I am a food person. When I was in college in Providence, Rhode Island, on Sunday afternoons we would all go to my friend’s house and do homework or play games while her Italian father cooked homemade meatballs and sauce in the kitchen. That’s where I learned to cook Italian, so when I first got married I could only cook in ‘family style’ quantity – I would make 4 pounds of meatballs and a ton of pasta for just my husband and me.
I have always engaged with issues of the environment, but things like energy and even water can seem remote at times. Food, on the other hand, is always very personal and immediate. It interests me from many angles. It tastes good, it’s satisfying, it can be artistic in its presentation, and it is full of memories like my Sundays in Providence. Food is wound into our social fabric.
Maybe that’s all a too-fancy way of saying “I like to eat!” But three specific events took my interest in food to a completely different level and ultimately lead me to create the website myfreshlocal.com.
Real issues at the beginning
The first event had to do with my personal health. Around the time my daughter was born, doctors started to notice strange goings-on with my white blood cell counts. Within a year they identified a condition called myodisplaysia which results in a compromised immune system. I started eating healthier food when I understood that my immune system was vulnerable, and learned how chemicals and pesticides in my food could make me even more vulnerable. So the first event raised my self-interest.
The second and third events came around the time President Obama was elected. Michael Pollan wrote an open letter to “the Farmer in Chief” in the New York Times, and then Michelle Obama chose childhood obesity as her personal focus as First Lady.
Pollen’s letter built my awareness of food’s role beyond my own health to the broader issues of health in our community and country. There are huge issues caused by the way we grow and distribute food. Our dependence on oil is in part due to our food distribution system, and that system doesn’t seem built to take us into the future in a way that’s healthy or safe.
Food deserts: getting food where it needs to go
In my subsequent reading I came across the concept of “food deserts” for the first time, and I found it shocking. It saddened me that kids growing up in America can be starved of any nutrient-rich food and that the only milk they can get is loaded with growth hormones and antibiotics.
The President talks about education’s importance, and it certainly is important, but to learn, kids need healthy, growing brains. Doritos and Twinkies and Slurpees aren’t going to get us there. How we grow food, what we put in it, the degree of control that big biotech and agribusiness companies have over the whole process – it’s broken.
Finally, Michelle Obama’s work resonates with me personally and helped me connect better with how wonderful and delicious fresh food can be. She’s helped make vegetables a little bit more glamorous. Food isn’t an industrial product created to survive long-haul truck rides. In my mind she’s helped marry the idea of healthy food with the “foodie” and professional chef aspects of dining – remember, I do like to eat!
I build software applications for the Web as my work. After creating projects for other people for a long time, I decided I wanted to build something that would be mine, that I could pour my skills and passion into. So the concept behind myfreshlocal was, “Let’s create a place with ‘Food 101′-type resources to help people find local food and enjoy it, and then combine that with more information how to take action on these issues for people who are moved to do so. I built it on weekends and nights and in my spare time (does anyone have “spare” time anymore?) because I still have to help pay the bills. But it really is a labor of love and over time I aim to be able to focus on it even more.
I hope the site will help people learn about food and food policy. But I’m also not losing sight of the pure enjoyment of food. I love going to a farmers market. I love the artisan breadmakers, and microdairies with pasture-raised cows, and the nut butters and honey vendors and gorgeous piles of bright, fresh, cheap food. And the idea of coming home from the market and making a great pot of soup. Or a big pile of meatballs and sauce for my daughter and her friends. That’s good living.
Mary Ellen Slater is the founder and creator of myfreshlocal.com and is based just outside Boston.
by Cynthia Samuels
by Mary Ellen Slater, myfreshlocal.com