The Dark Upside to Education

While on sabbatical I’m taking a couple of classes in KVCC’s new sustainable culinary arts program – to what end, I don’t yet know, but it’s such a great idea for a program I thought it was worth exploring. Rachel Bair’s Sustainable Food Systems course just wrapped up, and, though I’ve taught a bit about the topic in an environmental philosophy class I offer, I couldn’t be more glad that I took it. For one thing, it was good to see what an intro-level course looks like from the students’ side of the room! But, more importantly, there were all sorts of things I learned more about than I knew before (e.g., migrant farm labor in Michigan, consolidation in the meat industry, how food assistance reflects issues in the larger economy), and I met some really passionate and interesting people.

There’s a kind of dark upside to taking this course though. If your main interaction with the food system is at places like the farmers’ market and the Co-op, it’s pretty easy to feel upbeat about food. With a little knowledge of cooking and your budgetary priorities properly set (or if you just have a lot of money), it’s possible to eat very well here in Kalamazoo. But when you are forced to focus on the overall food system, the beat slows. While there are pockets of goodness (like the farmers’ market and the Co-op), and smart and decent people trying to change all sorts of things for the better, the reality is that, for all the apparent abundance of American food, underneath it lies a cesspool of environmental degradation, worker exploitation, animal abuse, consolidated corporate and political power, and ill health.

I get a little cross-eyed – or cross-souled, more like it – trying to keep both of these things in focus: the goodness I’m fortunate to experience in my own food life daily, and the badness of the system. And that’s the challenge a class like Rachel’s leaves you with: when you see the system behind the food, it’s hard to focus on the goodness of your food, but if you don’t see the system, there’s no way to change it for the better.

I’m hopeful that these new initiatives at KVCC (which it should be said are in no small part possible because of Bronson), will lead to some positive changes in the local food system. As it matures, it promises to grow grads who have been exposed to all sorts of good ideas and practices that they probably would otherwise not have had the chance to learn, and to plant them in the food world ready to act.

Still, I worry that the culinary program will simply crank out cooks who will have no choice but to take low-paying restaurant jobs. For even though there is, apparently, an industry-wide shortage of trained cooks, even in such a labor market, working as a cook in a decent restaurant is not much of a way to pay the bills (I recently learned of an experienced line cook at one of the nicest restaurants here in Kalamazoo who makes under $10/hr.; and the BLS puts average wages for cooks in MI in the very low $20ks). And working conditions in the restaurant industry are no small part of the overall problems with our food system: not only are wages low for jobs that require very hard work, but problems of racism and sexism go very deep.

That points to maybe the biggest lesson from these last 8 weeks of class, that our food system is but one element of our current political-economic system, so to “fix” the food system we have to take on the (now global) mechanisms of wealth production and distribution much more broadly. We all know how well that’s going.

Being alone with that thought is no small cause for despair. The key, then, is not to be alone, to find ways to work with others, to tackle the small but meaningful projects that are within reach, to reach out to others doing the same, and so to build the world we want. I’m hopeful that the social networks that emerge from KVCC’s programs will facilitate just this sort of collaborative push forward.

But for the moment, I’m just going to go lose myself in a slice of homemade bread and slathered with last summer’s blueberry jam.

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