Cultivating Life: October/November 2012


The personal politics of food


By LeAnn Locher, PQ Monthly

It’s easy to feel the swirl of politics as beyond ourselves, “put there” beyond our reach of personal impact or action. With so much money being spent on simply getting elected versus fixing our country, I understand the question, “Can I really make a difference?” But so much of politics are personal, especially for those of us who hear our love lives being debated on political stages, and our very worth of equality discussed as political platforms. For me, politics are personal, and no matter what my own apathy might be, I will always, definitely, turn up to vote.

When apples as beautiful these are produced within a few miles of your backyard, why do we have apples from New Zealand in our grocery stores?

Just as politics are personal, personal choices can also be political, especially when it comes to food. Food politics have been a rising conversation over the decade, with questions of food safety and regulation, and the growth of movements like slow food, “locavores,” and attention towards “food deserts.” There is a mindfulness to participating in food politics and a waking up to understanding and knowing where your packaged, processed food comes from and on whose back it gets to you. What was the quality of life of the cow that makes up your burger? Or the reality that your burger is most likely made of thousands of cows all mixed up together? What’s the environmental impact of the apple you’re eating flown here from New Zealand? (And why on earth are we as Oregonians eating New Zealand apples when the Northwest produces gorgeous crops of them?) How is it that there are epidemic proportions of asthma among the children of the workers who picked your produce? Once you start to scratch the surface, it is never ending and can easily feel overwhelming.

I recently heard NYC chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton speak at Feast PDX, Portland’s national food festival (my favorite part were the talks, by the way). Hamilton suggests we’re going overboard in our food politics.

“Sometimes I think, ‘poor little food.’ I mean just think about what’s being asked of food these days,” Hamilton says. “Food is going to save the planet, we’re going to cure obesity, we’re going to save the dysfunctional family because if you just eat a meal together at the dining room table every day all your fucked up family problems will go away, it will create memories. And I think, ‘the poor madeleine.’ The little fucking madeleine carries so much freight these days.”

But at the other end of that spectrum is to live blindly and without thought to how our actions impact the world. I liken it to the ridiculousness of the statement, “I’m not voting.” Truth is, you vote every day with the actions you take. When you opt to buy your produce at the local farmer’s stand, you vote to keep your dollars close to home and to support your local economy. You most likely are also voting for less environmental impact on the world, without the need to transport goods long distances, and without massive degradation against the land for major food production. When you opt to cook more from scratch and less from processed and packaged food products, you vote to value your own health and the health of those you’re cooking for.

Even growing your own food is a political statement, let alone growing food in your front yard and (gasp!) tearing up the lawn. But hanging a rainbow flag and building raised beds in the front of our house is one of the first things we did when we moved into our house 12 years ago. At that time, our neighborhood of grass lawns were the standard and lots of folks slowed down or stopped by to see what “the ladies” were up to. Gardening in our front yard has brought us closer to our neighbors, and political talk during election season has even been a part of the front yard scene, as well as sharing advice on growing good greens.

I don’t get the concept of politics not being personal. They’re infused in every bit of my life, including the work I do, where I invest my money, and even the food I put in my mouth. And yes, at the ballot box. I plan to vote this November, no question about that, but I also vote for a better environment, a local economy, and fair worker’s rights when I vote with my food dollars. Why wouldn’t I?

LeAnn Locher is an OSU Extension Master Gardener. You can connect with her at