Urban and Rural: Eating between the lines

The urban-rural divide is a hot topic these days. We mostly hear about it in the context of politics, but it’s a phenomenon that impacts all of us and is of critical importance for any discussion of sustainable food and agriculture. As someone who lived the first half of my life in a commuter town in New Jersey and the most recent half of my life in suburban Atlanta, I have limited perspective on both urban and rural life. I’m the product of suburbia, that pleasant but bland swath of space that’s neither urban nor rural, where SUVs and minivans move kids from one location to another and strip malls act as the town-center. In considering my next career move and what part of the country I’ll live in, I’m not a huge fan of suburbia; both the urban and the rural life appeals to me much more. But perhaps my suburban background gives me a good perspective of the urban-rural divide and what that means for leading a sustainable life in general.

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Besides creating a lifestyle hooked on the automobile, what I think suburbia lacks for me is a connection to place. In the rural United States, there is a strong connection to the land, whether it’s to cornfields, mountain ranges, apple orchards, or sweeping plains. Perhaps that sounds overly pastoral but compared to suburban existence, it’s certainly true. The landscape is defined by its people and the people are in turn defined by their landscape. In the cities, there is a similar connection to place. Every graffitied wall seems to have meaning to someone, every street corner to someone else. The neighborhoods have individual identities while the skyscrapers unify them under a symbolic cityscape. Both urban and rural people have the chance to feel a “sense of place”. However different their backgrounds and lifestyles maybe, however opposing their values and politics, urban and rural people seem to share a strong understanding of their surrounding environment.

So, where does food fit into all of this? Having a sense of place and an understanding of environment is critical to valuing sustainable food. Food is a product of environment. We need to see that a bag of potato chips doesn’t just come magically from the shelf at Walmart, we need to know that a McDonalds hamburger patty actually comes from cattle, we need to learn that while our city might not be in a drought, the regions that produce our almond milk might be having a water crisis. One would expect that rural residents might see, feel, and understand these connections quite easily. But I think urban residents as well have the potential to extend their sense of place to where their food comes from. I recently came across a thought-provoking TED Talk by Denver architect and urban planner Brad Buchanan. Check it out:

Brad exudes a passion for having a “sense of place”, both as a proud urban Denverite and as a cattle rancher in rural Colorado. While most of Brad’s presentation isn’t about sustainable food, I think he sheds light on the necessity of bridging the gap between urban and rural places. Suburbia is an attempt to bridge that gap, by creating safe, quiet communities for people to raise their children “closer to nature” (i.e. lawns, gardens, and trees) while maintaining the convenience of a nearby urban area. Personally, I think the suburbia model is failing, both culturally and environmentally. I believe that to advance food sustainability for an increasingly-urban population, we need to focus on improving our urban spaces rather than on expanding them outwards. We should instill a ” sense of place” in the future generation by advocating for mixed-use development, giving cities a connection to their surrounding rural regions, and emphasizing the importance of the environment in food production.

Obviously suburbia won’t go away and it’s a stretch to imagine an urban existence that is truly connected to the environment. But I think more and more we’re seeing people in cities seeking that connection; there’s the “locavore” movement, the push for urban greenspace, urban community gardens and farms, etc. These aren’t the only answers to feeding cities sustainably, and cities will continue to rely heavily on the rural environment as the true backbone of our food system. This is why I believe that sustainable food is the perfect point at which to bridge the widening urban-rural divide. As a country, we can’t lose sight of our surrounding environment. Realizing that the food we eat is a product of our environment, no matter how rural or urban our own existence, might just bring us one step closer to a sustainable food future.

The Diet Question

I was eating dinner out last night with several friends and some of their other friends when I was asked a question I get pretty often: “If you don’t mind me asking, and I hope this isn’t too personal, why don’t you eat meat?” As much as I focus on food, agricultural sustainability, and environmentalism as some of my main interest-areas, I typically keep my dietary rationale to myself at the dinner table. There are several reasons for this:

  1. I try to avoid coming across as judging others’ food choices when I in no way do that (I mostly just care about what food I’m putting in my own mouth).
  2. Diet is both a highly cultural and highly individual choice and can bring up quite personal subjects (i.e. environmental ethics, animal welfare, health issues, religious doctrine, etc.)–and can be uncomfortable to discuss for some while eating.
  3. Personally, I view my food choices as tiny votes that add up over time both for my own well-being and the well-being of the environment. I’m happy to share my votes as a jumping-off point for discussion but not as a vehicle to “convert” others.

I do, however, want people in general to become more comfortable discussing their dietary choices, the background behind their food, and the major challenges and solutions for sustainable agriculture. The dinner table is a potentially great place for this, and I hope to learn more about how to best start these sorts of conversations in the future.

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Part of the reason for my own discomfort in discussing these topics is my own personal conflict with diet. The diet I eat right now I usually call “sugarfree plant-based” (some might call it pescatarian), and I’ve been at it for about a year and a half. I try to focus more on what I do put into my body than what I avoid eating, though inevitably I have several restrictions. I mostly look for high-energy/protein sources from plants (beans, nuts, rice), throw in some healthy veggies and leafy greens, and turn to eggs, cheese, and seafood either when I’m craving it or when it’s the most convenient option. Right now I am living at home with my parents so I’m back to eating more eggs, dairy, and seafood than when I was on my own for the past year. They are already very accommodating of my food choices, and I don’t want to complicate family meal prep even more.

My personal “diet journey” started long ago over a life-long conflict with sugar. I have always had an insane sweet tooth. As a little kid I would binge on straight packets of Swiss Miss hot cocoa powder, sneak chocolate baking morsels from the basement pantry, and concoct a beverage I called “maple milk” mixing about 3 tablespoons of maple syrup into a glass of milk and proceeding to chug it down. In high school, both my sister and I were tested and diagnosed with insulin resistance (also known as pre-diabetes). We were advised to consume a sugarfree diet to stabilize our blood sugar levels, help reverse the insulin resistance, and prevent the progression to Type 2 Diabetes.

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I struggled for several years with the sugarfree diet. I would start it, go cold turkey, and then regress and go on binging sprees inducing lethargic comas of sugary stupor. I was an addict. Sugar controlled all my other food choices, my daily energy levels, and my emotional stability. When I was eating sugarfree, I was eating healthily, and I took care of my overall physical and emotional well-being. When I was eating sugar, I let everything go, turning junk food into meals, staying up late into the night, and dragging throughout the day until my next dose of sugar. I finally got control of it and for the past year I have maintained a highly stable sugarfree diet.

My other major dietary choice has to do with the environment. A year and a half ago, I had already started reducing my meat consumption at college but finally decided to stop eating it altogether. I have continued eating eggs, dairy, and seafood throughout this transition period and right now, I am very comfortable with my diet, and feel good about the food choices I make on a daily basis. When I’m back on my own again, I do hope to continue transitioning to an even more environmentally-friendly diet, possibly cutting out eggs, dairy, and seafood even more. I could see myself easily going full vegan in my life on my own but still maintaining a more flexible vegetarian diet when eating with others. I am always conscious of my diet being a burden on others’ cooking plans, or over-complicating social gatherings or outings.

I’ll certainly write more going forward about my personal choices related to meat consumption, food environmental footprints, and sustainable diets, and I’d love to hear from anyone about your own food choices and diet journeys!