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Who Stole the Soul?: The Decline of Food in America
Published on Wednesday, February 7, 2007 by CommonDreams.org
Who Stole the Soul?: The Decline of Food in America
by Bob St. Peter
 

Up until recently I've defined "soul food" narrowly as the traditional Southern fare born out of slavery and forced frugality. But the more food I grow for myself and my family, the more food I buy from local farmers and fishers, and the more recipes I create with the food of my bioregion, the more I understand soul food as food that nourishes the body, mind, and spirit, preserves the landscape, and embraces the connection between culture and diet. In contrast, the more time I spend outside of my food utopia at Forest Farm the more I wonder, what the hell has happened to food in America? Who stole the soul from our food?

I'm often reminded by my neighbor and organic farmer Eliot Coleman that the best cuisines in the world have all come from peasant cultures. It's not a difficult conclusion to come to if one recognizes that all throughout history the responsibility of growing, preparing, and cooking food has fallen on the poor, the peasants, and the working class. Using what was available, which usually meant what was grown locally and seasonally, our ancestors transformed what they had into wonderful and nourishing foods. Dinner wasn't the only thing coming out of those kitchens; rituals, traditions, and cultures were created, too.

While here in America we are still burdened by an underclass of farmers and food workers, the modern day serfs, slaves, and peasants, it is hard to compare the food that has come to dominate the American landscape to the food of Italy, Thailand, Mexico, or just about any other nation on earth that still has food traditions intact. For the first time in the history of our civilization, people who are connected to the land and sea for their livelihood are no longer the creators of food culture and tradition. Whereas diet was once determined by what the land and sea produced, food in America today is determined by what can be produced cheapest, in the highest quantity, and that can be packed so full of artificial ingredients that it can be shipped thousands of miles and stored for weeks, months, or even years. Worldwide, cultures built upon fresh, nourishing food are being replaced by an extractive industrial food system that is based on the narrow values of progress, efficiency, and profit.

Here in Maine this is clear as day. One-hundred-and-fifty-years ago Maine was the breadbasket of northern New England, providing a diverse range of plant and animal foods for its citizens and sending surplus to the markets of Portsmouth and Boston. Maine was even self-sufficient in sugar, producing maple and beet sugars. But like so many agricultural nations and states around the world, concentrated agribusiness and fast food culture has relegated Maine to an exporter of commodities and luxury goods and an importer of basic essentials.

But the tide it turning. Organizations and groups like Food for Maine's Future and Slow Food are reclaiming a culture of food built upon economic fairness, ecological sanity, and good taste. At the grassroots, farmers, fishers, activists, and consumers are coming together to create food independence and food /interdependence./ Because in the end, we are all stakeholders in our food system, good or bad. We are all eaters.

And in the halls of the Maine state house, the Protect Maine Farmer's campaign is working hard to represent concerned Maine citizens who believe it is the role of our state government to recognize and protect Maine's agricultural heritage and legacy, and to ensure that Maine's food producers will have the tools they need to succeed in the decades to come.

The soul food train is leaving the station and we've got an eclectic band of people from all walks of life who value what they eat, care about where it came for, and respect the people, the land, and the sea that produced it. There's plenty of room and the food is great. /All aboard!

Bob St.Peter is the executive director of The Good Life Center at Forest Farm in Harborside, Maine, the last home of pioneering homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing.

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