Here’s the Real Food Journey of our ’15 Spring Semester Local Food Intern, Lisa Denny:
I was seven when I ate my first peach. Mother presented the freshly cut yellow-orange flesh of the sweet, common stone fruit in a plain white dish. It came from a tree in our backyard, and yet the snack seemed foreign. I squinted at the sharp, rusty orange ridges where the flesh had parted from the pit, and the downy fuzz on its water-colored skin. I had to face a little fear of the unfamiliar to convince myself to try a bite of what my family was enjoying so much. The furry texture was so peculiar, and then met with a juicy, sweet experience that I had to have again! What a peach!
Navigating through the modern food system, one ponders about the food they eat and why they like the foods they choose. My real food journey began when I tasted something strange and new, and came to find that it was wholesome and delicious, and it connected to me.
“Clean your plate.” “Don’t ask what it is, just eat it.” These are the well-meaning words from my parents still ringing in my ears. I was raised not to be a picky eater, and to eat hardily. As the youngest child of three, my parents wanted to ensure that I developed a diverse palate, and I was taught to clean my plate, whatever was on it. I was lucky, because our family usually enjoyed wholesome meals cooked from scratch, which were often partly sourced from less than 20 feet away, in our garden.
Our neighbor across the street growing up was a local farmer who would gift us fresh produce from his farm stand. I didn’t understand as a child why the farmer had to sell the land and stop growing food for our neighbors but I know now that the economic reality of farming is harsh. I still miss the sweet white corn from his farm; there’s a Quick Trip where his farm used to be, and they don’t have fresh corn.
I was also fortunate to learn early about the connection between nature and food. We had a small orchard of citrus, apples, and stone fruits, and my parents would grow vibrant gardens in the back yard. In my youth I watched sunflowers sprout from the soil, to be harvested for seeds that would be roasted fresh at home, and enjoyed hot from the oven. I helped harvest peaches and apples for cobblers and homemade applesauce; and most of my afternoons were spent in the highest branches of the citrus trees.
We also learned that food is all around us! My father took us on annual family camping trips at Woods Canyon Lake on the Mogollon Rim where we would fish river trout to bring home for dinner. We went to berry farms in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest to pick our own berries, mostly filling our tummies instead of buckets; I have fond memories in one thicket, of crouching near the earth and cautiously navigating thorny vines to find the darkest, ripest berries on the vine.
These early experiences in nature connected me to the land and shaped my worldview, in turn adding to an awe-inspiring recipe of what, for me, makes real food.
Now slightly older and working in the food service industry as a server and bartender, I’ve found it provides a unique perspective on what people like to eat and what restaurant owners will purchase for their kitchens. In this industry I’ve been fortunate to develop connections with chefs and restaurant owners, and find inspiration in their passion for good food, prepared from the best ingredients, with carefully executed technique and lots of love.
I’ve also come back full circle and now grow my own container garden of herbs and vegetables; an endeavor which, I might add, has also initiated me into a new world of gardeners and farmers who shared their growing tips, surplus produce, supplies, and regionally adapted seeds. The day those first tiny green shoots poke up from the planter is such a rewarding and exciting experience, even more so when the plots are ready for harvest, and fresh herbs and savory vegetables go right from my garden to the kitchen.
One of the most eye-opening experiences in life, though, has been embarking on my academic career at the ASU School of Sustainability. It’s here that I’ve really dug into a deeper understanding of the systems dynamics that connect the environment to human society and our economy.
I learned here that many of the mainstream agricultural practices of today are wildly unsustainable. An integrated system of plant and animal production practices is needed to protect our society’s long-term security. Buying food, locally from farms I know use sustainable practices gives me peace, knowing I have helped ensure the economic viability of farm operations, and helped enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
Unfortunately, it seems these days that we are still surrounded by food that isn’t food. The processed food products churned out en masse by global food corporations are becoming more devoid of nutrients and more laden with preservatives, additives, and synthetic flavors. In this system the distance between people and their food is ever increasing. In fact, now the average distance food travels to get to our plates is 1,500 miles!
I want to eat in a way that encourages respect for the land, the environment and the earth’s natural cycles. I want my kale salad to remind me that there are biotic community interpersonal relationships at play. I want my roasted beets to imitate the complex universe of soil from which it came. I want my banana to revive in my mind that we are all part of an ecological network. I want my peach to taste good.
I am an advocate for localization, especially as it pertains to food. A local food economy enriches the local community and connects buyers and consumers directly to local producers. These connections forge valuable relationships that strengthen community bonds and social infrastructure. People feel connected to the land on which they live, providing a sense of place.
Sourcing closer to home provides the individual with intimate knowledge about their food, impacting lifestyle choices regarding health and happiness. Local food systems promote healthy social, environmental, economic interactions, in turn creating resilient urban communities. As demand for the local food market grows, farmers are enabled to produce closer to home, inspiring time-honored traditions of working with the land, the soil, the climate and the community to engage in food production.
As a Local Food Systems Intern at Local First Arizona, I’ve enjoyed the wonderful learning opportunity of working behind the scenes on a team of passionate individuals working to create positive change for the local communities across the state. This experience has allowed me to see how citizens can collaborate with each other to transform their local food system, and their world for the better.
Food is an integral part of our lives, our social interactions, and in the big picture, serves as an indicator of the health of the larger community.
Real food nurtures the whole being, providing nutrients conducive to living well, having a healthy physical body, and serving to sustain a sound mind and spirit. Real food is sustainable. Real food is nourishing, healing, and regenerative.
I like to eat close to the earth, packing my diet with greens, herbs, fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes that were produced slowly and naturally. When I source and prepare food with this holistic mindset, I feel better in every way.
Real food is like a treasured friendship; you know your origins, and look forward to where you’re going. Discovering what real food is requires bravery; you might have to try new things and be a food vagabond to reach your destination. I daily find that the trek is worth the effort, because real food is delicious and your real food journey is the journey of a lifetime.