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Food for Thought: Nourishing body and soul

Emma Landgraf
Special Projects Associate, Food Initiative
United Way for Southeastern Michigan

These last few weeks have been big for the Food Initiative. We launched the Michigan No Kid Hungry initiative with Governor Rick Snyder. We’re in the midst of planning an enormous volunteer day. And, the start of the Summer Food Service Program is less than a month away. It’s during busy times like this when I love my job the most, and when I ask myself, “What does this work mean to me?”

I got a good answer to that question recently, when I had dinner with a couple of my close friends. The three of us spent two years living together in a cooperative house, which, if you can imagine, was 29 people living under one roof and trying to keep the house from falling down. A critical part of that house’s culture was food; house members would prepare dinner six nights per week, and cooking parties were common. We spent a lot of hours hanging out in the galley kitchen, chatting about the issues of the day while munching on whatever was available in the house’s common food. We were college students, so we weren’t that picky.

My friends and I had gathered together to cook dinner, something that we’ve done fairly regularly since moving out of the co-op. As we chopped and cooked vegetables for a homemade pizza (crust and all), we discussed our typical eating habits, and we agreed on one thing: without having people to cook with and for, we usually grab food on the way home from work, or throw something simple together at the end of the day. For us, without the social part of cooking and eating, food loses a lot of its meaning.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that this concept has been true throughout my life. We were very fortunate growing up that my mother could stay home and take care of the family. For 15 years, she and my dad cooked dinner almost every night, and even though my brothers and I complained about it more than once, they insisted that dinner was a time for family conversation. So, over plates of delicious food, we’d discuss school, work, politics, religion, culture, and anything else that would come to mind, often sitting long after everyone had finished eating. Food and family became almost interchangeable in my mind, and even when my family didn’t cook, or I was eating with someone else, that joyful connection between food, family and friends persisted throughout my life, and it makes a big impact on the way I approach food today.

For generations, cooking and eating with family and friends was a staple of our culture. It took time from start to finish, but the ultimate goal was for every person to walk away from the table feeling nourished and fulfilled. Then, something changed. It’s impossible to say what exactly without conducting a lifetime’s worth of research, but I like to say that society sped up. As our world became more efficient and competitive, we began working longer hours and turning away from our social networks to keep up and get ahead. And, as large-scale food production became more sophisticated, it became easier and cheaper to obtain food that fit our hectic lifestyles.

Dinner, which used to take a couple of hours to prepare and consume, can now be tailored to a person’s busy schedule, whether that means swinging through the drive-thru or pouring the contents of a box or bag into a frying pan. Unfortunately, the efficient delivery of calories has done a lot to move us backwards. My generation’s life expectancy is less than that of my parents’ generation because of rampant obesity and health problems related to it. Healthy, nutrition-dense foods are often expensive, difficult to access, and complex to prepare. In many ways, we’ve forgotten what it means to eat good food, and we’re suffering as a result.

I love Food Initiative work for a lot of reasons, but something that gets me out of bed in the morning is my passion for bringing food back to its roots. Fortunately, caring about where food comes from, how it’s prepared, and the way it’s consumed hasn’t completely disappeared from our rearview mirrors. It’s possible to give people access to the tools necessary to build a healthy lifestyle and change the role food plays in everyday life. We’re seeing it happen in our work every day. Summer food programs are weaving together nutritious food, fun activities and friendship. The school and community garden movement is spreading rapidly across Southeastern Michigan. Nutrition education programs are teaching families how to prepare quick, easy and inexpensive healthy meals at home.

There are ways to ensure that we are both healthy and well-fed, and the good news is that the template for doing so has already been written. We just need to slow down enough to make food meaningful in our lives again. On those busy days when my main goal is keeping my head above water, I struggle to imagine how that’s possible. But, the fulfillment I receive from eating a home-cooked meal with my family, or making pizza with my friends, reminds me how important it is to keep fighting for it.