There’s a map for that
It’s early December 2015 and I’m reeling from the most recent series of mass shootings, the embarrassing, horrifying shit show that is our electoral process, recent stories of police brutality, the Syrian refugee crisis, rampant xenophopia, and our rapidly deteriorating environment. It seems that the world has gone completely and utterly bat-shit crazy and I don’t know what to do.
Except that I do. I have a map.
Last June, when I came up with the system map above, ‘what to do’ was so clear for me: I needed to complete culinary school and finish my nutrition coaching program so that I could save the world one healthy home-cooked meal at a time.
I created this map while studying sustainable food systems at University of Vermont (UVM). During the first week of the program, we students were tasked with studying systems theory and then using it to challenge our assumptions about our existing food system in order to better examine how that system could be improved upon in order to support the needs of a population projected to be close to 10 billion by 2050. Easy-peasy, right?
As we stared into the abyss and were forced to confront the overwhelming complexity of this system, many of us were tempted to curl into the fetal position while keening and whimpering, “We’re doomed!” Or maybe it was just me.
It was then that we were given our next assignment: Where in this complex system can you best be an agent of change?
At the time, I was reading Michael Pollan’s Cooked. In it he writes about the paradox of a people who now spend more time watching cooking on TV than they do cooking. He writes about our reliance in the U.S. on highly-processed foods and packaged meals and notes, “This is a problem—for the health of our bodies, our families, our communities and our land, but also for our sense of how eating connects us to the world. Our growing distance from any direct, physical engagement with the processes by which the raw stuff of nature gets transformed into a cooked meal is changing our understanding of what food is… Food becomes just another commodity.”
This paragraph, in conjunction with all of the other reading and studying, sparked an epiphany for me and I knew that I needed to create a map that could guide myself and others back to a path that reconnects us, as eaters, to our bodies and our planet.
The large beet-colored arrows denote the inputs required and the potential outputs for those engaging in cooking at home. The green feedback loops represent the cycles that could drive more cooking behaviors, such as: increasing the availability of high-quality food (as consumers begin avoiding processed and fast foods, healthier alternatives are emerging); enhancing skills and knowledge that enable people to prepare foods that taste better than fast foods thereby encouraging home cooking behavior; and improving health (there’s nothing quite like eating better to make you feel better making you want to continue to eat better!). The pale orange arrows represent levers that could have either favorable or unfavorable impacts on the system.
As I created the map, I saw so clearly how each of the education programs I was pursuing would better equip me to act on those beneficial orange levers: culinary school was going to provide me with the skills and knowledge to help others develop similar skills and knowledge, the nutrition coaching program I was attending would allow me to work with individuals on health improvement goals and finally, the UVM program would allow me to continue influencing food availability and accessibility through the advocacy and activism work I have been involved in. It was all there.
So what does this have to do with all the gloom and doom at the beginning of the post? Well, this simple little map is a touchstone for me. I come back to it and what it calls me to do time and again when I’m feeling disheartened (like now). It helps me believe that if I can help drive a recognition understand that we matter enough to make the effort to truly nourish ourselves that we’ll have a collective epiphany and see that, at our core, it’s what we all need and deserve… that we’ll see how food connects us to our bodies, our families, our communities and our planet in a way that nothing else does. A lofty dream to be sure but why bother dreaming small dreams?
And so, let the dis-disheartening begin again with a pep talk to myself, “Review the map. Follow the path. Stay on course. You’ve got this.”
I’d love to hear what you do when you’re feeling lost. What helps it all make sense for you? What helps guide you back on your path?