food chain pollinator

how (terrifyingly) long is your food chain?

I suspect that there will be a lot of lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, and as a health coach, I’m hoping that one of them will be that we desperately need to shorten our food chain.

chain chain chain, chain of foods

(Apologies for the earworm—anyone else remember that Jocasta Cameron did a splendid version of this song in The Commitments? Sorry, couldn’t resist mixing two of my favorites watches of all time.)

As Americans, most of us are not in the habit of thinking about where our food comes from.

Jamie Oliver discovered this in a big way when he was trying to change school food in West Virginia and discovered that while all the kids knew what ketchup was, they couldn’t identify a tomato nor recognize a potato—the source of the most common “vegetable” in their diet: French fries.

Yes, yes, I know—this was for a movie, it’s edited, etc. And I remember a story told by one of my high school teachers about having an inner city child visit them in rural Vermont for a summer on the Fresh Air Fund program.

Thinking it would be interesting for him to see a dairy farm (because Vermont), they made a visit to one. The child was so distressed seeing where milk came from that he refused to drink any more of it during his stay: “At home, our milk comes from the store!”

On a much more positive note, other children are wise beyond their years (and some of ours). This year at Thanksgiving—or why wait? tonight’s fine!—try this experiment in addition to or in place of saying grace: ask everyone at the table to give thanks for someone responsible for the food on your plates.

Most adults easily identify the cook and perhaps the farmer, some will know enough to mention the picker, the packer, the wholesaler, the retailer/grocer.

Younger kids will often chime in with: Mother Nature, the earth. Those who have studied biology will add: plants, animals. The really sophisticated will bring in: earth, water, air, and maybe even the pollinators.

And there you have it—that’s the food chain! Everyone who touched your food on its way to your plate.

that’s a long list!

I recently spoke about the food chain with my friend Audrey Acton on her podcast, Are Those Rose-Colored Glasses You’re Wearing?, and she exclaimed, “That’s a long list!”

Yes, yes it is. And sometimes that becomes a problem.

As recently as World War II, Americans grew more than 40% of the produce consumed in the country—and we’re not talking about farmers alone: the Victory Gardens begun during World War I were resurrected, and American households took a step “backward” toward self-sufficiency.

Compare this to these data on the state of Kansas: 87.5% of Kansas land is considered agricultural use, and yet of the $7.2 billion Kansans spent on food in 2012, more than 90% went toward food produced outside the state, and 92% of Kansas counties face limited access to healthful food. (Data from Kansas Department of Agriculture and a report by the Kansas Rural Center. And thank you to Zach Bush, MD for pointing me toward this research.)

Wait, WHAT???

You read that right. The fact is that Kansas produces a huge amount of beef (much of it for export) and sorghum (used in animal feed) and doesn’t produce a whole lot of “people food”—fruits and vegetables, which are now ironically called “specialty crops.”

The conversation about commodity crops and monoculture will keep for another day. What I want to draw your attention to is that our food chain is not only long—it’s pretty screwed up!

china’s role in the pandemic

Yup, it’s getting political in here.

As 1/4 of a half-Chinese family, I’ve been thoroughly appalled by recent American press coverage of “the China connection” to Covid-19.

Have we totally lost our minds, people? China is not entirely to blame for the pandemic, and America actually must shoulder some of the responsibility for how it’s playing out in our own country.

We can’t have it both ways, people.

We can’t in good conscience demand cheap food and cheap goods by outsourcing our food chain and our jobs to China, wanting their technology and their research, and then turning around and calling that country names like “the big evil,” “the yellow peril,” and “untrustworthy.”

Yes, they have a strong central government; yes, their media is controlled by that government; and yes, they have shown us that we could better manage the pandemic.

what’s this have to do with health coaching?

As a health coach, what intrigues me most about how the pandemic is playing out is how similar it is to the way in which we deal with our health in general. When a health issue arises, most of us immediately:

  1. Look for a cause outside ourselves (Who/what is to blame for my current condition? Is it our parent’s genes, the factory down the road…?)
  2. Jump at a silver bullet/quick fix that usually has far-reaching, long-term, often unknown-at-the-time health impacts (Right now, it’s about praying for a vaccine.)
  3. Quickly forget about the incident once it’s passed. (And go back to our generally terrible food and lifestyle choices.)

I get a lot of questions about my view of the pandemic, so here’s my opinion—which is subject to change as other developments arise:

  1. We need to look inside ourselves—as individuals, as communities, as regions, as states, and as a nation—and take some responsibility for our past actions that, while they may not have caused the pandemic, certainly affected how our infrastructure has crumbled to the point of collapse over decades if not centuries.
  2. We need to take a deep breath—individually and collectively—step back from the media and the politicians and the extremists and reclaim some agency over our health, the health of our communities, and the health of our planet. There is no silver bullet. I am not waiting for a vaccine to solve my problems, nor will I be first in line to get it. I may well not get it at all—there, I’ve said it. And I won’t judge you if you decide it’s right for you.
  3. This pandemic is a wake-up call to change our ways and to treat all people, all communities, and Mother Earth with respect. It is, as Rich Roll titled his podcast episode with Zach Bush, “A pandemic of possibility.”
  4. [Snark alert] Am I wearing a mask indoors in public places? Yes—I’m wearing one because I believe in being respectful of the law, because I believe along with my rights comes responsibility to others (the protesters in Lansing would do well to think about this), and because for me, it’s a political act of solidarity with the Chinese side of my family. Anybody else tickled by how quickly the pendulum swung from “Oh, those silly Chinese in their masks!” to “OMG—why can’t we get masks?!?”

but what can i do?

It can all feel overwhelming. We can feel pretty small and powerless in the face of all this.

And yet, change starts with us. The food we feed ourselves, the energy we put into our bodies is in turn what we bring into the world.

Feeling powerless? Turn your attention to your own food and lifestyle choices.

What’s one tiny step you can take to improve them?

Shortening your food chain is a great place to begin, and the best way to do that is to start growing some of your own food (herbs on the windowsill? tomatoes in pots on the patio?) and find ways to buy directly from your local food system.

I spent yesterday morning managing the distribution of sustainably-caught fish for a buying club I manage through Lummi Island Wild. It gives me deep joy to know that this fish comes from one of the world’s greenest fishing operations, that my purchase of it supports a cooperative of small fishermen, and that I am helping my community access these products.

And that’s what it’s about for me, really: simultaneously doing good, growing the health of people and planet, and finding joy in the process.

make the connection

Chinese Steamed FishI can’t resist wrapping this post up with a recipe that ties it all together: in that spirit, I offer you Chinese Steamed Fish from my cookbook, Fl!p Your K!tchen, which now comes in pdf form and together with the accompanying workbook as part of a quarantine survival special.

Once again, thanks to Chuk Nowak for the amazing food photography and Sean McDonald for the beautiful layout.

Leave me a comment and let me know, what’s one small step you will take this week to shorten your food chain?


  1. Audrey

    We bought new garden boxes and I am planting this weekend if it all gets here in time. I am looking into getting a wall unit to hang in the dining room to hold herbs and greens. After our talk, I really plugged into shortening my own chain (thanks for the ear worm btw and I am on board completely with The Commitments!) I think I may call it a Victory Garden just for me though, my own victory over crappy food and poor tasting mush from the store. 😉

    1. Elizabeth Baker

      Yayyy! Meanwhile, I’ll plant here … once it stops snowing! Yikes.

      1. Audrey

        Yikes! Hang in there, spring is really just around the corner lol

        1. Elizabeth Baker

          Perhaps in YOUR neck of the woods…?

Comments are closed.