A Healthy, Happy Planet Starts at the Dinner Table

The choices we make when we buy food are serious choices. More and more people understand this. They no longer see themselves as passive food “consumers.” Rather, they embrace their roles as “creators,” knowing that the foods they grow or purchase will create a different future for themselves, their families, generations to come, and the natural world. When people choose organic foods and avoid mass-produced and fast foods, they are voting for a sustainable future and against a system that destroys human health, local communities, traditional ways of life, and the environment.

But there is another ethical choice we make about food that is equally important. It’s not just what food we are purchasing, but also how we decide to eat our food. Once, not so long ago, humanistic values were instilled, more than anyplace else, at the dinner table. Families eating together passed on values such as courtesy, kindness, generosity, thrift, respect, and reverence for the goodness of nature. I think we can all agree on this, no matter where we fall on the political spectrum; but notice that conservatives like William Bennett don’t talk much about food. That is because of a paradox at the heart of political conservatism: On one hand it values old-fashioned family virtues, but on the other it supports a rapacious economic system that is largely responsible for the disappearance of these values.

Polls tell us that in the United States today, something like 57 percent of the nation’s children don’t regularly share meals with their families. One insidious reason why has been television. Of the families who do eat together, a high percentage do so with the television on. The family meal has also been hurt by the turn toward “convenience” foods at the same time a new economic order was devaluing the role of women in the home. Fast foods, microwaves, dehydrated foods put a premium on speed. Speed is the enemy of the ethical preparation and eating of food. It dishonors food and dishonors us. We have to make time for our food.

But perhaps our greatest challenge is working to get our kids to join us at the dinner table. I am convinced that teaching children to eat food together is the best way to teach them to open up their senses and use them. If children learn to use their senses, it will improve their ability to communicate–not just about food, but about everything else. And they will grow up to be wiser, happier people.

If all of us were to encourage our local schools to start programs in gardening and eating, we could have an impact. Kids have to be taught that fresh, nourishing food is their birthright–that all Americans, not just the rich, are entitled to wholesome, honest food.

Alice Waters revolutionized American food with her Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley and her cookbooks, which emphasize fresh local ingredients. She founded the Edible Schoolyard project, which teaches Berkeley public school kids about food issues (see ‘The Edible Schoolyard,’ Utne Reader, Nov./Dec. 2000, or www.edibleschoolyard.org; 510/558-1335). Adapted from Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture (Island Press, 2002).

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