On the first Earth Day in 1970, my best friend Jennifer and I cut school and took the bus into NYC, where Mayor Lindsay shut down 5th Avenue and offered Central Park to stage the event where it was estimated that over a million people gathered to celebrate. The Vietnam War was in full swing and the same company that gave us agent orange was selling a similarly toxic compound to spray on the fields of our farms.
Much of the awareness in the ‘70s was born out of protesting corporate America (sound familiar?). I didn’t even know as much as I know now but I could see and feel that what the corporations were telling us didn’t make sense. Because of the dysfunctional farm subsidies that began around WWII (which is a whole other story), corporations were using advertising and media to train us to seek cheap and convenient calories, which has lead our nation into an epidemic health crisis. Can you say “obesity, diabetes or heart disease”? If you look at the story of corn in this country as just one example, you can see how important it was for the bottom line of the corn industry to shove it literally down our throats. Corn was in everything, if we couldn’t eat enough, it would be put in our drinks as high fructose corn syrup. To this day, it’s hard to get away from the stuff in the average grocery store. Oh and in terms of our planet, those pesticides they started using are being used by the 100s of tons now because the plants have learned to resist them.
At one time food was more expensive in relationship to income than it is now, but medical expenses were much lower. As more and more people turned to processed foods the price of food went down as the cost of medical expenses went up in nearly equal amounts. So think about that when you wince at the price of a locally grown tomato compared to the monochromatic ones in the grocery store.
The notion of “living off the land” was idealistic to a point, but it was also part of the revolution. By the mid ‘70s I had my first garden plus chickens and rabbits. I made all our own bread, yogurt, granola etc., plus I learned to can and preserve fruits, veggies, jams and sauces. I shocked my parents by giving birth at home and it was still a radical notion to breastfeed. I wasn’t raised that way, these were the things I had to re-learn. This obviously didn’t start with my generation, we were doing things that our grandparents did out of necessity. This is where I try by example to teach my kids that it is important to take the best of what came before us and make something better.
The activities were contagious, once I started a garden, it only made sense to compost. And once I fell in love with soil, I couldn’t bear the thought of all the toxic non-biodegradable things that were going into landfills or uselessly using up trees for disposable paper products. Not to mention our homegrown food tasted better. Once you taste a real tomato, it’s pretty darn hard to eat one that was picked green and force-ripened just in time to hit the grocery shelves.
But advertising was strong and convenience won out at the end of the day for most consumers. Even I got lazier, but I eagerly got back on track and am poised to teach my grandchildren about where their food comes from and how to be gentle stewards of the planet.