Hearing other people’s stories

Clear blue skyI am sitting at a tram stop on a sunny Sunday morning, reading a book, when he approaches me.

Excuse me, he says, which tram do I take to get to Bridge Road?

From here, I tell him, you can catch the number 75 tram. I’m catching that tram too.

He sits near to me on the cold metal seat and tells me he’s going to a church on Bridge Road, because his usual church is closed today. He is a thin man, probably in his forties. His face has softened around various piercings—two in his eyebrows, one in his lip. His lips are large and soft and seem occasionally to get in the way of his speech. His eyes are blue and clear.

He hasn’t been home since last night, he says. I smile. But what he says next surprises me. He hasn’t been home because last night he found his housemate dead and now he can’t face the house.

His face falters as he tells me this.

They tried to make me go home, he says, but I couldn’t. Could you?

No, I say. And I’m really sorry to hear that’s happened. I don’t know who he means by ‘they’ but I don’t ask.

He is on his way to the church on Bridge Road because a friend of his is the minister there, and he’s hoping she’ll be able to offer him some support.

The tram comes and we both get on. He tells me about his night, about how various Melbourne hospitals refused to help him, about how his Dad refused to let him stay, even knowing what happened. He tells me about his troubles with depression and suicidal thoughts. That the only person he knows who offered him a place to sleep is someone he doesn’t trust.

The book I was reading when he interrupted me at the tram stop was Hugh Mackay’s ‘The Good Life’, about how to lead a life that is morally good. My life, of course, like everyone’s, is full of moments where I fail at this, where I could be better. This man, I am absolutely sure, comes across many people in his day-to-day life who fail at being good in the moments they are interacting with him. I can see it in his face. He probably fails at this too. Years ago a friend told me that she thought I attracted more than my fair share of crazies, and certainly my interaction with this man is not a particularly unusual occurrence in my life. But I wonder whether it’s less that people with issues are attracted to me and more that, for better or worse, I find it difficult to turn away in that first moment of eye contact.

Suddenly it is my stop. I wish him good luck, say that I hope his friend can help him. He tells me he hopes I have a good day. I wonder to myself how his life will play out from here, whether he will get the help he needs. I wonder what series of events in his life lead him to here, telling a complete stranger on a tram the story of an awful night in his life. I step out into the sunshine, but the image of the clear blue eyes in his troubled face stays with me.

Sustainable Table and Meat Free Week

There’s been a bit of radio silence from me here lately. I’ve started a new job, writing for this website, and it’s taking up a lot of my time (four full days, to be precise). I’m also teaching some yoga classes and working on some freelance projects.

My first two weeks at work were a bit of a blur, as I tried to get used to a new routine (working any kind of regular hours is very different to the all-over-the-place hours I’ve kept for the last few years teaching yoga full time!), but I finally feel like I’m settling into it a little bit.

Anyway. To get to my point. Because I’m writing for a food news website, I come across all sorts of food-related news every day. The website has a particular focus (as it should), which means that not all of what comes across my desk is necessarily appropriate for that publication. But I feel like some of it is relevant to my freelance work, and to what I sometimes write about here, so I’m going to start posting some of that stuff here.

Starting now.

Just today I got an email from Sustainable Table, who, among other things, produce very beautiful cookbooks.

From their website:

Sustainable Table uses food as an entrée to explore sustainability issues. With up to 60% of our eco-footprint embodied in the food that we buy there is no better place to start.

They’re getting behind Meat Free Week, which will run next week, 18-24 March, by putting out a free meat free cookbook.

I’ll point out now that this post is not in any way sponsored by Sustainable Table (or any other organisation), I just like what they do and think this is a worthwhile venture.

I should also point out that I’m mostly vegetarian, but that my promoting this is in no way a push for other people to make that particular dietary choice forever. However, as Sustainable Table quite rightly point out, there’s a lot of research that suggests that we all need to eat less meat for a whole host of reasons, and I think this kind of awareness-raising week is a good way to experiment a little with what we put in our mouths.

“We need to think about [how much meat we eat] because as a nation we’re consuming way too much,” say Sustainable Table. “Even the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare agrees – the latest Australian Dietary Guidelines stress that we need to halve our meat consumption immediately. The amount of meat we are eating annually – 120kg per person or 190,000 tonnes nationally – is putting pressure on our environment and our farmers. Carbon, nitrogen and methane emissions, water use and ethically-questionable intensive farming practices result.”

The idea of eating less meat (let alone no meat) can be a bit overwhelming. I know it was for me when I first went vego many years ago. The idea behind the free recipe book is to take some of the guesswork out of meat-free eating. The book is designed to cover all meals for a week, which I reckon is rather useful — especially if meat-free eating is a new thing for you.

You can get all the information about Meat Free Week and download your FREE copy of the recipe booklet by clicking the image below:

A Meat Free Week booklet

Sustainable Table are also running a competition during the week. Share your photos of the meat free recipes you cook from our booklet and be in with a chance to win a copy of their book The Sustainable Table, valued at $40. (I got a copy of this book for my birthday last year, and it’s beautiful.)

More information about the competition is can be found here.

Meat Free Week has been organised by animal rights advocacy group, Voiceless.

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And don’t worry, I’ll still be writing my usual rambling posts as often as I can.

Food reading: The People’s Food Plan

I’ve spent many hours over the last year reading food plans from different countries, trying to get a sense of how we feed ourselves, and the problems with how we do that. Earlier in the year, the Australian government put out a green paper to inform a national food plan. I’m still working through that report in detail (it’s some 200 pages long), but there’s already been quite a response to it elsewhere (here, here and here), and the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance has put together a discussion paper for a People’s Food Plan as an alternative.

The language difference between the two papers is stark. The government report, as is to be expected, I suppose, is rather dry reading. The facts are interesting, but the language is business language — and much of the criticism of this report has suggested that it’s too business focused. There’s quite a lot in the report that isn’t related to business, but I do agree that its overall focus is problematic. Business, and the economy, are only part of what’s affected by food. The People’s Food Plan discussion paper uses more emotive language, which might be criticised by business folk, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to talk that way about food. Most of us have an emotional relationship with food, in one way or another — it’s often how we socialise, and our food choices are often highly emotion, even if we’re not always aware of it.

A week or so ago, I went to the first of a series of events put on by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestries (DAFF), which they’re calling AgTalks. The session I went to was discussion around the topic “Australians don’t care where their food comes from, as long as it’s cheap and looks good.” The event was chaired by Cameron Wilson, from ABC Radio National’s Bush Telegraph program (and an edited version of the event was broadcast on that show — you can listen to the podcast here), and on the panel were representatives from across the food industry. Interestingly, the panel did not include any farmers, or at least no farmers who didn’t have a vested interest in an industry organisation. Wilson had a number of questions for the panel to consider, but he also threw to the audience and to Twitter (#agtalks) for questions.

Something that bothered me about some of the questions, and about some of the responses from the panel, was the underlying assumption that there is an easy or simple answer to any of the problems that run deep in our food system. I should note that not everyone seemed to be working on this assumption, but it was something that came up frequently. The idea that ‘everyone should just shop at farmers’ markets’ (and I’m definitely paraphrasing here — those exact words were not actually uttered) really irks me. Not everyone has access to farmers’ markets (or organic food, or even fresh food), be that because they can’t afford it, or because it actually just isn’t available anywhere near them. To offer that as a solution just shuts down discussion — very important discussion. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for farmers’ markets, all for organic and sustainably-grown food, and I certainly think the cost of that kind of food is a more accurate indication of what it actually costs to produce good food. I just think reality of supply is a little more complicated. Supply isn’t just about quantity. It’s also about distribution and access. And the more research I do into food in Australia, the more I come to see that we really must look at food as an inherently social problem, as well as seeing it as an economic and environmental problem.

Which brings me back to a quote from The People’s Food Plan discussion draft: “Being essential to life, food systems must be life-sustaining and life-enhancing.” I would add that it needs to be that for all people. I’ll be watching the development of this plan with great interest, hoping that the social issues that surround access to food are considered carefully and thoughtfully.

Thinking About Waste

One of the topic areas I’m researching and writing about at the moment is waste: what it is, what it means, what affect it has on us and the world around us, and what it says about how we relate to the world around us.

I’ve been reading the Milkwood Permaculture blog for several years now, on and off. Recently I worked my way through a big backlog of posts (I’m not exactly consistent in my reading habits) and came across this fantastic video, where Milkwood‘s Nick Ritar discusses the problems with how we deal with our own biological waste.

His point that much of the obstacle is in our own minds is so true. The house I grew up in was in the middle of an acre of land, and we weren’t connected to the town sewerage. We had a sewerage tank instead, and at some point Mum and Dad connected a hose and sprinkler to it, so when the tank was full, it would pump the treated effluent onto the grass or gardens. Perhaps naturally, we called it the Poo Sprinkler, and usually ganged up on Dad when it needed to be moved around the yard (sorry Dad). So it’s probable that my own level of disgust at these things is a little lower than it might be for most, but I still found myself having to get beyond some revulsion while watching Ritar’s talk.

Obviously, the revulsion or disgust is not an entirely unhelpful reaction — our waste mostly needs to be treated in some way before it’s safe to use. But, as this talk very rightly points out, if that revulsion leads to us just wanting to get the stuff as far away from us as possible, it’s not really very helpful at all in the long run. Not recognising ourselves and our waste as part of some larger system is part of why we’re facing the localised environmental and broader climate issues that we are.

Ritar, of course, makes a much more compelling argument than I do. The video is definitely worth watching.

Food reading: food & feeling rushed

“Feeling rushed is… an important component of our economy; it causes people to buy more, pay, try more things and more means to compensate for the stress, or at least to alleviate the anxiety. It also makes us work harder and longer — and therefore leave ourselves less time… We eat out or buy ready-prepared food to eat at home in order to save time, but also — and more insidiously — because we feel we have no time to do otherwise. Many of us never really learn to cook, and therefore cooking remains not only time-consuming but unrewarding.” (Margaret Visser in Huntley, page 175)

I came across this quote from Margaret Visser in Rebecca Huntley’s book Eating Between the Lines: food & equality in Australia.

I’ve also recently been reading Charlotte Wood’s Love & Hunger, and the contrast between this general observation of society and Wood’s own experiences with cooking is stark.

“At the same time as I am freed from the past & the future [when cooking]… in some subtle but definite way I am also connected, at least once in every mealtime, to a cycle of life greater and more permanent than my own.” (Love & Hunger, page 6)

For Wood, not only is cooking a way of slowing down that rushed feeling, but it’s a way of being aware of the life of the rest of the world. My own experience of cooking—and especially of cooking food that I’ve grown myself—is similar. Feeling disconnected, I think, is a few steps down the path towards feeling isolated. It saddens me to think that some people don’t have that sense of connection with other living things, at least some of the time, when they cook.

I’m aware of how namby-pamby that might sound in writing. But while a sense of separate self is important for human wellbeing, so is a sense of belonging somewhere. Food, surely, is one of the simplest ways of seeing that we belong somewhere—that we exist within a web of complicated relationships (in nature or otherwise).

The contrast between these two books, especially read in succession, the way that I have read them, really highlights the experiences people have of feeling so disconnected on such a basic level. I’m also making my way slowly through the government’s green paper for the development of a National Food Plan, and comparing it to similar approaches in the UK and Canada. Unfortunately, it’s mainly making me nervous.

On a positive note though, in response to the green paper, there are moves to make a People’s Food Plan, which hopefully will bring social and environmental concerns to the fore—or at least put them on equal terms with economic concerns. It’ll be interesting to see what shape the plan takes.

Wendell Berry on industrialisation

“Like the rest of us, farmers have believed that they might safely live a life prescribed by the advertisers of products, rather than the life required by fundamental human necessities and responsibilities.” (A Defence of the Family Farm, 1986)

Quite apart from the point he’s making about industrialising agriculture, what I love most about this quote is how it exemplifies Berry’s ability to take a very specific issue (the one about industrial agriculture) and fits that into a much broader social context. His essays do this as part of their overall structure, and as part of the smaller structures (sections, paragraphs, sentences) within that.

Another example:

“An economic program that encourages the unlimited growth of individual holdings not only anticipates but actively proposes the failure of many people… It is a fact, I believe, that many people have now lost their farms and are out of farming who would still be in place had they been willing for their neighbours to survive along with themselves.” (A Defence of the Family Farm, 1986)

I’m in awe of his use of language and structure. Brilliant.

A post script on supporting farmers

Given that I’m reading Wendell Berry’s arguments for appropriately supporting the people who grow our food, I was sad to read this today over at the Youth Food Movement blog:

The Australian Farm Institute released research that found only 28% of Victorian farms made enough profit to support their own families. That’s crazy!

Its even scarier when put like this: 72% of Australian family farms don’t earn enough to support the family on them.

The piece I was quoting yesterday was written in the 80s. How sad that twenty years later it’s still so appropriate an argument.

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Read the full YFM post here.
Unfortunately, access to the full study by the Australian Farm Institute requires a paid membership, but you can read a detailed report on it here.

Food reading: Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems

I couldn’t resist another quote from Wendell Berry:

“In nature death and decay are as necessary—are, one might almost say, as lively—as life; and so nothing is wasted. There really is no such thing, then, as natural production; in nature there is only reproduction.” (from Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems, 1978)

Indeed.

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This essay is from a collection of Berry’s work, entitled Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, which is available on Amazon here. (Full disclosure: I’ve got an affiliate account with them, which means I’ll make a small commission if you purchase the book through that link.)

Food reading: Stupidity in Concentration

I’ve begun reading Wendell Berry, as part of some research that I’m doing, and finding, as Michael Pollan says of him, that his writing makes so clear things that should already be self-evident, and it does so in a way that is “always patient and logical, as plumb and square and scrupulous, as well-planed woodwork”. I could share about a million quotes that demonstrate this, but this one is my favourite so far. He’s writing about the stupidity of factory-farming animals, but the ideas here could apply to all sorts of areas:

“If the people in our state and national governments undertook to evaluate economic enterprises by the standards of long-term economics, they would have to employ their minds in actual thinking. For many of them, this would be a shattering experience, something altogether new, but it would also cause them to learn things and do things that would improve the lives of their constituents.” (from Stupidity in Concentration, 2002)

What I love about Berry’s writing is that he doesn’t forget farmers in his talk of the stupidity of the overall system. While its not universally the case, so much of the criticism of our food system neglects to mention farmers — which, unconsciously I’m sure, serves to lump them in as part of the problem. In fact that problem is the overall business model — which, for the most part is something that’s as much imposed on farmers as it is on the people who eventually eat the food it produces.

“It ought to be obvious that in order to have sustainable agriculture, you have got to make sustainable the lives and livelihoods of the people who do the work. The land cannot thrive if the people who are its users and caretakers do not thrive.” (from Stupidity in Concentration, 2002)

Definitely something worth remembering.

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This essay is from a collection of Berry’s work, entitled Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, which is available on Amazon here. (Full disclosure: I’ve got an affiliate account with them, which means I’ll make a small commission if you purchase the book through that link.)