The People Who Feed Us

I’m embarrassed that I have not attached more value and significance to a large group of people who, collectively, play a vitally important part in my life. I’ve come late to an expanding appreciation that the food I eat has a fascinating history involving people I don’t know doing work I can only imagine. I’ve long understood, of course, that food I get from grocery stores and restaurants has a long history of nurturing and production and transportation. But only lately have I thought about it intently.

I have a better understanding of the farmers and ranchers and fishers and others who begin the process of feeding me than I have of some of the other folks involved in putting food on my table. I can imagine people on tractors plowing fields and planting seeds. In my mind’s eye, I see people on horseback rounding up cattle. I can envision people on large fishing trawlers casting nets and hauling them in, emptying their catch into holds filled with ice.

But I have a harder time imagining the people and the processes involved in the next steps. Who kills the cattle and sheep and pigs and how do they do it? Who skins the animals and prepares them for the butcher shops or mass-production outfits that package huge volumes of steaks and roasts? Who does the work involved in curing bacon? And what of the people involved “only” in packaging or the people who transform freshly harvested corn from corn-on-the-cob to creamed and cooked corn in a can? I haven’t even mentioned the migrant workers who do much of the back-breaking work involved in planting and harvesting crops. I could go on and on, all the way from factory workers involved in massive-scale canning to people involved in freezing and packaging frozen food to truckers who deliver the merchandise to grocery stores to the folks who stock shelves and work the cash register. There are so many more I’ve not mentioned—some because I didn’t think of them, others because I don’t even know what role they play or that there even is a role of the sort they play.

My fascination is only partly with the processes involved and the roles people play in those processes. Beyond those aspects of my curiosity is my interest in the specific people who touch my food in one way or another. I’ve been imagining a trek that begins with a conversation with the very first person involved with each item on my plate. For example, I’d like to have a conversation with the farmer responsible for planting (or having planted) the seeds for the tomato plants from which my tomatoes were picked. What’s his life like? Does he wonder about the people who consume the food he grows? Does she think about the importance of her work and how she contributes to averting starvation for so many people. And the person who artificially inseminated the cow that gave birth to the animal from whose carcass my steak was carved—I would like to talk to him. Or perhaps I’d have to go back even further, to the person who “harvested” the semen used in the artificial insemination. You can see, can’t you, how complex this matter of exploring how the food on my table came to be could get? What is the source of the seeds the farmer planted for his crop of eggplant? Who gets those seeds? Who packages them? I want to converse with those people, too.

Many books have been written (mostly in the form of exposé, it seems to me) about the horrors of packing houses and the hellish conditions to which field and factory workers are exposed. I may select a few of those books to read. But I sense, from reading the back covers of several, that I won’t get what I want out of them. In one sense, I’m certain I won’t get what I want—I want to engage in conversations with people involved in getting food to my pantry and my refrigerator. I want to know something about them, about their lives. Do they have children? Are their children aware of the parents’ role in feeding millions of people?

These questions came to me after, one day not long ago, a thought came to me out of the blue: What if all the grocery shelves were empty? What if all the usual sources of food I have always taken for granted dried up? A lot of people have gardens; living on a steep slope of rocky ground makes a garden almost impossible for me. So I couldn’t rely on growing my own food (and, realistically, even if I had access to rich, fertile soil, I suspect I’d starve before my first crop reached maturity).  We’ve allowed ourselves (at least most of us) to come to be utterly reliant on a well-developed system of food production and delivery that, if disrupted, could result in mass starvation. That is not a cheery thought. As I sit here at just after 5:00 a.m. drinking my coffee, I think I’d like to know a little more about the likelihood (or, I hope, the more likely unlikelihood…get it?) that the people involved in the process would allow it to happen.

Something else has been on my mind as I ponder these matters. I suspect most of the people involved in the process of feeding the rest of us don’t realize the importance of their roles. I suspect farmers realize how important a part they play in feeding us; their role is a frequent theme in public policy discussions. But people who work in canneries (are they called canneries anymore?) may consider their jobs just jobs. But without them, the system would not work as well. And the people who design the equipment used, from conveyor belts to food labeling equipment—they, too, make important contributions to the “system” of food delivery. Yet until just a few days ago, I hadn’t thought about it. It was all background noise that didn’t matter…well, it’s not that it didn’t matter, I just hadn’t thought about it.

I said these questions of  came out of the blue. Not really. I had been reading about meditation practices, a topic I’ve explored off and on for many years, and the matter of mindfulness was top of mind. I was attempting to “be present, in the here and now” as I was having dinner. That’s when the issue really entered my mind. I paid close attention to what I was doing. Who was involved in the process of getting my meal to me, I asked myself. That’s where it all began. I blame the Buddha and Ram Dass for my present fixation on the food production and delivery system!

If nothing else, my recent preoccupation with how food reaches my table has raised my awareness about the many, many people who play a part in ensuring I am well fed. Every one of them matter. And, I suppose, my interest in actually talking to them, conversing with them, is based on wanting to tell them they are appreciated—I appreciate them—for what they do. I realize, as I reflect on what I’ve written here, that I have simply never thought about so many of the people who play a part in feeding me, the people in the middle of the process, especially. I’m thinking about them now.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to The People Who Feed Us

  1. Thanks for your comment and additional insight. Yes, the designers and marketers play a significant role. If the bees go, we’ll be goners!

  2. lizardek says:

    GREAT and very thought-provoking post. And you didn’t mention the package and label designers and marketing that gets you to buy. I think a lot about what would happen if society (or the bees) collapsed; like you, Insuspect the majority of us would starve.

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