One Hundred Meals: building community at America’s table

A few weeks back, a beloved dairy was considering using GMO corn to feed their cows. (They were considering, that’s it. Not doing. Just rolling around the idea of doing. So don’t get all crazy that I bring this up again. I have a reason.)

Anyway, this farm’s milk is the milk I drink every day. The milk I go out of my way to buy. I go out of my way because I believe the dairy to be clean — To be making milk that is just milk, from cows who can be cows and not mini-production facilities here to serve man.

And when I hear the news, well, I felt like my carefully curated world of food was collapsing; when I am able to choose what I eat, I care that deeply about what I choose. Food, frankly, often scares the crap out of me more than it delights me. The landmines of industrial beef I would to face at dinner with friends, the tuna of murky origin that filled the sandwich I bought when I was out of the house and hungry, the whole meal of food I needed to finish when I ate a restaurant where I didn’t — really — know the chef. But I felt he was watching my plates to see what I didn’t finish.

And over time, my phobias have grown with every beef recall, every peanut scare, every news explosion about pink slime or the horrors of “polluted” industrial organic food.  It’s no wonder, really, that I have a blog called “backyarditarian.” I really, mostly, like to just stick to what I grow.

Fast forward to nowish and lo, I am knee deep in a new world.

I’m chatting with folks who are experimenting with half GMO corn in their field this year because the corn borer just might be extra virilent this year, since winter wasn’t winter at all. You know, I can’t blame the guy. Really.

I am in discussions with an industrial dairy man about why I can’t get raw milk. He talks about safety. I respond that hormones don’t feel like an industry concerned about safety. We’re hashing it out.

And I am in a bizarrely frustrating discussion with the guy I now refer to as the Gordon Gekko of Meat. It is, really, the first time I am at close range with the mentality of money and profits that drive industrial agriculture. I’m asking a lot of questions. He doesn’t seem to be answering. I am sure he has something useful to teach me and I’ll keep needling him until he starts fessing up.

All of that is a long way of sharing what I really learned in the last few weeks: We are so busy digging trenches for the war that we are forgetting that food is about community. In the process, we ignore and sidestep the kind of progress that could lead to real change. For all of us.

Because change is going to come from us, banding together. Not faceless corporations spontaneously transforming from greed to good like Ebenezer Scrooge. Not the government, not ever will it be the government, I dare say. It has to be us.

So this is the crazy (I can’t believe he agreed to it) project that we, Grant Kessler and I, are going to mount:

One Hundred Meals:  building community at America’s table

Here’s our idea:

Grant and I are going to embark on a project to explore farms and tables with one hundred meals. Some big meals. Probably some meals that are sorta just snacks because there wasn’t time for much else. All sorts of meals at all sorts of farms and around all sorts of tables.

Part of the name came from the 100-mile trend a few years back — which you either consider a trendy frivolity or a serious attempt to take control of one’s food supply. To me, that is the foodie side of the equation.

The other part of the name comes from the growing season — the give or take 100 days that farmers here in the heart of the country have to grow crops. That’s the farmer side of the equation.

We’d like to tie the two sides together with some integrity and open dialog. So, as we go along, we’ll encourage everyone to share their questions and concerns so we can pass them along. And, since we are a community and not just two people doing this, we hope you’ll chime in often.

There will be hard questions, though I promised Grant that I will attempt to keep my emotions in check. There will be the chance to learn that everyone involved in food, really, is a person with a story and a dream. Since Grant is such a talented photographer, there will be lots of great pictures. And since we both want to explore food outside our comfort zone, there will be lots of stuff that may surprise all of us.

I read a lot about food, food policy, exposés about slaughterhouses and the realities of the USDA. So, yes, I am informed. But if there is one thing I have learned in the last 5 days or so it is that I am really scarily ignorant. We all are —  because our divisions are strong and strident and leave no room to learn.

I guess in our own way, Grant and I are hoping to see if there is a bridge or two we can build, somewhere, if we approach this openly.

So, despite our radicalness or fanatical tendencies or zealotry, we’re both deciding it is time to open up and learn. To find new sources for information and discussion. To listen a bit to the other side and see where they are coming from — and why.

To, well, become more a part of the community, instead of just our community.

I doubt I’ll come out the other side of this project with some GMO seeds in my pocket to plant in my own garden. But maybe I’ll stop hating the guy who decides that, after last “winter,” half a field  of GMO might be the only way he can hope to grow anything. Maybe, too, I’ll develop some compassion for that Ohio pork farmer mom who, of course, deserves an honest hearing of her views.

The 1,000,00 chicken lady. Wow. Well, I can only hope we can at least figure out what makes each other tick, even if, in the end, we agree to disagree. (At the breakfast, I couldn’t even agree to that — to disagreeing with her. In retrospect, I can’t even understand what that meant!)

Because you  know, for most of us, everything we read and every conversation we have tends to support everything we already believe. It’s great, don’t get me wrong, to be right all the time. But, well, maybe finding out where you are wrong can make the new  right that much, well, rightier.

I suppose we both, Grant and I, would like to explore our food shed, for a time, in the spirit of the Nash Equilibrium — an expression of game theory where, in order to win, each person in food needs to make choices that contribute to everyone’s welfare.

After all, food is not a zero sum game. We either all win or, frankly, we are all going to lose.

36 thoughts on “One Hundred Meals: building community at America’s table

  1. raylindairy April 2, 2012 at 7:45 pm Reply

    Simply awesome…

  2. Natasha April 2, 2012 at 7:49 pm Reply

    I think this sounds like a really good and smart idea. I’ve been wondering, myself, how to learn more about all of it. I hope you two get a lot out of it and share. I hope the people you will/may eat with (like Kate from yesterday, the hog farmer – I’ve been lurking and learning in the comments) do as well, and I hope they share.

    I’m fascinated and look forward to learning yet more, including how you plan to execute this idea. Thanks.

  3. Mike Haley April 2, 2012 at 7:50 pm Reply

    Loved reading this! Hope to see positive things happen as discussion moves forward.

  4. Brian April 2, 2012 at 8:03 pm Reply

    Good to hear! Love to see people with seemingly opposing views on food try to understand why one thinks the way they do.

  5. Janice Wolfinger April 2, 2012 at 8:10 pm Reply

    I am excited for your and Grants’ Agriculture vacations. It will make me happy that you have the experience. I look forward to reading about your adventures. I hope you are able to meet some small town chefs along the way also. ps agree to disagree means: I don’t agree with what you are saying however I have the respect to accept you don’t agree with my view.

  6. Kristin Root Reese April 2, 2012 at 8:18 pm Reply

    Ellen,
    This sounds like a very facinating project! I look forward to hearing more about how you are going to kick start this adventure.

  7. commonsenseagriculture April 2, 2012 at 9:07 pm Reply

    Love the project Ellen. I look forward to seeing the final product. Outstanding!

  8. elliecm April 2, 2012 at 10:01 pm Reply

    Thanks for the support, folks. It has been an interesting journey to plumb the depths of my ignorance. But I’ve had some kind and generous teachers … some people who don’t even know that they made an impact. Some day, I hope I get the chance to look them in the eye and say thanks.

  9. The Chinese Mom April 2, 2012 at 10:28 pm Reply

    Fantastic!

  10. pointsnfigures April 2, 2012 at 11:07 pm Reply

    “And I am in a bizarrely frustrating discussion with the guy I now refer to as the Gordon Gekko of Meat. It is, really, the first time I am at close range with the mentality of money and profits that drive industrial agriculture. I’m asking a lot of questions. He doesn’t seem to be answering. I am sure he has something useful to teach me and I’ll keep needling him until he starts fessing up.”

    Actually, I and a few other commenters answered your questions. You didn’t agree with, or didn’t like the answers we gave. That’s not avoiding them.

    What we said is there should be choice. In your GMO milk example, if that producer wants to use GMO corn, they can. The downside for them is they lose you as a customer. If enough people care about cows being fed GMO corn, it’s a plus for them. If no one cares, then they are layering on unneeded costs.

    I don’t buy the argument that GMO crops are bad for you. So we disagree.
    There is no settled science on that.

    It’s about ending subsidies, ending layers of regulation, transparency for consumers and choice. Not everyone has the same preferences.

    • elliecm April 3, 2012 at 2:56 am Reply

      Thanks for reading, Jeff.

      My unanswered question, actually, is: you say it is “bad” when the few choose for the many and yet you “don’t mind” consolidation, which results in the few choosing for the many – which is it?

      I have lots more questions. And I think we should have a meal and I’ll ask ‘em. You’ll have to give me a top line of Coase, since i won’t be able to read it before lunch – the book costs too much for me to buy right now.

      I hope you’re in. You can give us whack jobs a good lesson in economics. We’ll be there to learn.

  11. pointsnfigures April 3, 2012 at 10:05 am Reply

    http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/coase.htm You won’t need a book on Coase. Here is an academic take on him.

    You are mixing metaphors.

    Monopolies don’t really matter. Especially in food. The market is competitive. Does it matter to you if Tyson is vertically integrated? No, you choose not to buy your chicken there. Tyson serves its customers.

    Does it matter if the government says Tyson or the small producer has to go out of business, or they regulate, tax them out of business. You bet it does. Or, if a small devoted part of the market (non-GMO only organic eaters) determines for the rest of the market what’s should be produced or sold-yeah that matters A LOT.

    Would it bother you if organic operators were vertically integrated? Would it bug you if they did that to lower costs to make organic food cheaper and available to more people? Wouldn’t bother me. I can purchase food online, at a farmer’s market, at a grocer almost anywhere.

    Does it increase my transactions costs via the time and energy to find it, maybe go get it, etc? And the cost of the actual good? It probably does, but I am free to choose that behavior.

    That’s one principle reason I hate to see raw milk people get shafted by the government. They ought to have that choice.

    • elliecm April 3, 2012 at 10:19 am Reply

      JEFF! YOU ANSWERED MY QUESTION! Thanks!

      You have a super good point there about the vertical integration of (you call organic, I call sustainable) farmers. I am not sure if they can vertically integrate so I think we need to start there because for your point to have a point, it needs to actually be something more than just a hypothetical question. So, I’ll think on that and get back to you.

      Not sure how I am mixing metaphors but if I look at it in a black and white fashion, I can begin to see what you are saying about it being people buying the chicken that prompts Tyson to manufacture more chicken. It just doesn’t much feel like choice — and possibly that is where the government comes in because, say when Obama allows the FDA to ignore a petition to label food, I don’t feel like any of us are getting to choose.

      I won’t toss out my next question as I am going to still gun for that meal. We need you in this project, Jeff, if just for the time it takes to eat one sandwich.

      P.S. thanks for the link. $75! I don’t have that kind of crazy cash to toss around.

  12. Pat Butkus April 3, 2012 at 10:22 am Reply

    Good luck to you and Grant on this project – it’s a good one. I hope you approach this with one of the outcomes to be a book with photos, stories and statistics. I can see this type of study being used (or should be used) as a model for other geographic regions in this country or possible abroad to document a snapshot of the local food supply in 2012. This project will supply the benchmark; like a local food census. Imagine if you had a study from 2002 for comparison purposes. Happy to help wherever needed.

    Pat Butkus

    • elliecm April 3, 2012 at 10:45 am Reply

      Thanks, Pat! Will keep you posted for sure. It is interesting, our first outing will be at and urban project, Soup & Bread (http://www.agatepublishing.com/book/?GCOI=93284100140700), which is about building community through soup. Since it is urban, it makes me first think that we need to at least look at the topic of Food Deserts. Not to solve anything, not to understand it in any meaningful way, but as a way to start. They are there. Let’s open the book and start learning. And maybe as we weave our way through the project, remember that the urban community is mine and Grant’s community and we have to face what is here, where we live. I dunno, maybe we’ll do another Soup & Bread follow up when we are done. To touch base and loop it back.

      I bring this up because, of course, yours was the first real question on this comment string: what about the people who can’t afford anything more than the cheapest that is out there, delivered the most convenient way possible. It is interesting, then, that our first meal with deal with the urban environment — not the only home — but certainly the densest population — of hungry people.

      • Natasha April 3, 2012 at 11:17 am

        Ellen, what/who are you thinking about talk with at S&B with regards to food deserts/food insecurity? Do you know yet?

        It’s an endlessly fascinating topic to me, and I know there are a number of really focused people who might have views to consider on it, so I’m always curious to know more.

      • elliecm April 3, 2012 at 11:30 am

        Natasha… I sorta have no idea yet. I don’t think I am talking about it at S&B. Just serving soup, as far as I know.

        But I am just rolling around ideas for myself.
        Such is me… I tend to bring my cart to the show before I even buy a horse! I wrote a bit here. And would of course love to discuss.

      • Natasha April 3, 2012 at 11:51 am

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re not looking to “speak” (like speech-making) at any of these events, right? You’re looking for discussion with a variety of folks, is the impression I’m getting.

        Anyway, I’ll admit I don’t know how the S&B events work – I only learned of them about a month ago. Or even how you & Grant are thinking of doing all these 100 meals. So maybe inviting people isn’t the thing. That is how I read what was going on though.

        In any case, super fascinating.

      • elliecm April 3, 2012 at 12:33 pm

        Good to know. I think if there is a speech part, we’ll just be talking about the project goals with some ideas of what kinds of things we’ll be wanting to do. Not my personal ramblings about what the event of soup and bread meets one hundred meals means to me.

        In the event that we ARE doing a speechy thing. THANKS for giving me a heads up!

  13. Jody Osmund April 3, 2012 at 10:31 am Reply

    Ellen,
    Let me know if I can help!

    Best,

    Jody

  14. SlowMoneyFarm April 3, 2012 at 11:23 am Reply

    Sounds like an interesting venture! We all have food choices – some of us grow them. Elimination means no choice, even if it’s a choice you or I wouldn’t make, it might be the best choice for someone else. Appreciate this post. No fear is good!

  15. Meagan Cramer (@TripleMs) April 4, 2012 at 9:29 am Reply

    OH Wow! You rock! What a great idea!

  16. Warren Parker (@ksfarmgrown) April 4, 2012 at 10:10 am Reply

    This is a great project! I look forward to following the progress. This is exactly what’s needed to foster more understanding for everyone.

  17. Suzie Brasher Wilde April 4, 2012 at 11:32 am Reply

    Only great things can come from such a project. I crave more information and this will bring that information to all of us.

  18. Linda April 4, 2012 at 12:01 pm Reply

    I’ve been struggling to keep up with the amount of discussion going on, but I’m doing my best. I don’t want to muddy the waters, but I often wonder why the issues of keeping food costs low keeps coming up in discussions around industrial agriculture. Why is that so important? Why is it a horrible thing to pay more for food than we do now? If food costs go up, couldn’t that push people to be more engaged in understanding the reasons behind food costs? Couldn’t it also get people more engaged in trying to produce their own food, whether that means growing food in their backyards or buying more whole foods and learning how to cook them? (Of course people could always choose to not engage with their food and just pay more for food, too.) What’s so horrible about being more invested and engaged around the stuff that we put in our bodies every day?

    What am I supposed to spend money on besides food? Clothes and electronics made in other countries? How does that help build the economy in the U.S.? These things confuse me, too, and I hope to learn more through your experiences.

    • Mike Haley April 4, 2012 at 2:42 pm Reply

      Hi Linda! I think there are several reasons for this beyond the reasons we always hear about growing population, people starving, blah blah…

      The fact is people are starving, in America it’s not really an availability problems as much as a distribution and financial issue. Let’s look at what us in ag see, food banks and shelters have continuously reached out to us with heartbreaking stories of how families can not afford to buy nutritional meals.

      Not getting into the whole “whatis the true cost of food ” debate as that’s a whole discussion in itself and muddies the waters a bit. What I want not say instead is the individual’s advocating for affordable food have done a great job at sharing their concerns with us in a way that we were able to connect. I will aregue that we need to make sure that families are able to afford their food. However we also have to make sure that we listen to others who want more from their food than just a value. Make sure that we in agriculture and the food system are doing everything we can to provide them with those options they desire.

      • elliecm April 4, 2012 at 3:51 pm

        I got some books on order to start educating myself a bit about hunger in america. Our first “meal” for our One Hundred Meal project is in a urban environment, our home, and I thought that while it is not the “gist” of the project that if I could at least get a little learnin’ done about hunger in America and not just “assume I have facts” but actually get some, it would be a good place for me, personally, to start. I think the realities of hunger and food distribution is a CORE foundation of understanding our food supply. So. I am starting there!

        Thanks for sharing the perspective Mike.

  19. […] common ground and mutual respect for other’s thoughts.  With open and honest conversation these stereotypes do begin to degrade and that helps the entire […]

  20. […]  This week, she and Grant Kessler, a friend of the Beet, announced their intention of “One Hundred Meals – Building Community at America’s Table” which sounds like quite an eating […]

  21. Linda April 5, 2012 at 9:59 am Reply

    OK, I realize that not everyone can afford to eat enough to prevent hunger, much less eat well for better overall health. I’m not sure this is completely an agriculture/food issue, though. People who work on these issues often refer to is as “food justice” because it’s about more than just food. The equation isn’t as simple as just producing cheap food. Folks should be able to earn enough money to buy food to feed their families, right? (Or perhaps have the resources to grown their own food, too.) Trying to foist the entire fix for hungry people on to industrial scale agricultural production seems to be a losing approach. We haven’t made it work in the 40+ years we’ve been focusing on the production of cheap food. What makes it likely we’ll get it right over the next 40+ years?

  22. Grant Kessler April 5, 2012 at 10:45 am Reply

    Linda, it’s great to have your voice here. I, like Ellen, need to read more on hunger, perhaps, but in the meantime let me also say this. I respect and am wide open to Mike, but when his solution argues that huge volumes of corn-based food (nearly everything in the convenience stores, gas stations and fast food joints of the food deserts) is a solution, assuming decent distribution, I disagree. That is just not working as healthy food – look around at the obesity, heart disease, diabetes, allergies! When need to teach people to buy and eat whole foods, which are nutritionally dense. We need to grow more of that and we need to find growing and distribution methods that get it to people at a price they can afford.

    And as to “what they can afford”, I agree we all can learn to spend something more on the only body we have. It is surely more important than the latest gadget or new shoes. But there are also ways to buy and eat that save money – eating less meat, for one.

    I will now reach out to Mari Gallagher in the hopes she’ll chime in on this conversation – she knows about food deserts!

  23. The Discomfort Zone « My Foodshed April 9, 2012 at 2:45 pm Reply

    […] [For Ellen's description of the One Hundred Meals project, read here: One Hundred Meals.] […]

  24. […] I wrote on Backyarditarian.com, we both, Grant and I, would like to explore our food shed, for a time, in the spirit of the Nash […]

  25. […] woman who is truly living the locavore life, Ellen Malloy who have announced their project, “One Hundred Meals- Building Community at America’s Tables” What is it? You’ll have to go to Ellen’s blog but here is a very brief […]

  26. […] I wrote on Backyarditarian.com, we both, Grant and I, would like to explore our food shed, for a time, in the spirit of the Nash […]

  27. […] I wrote on Backyarditarian.com, we both, Grant and I, would like to explore our food shed, for a time, in the spirit of the Nash […]

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