Let’s play a little game. We’ll call it…Food System Collapse.
In this game, we can only eat food that has been grown, foraged, hunted, raised or fished locally (including preserved foods from the area). If I could choose what time of year to play, I’d definitely vote for September. After all, what better time to live off such a variety of flavors?

The month begins swimming in the fruits of summer—tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, eggplant—and ends with a taste of spicy greens and root vegetables, fall trickling in. The array of colorful vegetables provide a backbone for a multitude of dishes, and the local egg and dairy farms offer tasty and satiating year-round options to balance out the produce. Honey, maple syrup, sunflower oil, organic corn and soy products also add some tasty accents to this plan.

However, I’m a pretty big fan of coconut oil and milk and water, orange juice, yerba mate, olive oil and chocolate, brown rice and quinoa and almonds and cashews and oh no! This thought exercise is swiftly losing its appeal. But what if this wasn’t a game at all?

PREPARATION
Admittedly, I have some survivalist tendencies in me. Once upon a time, I even co-wrote an “apocalist,” featuring things like “learn how to field dress a deer” and “identify edible mushrooms in the woods.” In fact, it was these tendencies that led me into the fields to begin learning organic vegetable farming when I was 26 years old.
This game of food system collapse is, like most things in life, a bit complicated. I mean, the rules are simple—eat what is around you. However, the premise is a bit, well, scary.

TEENAGERS TAKE OVER THE WORLD
I like to play a similar game sometimes with teens during store tours at the Co-op. First, I generally reference the ever-popular The Hunger Games book/film. Then I ask members of the group to raise their hands if they know how to fish or hunt, grow a garden, raise chickens, or identify wild edibles. Unsurprisingly, very few do.
We move into a second set of questions. What grows in Wisconsin in the spring? The summer? Fall? Winter? I am now unfazed hearing “oranges!” “avocados!” and other tropical fruits included in the guesses. It’s a fun game (for me, at least), but at some point, folks start losing interest. The moment when distracted glances markedly increase or glazed eyes start taking hold, I become dramatically quiet. I nearly whisper the next words: “When we know something as basic as how to coax a seed into an edible food that can sustain our lives, we become empowered.” Surprisingly, the teens I talk with often seem to resonate with this.

ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT BUFFET
It is easy and relatively mindless to walk into a supermarket and locate any type of produce all year round. Yet it is becoming increasingly precious knowledge to understand our food supply, to connect with the seasons, and to wield the necessary skills to take care of our basic needs. Our intricate food system brings a plethora of choices right to the doors of our cooperative grocery store, so why does this matter?
My own interest in understanding the food system has grown out of a desire for more individual and community control. I am still curious about most things on that old apocalist, still slowly crossing them off one at a time. There certainly remains much to be fearful of. (I mean, just whisper “Monsanto” a few times and bam! Cue the increased surveillance, at the very least.)

TERRIFYING OR TERRIFIC?
Is fear necessary to get people to pay attention? It’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I don’t feel sure of an answer. Certainly, fear has a way of stirring up curiosity, hard questions, deep searching and digging. I would never have fallen in love with vegetable farming if I wasn’t driven to pursue it by anxiety about the future. However, my own thoughts on survival have taken a more existential and less fear-driven turn, one that is not so translatable in this current format. Is anxiety a worthy motivator? Can inspiration, a desire to push beyond our own boundaries and limitations, serve in a similar capacity?

If we took the anxiety out of the game of Food System Collapse, we might create a more benign (and perhaps encouraging?) version. We’d probably have something resembling our yearly Eat Local Challenge. This year, we are highlighting our Eat Local Month in September in an attempt to showcase more of the abundant opportunities of local eating. We will continue to simultaneously provide the Challenge for folks who enjoy a little healthy competition (and limit-pushing) within themselves.

Of course, the Challenge is not an excuse to finally trap your neighbor’s annoying furry companion, but it could be an occasion to experiment with kohlrabi, or take a month-long break from drinking coffee. Participation is not bound up in epic rewards nor dire consequences, but there are some small incentives in the forms of coupons and special deals. Ultimately, it is more of a collective experiment. How difficult is it to truly connect with our food, how we eat, that which sustains us? How much time, research, amusement, sacrifice, and inspiration will it offer or take?

There are certainly other directions that we could collectively travel. Google “soylent (food substitute)” and see one of them.

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