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The Ethics of Eating

Not long ago I was invited to give the commencement address at Mills College. When you give a graduation speech, you have permission to be very solemn, and to cover the Big Themes, and to go right to the Heart of the Matter. So I gave a speech in which I tried to answer the questions of what it means to be human and what our lives are supposed to be for. And I titled this speech "The Ethics of Eating." I tried to persuade the class that the choices they make when they buy food are serious choices, and that the way they choose food matters.

But there is another ethical choice we make about food, and that is how we decide to eat it. So this speech is "The Ethics of Eating, Part Two." I want you to choose to eat gathered with other people around the table. I told the graduates about my lifelong connection with food, and how in many ways it grew out of my involvement with the politics of the sixties. When people choose mass-produced food and fast food they are supporting a network of supply and demand that destroys local communities and traditional ways of life all over the world a system that replaces self-sufficiency with dependence.

It's not just the food, it's what we do with it. If we are going to eat ethically, we had better start eating with each other and our children. When you eat together, and eat a meal you cooked yourselves, you are involved with the process in a different way. You shelled the peas, you peeled the potatoes, and you want everyone to enjoy every last bite. These are the kind of meals we should be eating with our children. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, such meals honor the materials from which they are made; they honor the art by which they are done; they honor the people who make them, and those who share them.

I think we can all agree on this: no matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we need to take care of children. Way too many children are living in not just inhumane, but inhuman, conditions. And this is true not just of the kids who are being pressed into military service in vicious wars, and not just of the kids who are at the edge of starvation due to ecological mismanagement in developing countries, but of the kids in our own country. We have raised a generation of kids, far too many of whom have never participated in the growing of food or the preparation of meals, who have never sat down together at a table with other generations. They haven't learned the meaning of mutual responsibility, or experienced the caring and love that families can only express, I believe, by sharing nourishment.

Once, not so long ago, food preparation and food service were both the solemn duty and the reward of family living. Once families were food-producing and food-processing units. And humanistic values were instilled, more than anyplace else, at the dinner table. Families eating together passed on values such as courtesy, kindness, generosity, thrift, respect, and reverence for the goodness of Nature pretty much the whole Boy Scout package of virtues.

The ritual of coming to the dinner table was once the basis of community. Recently Francine du Plessix Gray wrote an essay in the New Yorker aptly titled "Starving Children," which said, among other things, "The family meal is not only the core curriculum in the school of civilized discourse; it is also a set of protocols that curb our natural savagery and our animal greed, and cultivate a capacity for sharing and thoughtfulness . . . the ritual of nutrition helps to imbue families, and societies at large, with greater empathy and fellowship." Polls tell us that in the United States today, something like seventy-five percent of the nation's children never share meals with their families. We've adopted a "convenience" pattern of eating, and forgotten what living, delicious food is.

A compelling reason for the decline of the family meal has been the onward march of commercial "convenience" foods. Modern technology makes it easy for food to be consumed on the run, in small units. Microwaves and freezers and dehydrated foods make it possible to feed people more "efficiently," in crude economic terms, than with food prepared by hand, by and for an extended family. We have to make time to do this. I don't think people know what they've thrown out. They've adopted that other pattern of eating, and forgotten what living, delicious food is.

If we want kids to join us at the table, we have to show them why. And one of the biggest reasons is that you learn at the table. Above all, you learn how to use your senses. And you either use your senses, or you lose them. They get dulled. You settle for the routine and the mediocre, in food and everything else. There is so much information that comes from sensual stimulation information that comes to you immediately, even faster than over the Internet. I'm convinced that teaching children to eat food together is the best way to teach them to open up their senses. It will improve their ability to communicate not just about food, but about everything. And they will grow up to be wiser, happier people.

If all of us were to encourage our local schools to start programs in gardening and eating, we could have an impact. Kids have to be taught that fresh, nourishing food is their birthright that wholesome, honest food should be an entitlement for everyone. To try and get this message across, I have joined some neighbors, parents, and teachers at the Martin Luther King Junior Middle School in Berkeley, California, to plan a food curriculum. For years, whenever I drove by the school, I was struck by how run-down the schoolyard looked, and I thought: What a great garden this would make. What a great thing it would be if the students not only got to plan, plant, and cultivate a garden, but if they got to actually use that food to cook school lunches for themselves. To my delight, the principal at the school thought this was a good idea too, and now we're well under way to making a food curriculum a reality.

We are calling this project the Edible Schoolyard. These are some of the events we have created: In December 1994 we did a ritual seeding with 150 adults and children who broadcast seeds for the cover crop while drums timed the march across the field. In January, we made sherbets for 500 kids: Meyer lemon, tangerine, blood orange, or lime. There was a raffle and the winner won dessert of the fruit he liked best. We have built an adobe oven near the garden site for bread and pizza baking. And in October we gathered the commu-nity together on the full moon to celebrate harvest.

The kids are extremely receptive. Now at King School, they are getting boxes of produce from CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) with Terra Firma Farm each class receives a box every week. One of the teachers was telling us at a garden design meeting about how the kids in her class washed and trimmed and cut up the ingredients to make a salad. "Now wait," she said. "Before we start eating, let's stop and think about the person who tilled the ground, and planted the seeds, and harvested the vegetables. And then we chopped up the vegetables and put them in this bowl and made this big salad . . ." The kids stood up at their desks and gave the salad a huge standing ovation!

It's all about the quality of life. I believe food is a medium for us all to do more meaningful work in our own lives. And more than that, I believe we have an ethical obligation to do this work, for the sake of humanity better lives for each other and for the generations who come after us.