Remember the Pig: Who gets to eat good food, who doesn’t, and why?

 

I hadn’t thought it through at all. Raising a couple of pigs with some friends — the intention was to know the origin of our food. Be connected. It was a very 2007 locavore moment, with a good helping of Slow Food thrown in. But it lacked planning and nuance. It also lacked reality: farming skills, of which I have none. As much as the sentiment was rooted in trying to do the right thing, naive as that was, it was an ill-conceived plan from the beginning. We were group of nonfarmers who thought that this was a path on the journey to being “more connected to the food” we wanted to feed our families. But it turned out very badly. For the pigs, for me, and, I suspect, for the others as well.

The pigs whose spirits I’m invoking here lived on Thimble Farm in the early 2000s. They were well fed, watered, and had good housing. They were safe and, in many ways, adored. They’d rub up against my legs nudging for an ear scratch, and roll over for a belly rub. They were fed table scraps, and we’d sneak in some school lunch pig slop too. All was well in their lives, I imagine, until their last day, their slaughter day, when everything went very wrong. There was nothing humane about it. Quite the contrary. I’m ashamed, but want to be truthful so other people don’t make the same mistake. The animals suffered because none of us really knew what we were doing. And the meat, after the kill — it sat in my freezer for months. I couldn’t feed it to my family, fear and pain freezer-burned into its cells. Frozen chops stood like spirits trapped in purgatory. In the end, the very, very end, that is, I buried the meat. I didn’t, I couldn’t even feed it to my dog. A grave is as best I can describe where it ended up. Deep, sad, and remorseful enough that not even the raccoons would bother because it would be too much work for even them. Dust to dust.

In hindsight, what I should’ve done was not do it. What we should’ve done was not do it. What I should’ve done is what I do now, instead, which is to buy local from local farmers. And what I do now is work committed to supporting these experts: the farmers and the fishermen and the food makers who grow, catch, butcher, and make fresh healthy food for people like me, the eaters. What I do now is listen better to what they need in order to do their jobs, not just today but for the future. I look locally and regionally to my neighbors and the community at large.

There are farmers, young and old, raising pigs from piglet to hog to live a life rooting up plants, rolling in the mud, sleeping in the shade, eating pig slop and grain, and then rooting some more. Swine are intelligent, social animals interacting with social human animals in a glorious cycle of life to meat, for nose-to-tail food, and I admire their capabilities, their relationships. I get to be witness to that now, and it is a much more appropriate place for me to stand. Because what I am is a housewife, a mother, a cook, and since my formidable pig experiences, I have become a food activist out of gratitude and respect to them.

A perfectly normal and expected outcome of bloodying one’s hands in the death of a pig would be to stop eating meat altogether. That’s what most people expect me to say after I tell them my story. But that’s not what happened to me. I still eat meat. All kinds of it, and I like it. What I did instead was look deeper at the local food movement where “looking your dinner in the eye” is a thing like some weird club badge of foodie honor, and decided, “Not on my watch.” Because what the pigs ultimately forced me to do is look more in-depth at the food system at large, and that includes looking at my white privilege in accessing good food. And the privilege that made me think what I was doing was right when it wasn’t right at all. Far from it.

For me, some things take other people telling me their story before I get it. Like seeing the nose on my face, the pork chop in my grocery cart, or the apple in your hand. When I was researching my book, “The Food Activist Handbook,” I got to travel down to El Paso, Texas, to meet with Carlos Marentes because of his work with farm workers. Carlos, a very practical man, opened El Centro de los Trabajadores Agrículturas Fronterizos (the Border Farm Workers Center) in 1995 as a safe haven for migrant and seasonal farm workers who travel between the U.S. and Mexico. It’s a place for them to get a hot meal, take a shower, leave their stuff, get their mail, and get some sleep. Wizened little ladies with wide smiles cook in the center’s café making pots of hot coffee, burritos, and beans and rice. Farm workers start their day at 2 or 3 am, waiting for the buses to take them to the fields and orchards. They stand on the sidewalks under bright streetlights and next to tall concrete walls topped with spirals of razor wire that mark the border between our two countries. Once I got to the center, the first thing Carlos did was sit me down for a cup of coffee, and before I opened my mouth, he told me this story, a parable in a way. Here’s the story as I remember it.

Carlos begins, “I go to my friend’s house for a visit. We are in his kitchen, and my friend wants to give me something to eat. So he washes an apple. Taking care to clean it, he then hands it to me. A red, juicy apple.

“‘Thank you,” I say to my friend. And then, ‘Why did you wash the apple before giving it to me?’
“‘So it is good enough for you to eat, Carlos,’ he answers. ‘To clean it of the chemicals, the pesticides … you never know who touched it or where it has been. You know why, Carlos. A child would, too.’
“‘Thank you.’” Carlos says again, accepting his friend’s answer, and the piece of fruit too.
“But then I asked my friend another question, and now I am going to ask you the same thing.” At this point Carlos gazes at me across the table that separates us, his eyes are dry and clear with birthright, indignation, and wisdom. Carlos’ words are careful, insistent, and barely above a whisper.
“What do you do to care for food like that apple? Just wash it? Food, all food is sacred, isn’t it? A right. What do you do for the farmers and the farm workers who planted, grew, and harvested it? The seeds, land, air, and water it needs to grow? The people — like these people,” Carlos says gesturing to the migrant men, women, and children farm workers in the cafeteria, “and the children like them?”
Carlos locks his eyes with mine. “Who should be able to eat good food like that beautiful, fresh apple? Who gets to eat that food?”
I returned his gaze as best I could, but I was at a loss. Quiet.
“You see,” Carlos said, tapping on the table between us emphatically, “washing the apple was about him. Nothing else. Nothing,” Carlos said, shaking his head. “What about everything else? What about everyone else?”
Like I said earlier. Plain as the nose on your face, and yet most of us, me included, turn away.

Who gets to eat good food, who doesn’t, and why?
The industrial meat systems are a huge tangled web that weaves and knots together negative impacts of “big ag,” markets, food industry, and the commodification of animals that affects them, people, the environment, culture, economics, politics, policy, laws, and regulation. CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) are where the majority of meat in this country is raised, and they’re located in some of the poorest counties in the U.S., polluting the air, water, and soil of marginalized communities. The couple of pigs I had a hand in were like the apple that Carlos’ friend gave him that spurred me on to new trajectories and projects — like helping build a humane mobile poultry slaughterhouse in 2007 for Island Grown Initiative (IGI) that still runs today on the Island. Because of that local access to humane slaughter, even backyard farmers don’t have to slaughter their own chickens, and Vineyard farmers like Jefferson Munroe of the GOOD Farm are raising chickens, ducks, geese, and even (sometimes) squab for sale.
So the way I think about it, if I had just stopped eating meat altogether, what good would that do for all the other animals who suffer every day because of how they’re raised and slaughtered, whether it’s in a CAFO and in a slaughter assembly line, or in badly planned slaughter in the name of local food? How would I have been helping the workers in this food chain and the communities who suffer from the air and water pollution that spews from CAFOs? Turning away just because it’s queasy-making doesn’t make sense to me. It also brought into stark relief how privileged I was to even consider raising livestock without farming knowhow, which while well-intentioned was just plain stupid.
My ability to access good food is high, but it’s not like that for everyone. Carlos made that point clear and clearer. Who gets to eat good food, who doesn’t, and why?
It’s high time to think through different frameworks in the stories we’re told about food, the ones we tell ourselves and each other. Now is the time for new narratives. Stories like the ones behind the CAFOs reveal the greater truths of our collective, often destructive and messy histories.
I was on my way to a food symposium on the Cape when I got the news that Anthony Bourdain killed himself. Like so many people around the world, I was stunned. I considered tossing the presentation I’d prepared, to talk instead about Bourdain’s impact. But then, that’s not what I was hired to do. I was going there to talk about small things anyone can do to make big changes in their local food system. Besides, ironically, I was not a huge follower of Bourdain — his masculinity and bravado put me off, frankly. Still, I admire how he used his vast popular platform to shed light and speak about marginalized and stigmatized food-chain workers from other countries and here in the States. He said uncomfortable truths, and had garnered respect and a strong enough fan base that he got away with it. People heard him. They listened to him. And they liked him. It seems to me that Bourdain was one of those lucky writers who found his voice early in his “Kitchen Confidential” book, but then what he did with it, particularly later in his career, was to use his voice for food justice, the greater good and elevate the largely unseen. He revealed. For me, Bourdain’s inspiration is not celebrity. It’s using white male privilege and voice to reach beyond the choir to people who never thought about the backstories of the postcards: the bacon on their burger or the farm workers who pick their shiny red apples.

 

Local history

It was a lackluster economy that helped beget the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group (MVSG), a burly and practical nonprofit organized by Michael Wild, a coastal planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and one of the Island’s shellfish constables in 1976. That was when they hired Rick Karney, the shellfish biologist who held the job for over 40 years; he recently stepped down, and has the new title of director emeritus. When he took the job, it was hard here. “People were living hand-to-mouth on M.V., and the bay scallops — that was it in terms of work. From that standpoint alone, bay scallops were extremely valuable, and they still are here. But back then, that’s the way you fed your family, that’s how you paid your bills.” The bay scallop was the last of the season, and if the crop wasn’t good, there wasn’t anything else. “In the late ’70s, early ’80s, when Labor Day would roll around, the Island would shut down. There was some building going on, but it wasn’t a construction boom. So if we could get more scallop seed, we could make more money and feed families. There weren’t other options.”

The strategy proved a success. “Shellfish seed, like motherhood and apple pie — there’s a certain Vineyard sacredness to it, ” Rick says. He credits the board of the MVSG for inherently and always understanding the mission, barriers, and strategies:“The fact that all board members work on the water, that keeps us grounded, and it’s always been like that.” They may not be the wealthiest nonprofit in terms of money, but because of that, the MVSG has to innovate. “If you’re fat and happy, you’re less likely to look around to new things,” he says. “We still might be doing what we did 20 years ago. We had to be innovative to get the grants.” These days they’re engaging in new and expansive projects, experiments in growing more food, like farming sugar kelp off Menemsha and in Oak Bluffs, where oysters and kelp grow side by side as complementary crops in the waters of the Martino brothers’ Cottage City Oysters farm off Eastville Beach. “There’s something to be said for having to work for your money,” Rick says about the MVSG having to be innovative about getting grants.

And if weren’t for the successes of the land conservation movement on Martha’s Vineyard, the local food movement here today wouldn’t be as strong or have such depth. You can’t have local food without land or clean water. We have both. We’re indebted to the citizen leaders, scientists, towns, and nascent nonprofits from the late ’50s through today who took action. Organizations like Sheriff’s Meadow (est. 1958) and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank (est. 1986) host farmers and livestock on their open working spaces today. The Vineyard Conservation Society (est. 1965) focuses not only on land protection but on environmental advocacy and outreach. Today, The Trustees of Reservations run the FARM Institute on Katama Farm in Edgartown. And the farm where those pigs — my ill-fated pigs — lived, Thimble Farm, through a story all its own is now owned and operated by IGI, and is deemed Farm Hub. It’s home not only to a greenhouse growing food for the community through aquaponics and hydroponics, but to community gardens, an orchard, and a host of educational resources for farmers and backyard growers.

Chef and cookbook author Tina Miller told me, “The Island was poor when I was growing up.” The local farmers were her heroes. She grew up in awe of Freddie Fischer Sr. of Nip ’n’ Tuck Farm in West Tisbury, and that still has an impact on her today. “I think the Island has always been weird and sustainable” Tina says, “in that people grew their food because that was their lifestyle, and people didn’t have a lot of money.”

Land here remains largely inaccessible for the average farmer, and local food remains out of reach for the general eating public. It’s just more expensive. Locally raised pastured pork chops average $12 to $15 per pound, chicken $7.25 per pound. And not everyone can grow their own food, or clearly, given my experience, should raise their own meat. Local food suffers the stigma of elitism because of its high cost and limited availability. “The farming scene here is boutique. The Farmers Market just thrives because of summer residents and tourists, and I think that’s great,” Tina said. On the other end of the spectrum are people who are food-insecure, like many in the elderly population, and including the 40 percent of M.V. public school students who are eligible for free and reduced-price school food.

It’s vexing to be on the margins when it comes to accessing seasonal, fresh food. For Tina, it’s also a cultural moment: “There was a time in the local food movement when I was annoyed because it was so preachy and so pure.” That pretty much sums up the moment in which I had the audacity to raise pigs. “There’s an audience for locally grown,” she says, “and most people I know manage a mix of grocery, markets, and direct buys from farmers. There’s room for all of it. It’s not about judging how people shop.”

When it comes to many of the successful farmers on Island today, they are (as folks would’ve said in days gone by) “gentlemen farmers.” “There are people with means who chose this lifestyle,” said Tina Miller, “and thank God they did, because a lot of land could’ve gone different ways.” Vineyard farms today are the bread and butter, cheese, fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers, meats, and eggs of the local food economy for those who can afford it, and the farms are also the origin of literally tons of food donations as well, via programs like Island Grown Gleaning.

 

So, what’s next?

IGI defines food equity as access to good food. It’s the natural next step in building up the local food economy, and the most responsible and necessary one for the Vineyard community. It should’ve been there all along, and luckily, the building blocks are in place to develop it.

Enter the Food Equity Network. This is a loose affiliation of organizations and citizens that came together in 2016; they’ve tasked themselves to mind the gaps on Martha’s Vineyard in terms of good, fresh food access. This fluid network is well supported by IGI and Island Grown Schools, and works with representatives from organizations like Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands, the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). The network meets to share information, identify needs, gaps, and barriers, brainstorm practical solutions, and then do something. They strategically implement new programs in a small way, to see how they work. For example, this past February school vacation week, Island Grown Schools coordinated free hot soup and bread lunches at a few of the local libraries. Everyone was welcome to the table, for sustenance and community, while the underlining impetus for the lunches was how, in the middle of an isolating Vineyard winter, you help feed elders and kids who rely on school food. It was a rousing success, and the soup was delicious too. As Tina Miller says, “This is a generous community. So many people give back to the Island, and they’re very invested here. We’re lucky.”

According to IGI’s executive director, Rebecca Haag, “We know that there are at least 565 SNAP recipients on the Island.” SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the federal program formerly known as Food Stamps. “But this does not reflect the total number of family members served,” she says. “We also know from state statistics that only about 30 percent of the folks who are eligible for SNAP sign up.” The hive mind of the Food Equity Network (which is open to anyone, by the way) is trying to solve that problem. By Rebecca’s calculations, she estimates that about 1,760 people are eligible for the program. “Assuming a family size of three, SNAP is a program that could help feed 5,280 people, which is about 33 percent of the estimated year-round Island population.”

There are meta factors at play in terms of food access. Some are steeped in our country’s history, such as structural and institutional racism and vestiges of enslavement that sustain barriers to good food access to everyone. A fair, just, equitable, and sustainable food system is something we’ve never had. The work going forward is not to rebuild — it’s to re-create.

Food Solutions New England (foodsolutionsne.org) has spent the better part of the past four or five years workshopping, conferencing, and convening stakeholders from all sectors (public health, city planners and politicians, educators, advocates and activists, farm workers, students, academics, fishermen and farmers, food banks) from across six New England states, and with all this information and hard work, they’ve come up with a vision for how New England can “build the capacity to produce at least 50 percent of our food by 2060 while supporting healthy food for all, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.” The “New England Food Vision” is a “collaborative report that considers the future of our region: a future in which food nourishes a social, economic and environmental landscape that supports a high quality of life for everyone, including generations to come.”

So there’s more work to be done. That’s as true as the day is long and there are dishes in the sink waiting to be washed. This is constant and expansive work that’s not just about buying, cooking, and eating delicious, seasonal fresh local food for yourself. It’s about food justice and values, and caring for animals, the land, water, air, and all people. It’s about the right to good food, inclusive access for everyone, from local outward, not just for those who can afford it today.

I think a lot about what’s worth doing. My pigs, the desire to be responsible to them, for the food I eat, for all food chain workers, and for the food that should be available to others. I wonder, What’s of worth to you, and what do you want to do about it, wherever you live?

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