When I decided to spend my summer working on the Yale Farm I must admit to feeling like quite the rebel. "I've done the office thing," I thought to myself, "and I hated it." When my friends asked what I intended to gain from this experience I simply told them to enjoy their ties and desks -- no cubicle walls would contain this renegade. The truth is, though, that I really didn't have a good answer for them. I basically applied for the position in a fit of melancholy; unwilling to bare my neck for the corporate yoke I craved something "different." Even now I'm not sure what I meant by that. Working in the dirt seemed like a nice break at the time -- there was something appealingly edgy about it.
My first few weeks on the job were spent operating under this pretense. It was certainly interesting to learn about all of the edible flowers in our garden and use the tiller for the first time; even so something felt terribly hollow about the whole thing. To be frank, it didn't seem important. I began to feel quite deflated about my choice; I had escaped the proverbial "system," sure, but now what? There wasn't much I could do at that point except think about how best to spin "Farm Internship" on my résumé. "Weekly farmer's market provided a glimpse of the economy on a true micro scale." Now that's perspective! I'd have the interviewer eating out of the palm of my hand. "Pricing of vegetables in context of the larger (farmer's) market was real time exercise in commodities valuation." Everything would be just fine.
That's more or less where I was mentally when our farm played host to a group of visitors that would provide me with an abrupt awakening. The farmers from the Urban Foodshed Collaborative, a program that gives youth from New Haven paid internships to farm on unused city lots, came by to shadow us for two days. Aside from being a pleasure to have around, these young men and women inadvertently taught me an extraordinary lesson. At lunch the first day I asked one of the new farmers if they would pass the hummus down the table to me, a routine request. I was a little surprised, though, when this young man asked "what's hummus?" I explained it, but didn't really think much of it after that; it's not the most common food out there after all. As the day wore on, however, and I and the other interns fielded more and more questions about different types of produce on the farm, I realized that there existed a massive gap between our respective food backgrounds.
Many of these youth, through no fault of their own, lived in places where access to fresh fruits and vegetables was severely limited -- if available at all. Like any concerned individual, I was previously aware that many urban neighborhoods suffered in this manner -- but I had never met anyone for whom this was an everyday reality. As we stood there in the squash patch, though, I bore witness to tangible victims of our nation's broken and destructive food system. Why did I get to know what hummus, tofu or even squash was -- and not them? There was no good reason -- only a million bad ones.
Things didn't seem quite so unimportant after that. I knew then why it was important that us six interns spent our summers learning how to produce food while respecting the land from which it came. As long as industrial farms are allowed to dominate and destroy the landscape, propped up by corn and other subsidies, artificially cheap and unhealthy food will continue to sustain a large majority of our population for whom there are few other options. With this comes the host of side effects, largely medical, that we are all becoming uncomfortably familiar with. Indeed, agricultural reform is one of the key issues our country must face if it truly desires to give each of its citizens a fair shake. By teaching and encouraging sustainable farming techniques we have the opportunity to provide every American the same chance to enjoy a healthy lifestyle. Until then, however, we face the prospect of having a portion of our population face unfair and unfavorable conditions that they did nothing to deserve.