by Elliot Brinkman, Executive Director of Prairie Rivers Network
I remember the feeling well–it sat in the pit of my stomach, somewhere between dread and panic.
I’m sure many of you felt it, too, when, in early spring, you arrived at the grocery store to find aisles packed with people, and once fully-stocked shelves decimated. Basic necessities like bread, flour, milk, and oil were either completely gone or in short supply. Yet meanwhile, heartbreaking reports came in from across the country about farmers dumping millions of gallons of milk and destroying thousands of acres of crops because demand for their products had evaporated overnight. The fragility of our food system was suddenly on full display in a way that hadn’t been seen for nearly a century.
As an environmental advocate, I often talk about the need for a healthier food system–one that restores soil health, protects water quality, and provides healthy, nutritious food for our communities. Over the years, I have been grateful for the ability to visit my local farmers markets to pick up fresh, locally-produced food from friendly, familiar faces. It is a weekly ritual I’ve come to deeply value and appreciate. So, at one level I’ve understood that resilient local food systems are important, but when COVID hit, I felt it in my bones.
And yet, during a time of crisis and pain came an unexpected ray of light. Over the past several months, my family and I have become much more connected to the food we eat. In the early days of the pandemic, there was uncertainty around food availability, and much was still unknown about the risks of actually going into the grocery store. This forced us to contemplate how we would feed ourselves if the situation continued, or got worse. So we looked closer to home and ended up buying our first ever CSA share.
Participating in a CSA was something we always wanted to do, but this year we felt it was something we needed to do. We couldn’t have been happier with our decision and all its attendant benefits. First and foremost, we had a degree of certainty in an otherwise uncertain world. No matter what, we knew that each week we could count on a healthy supply of local, fresh fruits and vegetables making its way into our kitchen. This fact alone was worth the price of admission, but there were so many other positives.
The CSA offered stability and consistency in another way, as well–we started to place more value on how we plan and prepare our meals. We found ourselves planning around the variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs we got each week, ensuring that nothing went to waste. We got creative, regularly trying new recipes to add variety to our familiar favorites like cabbage and zucchini, while also incorporating some of the less familiar items like Asian chives and bok choy flowers. Once mundane lunches became colorful culinary adventures. While variety was on the menu, consistency came in the form of regularly planning and preparing healthy, nutritious meals. Something about it just felt good.
Our first foray into the world of CSA connected us to our food, for sure. But in a way, it also connected us to our community. It has been easy to feel disconnected from others during this time. Something seemingly as minor as visiting our farmer every week, and seeing many others doing the same gave us a sense of place and belonging. Our food was being grown and harvested with loving care by a person in our community. We were individually and collectively benefiting from and supporting this endeavor. It felt natural and right–we were connected to something important, something real.
This year, with more time on our hands and nowhere to be, we also got more into producing our own food. Many a summer day was devoted to tending our small vegetable garden while our two young daughters pulled weeds and snacked on raspberries and tomatoes as they went along. We have always had a garden, and have always wanted it to do well, but this year we found ourselves more invested in its success. If participating in the CSA made us feel connected to our community, then growing our own food gave us some small sense of self-reliance and pride.
While there have been many challenges this year, and surely there are many more to come, my family and I have much for which we are grateful. We are more connected to our food than ever before, a connection that will grow stronger for years to come. We are grateful for the food that arrives at our table, whether it comes from a local farm or from our very own backyard. We are grateful for the folks who grow, harvest, process, and sell it. Participating in a CSA and sourcing local food will continue to be a priority for us.
And finally, we are extremely grateful for organizations like The Land Connection, whose work ensures that it doesn’t take a pandemic to get folks connected to their food, and to their communities.