For some, food is sacred and a choice is clear; for others, that same food choice is fraught with questions, or deeply unethical. We are bombarded with information about nutrition, genetic modification, local or organic, social justice, fuel costs, right food, slow food, fast food. This creates a complex canvas for a simple question: What should I eat?
The tragedy of our global food systems is that we have collectively created and are supporting a set of values and behaviours that, as individuals, we might abhor.
We would never wish our children or neighbours to go hungry, yet millions of people go without as stockpiles of food are disposed of due to overproduction. The number of overweight people worldwide now rivals the number of underweight. The options for processed, low-nutrient, packaged “food” items increase while the varieties of indigenous seeds decrease as multinational corporations take control of the seed supply.
It seems we’ve lost a sense of wonder in the food we eat. We have forgotten that our food is actually Light manifest. In the interplay of sun, earth, and elements is a magical alchemy creating the plants that give their bodies to us so we can receive energy. We are what we eat. Light. Energy. Life. It is pure potential — How do we process this Light? How do we give back with the energy we receive?
ascent gives you three offerings from young people who are creating relationships with food that are deeply linked to their own sources of Light. They are also offering their learning back to the world.
Paying attention, connecting, sharing are their acts of resistance to larger global trends, and acts of love and care in the most intimate sense. Each follows a deep personal calling to tend to that which nourishes their selves, families, communities and the earth itself. Gayla Trail cultivates rich soil for plants and relationships, Bryant Terry feeds his Southern lineage through healthy eating and preserving tradition, and Jill Boadway shares a practice of conscious eating to cultivate gratitude and awareness.
I imagine Gayla Trail’s rooftop and community gardens to be as rich, meandering and abundant as her blog, and just as full of insights and surprises. Eight years ago, Gayla started teaching herself how to grow vegetables on the roof of her Toronto apartment building and documented what she learned on her on-line journal, www.yougrowgirl.com. Her early attempts at recording her learnings planted the seeds for a community of urbanites who may not have been able to find a gardening resource that spoke their language.
At the root of her blog and accompanying book, You Grow Girl (Fireside, 2005), is that growing plants can make a difference in a person’s life and community. The simple act of caring for plants, whether they’re on a rooftop, a balcony, or herbs on a kitchen windowsill, transforms us into producers, rather than consumers. Gardening, in whatever form, creates a connection to and understanding of where our food comes from.
“In lots of ways, the garden sustains me by providing nourishment,” Gayla says. “It also brings nature to my life in the city, which can otherwise be lacking green space. Gardening nurtures gardeners.”
Gayla’s fun and accessible style nurtures gardeners and cultivates community. At first, she was surprised at the community of gardeners, both experienced and beginner, who sprouted up around the blog and forums. Then she saw that it was about more than plants and gardening — it was about connection. The people who participated in the forums and commented on the blog started to care about one another and saw they have things in common besides gardening.
Like planting tomatoes without expectation or attachment to how much the plants will yield, Gayla’s work is karma yoga, an act of service offered without knowing or expecting the outcome. Despite all of her knowledge and skill-sharing, she “still feels a sense of wonder in the garden, and the excitement of discovery. My rooftop and community gardens are a way of being attuned to the seasons and the environment. It requires taking instruction from the natural world and being more in tune with what’s happening.
“There is an element of ritual in the repetitive nature of the activity,” she continues. “The routine depends on the time of year and what’s going on. I go outside, tend to the plants — it’s a good way to start the day, just looking at the plants.”
Any committed gardener knows that gardens can be sacred spaces. And with Gayla as guide, inspiration and fellow explorer, aspiring and seasoned gardeners are accessing the tools and support to create these kinds of spaces in their cities, towns and neighbourhoods.
“I love the idea of people coming into contact with gardening and doing it in their lives, especially if they’re doing it in a mindful way. Gardening is a way to connect with the self, and with something bigger than the self.”
Roseanne Harvey is growing her second herb garden on her back balcony. This year, she’s committed to watering it more often.
“What brought you to this work?”
I am asked something along those lines at least once a week. My quick answer is usually “It’s in my blood.” But when I have the time to elucidate, I explain that my current work as an eco-chef and author working to create a more just, healthy, and sustainable food system is rooted in summers spent with my grandparents as a child. Both of my grandfathers grew up in rural Mississippi, and they lived and worked on farms owned by their families. Similar to many Southern African Americans of their generation, when they moved to an urban center — Memphis, in their case — they brought memories, survival skills, and a connection to the natural environment from their years living in “the country.”
My grandparents had gardens, and they grew most of their food. Paw Paw, my paternal grandfather, converted his whole half-acre backyard into an urban oasis. During summers, my sister, cousins and I would help Paw Paw plant, tend, harvest, shell, shuck and snap everything from acorn squash to zucchini. Many of his neighbors had their own gardens as well.
A few blocks over, my maternal grandparents had a backyard garden too. It wasn’t as large as Paw Paw’s, but it produced enough food to feed the greedy mouths of over half a dozen grandkids that spent summers at their house. Ma’Dear preserved dozens of jars of food for leaner months. In her kitchen, she kept a cupboard crowded with glass jars full of pickled pears, peaches, green tomatoes, carrots and green beans; apples and figs, sauerkraut and blackberry jam; and her not-to-be-forgotten Chow Chow — cabbage, peppers, green tomatoes and onions finely chopped, cooked for five hours and served with leafy greens such as collards, mustards or turnips. Much of her preserves came from her neighbours’ surplus.
As a part of the seasonal ritual of mindfully producing, cooking and sharing food, the formal and informal kinship networks of my childhood were building community in the healthiest way. But now, all of the gardens and fruit trees have disappeared from my grandparents’ neighbourhoods. And many of the denizens of their communities are suffering from hypertension, diabetes and other diet-related illnesses. In fact, recent statistics have revealed that Southern states have some of the highest rates of hypertension, diabetes and other obesity-related illnesses in the country, and that a disproportionate number of people of colour are plagued with these illnesses. Those statistics would probably be different had there been more access to the type of foods that were abundant in these communities just two decades ago.
Because so many in Southern states are dealing with this health crisis, people are eager to hear about solutions. My memories of these communities and the history of similar ones across the South have moved me to shift the focus of my work and start a new initiative. The Southern Organic Kitchen Project is intended to educate African Americans living in the Southern United States about the connections between diet and health and co-create strategies to increase access to local and sustainably grown foods in their communities. Ultimately, the goal is to help people remember. It’s in their blood.
Based in Oakland, CA, eco-chef Bryant Terry is a Food & Society Policy Fellow (W. K. Kellogg and Fair Food foundations) and co-author of Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen. His upcoming book will be a resource for African Americans searching for healthier ways of eating, but not at the expense of what they imagine as their traditional foods.
the conscious table
After teaching cooking classes for a few years, I began to wonder why people (including myself) sometimes stop from creating health, even when they know how. I wanted to find a new way to inspire people in how they related to preparing and eating food.
During silent meals at meditation retreats and ashrams, with all distractions removed and attention focused on what I am eating, I have received the abundance of simple food. In silence, every grain of rice is a wonder. The vegetables’ colours carry me to the fields under the sun where they have been grown and harvested. With a quiet focus on gratitude while eating, I am able to consider the people who have laboured over the food, from production to preparation, and the energy from the earth and sun that has gone into the food’s creation.
A couple of years ago, I developed the Conscious Table with Mindy Mortlock in San Francisco. We invited friends and other foodies to a series of focus groups at the Spirit of Life Institute. The first “official” Conscious Table dinner was held at the home of a yoga teacher and energy healer in nearby Pacifica, California. Community members who heard about the event by word of mouth gathered for a five-course meal, which Mindy and I prepared and led as a guided meditation.
Each person had a unique response to the quiet focus of the meal. One man noticed an inner dialogue about whether or not to clean the food off his plate. Another participant reflected on her habit to eat quickly, picked up in childhood around the dinner table of a busy family. Someone else joyfully discovered a variety of aromas, textures and nuances of flavour that she had never noticed before.
Although the food is organic and fresh, I see that it is the participants’ heightened presence that most affects taste and nourishment in the Conscious Table. Simply providing a space for people to experience food with awareness allows them to discover the value of health.
Follow the instructions below to host a Conscious Table event for your friends and family.
Serves: one and all
Recommended preparation time: 1 day
Duration: 3 hours (or as long as you would like)
- Invite a group of people with whom you’d like to celebrate.
- To express love with the meal you make, choose foods that are seasonal, fresh and as local as possible. Prepare a combination of lightly cooked or raw foods in order to retain their nutrients’ life force.
- Plan to present the meal through a variety of courses. Create a balanced palette of flavours, and contrasts of colours and textures. Attend to other details of presentation that delight the eye.
- Be aware of the energy you put into creating the food. Hold positive intentions for those who will be enjoying it. Ask yourself where this energy goes. Does it become one with the food? Will this energy, in turn, become a part of the person who eats it?
- When all guests have arrived, make a group intention to experience the meal as a ritual or active meditation. Make the table an altar where you offer food to yourselves and others and pay respect to the earth for sustaining you.
- Express gratitude to the people with whom you share the meal. As you share food with other people, recognize that you are also essentially one with each other.
- Prepare reflective questions ahead of time that draw awareness to aspects of the process that inspire you. Ask one person to deliver a question for reflection with each course of the meal.
- Eat in silence. Appreciate the food’s beauty and vibrancy by noticing its colours, textures, scents and tastes. Notice the life present in it and acknowledge its connection with the earth.
- Is there something new in each bite? How can you taste with your heart? What nourishes you? After the meal, share your experiences with your community.
Jill Boadway is a professional chef and cooking instructor who specializes in health-conscious vegan cuisine influenced by Ayurvedic and yogic diets. Jill is currently one of the chefs at radha yoga & eatery in Vancouver and is co-writing a cookbook with holistic nutritionist Meghan Hanrahan, to be published by timeless books in spring 2009.