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Downsizing our food, our culture and ourselves

Jackie Mirandola Mullen | Sunday, April 5, 2009

Downsizing in business terms usually carries negative connotations; it means losing jobs, losing space, losing revenue.

Downsizing in houses means either your children moved out or you lost your job. It can be good – that you just don’t need the space – but it’s somehow still against our American bigger-is-better mentality.

Downsizing in general tends to get a bad rap.

But downsizing is exactly what we need right now. Our country is huge; a massive coordination of interests, regions and ideas, but not everything about us needs to be as massive as our waistlines and our supermarkets.

A lot of movements picked up this idea long before the economic meltdown. One of the biggest actors in the downsizing movement has been the food industry. Small farms movements, Slow Food, organic, composting and opposition groups to industrial agriculture have all propelled the ideas of reestablishing connections with the food you eat and where it comes from, downsizing from the big agribusiness to a more manageable, more personal way of getting your food.

This movement started in America as a social novelty for those who could afford it, but it’s not usually “organic” or buying the nature brand that downsizes the process. Rather, the idea that you go directly to the source: farmers markets, farms, stores buying local crops, eating in season. You don’t need the gigantic apple that looks like all the others. There’s no individuality there, no idea of a tree or the dirt or the farmer. How could any of us imagine the farm that can produce such homogenous giants?

That’s not a fancy sticker or a class symbol, it’s knowing where your food comes from. It hasn’t been that long since we had more contact with the source of our food, which fosters (feeds?) a direct appreciation for the food itself. According to a 2007 study by the USDA, 48 percent of farm product sales are made by the less than two percent of American farms that have yearly sales of $1 million or more.

Food from these farms has to be shipped to market, which is far away if the farm produces that much. That’s bad for the environment because of shipping, it’s bad for the food itself because it loses freshness in the transport and it’s bad for the price of the food down the line all the way to the individual consumer.

But downsizing of these farms would mean more farms. Maybe that necessitates more farmers, but doesn’t that mean more jobs? Farms in the proximity of cities and within suburbs mean open space and greenery. It means the occasional manure smell, but it also means corn mazes (maize mazes?) and fresh pumpkins and apples in the fall.

Downsizing of the economy itself means smaller businesses. It means less impersonality, less apathy towards work, less feeling lost in the crowd. It means more unstable businesses at first, but if we can localize those businesses it can ensure stability while also providing a much-needed sense of community that can get lost in the suburban labyrinths.

Downsizing our food begins the downsizing of our lives. It means less business, less rush, less pollution, less hectic, less time in the car, more time with your family. Maybe incorporating this downsizing in how we get our food can initiate its spread to all areas of our life. We keep falling and falling in this economy, but if we can get down to the basics, wouldn’t we have an easier time picking ourselves back up when the bottom gives out?

Jackie Mirandola Mullen is a junior German and History major who is currently studying in Innsbruck, Austria. She is a big fan of Tirolische apples. She can be contacted at jmirando@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.