In celebrating of September as Eat Local Month, I offer an essay I wrote for a local newsletter for shamanic healing practitioners on a subject often overlooked by those who write about eating locally: the spiritual aspects of local food.
Generally, rather than talking about reducing the carbon imprint of my food, or talking about the ecological and economic advantage to eating locally (although I believe in all of these reasons) my way of tempting others to eat local foods is by taking about how delicious they are, and what a sensual delight it is to eat the seasonal produce from your own corner of the world.
However, there is another strong reason I have animating my decision to eat as locally as possible as often as possible: it is part of my own daily spiritual practice to do so.
I am offering this essay to provoke discussion, and to initiate a sharing of ideas and feelings on the intersection between food and spirituality. As a deeply spiritual person whose personal philosophy closely follows the precepts of Zen Buddhism, and whose beliefs mirror many of the tenets of some branches of the Hindu faith, I cannot extricate the physical realm from spiritual reality. For me, they are inextricably intertwined, like honeysuckle vines growing interwoven with climbing rose canes.
In my world, everything I do is a spiritual act. When I grow food, or shop for it at the farmer’s market or local grocer, I am observing a holy rite. When I go into my temple, the kitchen, and cook, I am performing a ritual. When I serve the food I have cooked to my family, friends and clients, I am sharing a sacrament.
This is just my experience. I do not judge those who do not or cannot eat locally as lacking in spirituality. That is not my point. It is not for me to judge how, when, why or why not any other human may (or may not–I don’t look down on atheists, either) connect with Spirit. (Unless, of course, an individual’s method of connecting to spirit involves causing terror, pain and death to others–in that case, I reserve the right to stand up and say, “Uh, no dude, that is not right.”)
My point in posting this essay, which some may perceive as a bit “out there” is because I want to see if there are others who share my experiences surrounding food, whether the food is local or not. I want to see a discussion about where food and spirituality intersect among us, how, when and why.
So, if you feel so inclined, post a comment and let me know what you think.
Without further ado: here is the essay in question.
Food, Spirit and a Sense of Place
I grew up eating locally.
As the granddaughter of a farming family who raised cattle, chickens, hogs, and vegetables, I learned early in life what truly fresh foods tasted like. I also learned what labor went into the growing and production of food as I followed my grandmother down the garden rows, planting seeds, hoeing weeds and transplanting seedlings every spring. In the heat of summer through the crisp days of autumn, we harvested: canning, preserving and freezing in preparation for the fallow season of winter. In the early winter, we slaughtered our animals, with care to do so in the most gentle and ethical way possible, then butchered them and stored the resulting meat in the freezer to feed our whole extended family in the coming year.
In light of this rather unusual upbringing, it should come as no surprise that I have since endeavored to eat as close to the source of my food as possible. Not only do I dislike the concept of shipping vegetables hundreds or thousands of miles from the soil in which it was grown, I mistrust the rampant use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides that are necessary to run monocropped factory farms. I also abhor the inhumane practices of confined animal feeding operations where most of the meat animals in our country are raised. These unsustainable farming practices may produce a great deal of food cheaply, but they come at an astronomical environmental health and ethical cost.
Pesticides target the crop pests they are meant to destroy, but they also kill beneficial pollinating insects. Runoff from chemical fertilizer causes algae bloom in adjacent rivers and streams, deoxygenating the water and killing the fish and other life within it. Pesticides, herbicides and some fertilizers cause mutations among populations of amphibians, or kill them off outright, while pesticide residues, as they travel up the food chain by ingestion from lower life forms to higher, cause untold numbers of unforeseen environmental hazards. (A good example of this would be the weakening of the eggshells of predatory birds by DDT in the 1960’s and 70’s which led to many raptor species going onto the endangered species list.) And of course, these poisons, many of which are nerve toxins, pose health dangers to farmworkers, their families and residents who live near farms, which include declining fertility rates, rising rates of cancers and other toxic effects.
CAFOs pose heath disasters for animals and humans alike. Manure dust from enclosed chicken houses can give farmers and chickens alike serious respiratory illnesses, deadly strains of e. coli have developed in response to the unnatural conditions under which cattle are raised, and resistant bacteria have arisen and are threatening human health due to the overuse and abuse of antibiotics in CAFOs. Runoff from manure lagoons destroy groundwater and streams, pouring bacteria into the environment, and the stink of so many animals living in their own feces reduces air quality in a large radius around CAFOs, reducing property values for homeowners, as well as the quality of life for those who live nearby.
The way in which CAFO animals are treated in many slaughterhouses is often monumentally cruel and painful; and the workers in such facilities are often treated little better. Production lines move so quickly that not only are animals who should have been stunned are being cut into while they are alive, workers often experience accidental wounds from the razor-sharp knives they are forced to wield at an inhumane and unsafe pace. In addition, in the name of speed, care is not taken to keep the e coli-contaminated intestines of animals away from meat, resulting in widespread contamination.
Ethically and morally speaking, I find it egregiously shameful that we feel it is necessary to raise food in such unhealthy ways without question. Why is it considered right and proper to torture animals and inflict unsafe production practices upon human workers and farm neighbors in order to make a surplus of cheap food? Why are farmers, who risk their health and sometimes their very lives to feed us paid so stingily? Why do we lose so much farmland every year to new housing developments and strip malls while small farmers go bankrupt?
In addition to these already acknowledged ecological, health and ethical costs of the current petrochemical-based agriculture, there is also an often overlooked spiritual cost to the animals, plants, planet and ourselves when we consume food that is raised using unethical, unsustainable methods. As a woman who has been deeply connected to the rhythms and spirit of the land since childhood, I cannot help but be aware of this seemingly unending well of pain and corruption that comes from working against nature in order to feed ourselves, instead of working with nature.
When we take from the Earth without giving back, we are destroying not only the soil, the environment, the plants and animals, we are destroying ourselves. When we act as if there are no consequences to our agricultural methods, we are fooling ourselves: taking up arable land for more shopping centers may not destroy us, but it may very well starve our children and grandchildren. City dwellers may not be harmed directly by pesticide use, but the farmer workers are–how is this right and good?
I believe very deeply that when we cause pain to humans, animals, plants and the very land itself in order to grow food, we are literally eating that pain, and it becomes a part of us, in an endless cycle of negative energy. When we eat that pain, how does it taste?
As humans, we have forgotten that we are not apart from nature; we are intimately entwined within the web of all life. And as such, we must understand that our every action and inaction affects everything we do. If we choose to eat apples shipped to us from New Zealand, instead of the ones grown in our home county, we are choosing not only to ignore our local economy and neighborhood farmers while supporting the use of massive amounts of petroleum to ship fruit half a world away, we are also spurning the spiritual and physical gifts of the Earth where we live.
Perhaps eating far from the source of food may be helping humans feel disconnected from the Earth. I believe very strongly that not only does the soil in which a plant is grown affect the flavor and nutritious components of that plant, it also has a subtle effect on the energy field of that plant, stamping it spiritually with a sense of place. When we eat food of questionable nutritious value shipped from all over the world that we buy wrapped in plastic and far from the soil in which it was grown, we may be feeding our own sense of rootlessness and not belonging to our communities.
Our physical health, as well as our spiritual health is affected by our food choices. For example, all plant foods are filled with vital vitamins, minerals, photochemical, carbohydrates, proteins, fats and bioflavenoids, all of which are necessary to sustain life. As soon as a vegetable or fruit is taken from the ground or parent plant, these energy-giving and life-sustaining elements begin to wane, fading rapidly the longer the interval between the farm to the table. When we eat far from the source of our food, we are robbing ourselves of the nutrients that plants give us.
But, if we eat what is grown and produced close to us, or even better grow some of our own food ourselves, we not only foster a spiritual sense of connection, of belonging, of being part of the natural world, we also boost our physical health by eating food more filled with nutrients. We become more aware of our place in the natural world, and it helps us take better care of ourselves, our families, our land and our planet.
As a part of my spiritual practice, I buy most of my family’s food from local farmers, and cook most of our meals, all from healthy whole foods. Here in southeastern Ohio, we are uniquely able to purchase local, ethically and sustainably produced meats, dairy products, eggs, fish, honey, wine, herbs, vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, tofu, pasta and breads. Ohioans, as are others across the United States and the world, are becoming increasingly aware of and interested in the economic, environmental and health values of truly fresh local food, and because of the state’s strong tradition of agriculture, we could stand at the forefront of this new movement.
I only hope that the spiritual value of ethically produced local foods will also become known to the people of my home state, as well as those across the country and around the world. Local food has the potential to not only sustain our bodies, our communities, our families, our neighbors and our environments, it can also sustain our spirits, and help us reconnect with the natural world.
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