Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bon Appétit

I loved, love, and will love food.

As a youngin', my aunt would offer me this delectable butter-spread white-bread toast with loads of sugar on top. I devoured it. I always knew when she visited. My mouth swarmed with saliva more than usual. My nose perked towards the kitchen.

My tastebuds are traditionally Vietnamese - sweet, sour, bitter, twitter, salty, and everything inbetween. Visiting the homeland at the age of seven, I could recollect the early mornings. I would wake up to enticing odors of sweet rice bread, fresh durain, crisp parsley, and a pecking chicken to be eaten later that evening. Among the sweet and sour soup, salted garlic talapia, sugary rice cakes, indeliably-delicious dips, and dozens of vermicelli dishes, my visits back "home" were real. I knew where my food was coming from each morning - the local farmer who smiled at me each day I passed the open market.

My tastebuds are also American. Born in Iowa and raised in California, I've been an experiment to the American agricultural industry. Each week unconsciously, I followed my mother to these massive quarantined warehouses called "supermarkets". I was in awe. But if it's anything that I've missed since visiting Vietnam, it would be my misplaced connection with food. I've lost that. I've never met the farmer who procured the broccoli I loathed eating, the milk I imbibed every day, or the potato in my Classic Lays chips. Each morning lacked the alluring smells once experienced. Granted, I loved food. But what was "behind" the food presented to me three times a day, seven days a week?

If someone were to ask me, “Where did the food you had for dinner last night come from?” I would most likely shrug in disillusionment not knowing. I wouldn’t be able to describe how it was grown and who grew it. I’m sure like many of us, I sometimes don’t even know what food I had for my last meal, let alone try to find out where it came from, how it was grown, or who procured it.

Yet our human connection to food has been, is, and will continue to be strong. We are inclined to eat every day. The delicious flavors, inviting odors, and time spent around a table are all assets to our sense of being, community, and survival. Today’s grocery stores and their forty-five thousand food items tease the eyes and mouths. Food brings people together; it is a common language that every single human being on this earth can understand.

However, there is a paradox. A food paradox. Thirteen percent of the world’s populous are malnourished, according to a 2006 estimate from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Individuals living in poverty, conflict, and hunger can’t afford those flavors, odors, and time at a table. Surprisingly, out of those forty-five thousand food items in supermarkets, nearly a quarter of them are made of processed corn, according to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Food plays such integrative social, economic, and humanistic roles in all our lives. I want to better understand our human connection to food, answering who, what, where, when, and why. I will use the University of California, Irvine’s Dining facilities as a case study and how it’s integrated into the local, national, and global scenes.

For the next four weeks, I will do an experiment of my own, investigating the questions at hand. I will interview UCI Dining facilities, visit at least one farm growing directly-sourced food, read academic articles discussing conventional versus organic farming methods, read at least three current non-fiction books on food, watch movie-documentaries, attend various meetings with local organizations, and provide my personal experiences with leading a campaign for a sustainable food program in our campus dining halls.

I will have two objectives to this experiment. First, I will define a sustainable food system. Secondly, I will determine whether or not institutions of higher education (with UC Irvine as a case study) can sustain its food system and the challenges that are faced.

We are more than just "what" we eat - we are "how" we eat.

Cheers to food,

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