In our busy lives, it's possible to have a diet made up mostly of fast food, packaged snacks, frozen dinners, energy drinks, and "just-add-water" meals. In fact, this type of fully processed meal plan is the cheapest and most convenient option dished up to us.
But the alternatives sound wonderful: fresh, local, organic, humanely raised, unprocessed, artisan, nutrient-dense, home-cooked, and even home-grown food! To find the time and the money for such epicurean delights, you need to add the missing ingredient: sharing.
Sharing makes it easier and more affordable to enjoy a diet that's healthier for us and for our planet. In fact, sharing can change not only the way we consume food, but also the way that we grow, process, and distribute it. There are many reasons to share food, not the least of which is the pleasure involved in cooking with and for others, and sharing a table with friends, neighbors, and loved ones. But even before food gets to our table, it has taken a long journey—from seed to plant, through harvest, transport, processing, packaging, distribution, stores, preparation, and finally to our plates. Sharing can come into play at every stage of this journey.
The benefits of sharing food include:
- Better nutrition and variety in our diets. Mass-produced food is often cheap, but it has lost a lot of its natural taste and nutritional value, a fact that is masked by artificial flavors and preservatives. When we collectively support a local farm, we get food that is fresher and higher in nutrients. Group purchasing can help us afford foods that are grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers. And when we share meals and cook for others, we are more likely to eat full meals, spanning all food groups, and to have a more diverse diet (not to mention tasty dinners).
- More sustainable food sources. Our cheap and abundant food supply is due largely to mass production and government subsidies. But our society and planet pay the real cost of our food in other ways. Beyond the enormous carbon footprint of food transport—most of us eat food that comes from many miles away every day—industrial agriculture is responsible for lots of air and water pollution, especially due to chemical pesticides, fertilizers, machinery, and silt runoff. This food system is vulnerable to crisis from climate change, depletion of cheap energy sources, loss of plant diversity caused by genetic engineering, and disease. Through the sharing arrangements described in this chapter, we can create smaller-scale, localized, and more diverse food supplies—our best defense against threats to our food system.
- Support for small farms and food producers. A century ago, one-third of the U.S. population lived on farms; today, that number has fallen to less than 2%. Most farms are no longer owned and operated by independent farmers; instead, most people who work in the food or farming industry are employed by large companies, often at low wages and in poor working conditions. Farmland itself is also being rapidly depleted and replaced by commercial or housing developments. Sharing gives us many opportunities to reverse these trends. When we buy collectively from small farmers and responsible food producers, the food is more affordable for consumers, and the small farmers and food producers receive the support they need. As communities, we can also work together to preserve agricultural land (see "Agricultural Land Trusts," below).
- Benefits to food-insecure communities. More than a tenth of the U.S. population is food insecure, meaning they have limited or uncertain access to nutritionally adequate or safe foods. Community food gardens and food recovery programs help ensure that everyone gets enough to eat.
- Greater personal satisfaction and appreciation. Food is a source of life. It can also be a source of great pleasure, an expression of caring for others, and a way to slow down the sometimes frenetic pace of our lives. Sharing food—whether by sharing meals, gardening, or harvesting—is a tangible way to express our desire for community and our willingness to nurture others and be nurtured in turn. Because food is closely connected to our cultural heritage, sharing also allows us to celebrate and experience diverse culinary traditions.