How much place shapes food interests

As an environmental historian and a food historian, perhaps it should come as no surprise that where one lives shapes what one eats. And yet, the real transformation in my engagement with food over the past three years–since moving from Madison, Wisconsin to Stillwater, Oklahoma–has been remarkable. I realized, of course, that my involvement with so many food-related organizations and activities in Madison (Community GroundWorks, GreenHouse Learning Community, Wisconsin School Garden Network, the Center for Culture History and Environment, Community and Regional Food Systems, Slow Food UW, Madison Children’s Museum, in addition to all the potlucks and farmers markets and home canning and craft brewing) had to do with the fact they were so visible in that culture, so deeply permeated my graduate school world and the world of Madison more broadly.

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Dane County Farmers Market in Madison–Bustling, grandiose, and full of people

But it has still been a shock to move to Stillwater, Oklahoma, a town of 50,000 people with not a single restaurant advertising “local food”,* with a small farmers market that seems to be an afterthought, where students have never heard of “the food movement,” where a facebook thread on the City of Stillwater page asking residents what restaurants they’d like to see in town yields almost unanimous calls for chain and fast food restaurants.

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One of only a handful of stands at the sparsely-attended Stillwater Farmers Market.

It’s not just that it’s harder to become interested in food systems here, but that maintaining interest is also quite difficult. In the face of teaching students who are starting from scratch with these concepts, of grocery stores that do not carry organic/ethical products, of local farms that do not have community supported agriculture programs, it becomes much harder to keep up one’s own commitments.

Peer pressure is real, and the intuitive desire to follow the lead of those around us is ever-present. When questions about how we should eat hum in the air we breathe, it’s impossible not to try to answer them. But when those questions lay silent, even a finely-tuned ear cannot hear them.

In future posts, I’ll try to lay out how I’ve been working to make these questions speak a little louder here in Stillwater, and how I’ve been working with students and colleagues to answer them.

*Though 1907 Meat Co. is on the verge of making me retract this claim.

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