The Planted Row: A city’s relationship with food

Farm Forum

My wife’s family lives just north of New York City, and we recently spent 10 days with them to celebrate my brother-in-law’s high school graduation. Thanks to the outstanding generosity of my wife’s family, we had many fun and educational experiences and ate many fantastic meals. It was our first visit back to New York since 2011, and my children were finally old enough to truly enjoy a Broadway play and some of the city’s museums. I hope they will remember the sights and sounds, smells and tastes for the rest of their lives.

While I was in there, however, I couldn’t help but notice the people of the region have a complicated relationship with food.

In one way, the people of New York City and its surrounding suburbs are much closer to their food than we are in farm country. If we’re being honest, I think most people on the Northern Plains would have to admit there’s not much diversity in the food we serve around here. From what I’ve seen, it’s mostly meat and vegetables and ranch dressing. Before you get upset, I’m not saying the food around here is bad. It’s tasty, hearty and healthy. It’s the kind of food I was raised on, and I love it. However, I think we have to admit that it’s pretty simple.

When I married my New York bride, however, I was introduced to a world of food that I had never even heard of before. My wife is Italian, and since meeting her I’ve discovered there’s a world of pasta beyond the likes seen in our local grocery aisles. And while I might have just called it all “pasta” and let that be the end of it, my wife’s people have a name for every slightly different shape of pasta and every slightly different sauce and every slightly different meat. And that’s just the Italians. In New York City, there’s a community representing just about every different ethnicity and nationality in the world. Each one has their own food culture and their own vocabulary to describe it. As innovative chefs begin blending the cooking styles of these cultures and doing ever-more-intricate things to food, they create even newer words to describe their creations.

The people in New York who consume this food are savvy to all of these intricate details, and with so many different food options packed into each block, they base their dining decisions on these details. Do you want Asian fusion cuisine for dinner or would prefer Spanish tapas and perhaps a stop at a trattoria for dessert? New Yorkers face questions like this for every meal. So, they have learned to care very much about what they put in their mouths. This makes them, in one sense, very close to their food.

However, in another sense, New Yorkers seem farther from their food than they’ve ever been. While many of them are involved with preparing food, very few of them have anything to do with actually producing the food. Oh, there might be the odd herb grown on the patio or the occasional rooftop garden, but there are very few people involved in growing food and raising livestock on the kind of scale necessary to feed a city the size of New York.

As they go about their lives, dealing with long commutes, overcrowded streets, and exorbitant living expenses, few New Yorkers have to rely on the soil and the weather to feed themselves and 155 other people. Few of them have exactly one shot to make their income for an entire year and could easily have that chance wiped out by insects or a hail storm or an October blizzard.

As I was stuck on the interstate, moving along at a crawl, taking hours to travel less than 30 miles north of the city, it occurred to me that this city with a population of almost 8 and a half million, roughly 10 times that of South Dakota, this city with all of its major attractions, wonderful art, astounding educational opportunities, lucrative business deals, and countless choices of delicious food, could not exist without the millions of acres in production agriculture throughout the country.

Think about that. When we say the average American farmer feeds 155 people, the farmers are doing that so that so 155 people don’t have to spend their days tied to the soil, tied to the grass. Those 155 people are free to spend their days in other pursuits in places like New York City. Farmers produce food so places like New York City can exist.

What happens if our country’s food infrastructure breaks down for, say, a week? I doubt there’s enough food stored in New York to feed it for a week, and as I discovered, it’s a pain to get out of the city on a normal afternoon. I can’t imagine what it might look like if more than 8 million hungry people were trying to leave the city. There would be riots. Lives would be lost.

But the people who live there don’t think about that. If they ever even see a farm, it’s because they’re on vacation. They have no concept of the work that goes into the production of food or the regulations that farmers face. They have no idea how quickly the wrong set of regulations could change farmers’ balance sheets from black to red. Yet, with such high population densities, urban areas have a lot of legislative power despite the small land area they occupy. If they aren’t careful, they could inadvertently use that power to upset the entire food system they rely on.

It’s obvious that people in large cities like New York and Los Angeles care very much about food. After all, so much of their culture is devoted to it. There must be some way we can translate their love for food into love for the people and places who produce that food.

I have an idea about how to do it, but that will be the subject of next week’s column. (Hint: it starts in the classroom.)

For now, I’m happy to be back in farm country, and I’m looking forward to a great July 4 weekend. I hope you and yours make it an Independence Day to remember and take a moment to enjoy the wide open spaces and beautiful fields and pastures that are busy feeding a hungry world.