Passion for Food in a Changing World — Newest Climate Stew Crew Member, Marin Toscano

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I may look cute, but I am actually getting ready to chomp this flower! I would always try to eat flowers as a kid to the horror of my mother!

I have always loved food. And according to my parents I have always had good taste too. When I was 8 months old, still without baby teeth, I snatched a pork spare rib from an Asian buffet and concealed it under my shirt, managing to sneak it all the way into my crib where my parents found me gnawing on it the next morning. They joked then that I would never be a vegetarian… and they were right. When I was 7 and all my friends were mesmerized by McDonalds Happy Meals, my mom took me there for the first time and was relieved when I gave the McNuggets one sniff and said, ‘this isn’t real food.’ and was content to just play with the toys. To this day I haven’t eaten at McDonalds or Burger King once, and it is not just out of principle; I find the smell nauseating.

I am not trying to be a food snob here, I know eating healthy is a privilege, but my passionate relationship with food can not be entirely attributed to economic status. Indeed plenty of kids growing up in middle-class families are raised on TV dinners and potato chips. However, I was blessed by the rare opportunity to grow up in America within a family that valued food quality and culture. My father is third generation Italian and my mother has Syrian and Polish heritage. I grew up helping my mom grow herbs in the garden and assisting my father to make the best eggplant parmesan in Colorado! Most importantly we always ate dinner together over good conversation and there was no TV in the kitchen. I was home schooled and grew up in the mountains, so I didn’t realize any of this was out of the ordinary until I started going to school when I was 12.

By my first year in college I realized that healthy food was not affordable or accessible for most people, now including myself, and that the food system is not really designed to make eating healthy easy! In the dorms I barely had any choice over what to eat, and I ate avocado on toast almost every day because I couldn’t stand the dorm food. I actually did become a vegetarian for a few months by default because I couldn’t stand the rubbery texture of the chicken they served and the beef that you had to chew for two minutes before it became swallowable. For the first time in my life I started to eat to live, and not for the joy I felt when eating good food surrounded by good company.

The ‘work hard, party harder’ mentality finally grabbed a hold of me and I became very unhealthy, both physically and emotionally. I did what most freshmen do and lost myself in the pursuit of finding myself. I did make one good decision during this time and that was to start studying Mandarin. I had the opportunity to study abroad in Shanghai my sophomore year and I decided to go for it, even though I had never lived outside of my hometown of Boulder, never mind another country!

I fell in love with China immediately; I liked the people, I liked the buzz of development and fresh ideas, but most of all I LOVED the food. I ate every single meal out, and tried everything my Chinese friends recommended. They were impressed when I ate spicy dishes and things like chicken feet and beef lung that study abroad students generally feared as much as communism. Breakfast cost me a dollar, lunch two and dinner three. I ate to my hearts content loving all the exotic flavors and feeling like I had found my soul city, where everyone else was as passionate about food as I was!

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Even climbing the Great Wall of China I was still focused on food!

At the time I had been struggling with really bad acne for years and had tried all the topical medications doctors prescribed. At first I was worried it would get worse because of all the oil in the street food and the pollution in the air, but somehow it all but cleared up even though I was eating anything I pleased! I attributed this to diverse vegetables and rice instead of bread. Now I realize food culture had a lot to do with it too. Sometimes it’s not just what we’re eating, but how we’re eating it that influences our health. I’ll talk more about this in future blogs.

I admit, during my first trip to China I was like an inexperienced lover in the honeymoon period, completely infatuated and seeing only the good. I thought China was better than America in every way; the people seemed more open-minded, the government seemed more environmentally conscience and the food system seemed like an oasis of diversity and fresh flavors. Since then I returned to China twice spending the summer of my junior year in Chengdu for an internship with an environmental NGO, and the last year and a half in Beijing and Kunming to conduct independent research through the Fulbright program. There was some truth in my initial observations, but now I understand that it is not so simple and that every country seems to have its’ pros and cons in different arenas, especially in this day and age when governments must walk the tightrope of environmental concerns and economic development.

I received the Fulbright scholarship to research something I am truly passionate about: food culture! I designed my own project and methods to research beliefs about eating healthy among everyday people. I interviewed everyone from moms to taxi drivers to farmers to understand their perspectives on food safety, changing dietary trends, and agricultural policy. I became particularly fascinated by the range of views towards farmers markets in comparison to supermarkets like Wal-Mart and Carrefoure that are quickly maturing from luxury to mainstream. I found it somewhat ironic that many consumers found fresh markets to be ‘backwards,’ while supermarkets were viewed as ‘modern’ and ‘western,’ meanwhile in the US farmers markets are the spearhead of ‘progressive’ food trends.

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About to take a spoonful of sauteed grubs in Vietnam.and made the local street vendor take a picture so I could prove it!

After living in China for two years and observing how local food culture is influenced by perceived Western and Modern ideals, I became passionate about encouraging Chinese citizens to re-evaluate indigenous food customs and thousands of years of food wisdom. Instead of berating the Global South with fear-based messages like needing to adopt GMOs and mono-cropping to feed their growing populations, I stand to share a more honest and constructive perspective that admits the shortcomings of the industrial food model.

For example, many Chinese people were surprised when I told them that most obese Americans are in lower income brackets, and that 15% of Americans still struggle with putting food on the table. Chinese people (and much of the world) tend to have a Utopian view of America, believing that everything about our food system must be great because we have the FDA and because Monsanto is making sure we are food secure. But they don’t hear the other side of the story; the concept of food deserts in urban areas if foreign to them, and the idea that meat could be cheaper than vegetables is still inconceivable. Unfortunately other practices like battery chicken farms, copious usage of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and mono-cropped farms are becoming the norm, when they were unheard of in China just 3 decades ago.

This is a regional specialty of wild, edible fern that is considered very nutritious and can only be found in high altitude mountains.

This is a regional specialty of wild, edible fern that is considered very nutritious and can only be found in high altitude mountains.

If we can’t provide enough food, never mind healthy food, for our own population with the current food model we employ, do we really want to export these agricultural practices and food system to the rest of the world?  Instead, I believe China needs a message that encourages everyday people to thoughtfully evaluate what new methods they want to put into practice, what traditions they want to preserve, and what customs they see fit to adapt. The US on the other hand needs to stop thinking of itself as the role model and start looking at other countries, and immigrant groups within its’ borders as a resource of knowledge and experience that can help to rebuild a very broken food system and turn it into one that is for people, not profit.

I care about climate change for many reasons, but my foodie status trumps any environmentalist fibers in my being. There is no denying that climate change will alter every link of the food chain from the seed that is grown to the flavor that meets my tongue! Food production, distribution and consumption are key players in climate change. I am especially interested to see how responses to environmental challenges will affect food systems, dietary trends and food culture. Hopefully the obvious fact that we all need to eat, and we can’t produce enough healthy food if we keep making the Earth sick, will continue to inspire progress.

Food is a topic that everyone can relate to in some way or another. Eating is perhaps the most simple yet profound activity that links all human beings. Food can bridge the gap that is assumed between two people who grew up in countries thousands of miles apart. I have found in my travels that friendships can quickly be conjured just by sharing a meal with the locals, no matter how disparate our backgrounds may be. I look forward to sharing more tasty morsels of food-related climate change news, observations, and experiences with you here at Climate Stew! Mmmm stew, I think that’s what I’ll have for lunch!