What Does it Mean to Eat Well

What does it mean to eat well?

By Tony Schultz, Farmer, Stoney Acres Farm

This past winter I was invited to speak on a panel in Madison with the famous chef Odessa Piper, a Nobel Prize winning climate scientist, a UW Madison Sociologist, and a Grass-based cattleman. We were asked to respond to the question: “What does it mean to eat well?” and as we begin our CSA season together I want share some of my thoughts.

            I began with a bit of deadpan humor. “To eat well is to eat a diet high in fiber and low in saturated fat. Thank you. Goodnight. …   …   …”   Of course that joke is meant to highlight that an answer to this question is multidimensional and much deeper than the limited narrative about what makes food good, a narrative created by food and diet corporations and mainstream nutritionists. To eat well is an act that enriches every aspect of our lives, it is personal and political it has implications for the economic, ecological, cultural and the spiritual. I could speak from many angles on infinite topics and contexts regarding this question, but I’ve boiled it down to five or so points.  

To eat well is to cook. Perhaps no other act is more crucial, more fundamental to people eating well on a mass scale. If you are cooking you are more likely to be using fresh whole foods not simply floating through the world ingesting the random processed calories that make up the negative core of the western diet. If you are cooking you are much more likely to be asking questions that lead to a more complete act of eating well like… What will this do to my health? Who can I share this with? Was this sprayed? Who picked this? What are the conditions of the people who raised this? Where did my food come from? I always say that the people who love the CSA the most are people who like to cook.

To eat well is to eat seasonally. If you are eating seasonally you are likely eating food at its freshest and most flavorful; when it is ready to be eaten and delivers the most nutrition. If you are eating seasonally you are likely eating from a farmers’ market and in doing so supporting local agriculture helping to create a multiplier effect in the local economy.  To paraphrase the great Barbra Kingsolver, author of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, The pleasure of eating seasonally is the great joy you receive when food comes to you in its season. Asparagus arrives. You gluttonize yourself with butter sauce and make jokes about asparagus pee and just when you are starting to get sick of it, it’s strawberry time!

To eat well is to eat like a flexitarian. I think Michael Pollen summarized the last words anyone needs to know when wondering about eating healthy: Eat food. Not to much. Mostly plants.  To eat mostly plants is to eat like what is known as a flexitarian, and there is good reason to be one. It’s widely accepted that large quantities of red meat may be problematic, health-wise, and we know that many people have made it a goal to eat less meat because large-scale industrial production is damaging to the environment, the animals, and the family farm economy. However I think there is a place for meat especially in sustainable agriculture. All of my animals have a function in our system at the farm. Chickens eat flies and weed seeds. Pigs are better rototillers than I could ever be. My grazing cows keep my land in pasture controlling soil erosion, phosphorous run-off and sequestering more carbon than almost any other land use. Actually what I like most about my animals isn’t their eggs, bacon or steaks, it is their manure. Animals are my primary source of fertility for my vegetables and are how we work to close the circle on our farm and make it more sustainable. It is my general suggestion that we eat half as much meat and pay twice as much for it to be raised well.

To eat well is not to eat anonymously. This statement has two meanings: share your meals and know your farmer. I wrote this when Kat took the kids to a weekend meeting in another part of the state. I thought I would be liberated, but I ended up defrosting a pizza fry with an anxious sense of longing. If I ever eat by myself in a restaurant I experience some of my most dreadful feeling of loneliness as people look at me like a zoo animal. Eating seems to be a primal social act that bonds us and helps to break down barriers in the act of sharing a common human need and in our current social context I feel less awkward about drinking a bottle of wine when I share it. The other part of this statement is to know your farmer. Knowledge is power and knowing where your food comes from is the most important factor in making our food system more just, sustainable, democratic and fun. As the author Wendell Berry has said, “A significant part of the pleasure of eating is one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes.”  

To eat well is to eat in a world where everyone is able to eat well. Local organic food cannot simply be some foodie culture war expression - Some novelty of the educated, upper middle class culturally privileged. To eat well means to have a critique of local, organic, justly produced food. It is to be ashamed of its sometimes rightful (but often wrongful) portrayal as elitist. To eat well means to sacrifice and fight and beg and demand that good food be present in all classes and all dinnertables of our society. That it be a recognition by all those who care about eating well that it not be isolated to their circles and sensibilities. To eat well is to share the principles of eating well and share these meals with everyone. Understanding this is important to expanding the presence of local, organic and fair-trade food. Our CSA coalition “Fairshare” is constantly thinking about how to reach “mainstream eaters,” folks who may not be exposed to CSA.  Achieving this is not simply a matter of educating or speaking differently to different demographics, it is about understanding where people are, knowing that our liberation and the liberation of our food system is bound up with one another and participating in struggles together to raise access to education, raise incomes, raise access to land.  More than ending an exploitative food system, and saving the world from environmental destruction, this may be our most important task and our most effective means of achieving and just, sustainable, and nourishing food system.