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Eating Our Way Home: An Immigrant Family’s Journey For Sustainability

Mixed Cropping at the Smell of the Earth CSA

A little over two years ago, we sold our house in Lexington, Kentucky to come back and settle in India. Me and my husband had spent seven and eleven years respectively in the United States and after years of confusion, vacillation, and endless planning, we finally decided to make the big move. Our compulsion to leave the United States was very strong, but our feelings were mixed. We had missed family and the surroundings familiar to us terribly the whole time we were in the United States, but so many years can hardly be just an interim—it is real time, and bound to be significant in certain ways. So what was supposed to be the time in which I got a degree also became a time when we fell in love, got married, learnt to drive and swim, traveled a lot, and had a daughter. We also became convinced that we eventually wanted to farm for a living. In other words, the time we spent in this country had somehow changed us fundamentally. Even as many personal reasons for wanting to come back remained, one overwhelming reason germinated during our years in the States, and gradually grew with time. This began as a concern for what we eat, and gradually invaded our sentiments regarding everything around us— society, environment, politics, the climate, and our status as immigrants. Primarily, it was our immersion in the politics of food that convinced us of the need to go back to India.

We had gone through a series of steps back in the States, little changes in attitude and action, that in the long run landed us emotionally and politically in a very different state of mind than what we had six or seven years ago. We started off as the average immigrant family, living in a rented apartment in the Southside of town, driving a Honda Civic, buying our groceries from Walmart or Kroger, shopping from retail chains like Macy’s, Dillard’s or Sears at the mall. We would also occasionally eat from fast food chains, but preferred not to because we did not like how their food tasted. In trying to revisit the exact trajectory of how we initially started questioning certain things, I think now that we also began with how things tasted. We usually found restaurant food to be lacking in flavor and taste, which we would ascribe to the differences of American food to tastes we were familiar with. But even produce bought from grocery retails and cooked at home with the familiar spices seemed quite different. The very subtle qualities in food that are hard to describe but easy to sense were missing from the food we cooked. I had also often always wondered about the size of produce. The biggest onion I had ever seen in India would still fit into the palm of my hand, and the biggest eggplant was about half the size of the ones I saw in groceries in the States. It took us a while to figure out that the size of the produce had nothing to do with the amount of naturally occurring nutrients in the soil of the United States, that most of the vegetables were genetically modified varieties, and that bigger vegetables could not be explained by simply saying that “Everything is big in America!”, a statement quite popular in immigrant circles awed by the size of things in the land of opportunity.

A little research made us aware that much of the food we were eating had been created in laboratories. Milk was chock full of growth hormones, every morsel in the “conventional” section had been liberally sprayed with pesticides and fertilizers, and poultry biographies read like horror stories.(1 ) We could not brush these stories aside as mere health freaks’ paranoia—the taste, texture and shape of things often signaled that these were not naturally occurring substances. For packaged food, one look at the list of ingredients often revealed that we were eating things whose names we could not pronounce. The average potato chips contained around twelve to eighteen ingredients, as did cookies, icecream or frozen foods. But one did not always have to look at processed food-- even sugar and salt were three or four ingredients each. Although fear for our health was our initial reaction, it is quite hard to read about industrial agriculture and ignore its impact on the environment. Even if someone claims that “a little bit of poison” could not be that bad, how could they ignore how agricultural waste—the astronomical amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that we are dumping into our water streams— is wreaking havoc on our ecosystem, creating dead zones in the ocean?

Soil degradation in enormous tracts of land, unprecedented deforestation to claim more land for farming, rising chemical costs to farms and resultant farmers’ debts, loss of biodiversity through mono-cropping, increasing resistance of pests to poison and the appearance of “super-pests”—these are all facts that no community can choose to ignore any more. However, the successful marketing of the chemical wastes of war (ammunition factories re-invented themselves as chemical factories after World War II ended) (2) lets industrial agriculture continue unhindered. So even though small farmers grow 70% of the world’s food, seed and chemical corporations continue to propagate the myth that corporate farming is the only way to feed the world’s growing populations. Even though there are sufficient calories for everyone on the planet, hunger is always a problem of distribution, and no manner of production will fix that problem. Corporate farming does not have the power to increase production sustainably and has no interest in bettering distribution systems, so when they talk about feeding the world, they are merely playing a psychological game with the minds of ordinary people—they are suggesting that whoever does not support chemical farming does not want to feed the hungry. It looks like it has been a successful strategy by means of which ten thousand years of sustainable agricultural practices in human history are losing out to about 50 years of chemical practices. (3)

Once we realized that chemical farming was not helping out anyone, and that “feeding the world” was corporate hogwash, we decided to look for better food for our family and shifted our grocery-shopping to the organic food stores in town. Even though labels and price tags seemed to suggest that we were now eating better, there was not a lot of difference between Whole Foods stores—the actual physical space of the store I mean—from the grocery stores we were shopping from earlier. The sanitizing wipes near the shopping carts were enriched with aloe vera, I would note, but once we stepped in, the store was still an air-conditioned high ceilinged space, lit by fluorescents, guarded by automatic doors, split into neat isles marked with signs that scientifically divided food into categories. This store too, was extremely predictable in its bounty of fruits and vegetables. I knew exactly what produce to find where, and starting from the faux wood boxes heaped with fruits to the temperature controlled vegetable racks misted periodically and almost magically with water, there was absolute order. The vegetables, for example, started with baby carrots in little transparent plastic bags (it took me some reading to find out that “baby” carrots are just regular carrots cut in a lathe) (4) and greens and ended with cabbages, no matter what the season was. There were a few seasonal variations now and then, but the bounty was usually unrelenting.

Puzzled by impeccable organic oranges in the middle of snowy Kentucky winters, I discovered that fruit was often coming to the store from Peru, Brazil or Chile! This was also the time that gas prices in America shot through the roof, from about 99 cents a gallon to around $2.00 per gallon, so the illogic of getting food from thousands of miles away hit us rather hard. Eating sustainably ought to take the environment into account, and organic food “fed” by gallons fossil fuels was really no different from those fed by chemical fertilizers and pesticides. If organic farms are mere non-chemical replications of corporate farming models—growing monocrops over thousands of acres and spraying neem oil with planes, the very idea of ethical food was completely lost. Besides, some of the “organic” products were not quite food— we had serious reservations about what passed as organic in the processed isles. We were not really convinced that frozen vegan organic pizza or frozen organic TV dinners were food, and we gradually realized that the huge emerging market of organic food in the United States had done what money and unlimited growth does to every system. Once the big organic lobby had its way in the Congress, in a matter of years we witnessed USDA standards slip. We were spending a good part of the day talking about these things, and wondering where the solutions lay for untainted food, when we met a couple in Lexington with somewhat similar interests. Having learnt about some of the key food author-activists from them, we began to read their works, and watched, rather accidentally, the documentary The Corporation (2003). (5)

We did not realize then, but this was the beginning of a long journey home, in ways more than one. What began as a change in our habits of grocery-shopping was a deeper, more philosophical journey into our minds, our habits and also into the ways of the world itself. Aided in part by the material we were reading and in part by our common sense, we gradually left the big organic stores for the local farmers’ markets. This was easier said than done, because all we could get at farmers’ markets was fresh produce and poultry, that too during the warmer months. Bengalis do not really survive on these things—we crave rice more than anything else, and Kentucky does not produce any rice. Potatoes yes, but our staples, rice and fish, had to come to us from far, far away. So even as we tried our best to pull ourselves out of bed on Sunday mornings and head to downtown Lexington with our reusable bags, we did have to drop by at a few more places in town. The Indian store was a must for lentils, spices and fresh green peppers, and we still depended on Whole Foods for our dairy products, breakfast cereals, and bread. For our most important need, rice, we made (increasingly shamefaced) trips to Sam’s Club (6) , because the same rice sold at about double the price at Whole Foods and even Indian stores could not give us wholesale prices that Sam’s offered. The savings was more than we could ignore for a while. It was, however, easier to give up the addiction to “cheap” food once we realized that we do pay for that food in other ways—through government subsidies that come out of our tax money, through various costs to the environment and worst of all, through costs to other people. There was enough reason to avoid the Chinese Jasmine Rice in wholesale markets once we thought about the real cost of growing that rice and transporting it to the store.

This journey, as I said, is as philosophical as it is actual, and was accompanied by a sense of moral responsibility we were entirely unprepared for. We increasingly found ourselves taking steps that actually inconvenienced us— we went out of our way to do certain things although no one had asked us to. No one was keeping tabs, but we were prepared to spend more money, or pay more for certain things simply because it allied us to this philosophy. We were rather surprised about the situation because we had never really considered ourselves outside of the mainstream in any way— we were as far as one could imagine from being activists or political reformers. Children of urban middle class professionals, we were also as far from the land as could be. True that we had often tried to avoid complete immersion in the consumerist waves that seemed to become bigger and bigger with every passing year, both in the United States and in India, but apart from casual brushes with urban leftist politics during our college years, we were actually bereft of a political philosophy. If we were swept into thinking about the politics of food, it was because for the first time in our lives, the dots seemed connected; from farm to foreign policy, everything seemed to fit into a single clear picture of profit, apathy and poisoning. From fertilizers in our food to feedlots to health to politics to hunger to farmer suicides in India (7) — here was a picture of not only what was wrong with our world, but hopefully also of a solution for the problems.

Not completely satisfied with how we were having to compromise in buying what we needed, what we were used to eating, or what we enjoyed eating, we sought out the Good Foods Cooperative in Lexington. We had stepped into the store just to explore it earlier, but because we had not paid attention to the details regarding how it worked, it had seemed to be a combination health-freak/hippie place that sold exotic foods for high prices.  In our earlier impression, this was a place where vegetables were more expensive than in chains, there were strange whole grain cereals in the cereal isle, and the bottled milk we once bought went bad in a couple of days. We had, however, eaten at their cafe, and found the food unfamiliar but tasty, and completely unlike anything we could get at restaurants in Lexington. The plates are weighed once you load it with food, and the price is determined accordingly. Our first time there, I had loaded my plate as I would in a Chinese buffet and realized how stupid I was to not have paid attention to how much food I was taking. Paying about $19.00, for my plate (my husband paid $14.00), I regretted not having shaken off  the extra mashed potatoes from the ladle, especially since I couldn’t eat what I had on my plate. Surprisingly, I had been sensitive to food wastage before I came to the United States. This was a part of my sensibility I had successfully killed off after I migrated-- unlike back home, where images of underfed people are easy to identify with and the rule was always to take only as much as you could eat, I was now prone to taking as much as I could. After all, you got six to eight packages of ketchup at a drive through if you said the word ketchup, so paying attention to the ratio between how much you served yourself and how much you actually ate, particularly while eating out, seemed unnecessary, even unfashionable. Weighing food seemed to be a good way of reminding people how much they were eating.

Lexington Farmers' Market

When we came back to the store in our quest for sustainably cultivated local foods, we were impressed both by the model that had been chosen for it, and the products it sold. Good Foods Cooperative, as its name suggested, was a food cooperative, collectively owned by its customers, hence by local people. In looking up its history, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that it went back to the seventies, beginning as a buying club operating out of people’s living rooms and gradually expanding to a cooperative retail and cafe by the early 2000s. Good Foods had been conceived by people with a commitment to natural and unprocessed foods, and it was heartening to see that this commitment could have survived during the years when buying, selling and eating changed drastically around the world.

The owners’ philosophy was reflected in the fact that the store mostly sold produce from nearby farmers, dairies and meat raisers. The store also baked some of own its bread, cakes and cookies. It had surprises sometimes— I remember standing at the back corner of the store and excitedly calling up all the Bengali families in town the day I discovered a few boxes of duck eggs tucked in beside the usual egg boxes. I also remember being given a huge discount on local turkey breast by one of my old students who was working at the store. This was our last Thanksgiving in the States, and having recently been convinced by Barbara Kingsolver’s notes on turkey-keeping that all turkey did not taste like rubber (8) , I gathered up the courage to buy some meat, but did not want to cook a whole bird. This student from a literature class I taught at the University of Kentucky was working at the meat counter patiently listened to all my requirements regarding the meat, fished a whole bird (from a local farm) out of a corner, cut me a juicy breast portion, and priced it like the whole bird by weight. This was how I had seen my father shop for fish and poultry back in India-- in the daily local market, he knew every one of the sellers, and more surprisingly, they knew him. On the occasions that I accompanied him, gingerly making my way through the muddy fish aisles of the open market, I felt that he enjoyed his time at the market. Buyers and sellers knew each other; they would joke and banter, or enquire after each other’s families.

My father, like the other buyers, would touch the fish to test it for freshness before he bought it. Bargaining went to the extent that it was embarrassing for me, but most sales were concluded with a smile, sometimes even with laughter. The sellers were all local people, and their close relationship with the buyers often meant that they knew what the needs and tastes of a family were. But the produce in these markets could not have been quite “local” even in the 80s and 90s.

Produce for Kolkata bazaar comes from all around the country. Like every other metro it sucks out the best produce from the villages all around it, and smoke-billowing trucks bring it to a market across the Ganga to be brought into the city by smaller sellers. But even then, there was the undeniable freshness in the produce, and respect for seasonality in buyers and sellers. As we realized that local produce eaten in season was most friendly to the environment, we garnered more respect for our smelly local markets back home. But we also realized that things were gradually changing in India—our generation did not recognize fish varieties, and was often quite shy about touching raw fish before they bought it. Plus, pushing a cart in air-conditioned superstores and picking things off shelves had been marketed as “cooler” than bargaining with the vegetable lady or watching the blood being washed off your drumsticks—post colony, Hollywood and MTV had made sure that when push came to shove, there would not be a doubt on the Indian middle-class mind that air-conditioned departmental stores are inherently more “civilized” than daily local markets.

We would make mental notes of the changing scenario in India when we came to visit our families. Our well-meaning friends and family often announced proudly that they could now take us to “our own” restaurants—KFC and McDonald’s, and could barely hide their disappointment when we chose our age-old local favorites to eat out. On our part, we were equally unhappy to see that one of the cheapest and the worst quality chains from the United States, the ones that were almost single-handedly responsible for the health crises and deteriorating food quality in America (9) , were the ones that were increasingly trusted and given a place of respect in India. Here, they had marketed themselves as hip American brands, and therefore often indicated high social standing of customers. True that most of the local restaurants in Kolkata do not serve healthy or chemical-free food, but they are part of local food economies. It is unbelievable that the small local restaurants that serve unique flavors and varieties, offer independent livelihood to thousands of small business folk, keep the money in the city rather than ship it off to New York or Washington, and often keep wonderful food-traditions alive, can begin to lose favor here in the city that is so proud of its food.

In our daily life in the States, we were getting pickier about where our food came from, but we still needed certain things in the life that we led. I hate boxed cereals from the bottom of my heart, mostly because they often taste like the cardboard boxes they come out of, but also because I associate them with stress--early morning rush, trying to push food into my mouth as quickly as I can, often carrying out a cup to eat from in the car. But if your life entails rushing out the door at 8.00 in the morning with a kid in tow, you do not have the luxury of a real breakfast. We kept buying cereal for some time, but stopped buying breakfast bars, organic or otherwise (the shiny non-degradable packaging was a deterrent in itself), and alternated boxed cereals with some Indian rice cereals. Inspired by the variety of breakfast cereals in Good Foods, we once counted the healthy options from our own culture—the puffed and flattened rice in all its varieties, sago, chick-pea derivatives, dalia or broken wheat—and it seemed that we had been duped since childhood into thinking that breakfast cereal was a western invention. Overall, Good Foods changed our perception about food in another way-- it reminded us that from local produce to food from our own culture, there were many options to eating sustainably.

In looking for ultimate sustainable solutions for eating, we realized that the solutions had an underlying pattern-- they depended on us, on me, as the ultimate arbiter of choices. Even if I did not do much, I could choose as a consumer, as a buyer. Once we started exercising that choice, it gave us a sense of power, even when we knew that the majority of the people around us were not doing such things at the present. As we blundered around trying to figure out how to eat well without harming the environment, we made minute changes to our habits. We started paying attention to how much we were driving. We shelved our plans for a second car, which was really a dire necessity for a family of three in Lexington because the city has a single-lined bus system as its only public transportation. Our nearest bus stop was two miles away, and buses would come one in half an hour or forty five minutes. We decided that we could not do entirely without a car, but tried to optimize with the one we already had. We recyled glass and paper almost frantically, stopped taking plastic bags from  grocery stores, and turned off the air-conditioner whenever we could. Living in a country that consumed 50% of the earth’s resources, we still hoped to make infinitesimally small changes to the statistics. But we also realized that there weren’t too many options when it came to basic needs like clothing and household products, even in a country where quality of life was tied directly to the number of choices that one had. We were simply asking for things that had not hurt the planet or the people who produced it, and we did not have a choice!

In doing our part as responsible consumers, we came to the realization that we were rather tired of that identity. After all, there was something distinctly passive about being a consumer—the very word necessitates a certain detachment from the realities of production, because it seems to indicate that we are opening our mouths willingly to whatever was being poured down our throats, and naively celebrating the mere choice of flavor for the same toxic mix. It did not matter, for example, if we were eating organic food if we had no part to play in how that food was being produced or transported to us. Although we were now less likely to support growers who were transporting manure on eighteen wheelers from Virginia to fertilize mono-cropping organic farms in California, we still needed to know who exactly was growing our food. What was the philosophy of this person? Did she care about the environment? Was he caring for his ecosystem? Would she think twice about using grow “organic” produce from hybrid or genetically modified seeds? Did he care how far his produce was being transported? In other words, we had to meet the farmer who was growing our fruits and vegetables (the farmer growing our grains was still oceans away). We soon found ourselves in a Community Supported Agriculture Farm about fourteen miles from where we lived, talking to a farmer who had quit a cushy engineering job to start a farm on family land. This 10 acre farm, which supplies chemical-free vegetables to over a hundred families from May to September, became the first place where we came face to face with the person who grew our food. In exchange of a very reasonable subscription (much cheaper than big organic stores), the farm allowed members to pick up their share of fresh produce every week. This was all about going as local and as low-energy as possible, because the CSA model avoids transportation and storage, and encourages seasonality. That summer was one of the most enlightening and happy times of our lives—we walked around the farm looking at things growing, talking about chemical-free growing and pest-control methods, picking and eating strawberry from the bushes, and admiring how children grew up in a farm. Here was a great model, a small-scale fix for big problems, our final inspiration to get involved in the community and be part of a local food system. It was time to tell people that they could change a lot of things by changing how they ate, and what could be a better place than where we grew up? It was time to go back home and get our hands dirty!

Back in India, I taught college for a while, but soon found opportunity to start a CSA on land obtained through a landshare agreement. A friend who is an avid sustainability enthusiast had talked her father into letting us use some of his land. After educating ourselves on farming through courses on sustainable farming, following the work of sustainable farmers in India, and with the help of a resident farmer family, we have now started delivering chemical-free vegetables to twenty four families near Kolkata. Our aim is to keep the farm small and sustainable, and spread the word about the politics of food. We have realized that it is best to let nature be as far as possible, so we believe in permaculture-type farming practices that go beyond organic farming and encourage perennial-based, low-input, low-energy self-sustained systems. We now plan to design very low-input systems for the tropical climate, models that will meet all food needs of a family. We dream that in the near future, our city grows most its own food, switches to rainwater instead of groundwater for daily use, encourages natural buildings and public transportation, and creates community by bringing people together to work towards things that really matter—clean air, clean water and pure food for everyone. And our journey has only begun.

Seed beds, Smell of the Earth CSA

Coriander, Onions , Eggplant and Marigold--Mixed Crops at Smell of the Earth CSA

Aparajita Sengupta grew up in Kolkata and went to Presidency College and the University of Calcutta. She did her PhD in English Literature from the University of Kentucky. While staying in the US, she and her husband Debal became interested in the issues of food toxicity,biodiversity and seed rights. Upon returning from the US in 2011, they visited various sustainable farming initiatives in India, and started a small Community Supported Agriculture Farm (Smell of the Earth) on borrowed land with the hopes of spreading awareness about local and chemical-free food systems. Aparajita and Debal are both certified Permaculture Designers. She can be reached at apsgupta@gmail.com . Smell of the Earth Facebook Page http://www.facebook.com/SmellOfTheEarth

Notes:

(1) Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2001) and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma(Penguin, New York, 2006) exposed many of the horrors of industrial farming, factory farming and toxicity of CAFO foods for us.

(2) See Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Harper Perennial, New York, 2007, 13.

(3) See Anna Lappe’s highly informative video Anna Lappe and Food Mythbusters:Do We Really Need Industrial Agriculture to Feed the World?( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uem2ceZMxYk)

(4) Omnivore’s Dilemma demystified baby carrots again. See Pollan 16.

(5)The Canadian documentary directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, based on the book by Joel Bakan.

(6) Sam’s Club is Walmart’s wholesale retail. To me, it represents how big, literally, consumerism can get. From twenty-pack toothpaste packs to 5 lb frozen mashed potato bags, it is the “super-saver” fantasy at its extreme.

(7) A farmer commits suicide every thirty minutes in India now, owing to debts incurred from chemical additives, rising costs of chemicals, hybrid and genetically modified seeds, and an unpredictable market. See http://www.navdanya.org/news/166-crushed-by-debt-and-neoliberal-reforms-indian-farmers-commit-suicide-at-staggering-rate

(8) See Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, 316-22

(9) Robert Kenner’s 2008 documentary Food Inc. provides an excellent summary of how big food corporations control the entire food system in the United States.

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