I spent Friday on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, headed from San Jose to Santa Barbara. Though I didn’t venture into the train’s dining car, I still learned a bit about California’s food systems during the eight-hour ride.
Train windows expose riders to a much different version of reality than the one usually visible from a car window. Lacking a driver’s license, I’ve always been a bit of a passive road-trip nose-to-window offender. Thanks to a childhood spent driving back and forth between my grandparents’ home in Iowa and my home in California, I’d like to think I’ve familiarized myself with the cattle pastures and subsidized monocultures of corn and soy that dominate much of our country’s roadside landscapes.
Apart from these common agricultural scenes, cars also funnel passengers into a very structured food experience. Billboards tout the flavors of nearby restaurants, and road signs count down the mileage to the nearest fast food drive-through window.
This highly structured experience matches the carefully constructed charade through which many customers interact with and experience their food. For instance, grocery stores are laid out to channel customers into the middle aisles, where brand-name, processed foods are located. Bulk goods are hidden in the rear of the store, and produce can usually be found on the outer aisles. Even shelf placement is key. The top racks tend to be reserved for smaller brand names, the best sellers are found in the middle and the bottom shelf can even be targeted specifically toward children’s eyes.
This strategic layout decision also encourages shoppers to buy more, and for the most part, this stealthy campaign has been successful. One study by the Point of Purchase Advertising Institute showed that up to two-thirds of buyers’ purchases are unintended and occur in-store.
Buying food at grocery stores and being served meals at restaurants can also divorce consumers from the history of their food. Without exposure to farms or even basic food preparation, many Americans are disconnected from their food sources. In her book “Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back,” Ann Vileisis argues that this disconnect is what drives the health and environmental crises of our industrialized food society. While there are certainly other factors contributing to America’s obesity epidemic and the growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, Vileisis has, I think, identified one of the large and immediate opportunities for change in our food systems.
Sure, there are ways to beat the structured system at the grocery store by buying a colorful array of produce items and seeking out “real foods” on the perimeter of the grocery store, but this is not enough to address our societal disconnect with food.
Already, this disconnect has been greatly reduced for subsets of America, following the Michael Pollan era of “sustainable foods.” Heightened awareness about the environmental and social implications of our eating behaviors has encouraged many individuals to revisit their agricultural roots and explore the sources of their food.
While watching the country’s Salad Bowl (Salinas), Garlic Capital (Gilroy) and Artichoke Capital (Castroville) pass by my train window this weekend, I was struck by just how accessible farming systems are in California. Stanford students complain of isolation in “the bubble,” as campus is sometimes called. But you don’t need to take a train to visit a farm. Just outside of Campus Drive Loop lies a well-kept Stanford secret: We have a community farm!
Almost every Sunday afternoon from around 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., the farm educator and his team host a workday and pizza party using the wood-fired oven. Everyone is welcome to join, and no prior knowledge is assumed or required.
These work parties are an opportunity for Stanford students to bridge the gap between food consumption and production. They provide a wonderfully experiential way to actively engage in our campus food system.
As exciting as it was to watch California’s agricultural abundance flow past my window on a train, actually setting foot on a farm or in a garden is ultimately a much better way to learn about agriculture and reconnect with your food’s origins.
Want to make Jenny’s favorite jalapeno and butternut-squash pizza on the farm? Email her at jrempel “at” stanford “dot” edu.