The Episcopal New Yorker — Episcopal New York Fall 2015
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Mindful Eating
Anne Mugavero

In New York we are surrounded by a wealth of food possibilities. On the one hand our stores and farmers’ markets provide a splendid array of fresh, wholesome, untainted, unprocessed foods. Often, we can buy produce that was picked just a day or two ago. Yet even so, we are tempted by other food that is over-processed and supplemented by chemicals and antibiotics that are difficult to pronounce, much less digest—but which appeals to us because it is easy, fast, often cheap, attractively packaged, and widely advertised.

At St. Bartholomew’s in Manhattan in 2014, a study group was formed for the Lenten season to focus on making healthy, responsible eating choices. The first book that we read was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. It told about a year that she and her family farmed, and included their rules about farming. It is a good overview of the idea of “sustainable agriculture” or enriching the land by the rotation of crops and pastures of the animals. Kingsolver writes of cooking only the products of the farm and using only locally grown food. We met to discuss the book over a meal that was purchased at a farmer’s market just a few blocks from the church.

New York City is blessed with an abundance of these markets, all sponsored by the NYC Greenmarket Program ( I grew up on a farm in the Hudson Valley, and until I went to college I thought that eggs had bright orange yolks, that strawberries and tomatoes were red all the way through, and that milk tasted different in spring (when the cows went back out to pasture). College food was just college food, and I didn’t think too much about it. My biggest disappointment, however, was a box of strawberries that I bought in February with great delight. On the farm we never had strawberries until June. When I tasted the ones I’d bought, I couldn’t believe that anyone would grow such awful fruit, much less sell it. Today I buy at least 90 per cent of our food from farmers’ markets; my favorite is Sammascot Farm from Kinderhook, NY. The third generation is now running the farm and it was there when I was growing up, only about 15 miles from my father’s farm.

Our group at St. Bart’s encourages people to go to the markets, which are commonplace in the city. We draw attention to them by distributing seasonal produce to groups in the church. Kale chips, which we make ourselves, are a favorite at our teen meetings, and we had the participants in our family summer Sunday school eating raw string beans, sugar snap peas, carrots, and cherries. We also have a lending library in one of the meeting rooms at church. By simply signing it out in a notebook, people can check out any book, from Wendell Berry to Mark Bittman with cookbooks thrown in.

Since Lent, we’ve continued reading books and meeting over dinner. We’re not a consistent group, but there is a core of “regulars.” We discuss a book, but we also consider the food issues currently in the media: the cruelty of the large commercial animal feeding operations, the cost to our environment of transporting food from one continent to another, the cost to our health of the use of antibiotics in the raising of our animals—as well as the lack of attention to nutrition as a whole. We are very aware of how much we deviate from God’s intention in our wasteful and unthinking eating habits. Cooking is a big topic and whenever possible, we prepare the dinner together so that cooking techniques can be shared.

We have read a number of books: Joel Salatin’s Folks, This Ain’t Normal; Michael Pollan’s An Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Rules, An Eater’s Manual; Will Allen’s The Good Food Revolution; Dan Barber’s The Third Plate; Mark Bittman’s A Bone to Pick; and we are currently into Michael Pollan’s latest— Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Our dinners focus on food from the local farms and therefore follow the seasons. This spring and summer, we had “Celebrating Asparagus,” “Everything Green” and “Summer is Here” dinners; coming up in October will be autumn and then in January we will highlight the winter market. We had a field trip last fall to Dan Barber’s Stone Barns Agriculture Center (and we also picked apples). Being on a farm was a first for about half of our group. Flowers have always been an interest at St. Bart’s, but now we have also begun growing herbs in raised beds on the third floor terrace.

Most of the food eaten in America is produced on large commercial farms that grow only one crop, ranging from shrimp raised in Thailand to corn, soy, and canola in our Midwest. Raising only one crop, like corn, means that chemicals (from the petroleum industry) must be used as fertilizer and Roundup as a weed killer. These chemicals seep down the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico, creating a dead zone at the mouth of the river.

Most of our local farmers, on the other hand, practice “sustainable agriculture,” in which the soil and water are improved with each year of farming. Our group works at bringing this concern to the congregation. Sustainable agriculture is the only approach that will preserve the world that was given to us and provide food for the over-crowded population. Of course if you buy from a local farmer, you will have to cook it yourself. Giving more time and effort to how and what we eat inevitably involves cooking. That, by the way, is the only way you know what you are eating.

The author is a member of St. Bartholomew’s, Manhattan.