

How do we alter our culture of entitlement? And how do we become reconnected to the source of our food – the soil, water and sunshine that are the building blocks for all of life on earth? When will we recognize that what we put into our bodies determines our health, and then actively choose those things which are most healthy?

If I’ve learned anything in my six years as a vegetarian, it’s that healthy does not have to equal tasteless. That Cherokee Purple tomatoes off the vine have a unique fragrance you won’t find in a grocery store. That plants offer us so much in terms of flavor, texture and aroma…that things like soda actually taste gross compared to a juicy strawberry or crisp apple, unmarred by chemical additives.

But now that I know this, how do I share it with others without alienating them?

Last night, upon my return home, I prepared my favorite salad with more of the greens we received this week. And although I soaked and rinsed the greens a lot, I didn’t quite remove all of the dirt from my salad.

And I ate it anyway, knowing the people who grew that lettuce and the ground from whence it came. Here’s to farmers and foodies and CSA’s and, of course, having dirt on our food.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: