Long before life coaches began preaching about the health benefits of gratitude and charging to teach “practices” that fit into your 15-step morning wellness routine, my mother taught me to be thankful—especially for food.
I can see her in her garden, her eyes sparkling with delight as she plucks green beans off the stalk to snap between her teeth and pops sun-warmed cherry tomatoes into my mouth. She marvels at how the soil rewarded her for careful planting and diligent watering and urges me to appreciate how my weeding had contributed to the bounty.
We said grace before meals. Food on the plate was eaten, never wasted. If I stubbornly refused to finish my broccoli, I sat alone at an empty dinner table until the last bites were gone. Cooking scraps were revered for their power to transform into the compost that would feed the lettuce and zucchini plants the following year.
We had very little compared to many other families in our town. She clipped coupons, passed over brand names for generics, bought beans instead of meat, and grabbed the bruised apples and blemished peaches the orchard designated “seconds.”
But her steady refrain was, “How lucky we are for all that we have!”
Some of her outlook was due to her personal generosity of spirit and her deep beliefs in the teachings of Jesus. But at least a significant chunk, I think, came from a visceral, internal understanding based on experience: that having enough was not a given. It hadn’t always been, and we were still living a little too close to the edge. If my father’s seizures came back or if the car broke down, we could so quickly be thrown off the cliff into the realm of true need.
Today, my resources may be scant compared to many people surrounding me, but I live miles from that edge. One manifestation of the gratitude she instilled in me is that I make a choice day after day to pay more for food that is usually more inconvenient to find and prepare but that has been produced with care by farmers and makers who prioritize equity and regeneration.
This decision is often interpreted as coming from a place of privilege or as being elitist, because many others don’t have the same option. It’s a compelling point. But how then can I use the power I have, to push back against the exploitation and extraction I witness in the dominant food system, to shift toward models built on gratitude for the people, animals, and planet that sustain us?
A few years ago, a group of activists invited me to report on a section of Maryland’s Eastern Shore where industrial poultry production is concentrated. The tour was organized to build momentum for Maryland state legislation that would measure and regulate air pollution from the windowless barns. I watched as the activists took other environmental advocates who were new to the issue around the farm sites and talked about what life was like for the fast-growing chickens on the inside and for the contract farmers whose profits are gobbled up by Perdue and Tyson. They pointed to the giant fans that blew ammonia and volatile organic compounds out so the birds could breathe. Local residents talked about asthma rates and other chronic health issues in the community that they believed were linked to breathing in those compounds, and pointed out algal blooms as evidence of water pollution in streams flowing towards the Chesapeake Bay. Everyone on the tour seemed shocked and disturbed. They had never seen this version of a farm and couldn’t have pictured it from their apartments in Washington, D.C.
Afterward, the group headed to a local restaurant and ordered lunch, where one of the attendees announced, with mock chagrin, that he was ordering chicken. Everyone laughed.
When I brought up the situation later, the activists said that they all ate meat from the very kinds of operations they were fighting to shut down. Personal food choices, they said, were a distraction from the only thing that really led to meaningful solutions: policy change. We eat what we want and focus on the work; consumer choice doesn’t change things.
Since that conversation, I’ve encountered this argument over and over. We don’t vote with our forks, people explain. We vote with our votes.
But is voting every other year really enough to create the world we want to live in? And how can the personal be divorced from the political when we, the same people, are the citizens, producers, and eaters? If we buy into and fuel a certain system every single time we sit down for a meal, are we not participants in that system? Ask anyone in the chicken industry why they do things the way they do, and they’ll say, “People want cheap chicken.”
Even if you believe that’s just a profit-driven line and most people would be willing to pay a little more for chicken production that minimizes pollution and pays meatpacking workers fairly, the million-dollar question may haunt you: What about people who really can’t afford to pay any more, even if they want to?
These nuances keep me up at night, especially because the other manifestation of the gratitude-based food education my mother gave me is my drive to uncover how people without power are exploited within the food system and the systemic causes of (and solutions to) poverty and food insecurity. If workers were paid more, they would have more money to buy healthier, sustainable food, but would prices then keep going up to keep pace with rising wages?
It’s a complicated picture that I’m trying to understand more fully every day. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m pretty certain that they don’t add up to, “We need chicken to be cheap so poor people can afford it, so let’s just accept all of the negative environmental, animal welfare, and human health impacts until economic policies change.”
Here’s a metaphor: If you believe policies should incentivize or regulate fuel efficiency so that automakers will make more hybrid and electric cars, and so that efficient vehicles will then become more affordable, maybe you vote for the people you think will make that happen, call your senators, and go to a climate march. In the meantime, if you have the means to buy an electric car, do you still go buy the most gas-guzzling tanker you can find?
I doubt it. You probably buy the most fuel-efficient car you can afford. If there’s more demand for those cars, automakers will make more. They’ll have to compete, and costs will likely come down. Even better: Those lawmakers you elected will look at what’s going on in the market and see that constituents want more fuel-efficient cars, and maybe they’ll think, “If I support this, I’ll get re-elected.”
Okay, except in that example the politician is probably being courted (and funded) by Big Oil, but whatever, we’re back to food: If a lawmaker says to a staffer ahead of an election, “What’s going on in my district?” And the staffer says, “Well, three new farmers’ markets opened. and local meat producers are pushing for regional processing because there are wait lists for local, grass-fed beef and pastured chickens,” what message does that send? Maybe, “My constituents want this, so I should propose policies in support of it.”
Still, I wouldn’t sit around waiting. As someone who covers food policy closely, I can tell you firsthand that Congress is a mess. When meaningful legislation actually gets passed, which is rare, changes take an insanely long time to implement. Oftentimes, they’re reversed or rolled back. Corporate influence is everywhere.
Finally, activists also point to the fact that oil companies invented the idea of a “personal carbon footprint” to distract the public from the real issue at hand: We need to stop burning oil and coal. It’s true, they did. But…they thought they could distract us? We’re smarter than that. I’m perfectly capable of installing energy-efficient light bulbs in my house, eating plants and grains regularly and grass-fed beef only on rare occasions to minimize climate impact, and understanding that the only shift that will truly save us is to move away from fossil fuels. My mom and millions of people like her were conserving energy, composting, and planting for pollinators decades before British Petroleum told anyone to “calculate your carbon footprint.”
Believing that everyday choices matter does not mean ignoring what shapes the system. It doesn’t mean judging the choices of others, whether they don’t have resources or just want something different than you do. And it doesn’t equal a life of fretting and deprivation. We can still grab a frozen pizza after a hard day. We can still order crappy mozzarella sticks when we’re drunk. (What, just me?) But for the most part, if we apply our agency, purchasing power, and yes, votes, in concert to make thoughtful choices day after day, I’m pretty sure we’ll get to a place that is better for everyone, regardless of their resources.
How lucky I am that I have the opportunity to tell the stories of farmers who spend years planting and growing trees to shade their grazing animals and absorb carbon, and who use their farms to uproot racism in the food system and seed community food sovereignty.
I express gratitude for the Earth, and for the work of the people who act as stewards of its resources while producing delicious food, by finding and telling their stories and by supporting their work when I sit down to a meal. I grow things according to the space and time I have and look for stories to report that will correct societal inequities that make it impossible for others to do the same.
I don’t do nearly enough, and who knows if it will matter in the end? But it’s something.
In one essay, poet-farmer Wendell Berry writes that many of us—I would add, those of us with resources—don’t recognize how complicit we are in the behavior of corporations selling us food. We designate politicians and corporations as proxy-holders to fix our policies, our food, and environmental crises. It’s no wonder; we are all overworked and overtired. But in his mind, “The trouble with this is that a proper concern for nature and our use of nature must be practiced not by our proxy-holders, but by ourselves.”
My mother embraced that idea intuitively, and she taught me that it’s possible to practice a proper concern for food that protects nature—and its inhabitants—even with very little. For that, I’m grateful.
—Lisa Held is a food and agriculture journalist based in Baltimore.