Historic Food as a Path to the Future

Many traditions can provide a road map for an updated food system that’s healthier and more resilient.

Putting up locally grown food for the future is ubiquitous across cultures.
Photo by Julia Skinner

For the past 150 years, we’ve experienced paradigmatic shifts in how and what we eat. New food delivery options, fast-casual concepts, meal kits, and processed foods now appear frequently. For the first time in history, we expect our markets to carry a dizzying array of foods, from meat to milk to veggies — even those very much out of season.

However, the growing, packaging, and shipping of food (sometimes called the “food system,” though it’s far more than a single system) involve incredibly complex, interconnected operations and specific resources to work as they do. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the cracks in our food system’s shiny veneer, as stores struggled to restock shelves while, at the other end of the supply chain, farmers dumped milk and eggs and killed livestock because they had no alternative.

It’s interesting that in the United States, COVID-19-related food shortages began in March, which food historian Rachel Laudan has called “the hungriest of all months of the year.” Historically, late winter and early spring were notoriously difficult for people living off the land, because food stores had been depleted and spring growth hadn’t yet appeared. Even into the 1950s and 60s, finding eggs or green vegetables in March was a challenge in much of the Northern Hemisphere, and canned or frozen foods weren’t as affordable or available as they are today.

Using Old Stories to Spin New Ones

Photo by Julia Skinner

When seeking inspiration to build more personal and equitable food systems, one of the best places to look is the past. Many parts of our past food systems, such as the forced labor of enslaved people, should be condemned. However, the past also holds stories from which to draw inspiration, hope, and practical guidance. Food historian Michael W. Twitty and farmer Leah Penniman have written about the importance of the kitchen garden and regaining sovereignty over our food supply, especially for those who face racism, discrimination, and limited access to fresh food.

Soul Fire Farm, run in part by Penniman, offers Soul Fire in the City, a program to install gardens for residents in need in Albany and Troy, New York. According to the program’s website, “In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, it is increasingly essential that we grow our own food and medicine towards self-reliance and community resilience. Soul Fire Farm is offering materials, seedlings, soil, labor, and ongoing guidance to support folks in Albany and Troy in establishing raised-bed gardens outside of their homes, drawing on community collaboration and mutual aid. We see this work as a continuation of that legacy of a long lineage of BIPOC growers who developed alternative food systems to sustain their own communities.”

Photo by Julia Skinner

Harvesting our food, or stocking up and preserving locally grown foods in-season, has been a critical part of our food ecosystems throughout much of history. Supermarkets and their galaxy of interconnected but mysterious moving parts can often feel sterile and distant. Recent increases in seed sales and other sufficiency goods may show our interest in reforming how we eat. In our new story, we’re eager to return to our food roots and transform that lumbering galaxy into a constellation of individual and community actions, done quietly in our kitchens or together on farms or in markets. These actions promise to produce something resilient and, of equal importance, something personal.

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