Eat Your Cornflakes, People are Starving in ??

by Dave Mortensen

With cornflakes wilting in our cereal bowls and disinterested faces around the breakfast table, I got up to pour the unused milk down the kitchen sink and the wilted flakes in the trashcan. That was, of course, before my father caught me. I donít remember all that happened, but his response surely included what had become a mantra in our house: "Eat your cornflakes, people are starving in China."

The year was 1961. I was five years old, and the message has stayed with me to this day. It was true, people were starving in China. I went back to 1961 issues of the New York Times and the New York Daily News, the papers my father read in those days, where gloomy headlines like "Worsening Famine Seen for Red China" greeted the reader.

Official records now show that 30 million Chinese starved to death between 1959 and 1961. But what did people starving in China have to do with me? What I learned from this lesson is that food is not to be taken for granted. In some abstract way, my father convinced me that the actions of individuals do matter.

I have read with great interest and followed discussions regarding the carrying capacity of the earth. A surprising number of bright people have looked at our future capacity to feed people by determining how best to increase food production, often production of a handful of grain crops. Intensification of their production has been held up as the solution to meeting future world food demands.

Such a view or paradigm may be the outgrowth of careers spent conducting narrowly defined research projects or "flashlight science," resulting in the failure to see the larger whole. Certainly a sustainable food production system is essential, but so too is the equitable distribution of that food, the size of the population to feed, and per capita consumption. While all of these things, not just food production, will determine the number of people to be fed and the quality of their lives, I will focus the remainder of this personal reflection on consumption.

If I were the average American consumer, my appetite for livestock products would require twice as much grain to support my diet than others living in southern Europe, and four times as much grain as the Indian diet. (This assumes that I am eating conventionally-produced, primarily grain-fed meat, as most American consumers do.)

I believe that our general lack of respect for food is the result of a severe disconnection of our people from its food source. We consume a great deal, yet we are disconnected from that which we consume; we are disconnected from our own food system. How do we reconnect?

It is my view that reconnection will be most effectively accomplished by people, urban and rural, seeing and experiencing people-food connections. How might this happen? Buying locally grown produce, meat, and other foods is a place to start. Learning about where our food is grown, who grows it, and what it takes to bring it to market are things that many have lost sight of, or never learned.

Non-farming consumers need to see for themselves what this farming thing is all about. After all, it is a lot harder to waste lettuce or tomatoes if you have a hand in growing them. Such hands-on involvement in food production is on the rise with numerous local examples of successful Community Supported Agriculture programs.

Urban centers can and should be another place for this reconnection. Community gardens like the City Sprouts project in North Omaha are a wonderful example of communities supporting agriculture within an urban setting.

In our community, we see a fantastic range of possibilities for growing food. Unfortunately, the most common land cover in our community is the American lawn. All told, there are some 20 million acres of lawn across the United States. Converting a sizeable portion of turfgrass acres to urban gardens could yield a considerable amount of food, reconnect people with food, and provide the calming effects of time spent in gardens. Using biointensive farming practices coupled with eating lower on the food chain, John Jeavons estimates that some ten people can be fed off of one acre of land.

On my bike ride to work, I pass a home in which the entire backyard (fence-post to fence-post) is planted in some 40 species or cultivars of vegetables. I often stop to admire this urban gardening fete. Speaking with the homeowner, I learned that with the exception of fish, poultry, and rice, their household grows all that they consume.

So is meeting the food demand of a growing world population resolved by intensifying the production of a handful of cereal crops? I donít think so.

Certainly sustainable cereal grain production will continue to be extremely important. But so will an increasing respect for a sustainable food system in which more and more people meet the people who grow their food. Where more and more people get their hands dirty working the soil, watch with fascination as a new crop emerges, and share in the enjoyment of harvest. It is hard for me to imagine how we can be anything but more responsible stewards of the land and of our food resources if we ourselves are involved in the process of growing food.


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