By Tricia Baehr
There have been three life-defining moments when it comes to my family’s ascent to local, organic and sustainable food consumption. The first happened when one of our twin sons looked over my shoulder as I logged onto my email when he was only eight years old. While waiting for the homepage of the email provider to load, something caught his eye. “What’s that, Mommy?” his inquisitive little voice asked. “What?” I responded. “High Fructose Corn Syrup?” he said. Eager to continue on to my email, I thought about it for a moment and said, “Oh, I don’t know. I think it’s what they put in sodas to make them sweet.” My son pointed out the article on the newsfeed, MERCURY FOUND IN HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP and asked me to click on the link. From that moment on, everything that I had ever thought about the food I purchased and consumed changed.
That eight year old began to voraciously read the article and then Googled and read everything he could find on the subject. He showed me articles and studies he found including one that included a video from the University of Calgary where a miniscule amount of mercury in a Petri dish of brain cells showed the brain cells shrinking when the mercury was added. The eight year old exclaimed after seeing this that, “I’M NOT GOING TO DRINK SODAS ANYMORE?” This was moment number one.
Although we had not been big consumers of soda at home, my husband John and I did allow the kids to order them at restaurants, birthdays and at home for pizza nights. The next trip to the supermarket took more than two hours when the eight year old began scanning the ingredient list of every item I placed into the shopping cart. “Nope, can’t buy this, Mommy – it has high fructose corn syrup in it!” he would state as he placed the item back on the shelf. “What?” I would say, “You’ve got to be kidding me? It’s peanut butter!” or salad dressing, or whole grain hamburger buns. It seemed like almost everything that I had been purchasing contained HFCS. Honestly, I was in shock because I thought that I had been a conscientious parent by reading the nutritional information on the products I had purchased for years looking mostly at calorie and fat content. I recall leaving the store that day with very little packaged or processed food.
My son continued his research and shared with his father and me everything that he found on the Internet about industrialized food. The next big shocker to all of us was genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) in our food supply. He discovered that certified organic food does not contain GMO’s. We began to discuss the proliferation of food allergies within his classroom and amongst his peers. We also discovered that GMO’s had been introduced into the food supply back in 1996, just two short years before he and his twin brother were conceived. Pretty soon, our son informed my husband and me that in order for him and our family to avoid these GMO’s, we would have to eat all organic. Our first response was, “That’s too expensive!” and our son responded that, “We could either pay the farmer now or the hospital later.” Looking at each other, my husband and I knew there was a lot of truth in what our child was trying to tell us; this was defining moment number two. Both John and I wondered how we could afford to buy what we perceived as extremely pricey organic foods. We also wondered how we could deny the copious amounts of research and information our son was sharing with us daily?
I began to look at our family budget to see where could we save in order for us to buy healthier organic foods? Little by little, I began to find ways. During this same time, our family was also beginning a radically new and different lifestyle. My husband’s work in the industrial flooring industry required him to travel almost 25 days of each month. We had slowly begun to transition from a traditional suburban lifestyle to a family on the road. We purchased a recreational vehicle and truck to follow my husband’s work. As we downsized from a five bedroom house to a 28 ft. travel trailer, my son remarked how this was the perfect opportunity to clean out our pantry of non-organic foods and start all over with only organic food.
Our three children began being road-schooled, home schooling on the road. Each child was interested in different areas that their father and I allowed them the freedom to explore. The eight-year-old twin who had already made a huge impact on our food consumption continued to research and study about food and organics in particular. Localharvest.org helped him to locate farms in the places where we traveled. One of the first farms we visited was in Athens, Georgia called Full Moon Cooperative Farm. I called the number listed on the website and spoke with a young man, Jason. I asked if we could come out to the farm and visit and volunteer. The answer was yes and we arrived that day ready to work. It was February and the kids and I helped to pick collard greens. After the leaves were picked the stalks needed to be pulled up. We all hopped onto the back of the farm truck to feed the spent stalks to their heritage breed hogs that were being raised in the forest, which seemed like a very innovative concept to us.
One set of letters we learned about besides HFCS, MSG and GMO’s that suited this new way of thinking about eating and food was the term CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture). However, the CSA subscription model didn’t suit our new nomadic lifestyle. Another one of the farms that we connected to had a website that you could log on to on Sunday of each week. The website would list what would be available that week from the farm. Then you could choose your produce and the day you would like to pick it up. The food would be picked fresh that morning just for you.
One day after returning from picking up our produce from this farm, I experienced the third defining moment. I was driving along when my son said, “Mommy, I don’t want to be a NFL football player anymore …” I recall looking up into my rearview mirror and briefly connecting with his bright blue eyes as he said, “I want to be an organic farmer; that way I can make a bigger difference in the world.”
I felt my eyes water up and a lump formed in my throat. How could this be? I thought. How could this world which seemed to value money, fame, and glory more than the food that is supposed to nourish and sustain us inspire a statement like that? “But …” I said, playing devil’s advocate, “You could make a lot of money as a professional football player and then do a lot of good with that money.” “No,” he shook his head, “I think the world needs more organic farmers right now.” That’s when I decided to be quiet and say a silent prayer of thankfulness.
Fast forward to May of 2010, our family is full on organic—we know where our food comes from. Our son tries to educate everyone he encounters about what he knows. He has discovered his farming hero in Joel Salatin through Mother Earth News. We’ve visited and volunteered on organic farms all over the southeast. One day while I was on a social media site, I saw a notice for youth ages 13-18 with an idea worth spreading through an independently organized TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) event in Asheville, North Carolina. I suggest to the future organic farmer that he apply and share his ideas about the food system. He is only eleven and replies that he’s not old enough to apply. I suggest that he apply anyway, and tell him the worst thing that can happen is that they will say no. He writes and submits the required one page essay and five minute video that is filmed in the garden he helps to tend with his 77-year-old grandfather.
We receive a phone call from Bob Hanna and Ashley Cooper with TEDx Next Generation Asheville and they speak with us, and our son at length. The selection process spans a couple of months. In July of 2010, the kids and I visit Asheville for the first time to attend a meeting of the young people selected to present at TEDx NextGeneration Asheville. Everyone in our family is surprised and delighted at the local restaurants offering organic foods and the lists of local farms listed on the menus. We comment that every town and city should be more like Asheville when it comes to food!
August comes and we arrive in Asheville three days before the TEDx event for our son to rehearse. Our delight in the Western North Carolina food system increases as we visit the farmer’s markets and the French Broad Food Co-op. My son is in organic food heaven.
My son takes the stage at the Orange Peel and shares in five minutes his idea worth spreading: “What’s Wrong with Our Food System and How We Can Make A Difference.” He has written (with a little editing advice from mom) and memorized it in its entirety. He’s nervous but the audience is delighted. There is laughter, cheers and spontaneous applause throughout the talk while his father, sister, brother, grandfather and I sit in the audience. I don’t think any of us knew how impactful his words that day would be.
Since that day, our son has continued on his journey to become an organic farmer. His talk has been viewed over two million times via the Internet. His published children’s book, Birke On the Farm, tells the story of his quest for real food and becoming an advocate. I have been fortunate enough to travel to New York, Italy and California with him while he shared his message.
This isn’t just a story about my son; it’s a story about our whole family and how we were able to let go of our conventional beliefs about the food system, about finding community in Western North Carolina and Appalachia and within the entire local, sustainable food movement. For me, it’s been about cooking from scratch more, and using convenience products less. It’s also been about connecting to the source of our food, to the farmers who work really hard to grow it and about appreciating and paying them for the work they do. It’s about supporting our local economies and building relationships.
Sometimes I wonder what life would be like had we not listened to that little eight-year-old boy who asked hard questions and challenged what we thought was normal. And being humble enough to allow him to teach me something that deep down inside, maybe I knew all along.
Tricia Baehr, is native of Knoxville, Tennessee and the homeschooling mother of three wonderful children including one aspiring organic farmer and youth advocate for a more sane food system. She and her family currently reside in WNC at Earthaven Ecovillage near Black Mountain. She is a co-founder and board member of Sweet Water Sustainability Institute and Executive Director of Culture’s Edge, a non-profit organization. She enjoys living close to her Appalachian roots in the mountains of Western North Carolina and all that it has to offer especially the local, organic and sustainable food scene. You can reach her at email@example.com. Tricia’s son, youth advocate Birke Baehr can be followed on facebook, twitter and thru his website www.birkeonthefarm.com.