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Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011 03:35 pm

What’s on your plate?

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Organic Valley encourages families and friends to share food and fun memories with an eco-friendly deck of Earth Dinner cards.

As you recover from Thanksgiving excess, make this a season to celebrate our country’s food rebels!

Yes, rebels. People who dare to challenge the conventional wisdom and try to find a better way for doing something, even with the odds against them and the Powers That Be saying it won’t work. In this case, I’m talking about the growing movement of small farmers, food artisans, local retailers, co-ops, community organizers, restaurateurs, environmentalists, consumers and others – perhaps including you – who’ve planted and spread the rich ideas of sustainability, organic and local food marketing. This good food movement started at the fringe of our food economy, but is now mainstream.

It began as an “upchuck rebellion” – ordinary folks rejecting the industrialized, chemicalized, corporatized and globalized food system. Farmers wanted a more natural connection to the good earth that they were working and to their customers. Meanwhile, consumers began seeking edibles that were not saturated with pesticides, injected with antibiotics and sex hormones, ripened with chemicals, dosed with artificial flavorings and otherwise tortured.

In a remarkably short time, these two interests teamed up to create an alternative way of thinking about food. Rather than altering food to fit industry’s demand for quick profits, they altered the industry to focus on freshness, taste, nutrition and local economies. Today, more than 13,000 organic farmers produce everything from wheat to meat, and organic sales top nearly $27 billion. Some 7,000 vibrant farmers markets operate in practically every city and town across the land, linking farmers and food-makers directly to consumers in a local, supportive economy. Chefs, food wholesalers, grocers and school districts are now buying foodstuffs that are produced sustainably and locally.

The shift did not come from any corporate or governmental powers – it percolated up from the grassroots. And it’s still spreading, as ordinary people learn about it, organize locally and assert their own democratic values over those of the corporate structure.

Family by family, town by town, this movement has changed not only the market, but also the culture of food – and that’s a change worthy of our thanks. In fact, why not celebrate it in a special way during this holiday season, or in any season. How? By having an earth dinner.

Not that you’d eat earth. Rather you would gather friends and family around the table for a unique dinner party in which people would not merely consume a bit of (or, a lot of) the bounty of our good, green earth – you would revel in the culture of food.

Most of us don’t realize that our dinner is full of stories, music, art and other expressions of humanity. We are connected to food not only by our tastebuds and tummies, but by our whole selves. To help reawaken those cultural links in a way that can be tasty, touching and fun, the folks at Organic Valley Family of Farms – a nationwide farmer-owned co-op – have come up with the novel idea of earth dinners.

The concept simply involves throwing some sort of dinner party at which the food is the focus of table talk – including personal histories, reminiscing, singing, laughing, game-playing and whatever else you can dream up. It can be a potluck dinner, a simple buffet, a five-course gourmet meal, a backyard barbeque ... whatever suits you. The key is to know something about the food being served, such as where it comes from, the history of some of the ingredients, songs written about it and so on.

The goal is to get everyone connecting in some personal or cultural way to the dinner as it progresses. Ask guests to tell about their very first food memory, or to recall any family member who was a farmer or a jolly cook. Invite people of diverse backgrounds and all ages. And here’s a nice touch – ask a local farm family to join the party, or a cheesemaker, local brewer or others involved in producing food. Then – eat, talk, enjoy!

To help get started, Organic Valley’s website offers a sort of earth dinner starter kit, with tips on everything from menus to party favors, as well as providing reports on successful dinners that others have put together. Check it out at www.earthdinner.org – then have a good time!  

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.

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