On Sustainability

as a practice, a consciousness shift.

This was originally my introduction to the FoodLab Detroit panel Earth Is Power: Redefining Eco-Friendly Practices. Devita Davison invited me to ground the conversation in a piece that could provide context and take us “36,000 feet in the air” before we got into practical nitty-gritty. Here’s that attempt—to be buoyant, to be hopeful for a new world.

Did you ever think you’d hear about a farmers’ market speakeasy? That’s what the government in Puerto Rico has forced upon local agriculture and those who wish to support it. While the supermarkets and malls are open, the weekly outdoor market in Old San Juan, where I live, has had to resort to pre-orders via email that are then picked up in a small alleyway. Other farms, too, have been selling their wares via WhatsApp and making deliveries, with local residents passing around the intel on where to get the most gorgeous eggplants that week. 

Without the support of the government, through both subsidies and infrastructure, we are forced to buy local produce as though it is contraband, as though it is illegal. It feels clandestine, which is fun for a little while. But all I want is to roam the market, mask on and hands sanitized, and pick precisely what it is I will cook that week. I want to buy some flowers on a whim. I can only hope to have those Saturdays restored, one day. For now, I send my order via WhatsApp, sight unseen. Even more than usual, it is an act of resistance to eat local produce in a place where nearly 90 percent of what is consumed is imported as an effect of continued colonization.

There’s a beauty in how rapidly people came together to keep farmers and small food producers able to sell their wares, though, and it’s heartening to see how many were not willing to sacrifice their ongoing commitment to local agriculture just because the government was actively acting against it. It reminds me of how, in New York, Claire Sprouse, owner of restaurant and bar Hunky Dory, serves a yogurt-whey-based eau-de-milk made by Matchbook Distilling on Long Island. The eau-de-milk, which is also made with grapefruit, uses up whey from a local goat-milk farm that would otherwise go down the drain. Sprouse told PUNCH, “It’s totally weird and sustainably-minded, just like me.” To be a bit weird, to be sustainably-minded: It means taking the long road. It means seeking out what supports balance between the earth, humanity, and animal life.

I’m a sucker for these kinds of stories—farmers’ market speakeasies, booze made from waste— which seem small yet, I’m convinced, are anything but. We’re trained to understand local impact as not enough impact. Common, mainstream sense over the last few decades has made sure that scale is the most important concern, not sustainability. Something that isn’t grown or produced to feed the whole world is of little worth, or only of peculiar concern—a human interest story. Well, we are humans, and it’s quite clear that the earth has not been able to withstand our obsession with scaling industries ever upwards. 

What is sustainability, though? According to the dictionary, it is “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.” The connotation in late capitalism becomes a bit murkier, because people still want to sell things that don’t necessarily prioritize “ecological balance,” only the appearance of such. This is why popular conversations on sustainability have mainly centered on individual actions: Are you taking your coffee to go in disposable cups? Are your groceries packed in plastic? Was that bell pepper in your salad shipped across an ocean? That’s why it can seem like the best thing to do is go to the farmers’ market, go to the restaurants advertising their “farm-to-table'' ethos. Sustainability, in the popular understanding, is something best left up to someone else while you make what have been deemed “smart” choices around what to buy to perform ecofriendliness. Doing things like ordering from small farmers, or eating and drinking at Hunky Dory. 

As I’ve been mulling over the idea that “earth is power” and how to be eco-friendly beyond simple consumer choices, these two recent examples from my homes of Puerto Rico and New York have rung out in my head. The end of both of these scenarios is a consumer exchange, but before they get to that end, they are pieces of local systems that are actively engaged with each other. People who support local agriculture are already in contact with farmers and can thus step in when the earth shows its power in literal ways, as we see with tropical storms and hurricanes and global warming, and when the government does not function in the interests of the land or the people. For Matchbook Distilling, making all of its alcohol using New York State grain spirits and being in touch with their local ecosystem of not just farms, but restaurant owners, allows them to see spaces for use where others might see waste. To be focused locally and to be, as Sprouse puts it, “sustainably-minded” requires a bit more work, a bit more foresight, but it yields opportunity and it yields deliciousness. It seeks balance.

What’s important to think about when considering these examples of creativity by local farmers and Matchbook Distilling is that even a person who works outside of food is part of a food system. Perhaps it’s a radical one, where all food is grown and consumed for subsistence at a collective or a commune; perhaps it’s a pretty common one in the United States, where the supermarket and takeout reign. Whichever kind of food system one is a part of, it’s important to consider: What does it look like to be a sustainable participant in that system? How can I become part of the system in a bigger way, whether by growing my own windowsill herbs or engaging in mutual aid with those who live around me? Perhaps there are local food sovereignty efforts that could use my hands, my dollars, or both. We must be asking ourselves: How can I learn more, where can I do more, and who needs my support? 

What the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed without a doubt is that sustainability includes individual actions, but it means much more is demanded of us to participate in collective actions that seek balance—that allow life to be sustained. Not every individual action is individualistic in its intentions and effects. It means investment in local food systems with an eye toward sovereignty. It means properly paid restaurant staff at the farm-to-table restaurant and every restaurant, café, and market—or else they should not exist. It means safety, living wages, and the right to organize for farmworkers and those processing meat, whether at small or industrial levels. It means breaking up industrial food production, full stop. It means systems are in place making sure everyone is fed on a daily basis, and systems are in place to respond to emergency, whether that is a literal storm that wipes out a crop or a global pandemic that leaves most workers vulnerable, with a government that won’t step in to help. It means reparations and the restoration of land to those to whom it has historically belonged, to those who have historically worked it and retained the knowledge of how to work with earth’s power, not against it. 

Because I think that’s what sustainability really is: Working with the earth as a steward, not in reaction to the devastation it has proven it can create. It’s about recognizing our culpability in damaging systems and envisioning how we can change, individually and collectively; about prioritizing both ingredients and labor. Sustainability is not just an action; it’s a mind-set. How will you use your consciousness today?

Wednesday’s paid-subscriber discussion will focus on how sustainability does and doesn’t manifest in daily life.

Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature Aaron Hutcherson of The Hungry Hutch to talk about recipe development and the current food media landscape.

I was on the podcast Too Long Gone, which I agreed to based on the fact that they have mostly had on hip New York City media guests and I thought I’d do something different. Not my regular scene, but I have been told we all must get out of our comfort zones! The hosts remain vegan-adjacent, and I always appreciate that.

I was also on the BBC World Service’s “The Food Chain,” which—as a kid from Long Island who wanted to be a fancy worldly intellectual adult—made me cry to listen to, until I heard myself say “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” at which point I couldn’t stop laughing.

I’m preparing next Monday’s newsletter, which I think will be a doozy—in fact, I may split it into two parts! So while I continue to read Andres Neuman’s wonderful Fracture, I also have his How to Travel Without Seeing, Eileen Myles’s The Importance of Being Iceland, Rebecca Solnit’s A Book of Migrations, Rachel Cusk’s The Last Supper, Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Map Drawn By a Spy, Leslie Jamison’s Make It Scream, Make It Burn, and Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place sitting around me. This will be a literary inquiry, yes—leaving the academics and economists alone for a minute.

If you’d like to be part of this essay, I made a questionnaire on travel and its meanings.

So many tostones! Avocado toast on sourdough; avocado sandwiches on baguette. Gnocchi in an approximation of ratatouille. I can’t remember much else: I spent the last week exhausted out of my mind, not getting enough writing done.

I talk a lot about other food newsletters, but Book Post is truly a gem in my inbox. The paid subscription gets me inside book shops around the world and reviews by some of my favorite writers. Check! It! Out!