I recently had the privilege of seeing performances by Lucas DiGia and Walter “Soul” Lacy at the HomeGrown Local Food Summit in Washtenaw County, Michigan. Lucas brought a powerfully articulated vision of the relationship of food, culture, and society to his raps—spiced with a bit of wry humor. Walter left me stunned with his spoken word poetry and thoughtful commentary themed on social justice and redemption.
My response to these performances could be summed up in a single word: visceral. On my way home I reflected on the words of Sifu Robert Brown, under whom I studied kung fu for a number of years: “All movement starts in the dan tien.”
For those unfamiliar with the Chinese term, the dan tien is the region of the body centered just below the navel. Of course, as a novice Kung Fu student I don’t pretend to fully understand what my teacher meant, although I think I got the basic gist of it. Today it occurred to me that what is true about body movements is also true of social movements: they start with something at the feeling level, a gut-level response. It’s here we will find our motivation, our willingness to take a stand, and our desire to turn our activism into real activity. For this reason I see a lot of value in starting off the Local Food Summit with performances that evoke such a response, and I felt a great appreciation for the performers and their talents.
Of course, given that the gut and the feeling center there is so powerful, there are similarly powerful efforts made to align people’s feelings with the prevailing power structure. And it’s not hard to do. The reason is pretty simple. Here’s an example.
As shoppers we see a can of food on the shelf in the grocery. The can has a label with a design we recognize from our childhood, when our mothers may have opened a can with the same kind of label and served it to us. Now we are adults, and of course, we really want that image and design on the label of a canned food to mean it’s safe to eat and serve to our families. Discovering that “gender-bender” BPA is being used by many manufacturers in the canning process and that this hormone-like substance could affect our body systems is unsettling, to say the least. It’s even more disquieting to consider that there are corporate offices where people calculate that the risk of human reproductive cancers is an acceptable cost of doing business. Since we want to believe it’s safe, even if our reading of the research suggests it might not be, it’s easier to side with those who would have us believe it is safe.
There’s an awful tendency to forget what we’ve just read or learned about because it’s easier to convince ourselves we are safe than to really engage with the information and the feelings it provokes. However, when we separate our knowledge from our feelings in this way, we stymie our ability to act on that knowledge. Without our feelings, we will have no gut-level response. No gut-level response, no movement.
Given the way it gets embedded in us, to unplug our blind faith in industrialized food and then build food systems based on real relationships with people and the earth, we have to get over our viscerally linked loyalties to food brands and generationally engrained consumer shopping habits. The package design and other aspects of the marketed product identity of a brand of tortilla chips or bag of french fries are consumed along with the industrial food itself, and in a way these images are just as deeply assimilated. Once they’re a part of us, there’s a tendency to defend them.
As behavioral scientists are well aware, food is a powerful reinforcement. Each time a food is perceived and eaten without immediately producing ill effects, a deep conditioning happens. We see the package of processed cheese or a hamburger with a certain brand stamped on the wrapper, and we literally salivate like Pavlov’s dog. This is another way of looking at why changing dietary patterns and habits can sometimes be difficult.
One saving grace in all of this is that the human body is wiser and more ancient than any particular culture a person inhabits, and we can allow ourselves to help this wisdom make our true needs known regardless of the local customs or the prevailing personal and cultural conditioning. We can learn to listen to this wisdom and notice whether a particular food or a certain quantity of it is weakening us or strengthening us. We can connect with our gut-level responses and untangle them from the conditioned cultural overlay. We can even re-train our conditioned responses, refurbish our food aesthetic, and create a food culture based on conscious participation rather than mindless consumption.
Doing this, however, requires that we wake up to food, to the voice of the body, and to the need for change. And to really move toward change, we must connect with our feelings. By feelings I mean both physical sensations and emotional responses: How does drinking a liter of soda make us feel, really? And, what does it emotionally feel like to have food handed to us in a paper bag through a car window? Conversely, what feelings show up with a meal thoughtfully prepared and eaten in a social context that brings it meaning, or a plateful of potatoes grown, dug, cooked, and served with care and love? My experience is that just one such food experience can undo a lot negative conditioning as we connect with a new set of feelings. In this way it is quite possible to develop an appetite for ways of eating that really nourish us.
To make a movement, we have to connect with all of our feelings, and with our capacity to think reflectively about them. Since artists model this connection and help create a culture where it can happen, one place to start is by looking to our artists to help us make our own inner connections. This is why I’m grateful for people like Lucas DiGia and Walter Lacy, who can articulate a message and get it through to a place where I can actually feel my own truth in what they share. If we can feel it strongly enough, we can find both the motivation and the right path of action to move with it, and ultimately we may also be able to help others make connections in turn to build a larger movement.