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Essay: Rethinking Farm to Table


'I have, as of late, lost all my mirth,' Hamlet, the soul-searching twenty-something, uttered to his school buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Everybody hits a wall as they are growing up. It's a necessary pain. But we must all hit it none-the-less, if we are to keep growing. What we thought we knew to be true, real, and certain about the world often turns out to be idealism. We must hit the wall, and the ground beneath us must become unsteady, so that we can get our sea legs in life and go on walking with a new sense equilibrium.

Dan Barber, James Beard-awarded chef, sustainability stalwart, and Ted Talk-darling, slammed me headlong into the reality wall with his recent May 17th column in the New York Times titled “What Farm to Table Got Wrong.” By his third paragraph, I was reeling at how the farm-to-table movement has scarcely “reworked the economic and political forces that dictate how our food is grown and raised. Big food is getting bigger, not smaller.” Terms like farm-to-table, localvore, and even foodie have risen like so many centurion shields, marching forward across the lands stolen by Big Ag. Our gold standards (all pun intended) of fresh, seasonal, regional, and organic glinting across menus and the minds of the public. Yet, according to Barber, we've lost 100,000 farms in the last five years, and “1.1 % of farms in the United States account for nearly 45 percent of farm revenues.”

The majority of that 45 percent raise corn and soy, both of which are fetishized and subsidized to an extent that would make the Kardashians blush. Corn alone is so subversively integrated into the American diet, that it is represented by well over fifty pseudonyms on processed food ingredient lists.

Kyle Cherek
Credit David Larson
Lake Effect essayist Kyle Cherek

To wit, Fed Up, the film I saw a few nights after reading Barber's article, delivered a second blow. If you live in America and eat, it is the most important piece of cinema you should see this year. It draws a parallel between the ascent of preventable disease and our biggest food companies, with their 600,000 products lining our groceries shelves, 80% of which contain abundant and often unlisted amounts of sugar. (When talking about the biggest companies, I call them “our,” because they are. We made them, and can ummake them, meal by meal.) Diabetes is the precursor; a generation dying earlier then the previous; the coda.

We live in an America where our Secretary of Agriculture demurs on camera when questioned about why tomato sauce has been classified as a vegetable for American children's school lunches.

We live in an America where our first lady has planted the White House Garden which Eleanor Roosevelt was denied, yet simultaneously tells kids to 'run around more,' instead of eschewing the sugar and corn-laden metabolic time bombs which abound, so often labeled fat free.

We live in an America where a fast food chain can and will sell you a dinner of cheap chicken protein, paired with a half gallon of soda containing 56 spoonfuls of sugar—all with the promise that they will graciously donate one dollar to diabetes research.

In the face of all this, as a foodie and a public one, I felt insignificant and effete. I am looked to as a credible resource for better foodways; fans of the show tell me they make pilgrimages to each location featured on an episode. The farm-to-table trend has grabbed us by the collar and culturally kissed us hard, and we as a community, have kissed back. How could nothing have come of all the CSAs, enlightened chefs, and urban agriculture? Are all these farmers' markets and regional dishes just for show? Yes. Definitely. And a fine show of it we should make.

As I sloughed off my nausea and came to, clarity came as well. What I do as a foodie with a television show is tell stories about food, which help people elevate their consciousness, so that together we can heal the planet, and ourselves along the way. This is only the beginning of the change. The story of our nation's food systems is centuries old, and this one can still be mended.

Big Tobacco is not unlike Big Food, and once seemed invincible, ensconced in law makers hearts by way of campaign contributions and powerful lobbyists, but is now significantly diminished upon national sentiment. 'Smoke free? Inconceivable,' my parents' generation said. 'Even doctors smoke.' And now we face our next Goliath...big food.

There is an app we can use when we shop which scans product barcodes and alerts consumers to the presence of GMO food.

FoodPolicyAction.org rates elected officials on their actual for-the-people legislation, regarding what we eat and have access to.

Monsanto is now aware of us, and we of them. The politics of food is lapping on the edges of the mainstream.

Yes, let's make a fine show of it.

Every episode I film.

Every victory garden we plant.

Every tweet I post.

Every petition you sign.

Every time an elected someone feels the heat of their job security, based on how he or she votes on food policy.

This is the show we should make of it, and it needs all the fervor and pomp of a ticker tape parade.

'I have, as of late, lost all my mirth, but where for, I know not,' Hamlet continued. My 'where' is the soil and my plate. The what, my tax dollars and health. And the why is heir apparent.

Lake Effect contributor Kyle Cherek is host of the public television show Wisconsin Foodie.  His essay was a response to a recent op-ed in the New York Times about the farm-to-table movement.

Kyle Johnson Cherek is a culinary historian and food essayist. He was the former host of Wisconsin Foodie on PBS, and for over a decade he has chronicled regional food stories, exploring where our food comes from, and how it shapes who we are. His signature wit and keen observations have made him a sought-after keynote speaker, media contributor, and culinary storyteller. Kyle has been awarded the Wisconsin Broadcast Association Award twice for his compelling essays on food culture.