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Yo Utano Essay

There is something wrong with this world I live in. Why does this air taste so bad? Why is this river so dirty? Why do people over there starve while so much food is thrown out here? Why do people kill each other? Why are so many people depressed? What’s wrong with them?

No matter how busy I am, I have to eat and sleep properly. Nothing comes before those, since I would become considerably inefficient and grumpy otherwise. Eating is not about putting food into my mouth and digesting it, but also includes attachment to food through cooking. Cooking is not only about chopping, frying or boiling, but also getting ingredients and cleaning. As long as I am doing these deeds properly, I feel fine. I should not apply my logic to everybody else, but there must be a link between the problems in this world and the way people eat.

On the other hand, food is not only necessary to maintain our physical and mental health, but also important as a catalyst for interactive relations between people. It brings people together beyond the difference in culture and generation.

Food pleases us, torments us, and keeps us together. In this multi-dimensionality, I see many problems and solutions, pains and hopes, all at the same time. Coming from the countryside in Japan to Toronto where I once found was a very depressing place, I have sought a hope through my encounter with a park and the community surrounds it.

A significant portion of my thoughts over food originates from the way I grew up. By the time they were in my age, my parents had fostered a certain degree of anti-establishment spirit through the student movement in the 70s, and by the time I was born they had a clearer vision of the lifestyle that would lead to what a just society should be. After taking several steps of preparation, they settled in a small island located in the west end of Japan with their three children, where they started living as self-sufficiently as they could. That was when I was seven years old. My sister, my brother and I went to a public school, but farmwork and housework would often be prioritized to schoolwork or classes, since eating what was good for us and the process of learning how to obtain such food were incomparably significant to our family. Although my family was often seen to be weird, I did know as a child that growing rice and vegetables, raising animals, and processing or cooking them would mean a lot more than what was taught in class.

My parents have also been active in social movements. Be it exploitation of natural resources by industrial capitalism, expanded inequalities as a result of money economy and free trade, or endless idiotic wars…when facing an issue, the more seriously one considers about it, the broader the issue becomes, and its interconnectedness to millions of other issues seems so overwhelming. With this picture of the web of connected problems in their mind, being independent of global food system through self-sufficiency was where my parents reached to answer the problems in their way, as well as getting involved in local or global movements.

Food is connected to everything, and I believe it is also the root of everything. Therefore, eating should be “an agricultural act”, not “an agricultural product” (Berry, 1990). From ‘putting food into my mouth’ to ‘planting, harvesting and cooking’, expanding the responsibility of eating is the idea I would like to share with as many people as possible. I must admit that the way my family lives is not possible to everybody, but ‘right eating’ can be done in different degrees depending on people—the place they live, their occupations or situations.

Living in a city like Toronto, food can easily become hardly anything but a product that goes through my body according to my needs and wants. At the supermarket, I would throw food in the cart according to my taste and its price, because I take for granted that anything is available regardless of its locality or seasonality. I do not know exactly what can be grown in Ontario at what time of the year. The little stickers on vegetables and fruits tell me where they come from, but the distance they had traveled does not reflect the price. I become even more puzzled with processed food, which is so cheap despite of greater time and work it should have consumed. What is the story behind of these facts in the supermarket? It makes me feel like throwing up everything I just ate.

Current food system that is dominated by transnational corporations stands on the principle of the maximum productivity and efficiency (Baker, 1999). With the free trade agreement in their hands, corporations prioritize their profit to anything else while trampling socially disadvantageous people and the environment, and “the highest level of profit is made on the most processed, usually the least nutritious, food” (Field, 1999, p.197).

Environmental conservation, social equity, human health, and other ethics like seasonality and locality are all sacrificed for the profit of the few. Lauren Baker introduces the case of tomatoes grown in Mexico for export, which exploits local peasants and indigenous migrants while damaging the local environment through intensive monocrop production. In Mexico, under NAFTA and World Trade Organization agreements after the debt crisis, many of the farmers could no longer support themselves by farming in the presence of cheap products from the U.S. These farmers and marginalized indigenous people from other states would come to work on tomato plantations for wages as low as $4 per day (Baker, 1999). After being harvested, the tomatoes are disinfected by chlorine, waxed, packed, and refrigerated until the order comes in. Then they are gassed so that they ripen quickly, and travel in refrigerated trucks to their destination—3,000 kilometers, if they have to come to Toronto (Baker, 1999). While I throw tomatoes into the cart at the supermarket, Mexican workers who cannot afford the tomatoes they picked or corns grown in local farms would buy corns from the U.S., even though they taste different from what they are used to (Friedmann, 1999). I also buy tomatoes from Mexico because they are cheaper than locally grown ones. This is the myth in the current global food system, and what is very frightening is that it is normal in this world. It is not easy to notice this oddness when we are in the city where source of food is very far, and where competition constantly rushes us and leaves us little time to think. Even if we notice, getting out of the global food system is not a simple task. People, especially those who with low income are always under the pressure generated by limited time and money.

One cannot just argue that we all must take actions for a change, since there is no way of defining who is “we”. I have been concerned about environmental degradation mostly because I was always surrounded by nature as I grew up. I could not help thinking that environmental conservation must come first to be considered. On the other hand, there are people who cannot afford to care for the environment because of other problems they face; some struggle with their daily survival, others have to fight for their rights to be treated as human— such a basic human rights that I have never had to concern myself. The notion that environmental concern is rather luxury matter has made it seem more relevant to me that the haves should pay extra care so that the overall impact of human race becomes smaller. Especially on a global scale, the large part of environmental degradation is attributed to demand in the developed countries. How can we, the haves, call for the action of human race as a whole?

Yet, as I mentioned in the beginning, global issues are interconnected to one another and local issues are likewise. In a city or a community within which inequality also exists, every person should still eat in the environmentally responsible way, since what is good for the environment is certainly good for people. I would like more people in the city to actually realize what it means to buy healthy vegetables from local organic farms, or at least to cook one’s own meal at home, instead of buying a packaged food with a familiar logo and unknown stories behind.

The challenge is; how can I suggest accessible alternative instead of relying all on global food system? And how can I draw more people’s attention to those alternatives?

Dufferin Grove Park is located in the west of downtown Toronto. Across the street, there is a shopping mall that contains a supermarket chain and franchised fast food restaurants. Like other parts of the city, the community consists of multi-cultural residents, but Portuguese seems the biggest cultural group of all (J. Mason, 2006). The neighborhood appears wealthier in the west, and becomes less so as one goes to the east.

The park is operated by the City of Toronto, Parks and Recreation Division, and supported by the “friends of Dufferin Grove Park”—users who are friendly to the park (Dufferin Grove Park website, “About Us”, 2005). It is very innovative in terms of the informal connection between the park users and the staff hired by the city. Most of the park’s projects have been planned through collaborative works of the “friends” and the staff, who help the “friends” to try to utilize the public space for themselves.

The Park started to shape the way it is now in 1992, when Dufferin Mall offered $20,000 for park’s new playground equipment, in compensation for its expansion (website, 2004). Jutta Mason, one of the park’s longest and the most devoted friend, worked as a bridge between the community and the city to create the real public space for the community where the park’s feature and function would reflect user’s voice. From the following year, various projects have been actualized. In 1993, the basketball court and the ice rink were built, and the first children’s garden was put in. The first communal oven was built in 1995, the second in 2000, the farmer’s market begun in 2002, and more gardens have been put in in the course of time. Another interesting feature is cob-courtyard, made of cob—a building material with clay, sand and straw mixed together by foot, and applied by hand. It was built in the spring of 2005 as a community project, for which many of the community members worked together to make an outdoor gathering place. It looks like a tiny town with doorways, windows, arches, and artworks such as mosaics and sculptures. Electricity, water and fireplace are available during the warm seasons to provide food for children in the playground or friends’ meeting. A composting toilet project is also underway, and going to be built with cob in the summer of 2007.

All the projects and events are informed to the community through the monthly newsletter, well-established website, or simply through word of mouth. The park has grown into a well-used public space where locals can feel safe and easy, and there has always been the ‘casual but tight’ relationship between users, volunteers and the staff.

The market on Thursdays is where locally grown, organic vegetables and meats are available. It is held throughout the year by organic farmers and food venders in and around Toronto, and the park has a booth for coffee, homemade soup, organic hotdogs, and breads that are baked in the park’s communal ovens. This wood oven is what first caught my eyes, and eventually led me to write this essay. I love both process and product of baking, especially the bread with natural yeasts. It is such a nicely slow process, which firstly allows me to acquire the attachment to the food I make, secondly makes me appreciate how well the natural world of fungus works, and thirdly makes me realize how beautiful the slowness is. The ovens at the park bake bread simply with the heat from burning wood. They not only bake great breads, but also look as though they were symbols of lost simplicity by being disconnected from modern technology.

Breads are prepared by the staffs from two nights before, and baked from early in the morning for the market that starts at three o’clock in the afternoon. What is fantastic is that the process is done in the open air—the ovens are built in between gardens, the workplace is also where people can see the staff working with dough, and the products are sold in the baskets outdoors. The baskets full of breads under the blue sky make me, and probably most people, unconditionally happy.

Aside from the market, the park has been the place for many different gatherings over years. Having oven and kitchen the park naturally attracts many events and festivals planned by community members. People like to have fun over good food, and the oven is there for them. From small gatherings to daycare picnics to community parades, the oven has brought many people who had never been to the park otherwise. Food unites people and generates conversations between them, which nurtures a healthy community.

The market is four years old. Although it is well known to many of those who are conscious of their health or environmental responsibility, it is not fully recognized to the whole community. The vegetables and other food like the park’s bread are rather reasonably priced considering that they are fresh and totally reliable, but majority of the visitors appears to be the ones who do not have to worry about money as much. It has do to with the limited time and days (compared to greater accessibility of a major supermarket), the limited goods (again, compared to abundant items in a major supermarket), and the market’s festive mood, which attract those who with more flexibility in their life, thus in their mind. Festivity is essential in the sense of generating people’s smile that is necessary to human life, but I also wanted a place like this to be more inclusive of the smile in different groups of people. How can it happen?

The park’s multi-faced equipment contributes to connecting a variety of people by creating what Jutta Mason calls “the forced proximity” (Mason, 2001). As she explains, the oven stands close to the basketball court, where young people often come to play games, or just to ‘chill out’. There are times when older people or families enjoy their gatherings around the oven while young people play basketball right near them. Due to the locations of the basketball court and the oven, two different groups of people are forced to be physically close, which constantly creates discomfort. However, the tension naturally loosens, sometimes by children walking up to the basketball court to watch ‘big guys’, other times simply by the time passing (Mason, 2001). It allows both groups to peek a piece of each other’s lives that they would never get to experience otherwise. Some of the youth in the basketball court might not have any interest in the park’s good food, but over time, the scene of baking and gatherings with food becomes normal to them. Eventually, to my pleasure, the oven and park’s food may become a part of different people’s lives.

In Dufferin Grove Park, food is definitely more than a mere product that goes through our body, but we can find an opportunity for eating to shift into “agricultural act” from “agricultural product” (Berry, 1990).

Community garden shows that the food actually grows on the earth, the farmers’ market brings the source of food closer to consumers, and the oven makes cooking process nicer and more exciting. People enjoy talking with friends and meeting new people over good food. Those who come to the park for different reasons naturally learn about it through seeing and smelling the oven. It may or may not influence them immediately, but in any case, the park’s food is there when they want it, and the idea of responsible eating is also there when they need it. Placing food in its center, the park has fostered the community’s health and integrity.

Striving for good food takes time, and can be stressful in an industrialized city, but it is rewarding. In eating, pleasure and responsibility should always exist. The more seriously one takes the environmental and social responsibility, the more time and work it requires. The more time and work one puts in, the greater the pleasure becomes. Physical illness can be healed and prevented by good food and right eating habit. Likewise, social illness can be healed by the way people eat.

Works Cited

Berry, Wendell. (1990). The Pleasure of Eating. In What Are People For? San Francisco: North Point Press.

Baker, Lauren. (1999). A Different Tomato: Creating Vernacular Foodscapes. In D. Barndt (Ed.), Women Working the NAFTA Food Chain: Women, Food and Globalization. (pp.249-260). Toronto: Second Story Press.

Field, Debbie. (1999). Putting Food First: Women’s Role in Creating a Grassroots System outside the Market Place. In D. Barndt. (Ed.), Women Working the NAFTA Food Chain: Women, Food and Globalization. (pp.193-208). Toronto: Second Story Press.

Friedmenn, Harriet. (1999). Remaking “Traditions”: How We Eat, What We Eat and the Changing Political Economy of Food. In D. Barndt. (Ed.), Women Working the NAFTA Food Chain: Women, Food and Globalization. (pp. 35-60). Toronto: Second Story Press.

Friends of Dufferin Grove Park. (2004, 2005).

Mason, Jutta. (2001). Facts and Arguments. Retrieved November 8, 2006, from "Facts and Arguments" as published in The Globe and Mail July 20 2001.

Mason, Jutta. (2006). Interview with the author on 16 November 2006. Toronto.

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