culture and farming / Food industry / Reflections

So that’s what it looks like?

By Catherine Dammer-Jones

For the first 19 years of my life, I had never seen broccoli grow. Or cabbage. Or peppers. Or almost any other fruit or vegetable I regularly ate. The produce I ate was packaged and harvested out of my sight, possibly trucked hundreds of miles to be stacked on a grocery store shelves for my purchase. The only actively growing plants I had seen were of the pitiful, “let’s just toss a bunch of seeds into a bed of dirt and see what happens” type grown in my family garden. Needless to say, the tomatoes, green beans or cucumbers were not grown under intense stewardship and care. But still, I became used to seeing these plants grow, albeit in their poor condition. I could visualize the vine the tomato came from and the leaves which absorbed sunlight so the cucumber could grow. But the produce my garden grew was nothing like the store bought produce I could buy in a store. Gardening still felt less like producing my own food and more like a passing hobby.

Then I encountered a broccoli plant on the NYU urban farm. Describing what a broccoli plant looks like to someone who has never seen one is rather difficult. Not because it’s actually a particularly extraordinary plant, but because most people have no context whatsoever for its appearance. The best way to describe it is a bush shaped plant with large wide leaves. The broccoli grows on stalks, nested in the leaves. The farm’s plants produced heads of broccoli which looked just as good, if not better, than those that could be bought in a store. The broccoli was delicious and fresh. I picked it myself, I experienced how the head of broccoli felt as it was cut away from the bush. I had never thought about the mechanism broccoli grew by, just taking for granted that somehow it grew and somewhere someone picked it. I am so used to seeing my food cleanly packaged, every piece of produce exactly the same as the other. I am used to being disconnected from what I am eating.

I am not unique in feeling this. Since the rise of modern industrialized agriculture and the advent of the grocery store, our entire society has decided that agriculture and everyday life can function as entirely separate spheres. We can be fine buying clean, packaged produce with no idea what a plant even looks like. But even this state of separation is a privileged way to live. Millions of people, many in the inner cities of America, live with no access to fresh produce whatsoever. Their only sources for nutrition are processed food whose ingredients are unpronounceable chemicals and caloric counts are shockingly high. I am lucky enough to have grown up with fresh produce on my plate, albeit bought from a grocery store. My few encounters with gardening were a blessing- I’ve encountered people who have never been in a garden, who are shocked to see a carrot being pulled from the ground. I still see plants in the garden that I never imagined grew like that, or that I’ve never even heard of. This shock we is so common to people when they see something growing for the first time. This shock is a disquieting reminder of the disconnect from our food we experience. But this shock can be parlayed into something remarkably powerful. Growing our own food is an act of rebellion, a powerful reclaiming of agency and connection to food. By learning where and how our food is actually grown, we reestablish a connection to the earth that is so rarely found anymore. This is the sentiment expressed on urban farms across the country: seeing and growing a vegetable is its own quiet revolt.

Who knew a broccoli plant could be so powerful?

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