Saturday, May 24, 2008

Feeding and Clothing the Future

This is my final post on the Tikkun Olam (healing the world) project that began last week, and it's a difficult combination of topics to discuss. It's hard because the culinary arts and fashion design are both professions involved with basic needs, but both can also be seen as emblems of greed and excess (to many reformers, at least).

Mind you, I don't really teach culinary students much any more (except for the occasional graduating student in desperate need of an elective, and who thinks art history might be an easy grade), but some of my favorite former humanities students are now chefs, and the new BFA programs in fashion design and merchandising have meant an influx of students I'm not used to teaching. I've been enjoying them immensely, though, because they've so far proven bright, creative, and interested--and their superior grades have reflected these qualities.

Those who know me probably chortle at my having the chutzpah to discuss fashion, since my chief criterion for garments is comfort, and I'm not what you'd call a fashion maven. My priorities are such that clothing falls fairly far down on the great chain of being, although if I had my druthers (and a great deal more time) I'd make all my own out of sustainably harvested fibers woven and dyed (naturally) by well-paid garment workers in airy, pleasant surroundings.

And this is where the healing question comes in: why is it that Americans would rather pay bottom dollar for clothes and food whenever possible, despite the fact that the production of cheap food and clothing means that workers are exploited and the environment degraded in order to supply these markets? Food sustains us, clothing protects us, and both allow us to reflect our cultural affiliations and creativity, and yet we are extremely reluctant to pay real wages to the people who grow and harvest the basic materials. As Jubal Early would say (in the Firefly episode, "Objects in Space"), does that seem right to you?

While it's true that factory farms are raking in the dough and that high-dollar clothiers are rolling in it, most of the people who do the legwork (farmers, farm workers, stockers, cashiers, waiters, bussers, clerks, tailors, etc.) often do so for minimum wages or less, are seldom provided with insurance plans, and frequently work well beyond a forty-hour week. Some of these people are even experiencing situations that closely resemble slavery (see especially the information and links on the Alliance For Fair Food page). "The Working Poor" has become a buzzword, but the fact remains that too many of the people who work harder than the rest of us are paid much less and earn barely enough to survive.

I can't fix this, and neither can my students. But we can help by being much more mindful about how we use our talents and how we spend our money. We can, for example stop buying fast food altogether. We can eat less meat, and make sure what we do eat is humanely raised and killed and safely prepared, even if that means changing our eating and buying habits radically. For example, most of the world uses meat as a flavoring--not a honking great steak on a plate as the main course. A few bites of chicken in a well-prepared sauce heavy on the veg and eaten over a bowl of brown rice or other whole grain is not only more healthful, but pretty tasty as well. Cook up some rice to keep in the fridge for a couple of days, and you've got the basis for a number of quick meals that are better for you than stopping by McD's on the way home.

But "I can't," I hear my students say. "I can't live without meat." "I can't live without hamburgers." "I can't afford anything better." Baloney. Years ago, I lived (on purpose) for several months on a welfare mother's budget. It was another of my social experiments, designed to help me figure out what I need and what I merely want. Not only did I succeed, but my husband and son were better fed after I began to cook everything from scratch. When I began to grow some of my own fruit and veg, the repertoire expanded, and I managed to re-educate our tastes so that we were able to accumulate enough money for the down-payment on a house with what we saved on food alone. I'll admit that I was not working at the time (stay-at-home mom), but that meant I had no income of my own, and I was also going to grad school part time. And while my students may not be able to grow anything in their apartments, they certainly can learn how to feed themselves more healthfully and more economically. All one needs is will and education.

I've actually discussed questions of mindfulness and food on three other posts, Utopian Pizza, The Raw and the Cooked, and Tangled Webs, all of which consider cultural aspects of food and eating in greater depth. It's harder to rethink fashion, because the whole industry is founded on a couple of problematic principles: a designer's job is based on the idea that clothes go out of style, and the merchandiser wants those clothes to go out of style as quickly as possible in order to keep the industry profitable. I do, however, wonder what the world would be like if we were to design for sustainability instead: styles that never get "old" made from earth-friendly fabrics and dyes by people who aren't exploited.

"Style" based on comfort, practicality, and ethical considerations would be far more appealing to many of us than what's being turned out so frequently today: breast-, butt-, and belly-exposing designs that titillate and seduce, clothes that glorify less-than-desirable human foibles such as drug-use, war, or other forms of excess. Plenty of cultures rely on a few basic clothing items which vary in color and fabric, but little else. But just look at tribal designs in parts of Africa, or saris on a street in India, and you can see that clothing can be expressive without being simply trendy.

What if the quest for the latest fad were replaced by a quest for durability, originality, practicality, and true beauty? Wouldn't it be better to own a few garments that make us feel good, move with our bodies, keep us appropriately warm or cool, and express our sense of color and style without making us all fit into somebody else's idea of what a man or woman should look like? Wouldn't it be better to dress our kids in comfortable, durable, colorful clothes that enable them to move and play freely without trying to make them look like baby soldiers or hookers?

Clothing and feeding are two of the most important things we do for ourselves, in addition to finding a place to live. If we're going to keep this world working for the next few generations, we're going to have to start being much more mindful about how we address questions about how we go about satisfying our needs. And it's precisely because these are needs that they deserve the careful consideration of those who will be working in directly-related professions. Fashion designers and chefs will have a great deal of impact on our economic future. It would help, I think, to remember that "economics" refers not only to the financial well-being of the country, but to the the cultural and ecological well-being of our oikos--our home: this planet.

For resources on these topics, see the "Education of Desire" sites linked on the left. They're good places to start.

Addendum: It occurs to me, a day later, that my remarks about food's costing too little may seem facile and naive when many of the nation's working poor have to choose between spending money on food or on rent--or make any number of equally difficult choices. But a significant number of these same people are the ones who are providing food and food services to the rest of us. It's precisely because they're paid so little that food is relatively inexpensive in this country--especially compared to what it costs in other developed areas of the world, such as Europe. If people received pay equal to the value of their labor, and if profit weren't the major incentive for everything we do, a more equitable economy might result. A good article on the topic by Darra Goldstein can be found in the current issue of Gastronomica.

Photo: Female vendors sitting on the ground at a fruit and vegetable market in Kuchaman, Rajasthan, India. By John Haslam, on Wikimedia Commons.


krimzon11 said...

I appreciate your week long analysis of the arts that are present at our school, especially the graphic design one. Since your advice of looking into working for non-profits, and other organizations that agree with my beliefs, I've looked into some organizations and companies of interest to me, and have found that jobs in my field of study seem to be more plentiful, than I had expected. since I'm young and simple, I can sacrifice a high salary for a slightly lower one. (I also believe that it's highly unlikely that I'll be paid my current wage once I have my B.F.A.)
I really have nowhere to go but up, and my ultimate goal is to pursue my passion without compromising my morals. (You really hit the nail on the head on that one.) Thank you for your series of blogs this week, and I hope that some of my peers take the time to read this blog and keep their mind open. Somewhere between the early 90's (that's about when I was old enough to realize there was a world outside of my family and school) and now the world has become lost in consumerism and self-involvement. Hopefully sometime soon my peers will realize that we really can make the world a better place, we just need to break the American habit of ignoring what's, "Across the ponds," And begin learning that it's all one big ball and we're on it just like everyone else. Although my last post seemed a bit jaded, deep down I really do have hope, and I'm gonna do all I can to help out, even if others may think it's not "cool."
Again thanks for these posts, and your support, it really helps me to "...keep going amidst it all."

Owlfarmer said...

A response such as yours is what sustains teachers like me, so I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. Sometimes we get terribly discouraged because both we and you are up against such incredible odds these days.

But a single student can make all the difference; we can suddenly get the sense that we're not doing this for nothing, and that you folks will go out and make the world better--which is more than most professions can hope for. Thanks for another thoughtful and inspiring comment.

GEM said...

Owl - this is a really good discussion of identity and need being more important than identification with mass-produced personas in clothing. Look at the 'suits' worn by Punjabi - Sikh women - very efficient, graceful, feminine, comfortable and functional and modest. The style may not vary, but in cut it can be modified to fit all figure types, and in cloth and pattern to suit different purposes, occasions and seasons. I think it is one of the most intelligent designs for female clothing, one that women can make for themselves. S friend gave me a 'suit' to wear, for while recuperating from leukemia treatments. I loved it and wore it till it fell apart, and felt always properly dressed for relaxing, drawing, greeting visitors, walking about on my constitutionals. having had a lifetime admiration for simple monastic clothing, I have worn a uniform of sorts most of my adult life, simple pants, tunics, long skirts and jersey tops.
As to the food issue - in a culture which values novelty as well as sense of sophistication in gastronomical experimentation, little thought is given to the origins of our food, who provided it, what they had to plan and do to get it to market, who handled it as middlemen and transporters. Many people don't know how to prepare food from basic raw materials that are unprocessed. There is an art and science to the growing, storing and preparation of food. Increasingly in the public schools home economics is not properly taught, and because of this we are raising a generation that are blind consumers of poor food-value foodstuffs.
I completely am in accord with your statement " It's precisely because they're paid so little that food is relatively inexpensive in this country--..." and "..and if profit weren't the major incentive for everything we do, a more equitable economy might result."
I come to your blog for doses of sanity and intelligent and thoughful commentary, and am glad to have found you. G and GEM

Owlfarmer said...

And I am enormously grateful to have you as a reader. Your comments and insights help give me hope that the "conversation" in which the inhabitants of my utopia engage is not some far-fetched pie-in-the-sky notion.

Writing the blog has led me to people and ideas I'd never have have had access to without the internet and its attendant technologies. I'm glad I've lived to see it happen--and glad that you've survived leukemia long enough to participate.

A related aside: my daughter just completed her second annual Tahoe Century ride on behalf of the Leukemia Lymphoma Society (in 7 hours and 35 minutes). I hope that the money they raise will help to eventually eradicate blood cancers altogether, but every mile helps.

Modern science and technology have provided us with some gifts for which I will always be grateful, including the drugs that have kept me alive for the last 13 years.