Can You Trust the Cardboard Farmer?

Why good food requires good relationships

Yesterday I went to the local farmer’s market to get some veggies for dinner. As I went from stall to stall, the farmers offered samples of watermelon, showed me pictures of their farm, explained the differences between the varieties of his colorful cherry tomatoes,  and talked about the “special touches” that keep the goat cheese from tasting like “the rear end of a goat.” After leaving the farmer’s market, I had a dish in mind that would require a few extra special ingredients. So, I headed over to the supermarket where I noticed something funny on all of the boxes of prepackaged food. They were trying to look JUST like the farmers I met at the farmer’s market. Illustrated faces of kind old farmers and sweet ladies with their gray hair wrapped into a bun.  A cardboard version of knowing your farmer. You can ask the cardboard farmer a limited range of questions about the food, such as those that the FDA requires he publish on the box. What struck me about this is that despite our distance from the farm, we still crave trust and some sense of relationship with our food. Granted, the people working in this supermarket could not possibly be friendlier. They can kindly tell me where to find the chicken, but they can’t tell me how the chicken was raised.

[Come on. Who wouldn’t trust this face? You can practically hear Morgan Freeman telling you that the food is good. Besides, he’s your uncle. He wouldn’t steer you wrong, right?]


We all know that good relationships revolve around food (family dinner, business lunches, coffee with an old friend, breakfast in bed). Yet we tend to forget that the reverse is also true:

Good food revolves around relationships.

Eating always requires some level of relationship because you have to trust that what you’re putting in your mouth won’t kill you or make you sick. A farmer’s good relationship with the ground helps him know that his food is good, and a good relationship with the farmer helps you trust him and his food too. In a good relationship there is mutual care and accountability.

In fact, many of the problems that plague our food systems are a direct result of our disconnection and deteriorating relationships.

We all know that our compassion and empathy tends to diminish with  distance, be it geographical or cultural. We also know that personal responsibility tends to diminish on larger scales. So it should come as no surprise that when we became more and more distant from our food, the plants and animals we consume and the people producing our food, while at the same time dramatically increasing the size of our farms and the size of the companies responsible for our food, we have created a food system that gives very little care to the life of our farmers, our plants and animals and even the people the system was created to feed. When a food system is run by the rules of industrialization instead of the rules of relationship, all of these living things are reduced to merely the means of production, the products for consumption, and consumers. It’s not that we have been able to take the relationship out of our food systems. We’ve just substituted our relationships with the ground, the animals, farmers and bakers etc. for relationships with brands and supermarkets. We’ve substituted interactive conversations for flat labels.

We are made to feel like we have a relationship with something that has neither eyes, nor ears nor soul. Some companies know how to exploit this without any real care for you, their consumer, but there are some companies that do try to honor this relationship and will call you back when you need to talk about a problem, like any good friend would. There are some companies that take seriously their responsibility to right their wrongs and try to do better for their customers and our world. I wish this was the majority.

One billion people in the world are obese. One billion people in the world are starving. Americans throw away nearly HALF of all of our food. We don’t just have a diet problem as a society, we have an eating disorder. This is why I don’t think that we can fix the problems in our food systems merely with more systems. Just like you can’t help someone with an eating disorder by simply prescribing a balanced diet if it fails to address the deeper hungers and excesses that led them there in the first place. We have gotten to where we are today because of our increasing disconnect. In a physical way, the farther away we are from our food, the more fuel has to be burned to get here, the more premature it has to be picked, the less nutrients it has and the less delicious it is. For the same reasons, the more disconnected we are from our food systems, the more they will be unsustainable, unhealthy, and unsatisfying.

Ads like this one by Chipotle (in case you haven’t seen it) demonstrate that there might be some hope in working with and not against big food businesses.

We need to reconnect.  As one of our host farmers from the Tour de Farm said, “If it’s alive, it needs care, and care takes time.” Let’s give our food relationships the time and attention that all of our other important relationships require. Of course the most direct way to reconnect with your food is to plant your own garden or go to the farmer’s market to get to know your farmer. However, I am not driving an agenda to “take down” food corporations. There is also a lot of good that can be done by getting to know the people at your local supermarket to learn more about where they get their food, or even by reaching out to your favorite food brands to hold them accountable to the kinds of practices you wouldn’t mind endorsing with your dollar.

I asked one of our farmers on the Tour de Farm what he thought the answer to these problems might be. With full and utter confidence he said, “Love. To love and be loved. That’s it. Everything else is secondary. Everything else comes after.” If that’s true,  and I suspect that it is, then fixing our broken food systems is not about casting blame or guilt trips on ourselves or others. It’s about an invitation to enjoy the best part of life: love.