I love good food as much as anyone else. And I love rustic food–hearty, soulful, made with care. The towers of exotic ingredients, piled onto a grand white plate, served at an exorbitant price in a high end restaurant make little sense to me. For when I see a plate, I don’t just see food, I see the stories behind it – the hands that sowed the seeds, the hands that harvested the crop, the hands that cultivated it with care. And I think of those hands – did they get their fair share?
One of the great ironies that I’ve never understood is that of farming. Why is it that those who grow our food have so little to eat themselves? Why is it that those who feed others often don’t have enough to feed their families? Why is it that those who harvest that crop don’t get to share it with their family or community? Rather, the best of it is exported to distant locales, to people who’ve never met that farmer, who’ve never visited his paddy, who’ve never seen his aged feet dipped in the wet earth as he tends to his rice?
Our affinity for global tastes has meant that so much of what’s grown never stays in the community. Instead, its sifted, packaged, and shipped many miles away to be consumed on foreign plates at unknown dinner tables. So much of the story is the lost; so much of our connection to the Earth is gone; so much of our understanding of food is connected simply to taste.
If only we understood what goes into growing a bushel of wheat, a sack of potatoes, an acre of vegetables, we would prize it more, give it the love it deserves, and respect the Earth for its offering. Yet, around the world, in countries rich and poor, I see the well-to-do waste their food. And I always wonder if they think of the toil, the love, the hardship that went into producing it. Perhaps, that’s the flaw of our world today. While we are increasingly interconnected, we are also disconnected. We don’t know the faces behind our meals. We don’t the hands behind our produce. We don’t know the hardship behind each dinner.
Traveling through India, when you get past the globalized metros, where food is in abundance for many, where growing bellies are common, where overeating is the cause of disease, you see another India that still works hard, tilling the Earth, for their daily meal. During a recent venture to the inner corners of Punjab, I got to see the true beauty of Vaisakhi. Known as a time to celebrate the harvest, we gather together, cook, eat, and share each other company’s in thanks for another harvest. But, we do little of the physical work.
The endless fields of gold, shining in the sun, are picturesque. But look a little closer, and you see a man, elderly, with a thin, sickly figure, chopping away at the stalks of wheat, piling it into stacks, working quickly to beat the rain. Dark, foreboding clouds are in the distance, with the capacity to ruin that man’s months of labor. Too much rain and the crop spoils. It’ll spoil before it even reaches the mill. So, he works rapidly. His scrawny body doesn’t seem equipped for this speed and ardor. But he keeps going. And I wonder, what fills his plate at the end of the day? Even if his crop survives the downpours, how much of it will he reap, how much of it will he share with his children? And yet, here I am, being fed endlessly, paratha after paratha. I certainly don’t mind. It’s a luxurious feast for me. But at what cost?
Why is it that we produce enough food to feed each other yet it gets distributed so unevenly? Why is it that we go to the market and keep looking for lower prices? How much lower can the prices go? How much less can we pay for the hard labor of the farmer? These are complex, contentious questions with even more complicated answers.
Recently, I attended a luncheon held by a group of community leaders. They were meeting to determine how to distribute their funds to local charities. Who should get what and how much- that was their agenda. One charity they were looking at provided food to the homeless and the needy in the community. They were quite keen on supporting this cause as it’s the holiday season and everyone deserves a nice meal. But as they tallied up the numbers, divided up the total, and wrote the checks, they pushed aside their plates to a corner of the table, plates which had half-eaten rolls of bread, small pieces of meat, and forgotten potatoes and vegetables.
Even while doing good deeds, they forgot. Just cleaning your plate is a good deed. Just sharing that plate is a good deed. But, strangely, they forgot. Or perhaps they don’t realize it. They’re accustomed to the abundance. They know it’ll be their tomorrow.
In visiting a school designed for children of the poor in Punjab, I happened to arrive at lunch time. So, I got a taste of their day – literally. The children were being served dal and two thin chapatis. The dal was watery, more liquid, less lentils. The chapatis were like air for a starved stomach, so light. And, ironically, both were served on a large thali. Yet before eating their meal, the children were taught how to say a prayer of thanks. And they did – with great dignity. And then they dove in. After just a few minutes, I saw one child cleaning his plate – licking it literally. He wanted every morsel. He couldn’t have been older than 7. He put the thali at an angle, stationed it in his mouth, and slurped the remaining bits of dal, drinking it carefully to not let any waste. And then he licked the plate.
Just a few metres away from where he sat, the school teachers had put together a little garden, sowing seeds for a few basic vegetables. The children were taught how to take care of it. They had labeled the rows, written down when they watered it last, and categorized the vegetables by variety. They’d done it with their hands.
These were the children of those have little or nothing. But they knew where their food came from. And they savored every bite that they received.
Why are we, those who are given such abundance, so disconnected from our bounty? Why do we not treasure it? Why do we not allocate enough to the hands that grow it for us? Why do we waste so much, simply because it doesn’t suit our liking? Why are there such harsh paradoxes in our world?
These are not easy questions. But if more of us asked them, we would be more mindful of our meals – of the resources they consume in getting them to the table, of the people whose lives feature on each plate.
As the Buddhist teachings tell us, we ought to be more mindful in our lives. Be more mindful of what’s presented on your plate. Eat it with respect, not greed. Eat it with love, not in haste. For the hands who grew it, may not have the chance to do the same.