The central notion of Chinese culture – present in our Zen tradition – is nourishment. Every living being eats, absorbs, and digests. Food is a direct expression of the central wisdom teachings of Buddhism: impermanence and interconnectedness.
Every day we chant: “Myriad labors have brought us this food; know how it comes to us.”
At CMZC, we are proud of our fine and inventive vegetarian cuisine. Already, almost everything we serve is homemade. We continually develop and experiment with food processing and preservation methods such as fermentation, canning, and dehydration. On a daily basis, we make and serve a variety of fresh breads, milk products like yogurt and kefir, and spreads ranging from fruit preserves to different kinds of nut butter.
We use primarily organic ingredients and, in the summer, a good portion of the produce comes from our own vegetable and fruit gardens. We recently added a 2,000 square foot garden plot and are now engaged in cultivating its soil with locally available biomass such as shredded branches from forest mitigation and spent grain from the local brewery. Next, we want to add a greenhouse to extend the growing season and produce fresh food year-round. We are making plans to plant a variety of high-altitude fruit trees and to cultivate bees and chickens.
However, despite our own agricultural efforts, the size of our hospitality business requires us to purchase most of the produce needed to serve three meals a day to the resident practice community and our visiting Zen students and guests. We are aware that we are participating in a food system that through the globalization of trade, labor, and market competition has become industrialized to a degree that causes severe damage to ecosystems and local economies.
How can we participate in food systems, so that they become regenerative rather than degenerative? The common sense answer is: local food!
A food system is a path that food travels from farm to table. It is a meshwork of interconnected activities: growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consuming, and disposing. At each intersection of these activities there are inputs such as attention, water, fertilizer, energy, labor, time, money; and there are outputs, both nourishing and regenerative (the produce with its nutrients, taste, smell, and enjoyment for the consumer and the resulting financial support for the farmer) and degrading and degenerative (all the waste products that pollute and poison our ecosystem from carbon emissions to pesticides).
Sourcing food locally allows us to participate more actively and directly with each of the intersections. As a relatively large organization in a poor rural county, our purchasing power has considerable influence, particularly if we can manage to coordinate it with other institutions and individuals.
While local food is not always perfectly regenerative, there are many reasons to support local farmers and consumers in forming mutually supportive structures of cooperation:
- Local food tastes better because crops are harvested when they are ripe. Processed farmstead products are fresh and hand-crafted with pride for best flavor and texture.
- Local food is more nourishing because the time between farm and table is shorter. Thus fewer nutrients will be lost.
- Local food preserves genetic diversity. Industrially grown produce selects few varieties that ripen uniformly and survive machine harvesting, packaging, transport, and storage on the shelf. Locally grown varieties can be selected for optimal fit with the growing season as well as for color and flavor.
- Local food is safer. The direct personal contact doesn’t allow the farmer to hide behind anonymous systems of profit maximization but instead fosters care and responsibility.
- Local food supports local economies. Direct marketing cuts out the middlemen and allows farmers to benefit from retail prices that are much higher than wholesale prices.
- Local food benefits the ecosystem. Well-managed farms protect soil fertility and water sources, and ideally, the whole of the farm environment sequesters rather than emits carbon.
- Local food supports local resilience and food security. Thriving local farms today make it more likely that they will be around tomorrow. In a time where we don’t know how long we can depend on fossil fuels for producing, packaging, distributing, and storing food, this is of particular importance.