Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The State of the Refrigerator

It's that time of year, again.

There is always some sort of 'time of year', depending who you are. Working on a farm it's the peak season in August, September and October when everything is ripe, weed-covered, falling over and demanding your immediate attention and you are constantly exhausted. In an elementary school it's May and June, the end of the year, when students won't focus because they are infected with the energetic buzz of spring, and you are exhausted and everyone is counting down the days. As a graduate students, it's the end of the semester when everything is suddenly due, and no matter how prepared you are or how much work you have already done...there is always more. It's the work-life triage that takes place when professional, family, day-to-day and everything else in your twenty-four hours blend together into a never ending checklist of things that just  need    to        get           done.

And so, it's that time of year again. And as all my graduating classmates and I can attest, this time around we not just finishing out the semester, but finishing out the semester, a graduate school career, networking for jobs, searching for housing and (if time allows) becoming a tiny bit sentimental. It's an unexpected triple whammy: finishing school, organizing upcoming graduation festivities and preparing to re-enter what I like to call "the real world."

You may be asking yourself, "What in the world does this have to do with food?"

Well, as the past four weeks have marched squarely into the busy season, I've been observing my relationship with food. This analysis is not unusual for a person studying food policy through an academic lens, living in a household that places a high value on shared meals, desiring to grow edible delights with her own hands and understanding nutrition in a more-than-basic sort of way. The unusual part is what is happening when time is short, 'stress' is high and daily routines are anything but routine

In summary: priorities are shifted, meals are skipped, the refrigerator is bare and the pantry's contents are getting slimmer. In part, our daily free time usually spent preparing fun meals together has shifted to quick meals put together in exhaustion or between projects. Potluck social gathering, school events providing food or snacks, and anything involving the words 'free foods' will be attended. Popcorn dinners and $3 Vietnamese sandwiches from Chinatown have become staples. (Who am I kidding though, these last two have been staples throughout graduate school.)

We're eating down the contents of the pantry and refrigerator as we prepare a big move out of state. As we are trying to get rid of all our junk, stuff and everything that doesn't need to make the move to Wisconsin, neither of us is eager to stock up on anything. "Better out than in," says my pal Polly, and this is beginning to refer to our larder now too. Fruit and vegetables come from the corner store, albeit the hipster and high-end City Feed, and we buy ingredients as we need them for meals (a can of coconut milk here, two cans of tuna there). This is beginning to sound a lot like the average food purchasing patterns we study academically.

Last week, after peeking inside our refrigerator, some friends jokingly asked if we were food insecure. This garnered chuckles. Surely this is a joke only entertained by food policy graduate students. But the small piece of cheese, half-empty jar of summer relish, mustard, milk, eggs, butter and nothing else, was possibly concerning to our friends. We had a laugh, but the whole situation made me pensive: part gratitude and part big picture.

Food security is USDA lingo for measuring if people have enough to eat, and in the past has been joined with the word 'hunger'. Technically, as defined by the nice folks at the USDA 'household food security' means:

"Access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food security includes at a minimum:
  • The ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods.
  • Assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (that is, without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing, or other coping strategies)."
High Food Security is a good thing at one end of the scale. In 2009, 85 percent of US households were food secure. At the other end of the spectrum, Very Low Food Security describes folks for whom "at times during the year, eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake reduced because the household lacked money and other resources for food." Wordy, yes, but it avoids that all-to-hard-to-quantify term: hungry. Almost 6 percent of US households experienced very low food security in 2009. 

In the gratitude department, I'm thankful to be an adults with financial resources, cooking skills, nutrition understanding, a well-equipped kitchen and a value for healthy, home cooked food. If my household is unable (or unwilling) to feed ourselves well right now, it's temporary and due to our priorities. But what's it like for those without? In the big picture department, these are undoubtedly the questions that landed me back in the classroom for graduate school. What do we need to know, do, research and create in order to form an equitable food system? As I leave school, and head back into the real world, I'm not sure I have the answers. It might even be that I am more confused and have more questions than when I came in. But what I do know is that we have to keep doing this work in order to keep more refrigerators full (preferably of fresh produce...) across the country.