My History of the American Environment English class met early this morning for breakfast at SELMA’s Cafe to explore our current topic of food politics. Our reading, excerpts of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, supplemented our venture to Ann Arbor’s own local food, community dining.
Every Friday, a house on Ann Arbor’s Old West Side opens as a neighborhood restaurant – SELMA’s Cafe – and hosts breakfast made by local chefs using local farmers’ produce. Donations are accepted for meals, and all profits go towards local organic farming, specifically building hoop houses in the Ann Arbor Area.
We were greeted warmly by the hosts and started the morning with extra hot organic coffee and several strangers’ warm “good morning” tidings. SELMA’s is mostly volunteer run, and they take patrons’ orders, like in a restaurant, and are thrilled to talk about environmental concerns and the joys of eating locally, which appears to be the burgeoning environmental trend.
SELMA’s tackles a pretty political topic–what we eat–and infuses it with a community aspect that offers a format for sustainable local eating. Plus, it’s really good. The dish I ate, Moroccan inspired pancakes with honeyed syrup, served with homemade clotted cream, a walnut garnish, and candied kabocha pumpkin slices, was delicious.
Over our meal, my English Professor led us in a discussion about how we felt about recent environmental politics promoting local, organic eating. I agree it’s a great concept and important for the environment, but I struggle with the dogmatic mantra “I will only eat organically grown food within 20 miles from where I stand.”
I’m a vegetarian. I live in a vegetarian co-op that typically only buys local-organic produce. It should follow that I’m very food conscious, but I’m not all the way there, nor do I think I ever will be. There are aspects of the local food movement that persuade me to prefer the Farmer’s Market or the People’s Food Co-op and shell out the extra dollars they demand for coffee and and produce, but this food movement also often casts judgment, whether intentionally or not, on those who do not.
I don’t think it’s an effective environmental impetus for change to exclude people based on what they choose to eat. Interestingly, food can be a very emotional topic, which typically brings people together, and now seems to do the opposite. Newsweek‘s cover a little while ago was about the “food divide,” where what people ingest and why draws political divides between many communities and even within families.
Myopically focusing on how to only eat locally ignores the importance of smaller personal actions that promote environmental sustainability. The part of Kingsolver’s novel we read told of her mission to eat locally-grown food for an entire year. She happily acknowledges that her family wasn’t 100% successful, but she also pointed out that it didn’t necessarily matter. Her attitude towards food changed; she personally reflected on her own motivations, and she didn’t demand much of the reader in terms of reshaping his or her life. Making smaller personal decisions that are well-thought out often lead to more sustainable change than the “all-or-nothing” approach. Buying fair trade coffee because you want to promote workers’ rights and environmental stewardship will lead to more sustainable environmental consciousness about your interconnectedness with the rest of the world, compared to becoming a vegan because it is the best way to protect the entirety of the environment.
To me, attempting to be conscious of food politics and issues seems to suffice, and I think that SELMA’s Cafe offers a comfortable meeting place for people like me to engage in the local food movement and slowly, consciously change my behavior towards food without demanding that I never set foot in Kroger’s or Meijer’s again.
(Photo by sxc.hu)