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Ophir Haberer Headshot

Taking Back Ownership of Our Food

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Where does our food come from?

Most of us are not aware that we have lost 94 percent of the genetic variation of our seeds. Nor are we are we aware that less than 2 percent of the population are farmers and responsible for our food supply. We don't even know that on average, 70 billion pounds of edible food is thrown out each year. We have become so disconnected from what we eat, where it comes from, and where it goes to that we have unknowingly enabled the usurpation of our food supply by profit-driven corporations and accelerated the degradation of our beloved food system.

When I entered college, I did not know any of this. I was a naïve idealist; aspiring to change the world without even a grain of knowledge of the very bloodline of our society, "the food system." I figured food will always be plentiful for the developed countries. If all else fails, just leave it to Monsanto and other biotech companies to manufacture a genetically-modified cassava plant to withstand all droughts or enough genetically modified wheat to sustain food transfer indefinitely. I was so ignorant.

After a month at Tulane, I started volunteering in the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood most devastated by Hurricane Katrina. For the first time in my life, I was exposed to what was then coined as "a food desert," a neighborhood with almost no access to fresh food, where fast food and junk food were the norm, and besides the ventures of a few urban gardening non-profits, there were no vegetables in sight. Being involved with one gardening project led me to the next, and before I knew it, I had become so absorbed in topics of food that there was no going back. I was engrossed with where my food was coming from and where it was going; the whole cycle.

So, I started an urban gardening program for the university, The Hope Gardens Project, with the goal of helping build one garden in that neighborhood for a community center. One garden became two and so on. I had attracted a group of similar-minded students and together we were learning about sustainability and self-sufficiency while joining a network of already engaged urban farmers in New Orleans. We learned to turn our food waste into productive soil and which crops to grow when. We brainstormed together to creatively approach the 'food swamps' of New Orleans or areas with proper access to fresh produce or food in general and dependent on exploitative (or at least how I deem them as) external food providers. We even started a farmer's market for the university, so students can more directly support local producers. We transformed our meals into communal events where every individual had something to contribute and collectively we were mindful and grateful for what we needed. We consumed less, but finished every meal significantly more satisfied. We are currently working on a workshop series to equip students with the skills they need to produce their own food.

I went through an evolution of different diets, labeling myself anything from 'vegetarian' to 'vegan' to 'selective vegetarian' to 'conscious eater' along the way. By becoming more connected to the food on my plate, I had become more connected to myself. Since our lives revolve around food, to connect to food translates to actively connecting to every component of our lives. As a society we recognize that meals are the center of our community. When we gather, it tends to be during meal time, although even this daily practice has been sold out for to-go meals, television viewing, and phones actively distracting us throughout the entirety of the meal.

I am beginning to make my own bread, almond milk, and hummus, growing my own herbs and leafy greens, and performing most of my weekly shopping in farmer's markets where I buy straight from the producer. I minimize my food waste: creatively making frozen chocolate balls out of stale brownies and using produce peels to making anywhere from broth to multi-purpose cleaners. Whatever food waste I cannot salvage, I throw into my compost bin and with the help of my friends, the redworms, I render into soil I use for my backyard plot. I know where my ingredients are coming from and where they are going, and learning how to utilize each ingredient to satisfy endless amounts of taste buds and health benefits.

And I'm not saying that everyone should do exactly what I am doing. It's all about the conscious first step. If that means thinking twice about what items they are buying at the local grocery store, volunteering in their neighborhood garden once a week, or growing a single kale plant in a pot on their window sill, it still contributes to the development of a more sustainable food culture. It's amazing how fast you learn once you decide to do things on your own.

Eleanor Roosevelt once stated "if you want to control the people, control the food supply," and without even realizing it, we have been ruled over. Our celebrated democracy has been compromised. And if you think I am using hyperbolic language, make no mistake about it. I will not apologize; it only serves to wake us up. Let's bring power back to the people. Thomas Jefferson said democracy is not possible unless at least 20 percent of the population is self-sustaining on small farms. Let's grow our own food, and build communities supporting each other's production. Let's learn to do so in all kinds of spaces from neglected urban spaces to suburban backyards. The positive benefits will spill-over to all other parts of our lives.