12th Annual Farmer Appreciation Dinner – Through the Eyes of Simran Sethi

October 28, 2010


I ran into Chef Martin Murphy of Canoe Club (Hanover, New Hampshire), one of the featured chefs at the Niman Ranch Farmer appreciation dinner, on a Saturday afternoon at the Gateway Market in Des Moines and he told me he brought butter from New Hampshire to share with everyone.  He said, “We have to break bread as family.”  And he was right.

That’s what food does.  It brings us together as one. As heard during recent Rosh Hashana services, “There is holiness when we share our bread, our ideas, our enthusiasm.” For this, I give thanks.

The first time I was in Iowa, Paul Willis took me to see his hens. He put a warm egg into my hand and I don’t know if he knew at the time – it was the closest I’d ever felt to the origins of my food.  Paul gave me some eggs and sopressetta to take home with me.  I savored it for weeks. Each night I would cut a small piece of meat and eat it with a peach or some cantaloupe.  When I was sad, it took me back to a place of joy.

We know food has the power to do this.  It show its power when we slow down and connect to what Slow Food founder, Carlo Petrini, calls, “the primacy of sensory experience” and “the immense heritage of wisdom relating to the cultivation of fruits and vegetables.”

This is what Chef Sara Jenkins from Porchetta (New York City, NY) did when she shipped Niman pork sandwiches to our troops overseas. She gave them a taste of home.

Here are some sobering statistics about our food system today:

¾ of the corn and soy consumed in the US is GMO.  We rely on 15 plants and 8 animal species for most of our food even though in the history of agriculture over 7,000 species have been grown for food.

According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, for over 20 years farmers have received 18 to 19 cents for every dollar spent in a conventional grocery.

One child in every four is overweight or obese. For African-American and Hispanic children that number rises to one in two. Today’s kids are the first in over two centuries expected to have a shorter life span than their parents.

A recent Census Bureau/ USDA survey correlates with what we just learned about poverty.  In 2009, one in four respondents in households with kids reported not having enough money for their food needs.  The highest rates of food insecurity are in the South, Southwest and California.

In light of all this information, it is an act of courage to do something differently – or cycle back to the legacy of what we were raised with: to raise animals traditionally and humanely.  It is an act of courage for chefs and grocers to seek out these products and buck a system that demands faster, cheaper food. This cheap food comes at an exorbitant price – to people, to our soil and water and other natural resources—and to workers who are not paid a sustainable wage and may work under unsafe conditions.  It is an act of courage to take back our food system: to save our seeds, to grow something ourselves – and/ or support the people who do.

I am lucky to come from a family that is strongly connected to food. I remembered this when sitting with Chef Jon Shook from Animal (Los Angeles, CA) the other night. I asked where he learned to love food.   He explained that in his family home, mashed potatoes came from a box and how his relationship with food changed when he started working in restaurants.

My grandmother would take me to markets where she’d haggle over the price of okra or mangoes.  I would sit beside her as she ground spices with a small mortar & pestle.  On occasion, in moments when a family member was deemed especially trustworthy, she’d pull what looked like a set of warden’s keys from somewhere deep in her bosom and ask you to pull something precious and expensive out of the locked pantry. Sultanas—fat, juicy raisins—or cajus—pale, meaty cashews.

My grandmother passed away five years ago. I miss her bellowing laugh, her full embrace and her cooking.  In every bite, there was love.  And that has carried on with my mom, my aunts and uncles, and my sister.

This is what food does. When we break bread as a family, doesn’t matter what race or sexuality we are.  When we give things, we share in a tradition that belongs to every faith.

I don’t want to get all American pastoral on you and make it sound like all of this is easy or glamorous. It is not. I know from my students at KU who grew up on farms and ranches that it is relentless work.

The seedlings of change and courage in businesses like Niman Ranch should not be the exception. Farmers and ranchers being paid a premium price for their food should not be an exception. Animals, produce, soil and seed not to mention people being treated with integrity and dignity should not be an exception.

Together, we can all work to ensure that people who are hungry are fed and that a system that is broken is healed.

We need everyone to participate.

We need to lobby Congress for stricter regulations around our supply chain and reasonable use of antibiotics in livestock and against GMO salmonella.  Go to FoodDemocracyNow.Org to learn more about what you can do.

We need the food journalists and bloggers—myself included—to not only talk about what’s on our plates, but about how it got there.

We need to feed ourselves better—and take care of each other.  As Gwendolyn Brooks writes:

We are each other’s harvest,

We are each other’s business,

We are each other’s magnitude and bond.

Guest Blog by Simran Sethi , who was our featured guest speaker at the 2010 Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner held on September 18.  Simran Sethi is an Emmy award-winning journalist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, where she currently teaches courses on sustainability and environmental communications and diversity in media.  She was named one of the top ten eco-heroes of the planet by the UK’s Independent and lauded as The Environmental Messenger by Vanity Fair. We were thrilled to have her speak at this year’s dinner.

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