Growing up, we lived in a middle class suburb in Connecticut. Some of the major employers at time time included Pratt & Whitney, The Hartford, and ESPN. It’s single and multifamily houses boasted green lawns, manicured bushes, and plenty of trees. It certainly wasn’t a farming town when I was a kid, although it had been decades before I was born. My grandmother, an Italian immigrant who came over as an adult when my grandfather decided to build a new life for his family in the United States, is a colorful character. Remind me to tell you about the time she accidentally smashed my father in the head with a wine bottle trying to help him break up a bar fight at their restaurant. I’ve been told that I’m very much like her personality-wise, which I consider a compliment. But there are two qualities that I envy that we don’t share- her green thumb and her physical strength. My husband says I’m like a Ferrari. Pretty to look at, high performance, and always in the shop. Nonna would be a more like a F 150 pickup (but with a much more attractive body style). Reliable, dependable, and hard working. She’s also smart as a whip and has a better memory than most people half her age. Having lived through the Great Depression when she was a child in southern Italy, she is accustomed to hard, physical labor. Being the eldest in a family of girls, she helped her father run the family farm and vineyard. When she came to this country, she carried on the tradition of growing produce and raising livestock, no matter that she lived in the suburbs with neighbors an arm’s throw away from her house on either side.
Seeing Nonna’s massive vegetable garden, picking figs from her trees, sampling grapes from her vines, and visiting her chickens and rabbits in the backyard seemed normal. Her chickens produced the most beautiful colored eggs, with yolks so orange that you just knew they had to be chock full of vitamins. At one point, she had a favorite chicken named “Caterina”. Nonna shared full discussions with her and Caterina would happily cluck back before running off to the neighbor’s yard two houses down to visit with its owners. The local school bus would stop to allow Caterina to cross the road. When Caterina went missing, my grandmother called the police to inform them of her “murder”, and later mourned what was likely Caterina’s untimely death at the hands of a fox or canine. Nonna’s eyes still moisten when remembering her beloved bird.
Not all of Nonna’s livestock were considered pets. I’m sure my sister still remembers the Easter of our young childhood when our father attempted to trick us into eating rabbit, only to be foiled by my discerning eyes that noticed our dinner’s feet were decidedly un-fowl-like. I had many stints of vegetarianism growing up (although now I’m a card carrying omnivore), likely influenced by knowing where meat actually came from (cute animals, not a styrofoam tray wrapped in cellophane or a box from McDonald’s)- at least the meat from my grandmother’s suburban “farm”. For years I believed that the meat and eggs that came from the grocery store shared similar, well-cared for beginnings. California says they have “happy cows” but I know for sure that my Nonna’s free-roaming chickens were living the good life. After all, part of their diet included my Nonna’s homemade sauce and pasta.
I don’t remember the exact moment I found out about hormone and antibiotic laden, inhumanely raised, factory farmed livestock or pesticide burdened produce, likely because it was a gradual realization. In my elementary school years, I learned about how veal is produced, forever turning one of my younger cousins and sister off from our Italian restaurant staple. Many years passed though until I got turned onto organics. The documentaries “King Corn”, “Food Inc.”, Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and my own research taught me where our grocery store foodstuff actually comes from (and how it’s manufactured), including a better understanding of the hazards of GMO’s (such as the rise in Celiac disease and gluten-intolerance), Roundup, and Monsanto. I also learned about the unjust working conditions and workplace hazards faced by many of the people who grow and process our food (including the higher rates of Autism, mental retardation, and birth defects in the children of families who live in areas where there are high exposure rates to pesticides used in farming). But this essay is not about getting into the specifics. I encourage you to investigate some of the resources to which I referred (and have linked below). What I hope to achieve is an understanding of why we need to change the way our food system works so that all people, even low income, can afford to feed their families healthful, nourishing food that supports the health of people and our ecosystem.
Once I knew better, I strived to do better. I began shopping at our local farmer’s market, buying more organic food, reducing consumption of processed foods, and avoiding GMO’s when I could (It’s difficult to do because GMO corn and soy is ubiquitous, in products you wouldn’t expect, even pre-sliced apples!) I realize I’m lucky to be able to afford the luxury of organic, local, and humanely raised food. When I speak of eating “organic”, or “local”, or “grass-fed”, I’m not using it as a status symbol or being a “food snob”. I want to clarify this because I believe that people can get turned off thinking that “clean” eating is only for the elite or the domain of crunchy hippies. And sadly, to an extent, it is due to our country’s subsidizing of corn and soy production which is used to make cheap, processed foods, including the hamburger you eat at your favorite fast food chain. If I only had a few dollars to feed my family dinner, I would be hard pressed to find enough organic produce and sustainably raised livestock to feed more than one person but I could find plenty of “junk” food to fill their bellies. It shouldn’t have to be that way. All people should be able to have access to affordable, organic, sustainably raised food. In fact, a recent UN study suggests that it’s the only way we’ll be able to continue to feed the world’s growing population. Transformation can happen if we, as consumers, demand it- both with our purchasing power and in insisting that laws be changed with regards to how our food is produced and inspected.
I know that the premise of my blog is about parenting my child and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. This topic may seem beyond the scope of my original intention; however, I believe that this is crucial information for all parents to be aware in helping to ensure the health of our children and future generations. I will revisit the topic periodically in subsequent blog posts but in the meantime, I hope you will consider perusing the resources I’ve included if you are not already familiar with them.
This summer I will attempt (again) to grow some of my own food. And while our Homeowner’s Association would frown upon my raising chickens in our backyard, I hope to foster in our child a connection between her food, where it comes from, and the importance of supporting local, organic agriculture. Hopefully she’s inherited my Nonna’s green thumb. I know she got her physical strength, thank goodness. We don’t need two Ferrari’s in this family.
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I have no affiliation with Amazon, but am providing links for the films via Amazon because Amazon Prime subscribers can watch some of these films for free. We like free.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Roundup’s and GMO’s link to increasing rates of Celiac disease
How to eat organic on a budget