I thought that writing a “This I Believe” essay about food would be easy. Food is something I’ve thought so much about over the last few months, something that I’ve explored and been connected to more than I ever thought possible. The thing is, I’m not entirely sure what I believe specifically. Before coming to Chewonki I didn’t give food a whole lot of thought. I stopped eating meat in middle school simply because I didn’t like the taste; at one point I had to lose weight, and for months food was reduced to the number of calories it contained; I mostly just ate whatever was on my plate. And then I found myself in a place where food is a more integral part of daily life than I had ever experienced. So many people here have strong opinions about farming, or cooking, or eating locally or organically, or whether or not animals should be sources of food. At first I was overwhelmed. I had only a vague idea about how I felt about food-related issues, let alone the ability to articulate my opinions. One afternoon, during my second week at Chewonki, I was chatting with Lesley, one of the cooks, and suddenly panicked, realizing that I had absolutely no idea what I thought of the topic she had just mentioned. She told me not to worry and assured me that I’d have plenty of time to explore and figure things out.
So I started asking questions. At first they were pretty basic: What kind of vegetable is this? Is there really always a short reading or grace before dinner? (Yes, there is, and it’s a tradition I really hope to take home with me in a few weeks.) But as I got more and more settled into my new life at Chewonki, my questions became more complex. Shortly after arriving I decided to try eating vegan – just as an experiment, I thought at first, to see what it was like. I hadn’t felt sick previously, but after a few days I felt so much better physically – which led to more questions. Why? Was this vegan thing really something I wanted to stick with – and if so, why? (“It just feels right” hardly seemed like a reason.) Would it actually be possible in the world beyond Chewonki? I started peppering people with questions about their beliefs about food – specifically, about eating meat and other foods from animals (hopefully I didn’t make anyone too uncomfortable). Some people felt very strongly about animal rights, while others shared their feelings about eating meat from local farms, or that they had hunted themselves. For the most part the opinions that they shared didn’t change the views that I was starting to form, but they raised more questions, ones I kept realizing I didn’t have the answers to… or were there answers? Is there a right or wrong way to eat?
Another time, in Farm Talk, my classmates and I were divided into “families” – groups of four or five, each assigned a different weekly food budget and a variety of options to spend it on. My three classmates saw the budget our group received as miniscule, which was eye-opening in itself, as our weekly budget was significantly more than what my family of three can afford to spend. Arguments ensued over whether we could afford fresh greens, or local meat, or organic fruit. More questions came to mind, ones I knew we couldn’t even begin to answer in the few minutes that we had for the activity. How do you decide what food you can afford? Our “family” wasn’t poor, but we certainly weren’t rich and couldn’t afford many of the local and organic options on our list of choices. Was it really worth it to pay more for a comparable food – or was it really comparable? Did choosing conventional or organic or local make that much of a difference to our budget? Our health? The farmers involved? The environment? How do you determine who or what to support with your wallet?
I believe in asking questions – about many things, but especially about food. Where it comes from, how it affects those involved in its production (not just humans). I believe in asking other people what they believe. I’ve encountered some perspectives I totally agree with and others I don’t, but all of them have gotten me thinking about what I put in my body and why. Though there are some food-related issues I’m still not sure how I feel about, there are also some that I now have strong opinions about, and I’m starting to feel confident that I can articulate them. Exploring the many decisions that you can make about food has made me think more seriously and deeply about food than I ever have before. I believe that asking questions doesn’t lead to answers – far from it. In many cases, it only leads to more questions – and more confusion, because the more I think and learn about food, the more I realize I don’t know. I believe that asking questions about food certainly doesn’t lead to simple answers and easy decisions, but it does lead to a greater appreciation of the complexity of one of our most basic needs.
-Charlotte Zelz, John Bapst Memorial High School, ME